Monday, 28 April 2008

Halfway there

Or as much to do again, depending on your perspective. Just now, I'm enjoying writing this novel so much I would be happy to think it was just a third done, but I suspect it's closer to half. So I'm recording that fact.

Cycles of seven

I'm still reeling from the excitements of the weekend, by which I do not mean the agent contact but the epiphany which was my seven year old tomboy Discovering Dresses.

My tomboy has eschewed such frippery since she was three, the age at which she last "dressed like a girl". On Saturday, surrounded by the colour shock that is catwalk designer dresses for little girls (aka Debenham's), she went wild. It started with a pair of colourful summer plimsolls and a pinkish t-shirt with applique writing. A wild tangent led to a smocked camisole top in pink lawn with Liberty print flowers. From there it was a small but significant step to a Matthew Williamson sundress, all over flowers in beautifully bright shades with tiny light-refracting sequins sewn at intervals. "Diamonds!" was the gleeful cry. She tried it on. She twizzled and twirled. She asked to be allowed to wear it out of the shop and for the rest of the day, one of the happiest I've spent in her company as she was in a rare old mood of high spirits and affection. I grinned like a lunatic all around Stratford-upon-Avon. Luckily, it was the Bard's birthday weekend so the place was filled with clownish people and I did not stand out in my state of excited bliss.

In Monsoon, we debated the merit of various bolero tops. My daughter liked the one in Tiffany blue with the faux diamond brooch fastening. I was speechless, trying to keep up with this sudden and staggering development. She likes jewellery now?! The wise shop assistant asked how old she was and referred us to the seven year cycle in which one's life is said to move. Double whammy for us then, since I was 35 when my daughter was born. She is now talking wistfully of a frock in Monsoon that had roses all over it, "Great flowers".

With great flowers comes great responsibility.

As well as feeling disorientated, I am suffering from the knowledge that this new phase will require very delicate and attentive handling on my part. She sought my opinion, assurance and counsel at the weekend more than she ever has before. Her confidence has always been sky-high but this is new territory, for us both. I am conscious that a misplaced word or action from me right now could make a lasting impression on my little girl. Yikes. The responsibility!

Now to mention the pressure to start showing an interest in frocks for myself. She picked out some true horrors for me at the weekend, including a hideous violet-spotted sateen halterneck that looked like it'd been left out in the rain. "You'd look lovely in this," she confided.

Oh, boy.

Sunday, 27 April 2008


I emailed the editor at the literary agent, as promised, with news of my writing, with the synopses of the current novel and its sequel. I thought I could then forget about this for the rest of the weekend, but she emailed back within ten minutes and asked for the first three chapters of the current novel. She's working the weekend in preparation for an editorial meeting with her boss tomorrow at which she's expected to produce the Hot List for potential new clients.

Dilemma. Did I send her the requested chapters, given that I had not read them back myself let alone solicited feedback from others? Or did I hold out and run the risk of her attention moving elsewhere? In the end, I bit the bullet and read the three chapters, made some cosmetic changes and sent them to her with the caveat that it was a first draft and needed further work. In one sense, it doesn't matter because a) she is not my preferred agent and b) I have reached the point, albeit cautious, with this ms where I feel I know what I'm trying to achieve and that I will get there in time. The biggest threat is always to my confidence but I feel I've achieved a degree of equilibrium with this story which will take some shaking. Not to say I'm not open to being told it needs work - I am. But a lukewarm reception at this stage, to a first draft, will not of necessity halt me in my tracks.

In other news, my most recent flash, Waiting, Wandsworth 1879, which met with almost unanimous silence over at my livejournal and with a stunned 'Brilliant but horrid' over at WriteWords was read by a published author who PM'd me to say how good it was. This is a published crime author, someone whose work I admire very much. Emailing me to say, "You've written one of the best crime stories I've read. Never mind it's 250 words instead of 90,000, it has it all. Plot. Motive. Character. Consequences. The way you unfold the action shows a mastery of the mechanics of the genre and you play each reveal like an ace. Astounding."

I was bowled over by this, as you may imagine. Not least because it repaid my faith in this particular flash. I knew lots of readers wouldn't like it, because of the subject matter, but I felt it came out just right. I may enter it in next year's Fish Historical Crime Contest.

Friday, 25 April 2008

And, blimey

Just had a phone call from the new editor at a literary agency I was in touch with last year. BIG crime agent. She's new in the job and working her way through correspondence she's inherited and wanted to know where I was up to with rewrites and what not. From what I could gather, she'd got me flagged as potential talent, which is rather lovely (as is she). She asked me to send her a synopsis for the new novel, even though I explained it was work in progress and unlikely to be ready for subbing for some months. I wonder - just wonder - if this is connected to the CWA Anthology. This particular agent is a big supporter of the CWA, attends their jollies and so forth. And I'd more or less written this agency off. They're not the ones who were so very enthusiastic and supportive of my writing, although helpful and constructive enough.

Well, wow

I posted ten days ago about the disappearance of my mother's cat. Well, she came home last night. None of us can believe it, having given her up for dead, not least because it's been years since she ventured further than the back garden and she's quite elderly. But she's back and she's quite well, obviously got fed wherever she was. She's very affectionate and reluctant to leave my mother's side. It's a total mystery where she was for so long but my mother's overjoyed to have her back.

Monday, 21 April 2008


I had to record this. I've been scratching around for a location for the climax of the novel. I knew it had to better the location of the two big scenes which frame Acts I and II. Then I had a brainwave, googled two words and found - lo! - a small website devoted to photographs of a little known location which, with editing, will be perfect. The photos are everything a writer could ask for, evocative and factual. I feel I've been handed a gift, the more so because I get to write the scene and bring this location to life.

New flash just published

Bewildering Stories has my flash, Esmé and O’Ryan, up now. It's nice to see this one in situ. Often I cringe when something I wrote a long time ago turns up in 'print', but I'm marginally pleased with this effort. Should appeal to the space fans out there.

Sunday, 20 April 2008


The cold spell seems to have broken. This morning is mild and damp and misty. The church bells are ringing, birds are singing, the lilac tree outside my window is about to pop (right now, it's lime and aubergine but in a few days expect soft green and, well, lilac).

Yesterday was rather a disaster. I'm not well, physically, and mentally I ain't worth toffee. I could not write but that didn't stop me trying. Fellow writers will know just what a disheartening waste of time resulted from that combination. I should have closed the computer and done something unconnected with the novel, such as cleaning. I did hit the shops with Milly, but only to buy food, of which I ate too much and the wrong sort. This morning, I have a non-alcohol related hangover.

But! In the bath, I did crack the block that I'd reached in the novel, a sag in the middle that was afflicting pace and plot. I think I will make notes and leave the actual writing for tomorrow when the schools are back and my time will be my own, more or less. Today I shall tidy, sew on Scout badges, write cards and wrap packages.

Happy Sunday!

Friday, 18 April 2008

Putting black on white

I'm getting there with the novel, slowly but surely. Have just hit 35,000 words. At a rough estimate, that's 40% of the first draft done. I also have a new title, with which I'm secretly pleased.

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Thought for the Day

Following on from yesterday's post, I'm thinking about the rubbish that is written about Writing and Writers. In particular, I am struck by what a load of old bollocks it is to be told "Write What You Know". Why? I don't read what I know. The opposite, in fact. I read to experience the widest possible range of emotions and to learn, to broaden my horizons. Why, then, shouldn't I write for the same reason, with the same objective?

I think WWYK is right up there with Writers are Born not Made. Just another stick with which to beat us creative types into submission, keep us in our place. If WWYK was regarded, how many great books would never have been written? Well, Gormenghast, for a start. Lolita, we assume. Every Gothic novel ever, good or bad. Anyone else want to play?

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

On the theme of tension

I've posted about this in a writing forum because it's intriguing me. I'm finding I can learn more about the value of emotional tension - and balance - from an hour spent with my seven year old than I can from any amount of reading or writing.

Yesterday, I was feeling very sentimental, partly because I was suffering from a migraine. My seven year old let it slide for a while, suffering my need to hug and kiss her and speak in a hushed voice. But it must have started to unsettle her because towards the end of the day she decided to be cheeky, which she rarely is, in order to see if I'd take the usual firm line I adopt to knock that sort of thing on the head before it gets out of hand. The weaker I was, the cheekier she became. It was a test, quite obviously. She needed to know that her mother wasn't wilting into some spineless, ineffectual being who could no longer protect her offspring from passing predators, hunger, cold etc. The moment I gathered my strength and spoke sternly to her, she relaxed. A big smile of relief met my lecture on how Not to Speak to Your Parents if You Know What's Good for You. She immediately apologised for being cheeky, petted my cheek, said she hoped I'd be feeling better soon and skipped off to play.

By coincidence, the scene I am writing in my novel calls for precisely this sort of emotional ping-pong - the achieving of a manageable balance through experimentation with extremes. It made me think that tension is a vital part of any human communication and interaction. Equilibrium never lasts and, if it does, it becomes insufferable.

I remember, as a child, seeking out emotional (and to a lesser degree) physical obstacles which would provide a trial (or just an outlet) for a wide range of feelings which my otherwise comfortable childhood did not afford me. I was hardly ever hungry, rarely sad and never in peril. So I read books about girls who were, or I "tormented" myself with the idea of losing my mother, or my best toy or, in one instance of extreme imaginative zeal, an arm. I worked myself up into a fit of crying or shaking, from which I emerged a happier and 'rounder' person, without ever realising what I was doing, or why.

All right, so I probably revealed some deep psychological fault-line in that last paragraph (be gentle with me, Doctor Freud), but what do other writers (and readers) think?

Are you ever really happy, just being on an even-keel? Or does it take a little tilt every so often, a storm now and again, to really rock your world?

Well, damn

My mother's sole remaining cat has gone missing. We suspect she went away to die, the way old cats do. She wasn't ill or anything, but she demanded to be let out of the house at 2am and there's been no sign of her since. My mother says she never left the garden, and she's not there. None of the neighbours have seen her. The cat would have been eighteen next week, so she was a good age, as they say. Her brothers died recently, one last year and the other the year before. I guess it was her time.

My mother's awfully upset - the house where she's been for nearly fifty years has never been empty of cats before - and so is Milly, who loved the cat dearly. She cried buckets this morning, berating herself for being a baby despite my insistence that it was normal (and good) to cry for the loss of someone you loved. That damn school has put it into her head that only babies cry, so now she hates doing it and will only ever give in to tears with great reluctance. We're going to buy a pot plant tomorrow, for a sunny spot in the garden where Milly can remember Tibby aka Tibalt Prince of Cats (named before my mother realised she was female).

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Holiday detox

Paris was fabulous. We walked an average of four hours a day. Breakfast was good strong coffee, lunch was salad or an omelette, after which we didn't much fancy dinner so just ate an ice-cream on the hoof (or, in Milly's case, chocolate mousse with bananas and milk).

We walked all around the Latin Quarter (Rue de Bac is my favourite street) and visited Le Marais for the first time. One day we did nothing but shop. Particular treasures we brought home included coriander bath salts (they smell divine) and a box of novelty sugar lumps for my mother, in the shape of tiny colourful buttons and figures. My better half bought shoes, and Milly got a whole new spring wardrobe of pretty clothes. Paris brings out the girl in her, which is rather lovely. On our last day, we stayed out late and walked through St. Germain after dark where we saw Greek diners smashing plates and a juggler with a glass jar of goldfish on his head. Milly wanted to know, 'Is this a dream?'

I brought home a three-day migraine that I suspect was prompted by caffeine withdrawal. The answer to which, I always feel, is more coffee. Something along the lines of Baudelaire's advice to never be sober. Anyway, three cups of strong English tea on Monday morning failed to compensate for the hole in my head left by the abscence of one small cup of French coffee. So I limped along yesterday, carrying this demon migraine until it finally lifted overnight.

Holiday reading was Anne Enright's Making Babies, a gutsy account of her experiences in motherhood, oddly footnoted by a passage about her earlier struggle with depression. I have an idea in mind for an article contrasting Enright's book with Rachel Cusk's on the same subject. Two very different books, but I like them both for their honesty. Oh! and we saw Anna Gavalda signing books in Le Bon Marché - very exciting. Now I have to wait for her new book to be translated into English.

I managed to write 500 words towards the novel this morning, and spent the afternoon re-reading my notes and plotting, to orientate myself back into the hard work of the second act.

Monday, 14 April 2008

Writing round-up

I got home from Paris last night (a lovely week we had) to find my author copies of MO: Crimes of Practice waiting for me. It really is a beautifully produced book, acid green spine, smoothly-bound, clean white pages. I'm a little in love with it, just as an object, and looking forward to reading it in full.

I missed the day I was "up" at Every Day Fiction with my flash, An Angel in a Plane Tree, which seemed to go down well with the punters, despite being very English in its sense of humour (the site is edited by Canadians and many of the readers are Americans). Please do pop along and read about the bugger in the Barbour and his celestial host - and comment, if you feel the urge.

Every Day Fiction have confirmed that my flash, Lolita's Lynch Mob, is the third most read story on the site, which is not half bad for a site with 250 stories and over a thousand regular readers.

Back in a jiffy with holiday news and so on.

Sunday, 6 April 2008


I'm away for seven days from tomorrow. In other news, the novel is 31,000 words. That's a third done.

Friday, 4 April 2008

Up and down

I'm feeling very old just now. I think it's partly the result of having slogged my creative and emotional guts out this week getting the novel to within spitting distance of 30,000 words. It is exhausting, this writing business. I don't notice it so much at the time, just think of it as typing and if I'm aware of anything it's the pain in my left wrist that comes from the strange way I've taught myself to type. Then, at the end of another 2,000 word marathon, another three hour session, I feel like someone's slung a wet sandbag at the back of my skull. I spend the evenings sitting in a daze, staring at the TV and summoning the strength to get up the stairs to bed.

This is entirely my choice. I choose to spend my time like this. No one else is putting pressure on me. I don't have any imposed deadlines, other than those I self-impose. So I'm not whining, not really, just clearing my head.

Off to Paris for seven days on Monday!

Thursday, 3 April 2008

How amazing is this?

It's an optical coherence tomogram of a fingertip. Sweatducts and all. I've been staring at it on and off all afternoon.


Wednesday, 2 April 2008


I've just received a lovely email from Susan diPlacido, author of American Cool.

Hi Sarah, You just reviewed my collection of short stories for The Short Review, and I wanted to thank you. You did a great job. It was (a) very thoughtful and insightful and intelligent review, and I really appreciate all the obvious care and attention you put into it. Thanks so much! Susan D.

What a very warm and courteous message. After reading various tales today of writers with enormous egos, it was a delight to receive this evidence to the contrary. Thanks, Susan!

Getting black on white

At this stage, there is no substitution for getting black on white, as Thurber (I think it was) said a writer must do.

Small it!

Issue 6 of The Short Review is out now. You can read it online here, including my review of Susan diPlacido's American Cool. The line-up for the issue as a whole is like a lesson in the meaning of eclectic. Congratulations to the editor, Tania Hershman, for pulling together such a diverse selection of stories. It's a window into a world I wouldn't otherwise know existed.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

The Paris Review

With thanks to Bob, who plugged this on his blog. The Paris Review website has downloadable pdfs of interviews with literary giants, including Nabokov, Huxley, Cheever and Greene. Great reading for when you're between books.