Friday 31 December 2010

So much still to discuss

Back in April I blogged about a visit to my writing mentor and close family friend, Ranald Graham. What I didn't say at the time was that Ranald was dying, of Motor Neurone Disease (MND), an excruciating illness that had killed my father ten years before. Ranald battled the worst symptoms with courage and an appetite for information that defeated the experts in the disease, about which so much remains unknown.

Ranald it was who taught me that writer's block is the alias for a bad idea; that writers would rather be thought lazy or prevaricating than lacking in ideas. It was a theory, a great one. Ranald was a man of theories, of boundless energy and enthusiasm; an hour in his company left your head spinning in all sorts of exciting directions, often concurrently. He had a genius for inspiring those around him, for making life feel like a big adventure with endless questions to be asked and discussions to be had. He's perhaps best known for his TV writing, for The Professionals and The Sweeney, but he also worked in Hollywood, writing the last cowboy movie never filmed and a horror film directed by William Castle, who produced Rosemary's Baby.

I knew Ranald because he was a child internee of the Japanese, one of the children imprisoned for nearly four years at Batu Lintang camp in Borneo. My mother was a year older than Ranald, the pair of them five and six respectively when the camp was liberated by the Australians on 9th September 1945. Ranald was remembered by Nurse Hilda Bates in her diary of the prison camp. There's a decent dedication page on Wikipedia, and links to various obituaries, but nothing that quite captures the spirit of the man.

In Ranald, I lost someone with whom I felt a unique connection, a champion for my efforts as a writer, a role-model and an amazing man. Someone so full of passion and humour and optimism. Someone who gave so much and had so much still to give. His last words to his best friend: "There's still so much to discuss..." He knew how to live. How to really live. What I wouldn't give for an ounce of that joy he felt, and shared. Of everyone, he deserved to live a long life, because he'd have kept on giving - spreading joy and showing the rest of us how to tackle the messy business of living.

To watch a 90 second film about the devastating effect MND has on lives, click here. Please note it is certificate 15. You can learn more about MND here.

Tuesday 28 December 2010

Big Pulp

Big Pulp's first print edition is out very soon, and includes my short story, Every time's the first. You can order copies here. A Kindle edition is planned, to complete the options for readers. Editor Bill Olver says, 'Thank you all so much for your interest and encouragement as we've made the move into print. We're thrilled with the quality of work that's appearing in our debut edition. We are confident in the quality of the magazine and the talent of our contributors and that makes it much easier to publicize the zine online and approach retail stores to carry us. We're fully behind the magazine and hope you are as proud of it as we are. We couldn't have done it without you!'

Thursday 23 December 2010


Yesterday I returned from the snowy North West to the news that my very short flash, Silver, will be published in the New Year issue of Imbroglio Magazine, which has the funkiest and coolest website I've seen. Silver is one of a trio of pieces I wrote to distract myself while waiting to hear from the agent, whom I can now call 'my agent', which is still wonderfully exciting and the perfect way to kickstart the festivities. Here's to a warm, peaceful, happy Christmas, or what you will.

Thursday 16 December 2010

How to get a literary agent (or not)

1. Write a damn good book. (Convince yourself it's word-perfect; show it to no one who might cast doubt on this conviction)

2. Pitch the book to the right agent in the prescribed manner. (Or not. Don't let submission guidelines get in your way; this book can't be pinned down in a paragraph)

3. Practice patience. (Chase after two weeks. That's plenty of time for the book's brilliance to have penetrated)

4. Submit a full ms on request in the prescribed manner. (Convince yourself this is it: your genius is about to be universally acknowledged and rewarded)

5. Accept the rejection with good grace, putting it to one side if necessary until you are in the right frame of mind to read it as the valuable information you need to get better at what you do. (Curse and pity the poor fools who didn't have the wit to recognise genius when they read it; do not entertain the idea that they know more than you do about books and publishing)

6. Start a new book, keeping close at hand the rejection letter that contained vital information about what you needed to do to get further this time. (Start a new book ignoring that ridiculous rejection, which you've torn up in any case)

7. Pitch and submit as earlier. (Give it another shot, possibly mentioning the idiots that turned down your previous work of genius)

8. Accept the rejection with good grace, learning from it all that you can. (Wonder what is wrong with a world that can reject you twice. Storm. Rant. Flounce. Better: do it on your blog, naming and shaming those who thwarted you. Alternatively, curl up in a ball and never come out)

9. Repeat steps six to eight, as required. (Give up. Tell yourself it's because you're too good to get published)

On Tuesday, I was lucky enough to be signed by Gregory & Company, a fantastic agency that specialises in crime and thrillers. I had previously submitted three other novels, all of which were read in full by Jane Gregory's team, all of which were rejected with two pages of feedback that helped me to see why they weren't books that could be published easily, or even at all. My fourth attempt needs work, of course it does. But thanks to a brilliant team at the agency, and an editor who knows exactly how to lead a writer through what's needed, I feel enthused rather than daunted. In fact, I'm dying to get stuck into the changes.

'You've been trying us for some time,' Jane said when we met.

'I'm famed for my stamina,' I confessed.

Not to mention bloody-mindedness, but also as it turns out, the ability to listen to what I'm told and to know that a good writer can always - ALWAYS - be a better writer. This was driven home to me when I read Jane's interview for Mslexia, where she talks about what it takes to be signed by her and to make it as a writer.

Keep the faith, take advice from the experts, never give up.

Friday 10 December 2010

Writing about what we've lost

Great newsletter from Mo Hayder this morning, in which she talks about moving home for the thirty-third time in forty-nine years. Funnily enough, her latest move takes Mo to the Cotswolds, which I left eighteen months ago. "Someone once said that people write better about something when they've lost it," Mo writes, and that resonated with me. The newsletter is all about distance, and altered perspectives, and how these things help us to see our writing in new and exciting ways.

Several of the themes in my current novel are things I've moved on from recently. I won't say 'lost', since they've become part of me, but I've only recently acquired the distance - emotionally - to be able to put them down on paper. As Mo says of her recent writing, it's liberating, but it's more than just that.

Stories that come from under our skin are the ones most likely to get under the skin of others.

I'm looking forward to Mo's new book, The Hanging Hill, set in the city she's just left: Bath. She's certainly picked an adventurous season in which to spend her first Christmas in the Cotswolds. I hope she has a wood-burning stove and a village store.

Thursday 2 December 2010

The truth is out there

Well, the novel is. Following a full ms request, I edited, polished, printed, bubble-wrapped and brown-papered the thing and posted it this morning. I have the usual symptoms: queasy anticipation and mild regret, the latter only insofar as I miss it now it's gone out into the world. I won't say I feel bereft, as that would be gilding the gingerbread, but I am at a loose end. I plan to catch up with my reading, TV viewing and Christmas gift-wrapping, until my head is cleared enough to begin writing something new.

I thought it might be useful to mention (and link to) some blog posts and sound advice which I followed as I edited and prepared the ms for mailing. Firstly, this excellent post by Elizabeth Craig on Keeping it interesting, which helped me to focus on those moments when the story might be slacking off, helping me to keep it fresh and the reader engaged. Dmytry Karpov's blog post, Brevity is key, was a good reminder of one aspect in the editing process: getting rid of anything unnecessary. Finally, as I was about to send it off, I came across this insight by Rachelle Gardner, into what might be going through an agent's mind when she reads my ms.

All of the above, by the way, I discovered via Twitter. I wholeheartedly retract my earlier peevishness about the value of this brand of social networking; it's a goldmine. Of course, you all knew that already, but it took me a while to get past my Luddite objections and see for myself. I'm very glad I did. If you have a Twitter for me to follow - your own or a recommendation - please let me know.