Friday, 10 April 2020

Along for the ride — with quails

Well, that reboot plan didn't go well. My mother died in the autumn, and my daughter and her little family moved out, all in the space of two weeks. And now we're all in lockdown. It's a kind of overdose of isolation, starting in October and building to peak isolation. I'd just started to get back to work properly when the virus hit us all and most of my book projects were cancelled or suspended indefinitely. So no, no progress so far on getting the blog back up and running. But now, with all this time?

Isn't it odd how we can spend years seeking out moments to devote to pet projects and then when there is an endless of desert of time ahead, the inclination to knuckle down disappears? OK, it's probably been eaten by anxiety. But I'm going to try to drag it back. I've had three weeks inside (and in the garden — I'm lucky to have a garden). That must be long enough to wallow, drift, or go round in small circles of confusion and aimlessness. Let's say it was time needed for acclimatization. But books don't write themselves and projects don't pick themselves up off the floor. If you are happy pottering and enjoying the freedom to do nothing all day, that's brilliant. If, like me, you are frustrated at your own inactivity, let's see if we can find a way out of it. Any suggestions you have gratefully received. I'm going to start today by making a list of the things I would ideally like to achieve during lockdown. I know I won't do all of them. But it will be disgraceful if I do none of them. Some will be work. Some will be non-work.

I have already started one, yesterday. Finally despairing of the chicken-man's inability to provide any chickens after a foxing episode reduced by flock to one solitary rooster (lots of non-chicken people have decided to keep covid-chickens, apparently) I have downsized to quails. I ordered some quail eggs with my shopping and have put them in the incubator. If all goes well, that's eighteen days to quailhood. (It might well not go well; only some of the quail eggs you buy are fertile, and the rat-man — an expert on this — says try different suppliers, but Waitrose is good.)

Today's target, then: turn quail eggs three times; write up quail chart with days, turn times, temperature requirements etc; write list of things to be achieved; start working on book outline for final commissioned project. If you want to play along, but your goals in the comments and we can all revisit and check how we're doing. I think making things public makes you more likely to stick to them.

Good luck!

Saturday, 5 October 2019


This blog has been moribund. No, dormant; hibernating. It has slumbered through a long winter of attention-deficit. Let's see if I can prod it back to life, as I need prodding back to life. For nearly six years, I have spent a great deal of my non-earning time (virtually all, actually) dealing with a Domestic Situation which has left no time for this blog. The DS is shifting. I am allowed out. But the landscape is almost unrecognisable.

I don't usually talk about dreams, but I'll share the dream I had last night as it is a fine example of the subconscious speaking loudly and clearly:

I had an interview for a job; the first part consisted of playing chess in a well organised room on a neatly laid out board. I won the games easily. For the second stage, I went into a room with junk piled high and the chess sets were already half-played games. They were those travel sets where you have to push the pieces into peg holes. I tried to reset some, but it was a lot of aggro. I had to play against a disembodied voice. I told it I couldn’t be arsed with this and we could play without a set and spoke my first move. The voice was clearly disturbed by this change. It took a long time to make a move; it took longer and longer as the game progressed, and after a few moves I said I couldn’t be bothered — I didn’t want the job that much and I was leaving. The voice called, ‘Wait — you have the job.’ My response was ‘Why? And why would I want it if this is how you plan to run things? If it’s just gong to be a mindfuck, I don’t want the job.’ 
The second room is when things became complicated in my domestic life. The final question is now. Do I want this job? Being a writer has become a harder and harder way to make a living. But it's what I do. It's all I want to do, but I need to find ways to make it work better. I think that's something a lot of us in this job feel. I'll be poking around among my writer friends to find new strategies. One or two have shared their experiences already, in private, of how they added a self-publishing stream to their work which became very lucrative. I will be thinking about that. And thinking about other ways that give me more of the reward from my work. 
The next few posts will be musings rather than advice. There are fewer certainties in publishing than there were when I started this blog. The landscape has changed. The sat nav needs resetting. You can come along for the ride, or come back in a few months when I might know how it works. I will share the good roads, the back roads, the dead ends and the crashes here as I know a lot of other writers are in the same boat (whoops, mixed metaphor: if the boat is on the road, no wonder we're in trouble!)  

Sunday, 19 June 2016

On giving up and giving in

Hard at work with Zola and coffee
Yesterday, at the tea after a memorial service for a talented woman who had packed much into too short a life, I mentioned to an acquaintance that I had gone away to write for a week and during the first few days had given up on a book I'd been working on for a few years and decided to write something different. My co-conversationalist considered this a very brave and decisive action, which surprised me rather as it seemed to me to be an entirely pragmatic and sensible one. There is also the knowledge that giving up on a book is far from irreversible. Unless I were actually to delete all the files and throw away all the books and notes, I can go back to it later.  Leaving a book project is not like leaving a partner or a house. No one else will move into my space while I'm gone, even if I leave it for a few years (as I have done in the past with this particular project).

Spot the fish: some things take
time to identify
It is, of course, hard to give up on something you have been working on for a long time, especially if you still think it is basically a good idea. And to be honest I have not given up hope of one day wanting to get back to it - but it will be a day when I can devote the time to it that it needs, in unbroken chunks, rather than a few hours here and there separated by weeks or months of more urgent work and domestic responsibilities. The week in Sardinia I thought would be enough only showed me one thing - I was restless, less excited by it than I had remembered being, and found it hard to get into. Now, I could throw good time after bad, or cut my losses. If I had been at home, I might have done the first but with only one week to write on something uncommissioned that would have been rash. Being unwilling to write off a substantial investment is one of the worst things we do to ourselves in all areas of life. I remember bemoaning to a wise writer friend (Louise Berridge) that a remark she had made led me to feel that I had wasted ten years of my life on something, and she said that it was better to have wasted the last ten years than the next forty. Which is entirely true.

Finding things in rockpools,
including books and sea urchins
But giving up is not giving in - it is moving on. I'm not going to sit moping about the half-formed novel. Indeed, there is a certain irony that this particular book might never come into being as it's about things that don't come into being. I did not set it aside because I don't like it any more, though I have lived with it for too long. Nor, I think, because it's hard - though perhaps because it's too hard for current circumstances. I set it aside because I realised it's not what I should be doing right now.

This is an exciting time in publishing, particularly in the world children's non-fiction which is my original territory. There will always be fiction publishing. It makes no difference to the world whether I write that novel this year, next year, in 2025 or never. It's not as though the world is short of children's fiction. But there are projects I want to do whose time is ripe. I will regret it if I let that time pass while fiddling with a book that's not going right. Better to have wasted the last three years on a book than the next ten.

Back to work
As soon as I decided I wasn't going to work on it that week, a weight lifted from my shoulders. I found a new pattern to the days - working franctically in the morning on the book I did want to write, then spending the afternoon lying reading in the sun and poking around in rockpools on the beach. And that spawned another book idea. I know what I'm doing now. I have lots of ideas, and I can even prioritise them. All I had to do was give up.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Retreating: running away from the battle to write

Have you ever been tempted by the adverts for writers' retreats? Do they really help you write more?

I've been on one official retreat, which was a bit of a disaster: after a single day of writing I got labyrinthitis and spent the rest of the time feeling sick as the world swayed like a ship beneath me. It should have worked. I went with three other lovely writers - all more famous and successful than me, and all better at not having labyrinthitis. It was a proper writers' retreat, with all our food provided, lovely countryside to walk in, a fire to write by, prosecco delivered to our desks at 6pm, and so on.

This year I'm doing it a bit differently. I'm at the Hilton in Olbia, Sardinia, with no one else. The hotel is in a cultural and aesthetic desert so there should be nothing to lure me away from the desk. There is no one to chat to. If I don't write I'll get bored.

Which brings me to pondering the word. Is a writer's retreat a sort of running away, like a retreating army? Or is it re-treat, as in have a nice time again? This place is definitely a batten-down-the-hatches-and-get-stuff-done kind of place. My only stipulation to myself is that I don't use the time to work on the commissioned work I would be doing if I'd stayed at home, but that I use it to do the projects that get shuffled aside: one that my agent has been waiting for for quite a long time and one that is brand new and she doesn't know is coming.

I started with the first, with reading and thinking and trying to find the holes and restructure where necessary. But I'm not excited by it here. I can't get into cold London fog when it's bright Italian sunshine outside. Also, I write best in cafes but it's been too windy the last couple of days to do that (I mean, to sit outside in a cafe). So I turned to the other one which is still fresh and exciting. I know, finish the old one first - but they are very different and the second is easier to do here. It's a bit like retreating from the retreat, though. Tackling the first project required a retreat from life to get the thing done and this is a re-treat - a chance to enjoy it all again. Perhaps that's what it should really be about: reinvigorating that love of the job that got us all here in the first place.

I'm starting to think a week won't be long enough, though. Maybe I need to become one of those people who lives in a hotel, probably Simpsons on the Strand, writing in pyjamas and having lunch and cocktails. But perhaps a permanent retreat doesn't work and I'd have to start borrowing houses and families from people so I had some responsibilities to re(-)treat from.

Friday, 13 May 2016

SATs 'n' all that

Those of you in the UK will be aware that there has been a lot of fuss this week and last about SATs, the tests that primary school children in England (that's grade school, or first school) are obliged to take. In particular, the fuss is about the way that writing - or grammar - is taught and tested. Young children are being obliged to learn not only grammatical terms but completely invented ones, such as 'fronted adverbial', and identify them in a sentence. Their own writing has to observe ridiculous practices, such as only using an exclamation mark after a sentence starting 'How' or 'What'. And filling their work with 'wow-words' - unusual words, usually adjectives, intended to give their writing a bit of oomph. (This latter is a widespread teaching practice rather than something the curriculum spells out as a requirement.)

This approach to writing runs a high risk of wrecking any child's nascent enjoyment of language. Nicola Morgan and I have, with the committees of our respective groups in the Society of Authors, have put together a statement against the government's practice in this regard; it's on the Society of Authors website. I have blogged about wow-words (this will also be published in The Author this month) and exclamation marks on ABBA, and Nicola has blogged about teaching grammar on her own blog. The statement has been taken up by The Guardian, who reproduced a chunk of it straight after it was issued. And now it's gone global, being taken up by the Daily Times in Pakistan. It's obviously something people feel strongly about.

None of us is against the teaching of grammar. And it's not an argument about testing per se. The people who object to this particular testing regime include some who approve of testing in primary schools and some who don't - but this particular testing regime is iniquitous. Essentially, the curriculum authority has come up with a whole lot of rules about language, supported with terminology, which it insists children as young as 6 learn. Some of this terminology and these rules are pure invention - they are not supported either by traditional grammar or by current and past usage by real authors. So children will see 'rules' they have to follow which the books they read don't follow - confusing in itself. These rules and terminology are very complex and so, correspondingly, are the tests. Adult professional writers, some with degrees in linguistics and English can't answer the questions. The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, couldn't answer questions [video] about these grammatical entities when asked in the House of Commons. Consequently, a great deal of time in school is spent teaching to the test - training children to pass an insane test that does nothing to improve their use or understanding of language and a lot to destroy their burgeoning enjoyment of it. Many teachers are close to breaking point.

The test and work for it are demoralising and destructive. Children are set up to fail. Many parents kept their children away from school so that they would not be subjected to the test. The minister for education condemned them for it. But countless schools reported children in tears, even the brightest children unable to answer the questions. What useful purpose can this possibly serve?

It's not hard to frame teaching of writing and how it works in a way that increases rather than reduces children's enjoyment and understanding. Here is the bad way:

1. Which sentence contains a fronted adverbial?
a) 'Thrilled to be trusted with such complicated instructions, Roger took the crowbar from Billy.' (I Was a Rat, Philip Pullman)
b) 'I stood in the morning room with Hodges, not knowing what to do.' (The Dead of Winter, Chris Priestley)

Here is a better way:

1. Which sentence tells us how a person did something before telling us what they did?
a) 'Thrilled to be trusted with such complicated instructions, Roger took the crowbar from Billy.' (I Was a Rat, Philip Pullman)
b) 'I stood in the morning room with Hodges, not knowing what to do.' (The Dead of Winter, Chris Priestley)

And here is an even better way:

'Thrilled to be trusted with such complicated instructions, Roger took the crowbar from Billy.' (I Was a Rat, Philip Pullman) - do you see how putting the descrption first makes us eager to read on to the end of the sentence, to find out what Roger is thrilled about?

'I stood in the morning room with Hodges, not knowing what to do.' (The Dead of Winter, Chris Priestley) - this sentence creates a feeling of expectation and impatience. The standing is stretched out as the character and we, the readers, don't know what is he will do next.

Oops, no test there. Damn it. The kids might just see how the technique works instead of being able to name it. That's no good, is it? And if the explanation is considered too hard for young readers (Year 4 is the time fronted adverbials are introduced), then they are too young to need the term as it's useless to them. If you want to know which terms children have to learn - and/or what they mean - there is a list on The School Run's website.

How about we bolster #readingforpleasure with #writingforpleasure? Let our children enjoy language. If we don't, we'll lost a whole generation of writers - and not just writers of fiction, poetry, screenplays, and so on, but writers of biography, science books (and articles), journalism, history, philosophy...