Writing is both a pleasure and a pain

Last week was a bit of a wash-out as far as writing was concerned. This week, I had to get back to thinking creatively as well as doing my less creative, more lucrative writing. I still have to earn while I’m trying to carve out a place for myself in the world of fiction writing, but it does feel like two sides of the same coin.

It’s been a funny fortnight. After a wonderful long Bank Holiday weekend break in Bath with friends, Tuesday arrived all too soon and went just as quickly. Wednesday we had a planned power cut and I went out for the morning, and fretted over the thought of parents’ evening at my youngest son’s school. My two eldest children’s school careers have been a catalogue of praise and pleasure, almost always. By contrast my youngest child has the Marmite effect on his teachers. In other words, they either love or hate him. He has an unerring ability to irritate those teachers he doesn’t rate, but will work his socks off for those he considers to be competent and professional. As he’s only 12, he’s had to be told that it’s not for him to judge which teacher falls into which category. A businesswoman friend soothed my jangling nerves by telling me that CEOs tend to be those who don’t need to be liked by their peers. Well, that’s one positive way of looking at the aggravation he causes by his take-me-or-leave-me attitude.

Thursday, the lovely Roma Tearne took time out from her holiday packing to mentor my novel writing and set me back on my path. I have a beautiful new Moleskine notebook in which to plot, plan and develop my novel and what’s more, I’ve used it, though it almost feels too precious to spoil with my scribbles.

This week I’ve had a better, more financially productive week – not that writers earn shedloads for their output. You have to be very good, very dedicated or very lucky to earn anything more than a living, so if anyone is reading this blog hoping to find the key to the alchemy, I’m sorry, I don’t have it, and I suspect that the big earners in writing don’t either. It’s a combination of hard work and right place, right time for them all. Many writers have their “1000-words-before” routine, for others, (Flaubert, I believe wrote only 35 words a day) it’s either working or it isn’t. I’ve interviewed several authors including those who have known enormous success, the late Sir John Mortimer, for example, and crime writer Colin Dexter (who used to write after listening to The Archers and before going to the pub) and discovered that ultimately, what they’re good at is putting words on pages regularly enough to create a book-sized work. All creatives will know the feeling of inspiration just not coming to them, but having worked in a daily newspaper office I learnt very early on that you can’t wait for the muse to descend and have to “Just Bl**din’ Get On With It” – it’s become a catchphrase in our household when the creative children are dithering. Not that not getting on with it is unproductive in other ways; bathrooms get cleaned, loads of laundry are hung on the line, bedrooms are tidied, the dog is walked, cakes baked… you get the picture.

I’ve learned that to produce fiction I have to write with the radio off, music off and a positive attitude – and a 25-minute rule works for me. Write as much as you can for 25 minutes then stop – even if you’re midway through your stream. Take a break – then set another 25 minutes. It’s amazing what you can achieve under these conditions. Yesterday, I’d done 2500 words by lunchtime – though I also had the carrot of a trip to a neighbour’s clothes party dangling before me. I can’t take the credit for this method, it was suggested to me by fellow scribe Sarah Fraser, who I first came across thanks to the Inland Revenue (it’s a long story), and who has become a friend and mentor.

Having finished this blog (700 words) I’m off to the gym. I’ve promised myself a writing session this afternoon – after I’ve put on a couple of loads of washing and tidied the children’s rooms…

Curiouser and curiouser

I’ve had a very weird writing experience today. Having agreed to write with Roma Tearne, who has a residency at Blackwell Bookshop in Oxford this week, we compared our first chapters this afternoon over her kitchen table.

Last night as I wrote my chapter, which will be chapter 2 in her “Between The Lines” publication, I worried that since neither of us had a clue what the other was writing anything could happen and the book might read like an explosion in an imagination factory. We hadn’t collaborated at all on the subject matter. She had set no themes, suggested no plot and made no pointers. As I logged on to my MacBook I wondered how on earth the two chapters would look side-by-side.

Over a lunch of bought baguettes with novelist Ali Shaw and a friend of Roma’s called Ned, who had turned up on her doorstep out of the blue, we each drew out the first page of our 1600-words of manuscript. My mouth fell open and I looked into Roma’s eyes as she read aloud. There was  common thread, there were similarities in our thoughts, we had even, get this, both mentioned buns! Feeling slightly spooked by the experience I dashed off to Blackwell’s to see what was going on in the shop so I could document my thoughts on the Blackwell Blogsite (see the link to the right of this posting).

On returning to Roma’s house to pick up my car she beckoned me in through her front door. The weirdness wasn’t lost on her either. We decided it’s chemistry that has caused this coincidence. And the fact that we’ve discussed other things since we first met about three months ago, when I interviewed Roma for a magazine.

Tonight Roma’s going to take my character and run with her in Chapter 3, I’m going to take hers and develop him into Chapter 4.

So I’m going to keep this blog brief and get on with the other writing. I’ve got a day job as well which I’m trying to ignore this week, besides my other role as Mummy, so it feels very busy as well as hugely exciting. At the weekend I’m heading off to Bath for a break. I think I’m going to need it. My mind is whirring.

Day one – the fun begins at Blackwell’s

I’m amazed at how tiring a residency can be. Being up with the lark on a school morning is a normal activity, but getting into Oxford, perky, shiny and fresh is something I’m no longer used to. One of the often-documented benefits of working at home is that you can slouch around in your JimJams all morning, shower and leave your hair to dry au naturel then have lunch in the garden or at the kitchen table before heading back out of the door to collect the children from the bus stop. Work fits in somewhere between dog walking, the gym (not too often, mind) and various household duties, for which I last showed enthusiasm around five years ago.

Being bright and shiny in Blackwell’s also involves being chirpy with customers, wrestling with ageing computers in the bookshop office – to say nothing of being unable to blog for their own website because there’s a blanket ban on visiting Twitter, blogs and who knows what else (I didn’t try). Tomorrow I’m taking in my little Notebook (not my precious MacBook I’d be distraught if it were stolen) so I can Tweet on Twitter and blog without frontiers.

Besides blogging on the Blackwell site I’ve also written a chapter for a novella that Roma, Ali and I are doing together, and written a little report about an event I visited last week on behalf of a magazine.

I’m back in Oxford tomorrow, this time in the afternoon. Being part of this residency and watching all the preparation in the run-up is helping my creativity to flow. This evening I can barely keep my eyes open, though it was an exceptionally busy weekend with six children and their weekend activities and social life on top, not to mention dealing with a recalcitrant 12-year-old who is articulate to the point of being maddening. That’s what you get for bringing up a dedicated reader. He has a lot of words at his disposal when you’re arguing about homework in a subject he sees as pointless and time consuming.

Off to bed and ready for a new day tomorrow. I knew bringing up children was tiring, but who knew blogging was so exhausting?

And we’re off

I’m looking forward to an exciting time guest blogging at Roma Tearne’s residency site at Blackwell Bookshops for the next couple of weeks. That doesn’t mean I won’t be here as well, you never know I might manage both. If you want to see what’s scheduled click here or use the blog links on the right of this page.

Thoughts on writing, not writing

It’s almost a year since I was made redundant from my job as a magazine editor, but don’t cry for me, my dear reader, the truth is, I never loved it. It took several phone calls and a meeting to convince me to switch from freelance writing to taking up a red pen again and after a couple of months I found myself telling my bosses I was resigning, though I allowed myself to be persuaded to sit back down in my chair and give it another whirl. The 18 months I spent in the job reinforced something I already knew about myself, that I’m much happier dreaming up and creating articles than editing them and that I get a real buzz out of capturing someone’s essence and putting it into words, giving readers a glimpse into another life – oh and that I love seeing my byline on an article I’ve slaved over (and I slave over every one). I find the job of magazine editor akin to wearing a strait jacket while trying to trampoline – not impossible, but a bit tricky and much easier if you don’t have your hands tied behind your back by falling revenue and rising advertisers’ demands.

So, since May 2009, when my husband graciously offered to support me while I really put my mind to getting a novel published, my efforts have concentrated on shifting my axis, though I haven’t given up the day job of freelance journalism completely and I still love meeting and interviewing people however big or small their story. Entering the world of fiction writing isn’t a matter of sitting at your computer and issuing forth. You’ve got to work out what you want to say, make it coherent and interesting and then, the big ask, get it looked at. As anyone who has ever submitted their beloved manuscript to a series of agents will know, this last is a heart-in-mouth process and the point I am at, currently, after I found myself the subject of a pincer movement between the BBC’s George Alagiah and my husband, who were talking to a literary agent at an Oxford Literary Festival event last month, while I went in search of an orange juice. Before I knew it, on my return, I was being quizzed by the three of them, and though the result was what I’d been hoping for, an invitation to send what I’ve written to the agency, I was most uncomfortable selling myself and became very hot and flustered in the process. I’ve stood and fronted magazine events before an audience of hundreds, I’ve written for readerships of tens of thousands, but there’s nothing quite like being put on the spot about yourself.

So here are some of the things I’ve learned in the last 12 months. It’s no use bleating that the bookshelves are punctuated with celebrity dross not worthy of comparison with your own precious offering if you’re not prepared to back it up. Getting your work into a bookshop is as much about what else you’re selling as how well you can write. Start looking for ways of sticking your toe through the door as a first mission I’d advise, in parallel to finishing your manuscript, because you obviously you can’t say you’re a novelist if you don’t deliver 100,000 words. And don’t forget what getting a book published really means – that you want other people to sell it on your behalf and the reading public to buy and enjoy what you’ve written.

My voyage of discovery in this new sphere continues. I’ve learned that there are days when I’d rather clean out the chicken house than do the thing I’m supposed to love, ie writing; that perspiration is 99 per cent of the job (and I’m not sure genius comes into my inspiration, Mr Edison); that I’m not by any means the world’s next Dickens or A.S Byatt, but I do want people to get a buzz from reading my book, or books if I’m lucky enough to make it as a bona fide novelist; that there are hundreds if not thousands of people just like me, all waving their manuscripts madly; that I have to find a way to the top of the agent’s pile, especially given that he or she is likely to have another 50 brown envelopes that week to trawl through. And lastly, that I have to sell, sell, sell myself and my skills.

To look at it from another point of view, an agent has to make a living from my book too, and I’m asking him or her to stake his or her literary reputation on it to sell it to a publisher, after which, booksellers need to like it, and the reading public have to want to pay hard-earned cash for it. I’m realising the enormity of what I’m trying to do here.

If you’re an aspiring writer, your ego might be bigger than mine: you might think you’re brilliant, your lover might tell you he or she is your number one fan, your adoring mother might pledge to buy a copy – well here’s the bad news, that’s only two sales… From where I’m sitting, no longer in the editor’s chair, I can see that half an agent’s job is to discover the zeitgeist and source what’s in season, not this year, but next and the year after – which is why they’re all at the London Book Fair this week. I was due to be there too, along with another aspiring novelist and friend, who has published many successful business books but wants to switch her focus to fiction. She’s been an inspiration, giving me confidence and telling me to wear any rejection slips as badges of honour. However, she finds herself taking the long route home from Denmark and was last heard of in France, no thanks to all UK airports being closed by volcanic ash. As a result we’ve decided to postpone our 2010 fact-finding mission.

Next week brings me new excitement. I’m going to be observing and writing about novelist and artist Roma Tearne’s residency at Blackwell Bookshops in Oxford, something born out of a recent interview I did with her. It promises to be a rollercoaster of a ride with Roma at the helm, since she really is a one-woman dynamo. I’m not sure what she eats for breakfast, but I think I’ll start on the same regime. My thoughts will be posted on Blackwell’s blog throughout the next fortnight and I’ll be linking my blog to the Blackwell site just as soon as it’s up and running.

In the meantime, wish me luck as I plunge on into the unknown and await the agent’s verdict on my manuscript – my fingernails are down to the quick.

I should add that I contributed to a book that came out this month – not fiction but food. Here’s the link to the publisher punkpublishing

Taste Britain

An interview with Roma Tearne

Oxford-based artist, film-maker and writer Roma Tearne lives and works in the centre of the city. She tells Sandra Kessell about painting, writing and the literary festival on her doorstep.

Roma Tearne

Beyond Oxford’s towers, spires, quads and high-ceilinged Dons’ houses lie the less grand cottages and terraces of the artisans, craftsmen and artists who, over centuries, made or provided the everyday things needed to keep the world of academia ticking over, allowing academics to study and philosophise, teach and theorise without having to get too involved in day-to-day living.

Meeting the multi-talented Roma Tearne in one of these quirky little houses, close to the canal, seems very fitting in the 21st century. She could epitomise the modern Oxford resident – cultured, intelligent, artistic and, for good measure in a city that has one of the  highest proportions of residents born outside the UK, Sri Lankan by birth.

The first thing you notice about Roma is her tiny stature. She’s diminutive – and I find myself looking for her when she answers the door to her family home in Jericho, my gaze travelling swiftly downwards to meet her huge eyes.

It’s at this house that she writes her novels, having initially made her name as an artist and film-maker. In fact, she’s been so bound up with her writing over the last few years, that she stopped renting a studio because she simply didn’t have time to use it. Not that she’s stopped drawing or collecting the materials for her installations. She customises Moleskine notebooks, stuffing them with observations, sketches, photographs and tiny, neat handwriting that curls around corners creating a visual feast of its own. After hitting the mark with her first three books, Mosquito, Bone China and Brixton Beach, and with a fourth, The Swimmer, due to be published in May, Roma is getting the urge to paint once more and looking at ways of incorporating a studio into her study.

Dressed in black, with a black and single red bead strung around her neck, Roma leads me into her house, which is packed with books, paintings, installations, porcelain, colour, mirrors and splashes of light. There’s a penchant for Venetian red and in a cabinet lined with postcards, letters, old photographs – Roma’s junk-shop objets trouvés. She’s a compulsive rummager, she confesses. Her desk is surrounded by bookshelves, photos of her children, printers’ letters, tiny blue glass bottles and other collectibles. It’s like a magpie’s nest, lined and cosy – but there’s a reason for this, I find. Roma lost all her family photos, baby albums and notebooks in a house move and has been seeking solace in documenting other people’s history ever since.

Not that Roma can find a word to summarise her professional occupations. She’s neither pure writer nor pure artist, novelist nor narrator, though that hasn’t stopped her being recognised and acclaimed as all of the above. She admits she’s seriously self-critical, which in part dates back to her early university experiences. Reading English she submitted an essay about Charles Dickens and was accused of plagiarism by a discouraging and unenlightened tutor, who doubted her ability to produce such quality work and told her he would send her down if she transgressed again.

“I was an 18-year-old immigrant girl who came from London and who had struggled to integrate. Instead of fighting him, I just left. I was writing a novel at the time, I stopped,” says Roma.

It had been English that had brought her parents, who had lived with disapproval for their mixed Singhalese-Tamil marriage in Sri Lanka, to England. Her mother had been a journalist, her father a poet. On learning that English was to be banned in Sri Lanka they packed a few belongings, boarded a boat and headed to the UK, bringing 10-year-old Roma to what they thought of as a promised land. The family’s hopes were invested in English in a way few English people’s ever are.

“My parents were passionate about the language. It was assumed I would read English and I’d always said I would be a writer,” says Roma.

After her university experience she dropped out of her studies but her future was still bound up with the language. She married an English professor and had three children. She trained as a painter, later completing her MA at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford, where she was encouraged to explore other sides of her creativity. Her work was chosen for the Royal Academy summer exhibition and she became a Leverhulme artist-in-residence for the Ashmolean Museum. It was here that her writing came to the fore once more. She started writing short stories about the staff for the staff newsletter.

“The staff found it amusing. I had a little romance going and the staff concerned were very chuffed about it,” she remembers. The staff started asking when the next episode would be published and encouraged her to write write a book. Until then no-one had ever read her work.

“I’d written short stories that I’d just chucked. I didn’t know if I was any good,” she says. “I had a lot of artistic friends, I didn’t know any writers, coming into it late.”

In 2006 she was awarded an Arts and Humanities Research Council fellowship to work at Oxford Brookes University and the following year her first novel, Mosquito, was published and shortlisted for the Costa award for debut novel. Since then she has a produced a book a year and has been a regular fixture at the Oxford Literary Festival, suddenly finding herself on the platform, rather than in the audience. Now a Creative Writing Fellow at Brookes, this year she will be talking about her forthcoming novel at this year’s festival.

“There’s an awful lot going on in Oxford,” she says, adding that the festival is good for students as well as visitors. At the end of April, Roma is taking up a week’s residency at Blackwell’s book and poster shops, where she will be investigating the life of a bookshop, its staff, customers and other visitors. Drawing inspiration from paragraphs in books chosen from different departments around the Blackwell’s shops in Broad Street, Roma will produce written and visual work. It’s hard to pigeon-hole or pin down her work, let alone give her a title that sums up her occupations, despite the extensive number of words at her fingertips. What there can be no doubt about is her next creations will be welcomed by her growing army of fans and her talk attended by an eager following.

Roma Tearne will be talking at Christ Church on Tuesday, March 23, at 12noon. Her residency at Blackwell’s runs from Monday, April 26 to Saturday, May 1. Her novel The Swimmer is published by Harper Collins on May 3.

*This article appears in the March 2010 edition of Cotswold Life magazine.

Reasons to be cheerful – Oxford Literary Festival is coming up

DJ Taylor and Rachel Hore count Oxford among their favourite literary festivals
The line-up includes Anthony Horowitz
John le Carré's lecture is a must for Bodley's Librarian Sarah Thomas

There’s a glittering line-up at this year’s Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival, with comedians, politicians, broadcasters and academics taking the stage alongside ghost writers, novelists, biographers and thriller writers. The eight-day extravaganza celebrates all things literary and is based in Christ Church and Corpus Christi College, as well as The Sheldonian Theatre. The event has become a favourite with seasoned festival-goers as anyone staying at the colleges gets to rub shoulders with authors, playwrights and other speakers.

Critic, journalist and author DJ Taylor, a 2003 Man Booker Prize judge and winner of the 2003 Whitbread Biography Prize for “Orwell: A Life,” has been a regular speaker at the festival over the years and has watched it evolve. Some festivals have been spoiled by the cult of celebrity taking precedence over the literary aspect of the gathering, he says, remembering a festival where former US President Bill Clinton was paid thousands of pounds to attend while the writers turned up for free, much to their irritation.

David and his wife, the novelist Rachel Hore, who last year gave a talk together, and their three sons, rank Oxford among their favourite festivals.

“The children enjoy it because there’s so much variety,” says Rachel. “Last year they went to the poetry reading competition and loved taking part in a quiz on the Sunday evening in the ‘Hogwarts’ dining hall upstairs in Christ Church. The ambience is part of the festival’s success – swanning around Christ Church has got to beat the marquees of the Edinburgh Literature Festival!”

David and Rachel both studied at the University of Oxford, although they didn’t meet until several years after they had graduated and David doesn’t have the fondest memories of his student days in the city. Rachel says she likes the friendliness and democratic feel of the Oxford Literary Festival.

“I hope visitors feel this as well as the participants,” she says. “I enjoy browsing in the book tent and not knowing who you might bump into next.”

David appreciates the dedication of those who attend, recalling one year a heavy snowfall threatened to limit the numbers attending his talk “Bright Young People,” based on his book exploring the lives of the 1920s glitterati, many of whom were at Oxford.

“I was sure there would be nobody there but the place was absolutely packed out. I was really touched by this,” says David. Another memorable event, last year, involved Richard Blair, Orwell’s adopted son, talking publicly for the first time about his father.

“We did a kind of tete-a-tete and 400 people turned up. It was a fantastic event,” says David.

This year, as part of The Orwell Prize series of events, DJ Taylor and Evelyn Waugh’s biographer Paula Byrne are comparing the lives and works of Orwell and Waugh, who were both born in 1903. The event takes place at Christ Church on Saturday March 26, at 8pm.

Rachel says she and David attend other people’s talks, besides supporting each others.

“Anything by Philip Pullman appeals to me,” says Rachel.

Philip Pullman himself plans to see all the science events he can manage.

Philip Pullman

“One of the great strengths of the Oxford Literary Festival is that it can draw on the talents of many brilliant thinkers right on the doorstep, and a week at the festival must be equivalent to a good basic education in any one of a dozen disciplines,” says the teacher turned author, who is also one of the festival’s patrons. “As science is a big interest of mine, I shall be pursuing that this year.”

Bodley’s Librarian, Dr Sarah Thomas – who is in charge one of the world’s oldest, largest and best collection of books, held by the Bodleian Library – is thrilled to have such an interesting festival on her doorstep, though the quality of the sessions makes it hard to choose which to attend.

“The festival creates such excitement around authors and books and reading,” says Sarah, who was the first female, first non-British national, to be appointed Bodley’s Librarian in its 400-year history.

“In fact, I am going to have to decide between Lyndall Gordon’s ‘Lives Like Loaded Guns’ talk on Emily Dickinson and Philip Pullman’s discussion of his new book ‘The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ,’ both of which take place on Sunday March 28 at noon. “Emily Dickinson lived a few miles from the town in Massachusetts where I grew up, and she’s a fascinating woman. But now, having lived in Oxford for three years and gotten to know Philip Pullman, I’m also eager to hear him speak on his new work.”

Her other “must see” choices are John le Carré’s talk on March 24 and Hilary Mantel who discusses her 2009 Man Booker Prize winner Wolf Hall on Sunday March 28 at 2pm.

“There’s an incredible array from which to select,” continues Sarah. “Balcor’s Second Nature on the inner lives of animals; David Boyd Haycock’s A Crisis of Brilliance: Five Young British Arts & the Great War, and John Harris on gin tasting. What a range!”

Events to look out for include a discussion between award-winning playwright and author Simon Rae, who wrote a definitive biography of legendary cricketer WG Grace, and the book “Unplayable” and one of the world’s top women cricketers, Charlotte Edwards, who is an ambassador for the Chance to Shine cricket and education foundation; the incomparable Malorie Blackman, quirky Frances Hardinge and Philip Pullman discussing fantasy fiction with children’s books reviewer Nicolette Jones and screenwriter and children’s author Anthony Horowitz interviewed by Paul Blezard. Other top-of-the-list discussions include acclaimed crime writer Ruth Rendell interviewed by David Grylls about Penguin’s The Complete Sherlock Holmes, as well as her own creation Chief Inspector Wexford; eminent scientists Richard Dawkins, Georgina Ferry and Steve Jones talking about science, certainty and the Royal Society with Roger Highfield, editor of The New Scientist and Oxford-based author, film-maker and artist Roma Tearne talking about her latest novel, The Swimmer.

Oxford Literary Festival runs from Saturday, March 20 until Sunday March 28, with events, courses, discussions and dinners taking place in Christ Church College, The Sheldonian and Corpus Christi College. For a full list of timings and to book tickets, visit http://www.oxfordliteraryfestival.com or tel: 01865 276152. Box office: 0870 343 1001 and watch out for more information in the The Sunday Times, and Blackwell’s book shops.

This article first appeared in the March 2010 edition of Cotswold Life magazine.

Author images courtesy Oxford Literary Festival.