Who or what is stopping you from writing?

It’s been a long January and now we’re well into February, with bees clearing out winter nests and snowdrops and miniature irises appearing under the trees, everything feels more spring-like. Post-Christmas finances, the grim weather and a lack of daylight all conspired to make staying at home in front of a fire seem a good thing. It’s not only nature that is stirring into new life now. In the last two weeks several unsought commissions have been dropping into my in-box. It’s encouraging to get paid for something you like doing, something you spent three years training to do, and it’s an ego boost if an editor seeks you out to do it and puts money into your bank account as a result. Even after 25 years earning a living from writing I never cease to be surprised that people read, and appear to like, what I produce. Shutting oneself away behind a laptop screen doesn’t feed one’s soul, however. I live in a lovely place – it’s quiet, a rural idyll that’s not too far-flung, where few disturb my thoughts. My very artistic husband, occasionally, will ask if I’d like another coffee or remind me we’ve not stopped for lunch. It ought to be a writer’s heaven – indeed, it would be the ideal location for a writer’s retreat and it’s very useful for my day job – but is it inspiring imaginative fiction and does it make me think about who I’m writing for?

It’s not a thought that’s new to me, but perhaps I’ve not really acknowledged the nagging feeling at the back of my brain. In order to spark plots and provoke daydreams I need a chance to observe (slyly) the goings-on of unknown passers-by and a reminder that there are people out there who read. Essentially nosy, I like to snatch snippets from the everyday lives of urban folk. My creative cogs start turning as I stand on a station platform, or wait at a pelican crossing. Here are characters to write about – here’s an audience to write for. So yesterday, as I drove up St Giles in Oxford, past The Eagle and Child – literary second home to the Inklings, whose number included JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis, I was already feeling the clank of creaking thought on rusty imagination. Once I’d parked and started walking along the street, I ear-wigged other people’s conversations (what a wonderful invention the mobile phone is – half an exchange of dialogue delivered in a public space – leaving the other half to be imagined). The population of Oxford is a quirky mix of foreign visitor, eccentric don, too-young student, elderly blue-stocking, yummy cycling mummy, serious scholar, earnest curator, muscular sportsman and terribly thin artist. The clothing that they wear, or affect to wear, includes silk scarf wrapped around canvas bag, brown boot, tan brogue, crepe de chine skirt, Converse trainer, tweed suit, red hat and black gown.

Of course, it would jolt anyone back into a creative phase if the person they were meeting for a mid-week lunch happened to be artist and novelist Roma Tearne – a one-woman walking wake-up call, whose output includes books, videos, paintings and lectures on the literary circuit. While we’re sharing a platter in the roof-top restaurant at The Ashmolean exchanging gossip, catching-up on several months’ news and speculating on who is doing what with whom and why they’re meeting, the grey skies are forgotten, the rain is elevated to a water feature on the outdoor terrace as it imparts a sheen on the sodden tables and chairs and gushes through gargoyles’ mouths. Apart from a trip to sunnier climes, is there any better way to shake off the winter blues? A descent through the atrium stairwell into the new galleries, glancing at the beckoning treasures of the world brings stories to mind. Who could fail to be inspired?

Afterwards, I drove home to the humdrum, past the girls from St Edward’s School in their unfashionably long skirts, overtaking a Tesco lorry and postal van to dutifully perform the school pick-up before the routine of supper, homework, music practice, bed. Cyril Connolly’s “pram in the hall” is often cited as an excuse for a lack of creativity. His quotable quotes survive him, however, and in common with many male writers, he had wives who got on with the child-rearing and housekeeping, leaving him free to earn a living in whatever way he chose, or was able, to. I don’t believe the pram is the only barrier to getting out of the door, or that children are the thieves of time; what really stifles, constrains and contracts our thoughts is the lack of opportunity to connect with the outside world. The rushed journey into the office (or the dash downstairs to the desk), the need to earn a living, the whizz around the supermarket, each push wordplay – or in my husband’s case, painting – towards the bottom of the priority pile. If wordplay and painting were always at the top, the children would go unfed, the house would be filthy, there would be nothing in the bank account (ever) and I’d probably sink into a routine of writing in an exercise book with a pencil (there being no money to pay for electricity to charge my MacBook), while my husband would be re-using old canvasses to get his creative fix. But there’s a balance to be struck. Would I write if I didn’t think I had an audience? Probably. Would I get satisfaction from it? Possibly not. Do I need to earn a living? Yes. Is writing how I’ve done it for 25 years? Yes. Am I lucky that my day job dovetails nicely with my aspirations? Um – yes.

Yesterday’s trip to Oxford was a wake-up call. I need to unplug my i-Pod, open my eyes and dust off my notebook. Switch off the internet, drink my latte and get creative. The only person stopping me writing fiction is myself.

Welcome

Sandra Kessell ©Paul Wilkinson Photography LtdWelcome to my blog. It’s an informal collection of thoughts, visits, experiences and features. Sometimes I will include a review of a place or event I’ve been invited to preview, but most of what is here has been published in magazines and books.

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You can also find articles on my old WordPress site under my previous name, Sandra Fraser. I also have a professional site at sandrakessell.co.uk and a professional CV profile on LinkedIn if you want to know more about my work and experience in depth.

Thank you for visiting, I hope you enjoy reading what I enjoy writing.

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Sir John Mortimer

I met Sir John Mortimer in 2006 when I was invited to interview him at his home. He wasn’t in the best of health then, but interviewing him was like playing a game of chess as he countered unwelcome questions with little snippets of alternative information to make me change my course. I could see why he’d been such a charmer in his youth, he certainly had charisma even in his 80s. He died in January 2009.

His body and eyesight may be failing him, but Sir John Mortimer’s wit and wisdom are stiletto-sharp and he’s as much in demand as ever he was. Sandra Fraser caught up with the prolific playwright, novelist and former barrister. Main photograph by Simon Greetham.

Sir John Mortimer is feeling a little dry, but instead of calling for a morning glass of champagne, as I expect, he’s asking for a beer. Famously, this great author, screenwriter, playwright, raconteur and celebrated bon viveur starts each day with bubbly and sure enough, where you might expect to find a carton of milk, there’s a bottle of Veuve Clicquot in the fridge door. But though Sir John is a supporter of Old Labour, with one daughter who runs an art gallery, one who runs a charity and one who is a famous film star, a son who works for the BBC and another, recently discovered, who works in television production, he doesn’t fit the category of champagne socialist.

His wife, Penny (The Second, as she’s known, more of which later) is tripping off to London in scuffed high heels to meet friends, twin sisters who are married to members of the rock band Deep Purple – but she’s happy to make me a (tepid) cup of coffee before she catches the Oxford Tube into London.

The house is alive with dogs and flies and people drifting in and out of doors and the garden. Bohemian doesn’t begin to describe it. The dogs claim the faded squashy cushions on the chairs and the kitchen is littered with the clutter of everyday life – unwashed blue duck eggs on an antique porcelain stand, packets of breakfast cereal, a duty-free-sized multi-pack of Silk Cut cigarettes, any number of the day’s newspapers and a full-to-overflowing handbag. There’s a charity request for an autographed copy of one of Sir John’s books prominently stuck to a cupboard door along with countless letters, notes – one a date for the delivery of piglets – photographs and postcards.

Over all the effect is of people too busy to tidy up, but also of great warmth and welcome. This is a family home and Penny has a 100-megawatt smile and plenty of friendly chat for me while I wait for the great man to finish his morning toilette with the aid of Binni, his nurse and assistant.

Settled in his office, which is notably tidier than the kitchen, in an annexe to his home in the Chiltern Hills, just outside Henley, Sir John Mortimer still has the brain of a practising QC, though his body betrays his 83 years. He’s not giving anything way as he peers through rheumy eyes and trademark owlish oversized glasses, parrying questions he has no wish to answer and steering the interview just where he wants it to go.

He’s vociferous in his condemnation of the current Labour Government, despite his political persuasions, and keeps up-to-date with news and current world and home affairs by listening to BBC Radio Four and the World Service. He has recently protested against the fox-hunting ban, has written about judges’ discretion to give life sentences and been vocal on the erosion of civil liberties and the loss of the legal presumption of innocence. Today he’s threatening to tackle Anti-Social Behaviour Orders, which he describes as an outrage against the legal system. More fuel for Rumpole he believes.

Though his highly successful Rumpole series has been going since the Seventies Sir John has no plans to kill off the character, and there’s a new book which has recently been published – Rumpole and the Reign of Terror. And with a mind still so sharp, Sir John sees no reason to stop writing, provided inspiration continues to come ‘out of the sky’.

“Rumpole’s brave and he stands for all the things I think are right. And he can say the things which I believe and which, if I say, sound rather liberal and left-wing but if he says them they sound rather crusty and conservative,” he says.

Sir John’s desk is remarkably clear, with a few well-chosen ornaments on it, pots of pens and chinagraph red pencils, a well-worn brown leather diary and a paperback edition of his latest book, ‘Quite Honestly’ butterflied, spine-up alongside a file of marked with a title.

He doesn’t use a laptop or computer, believing that it’s better to see a writer’s workings. There are also three tins of Winterman’s Café Crème cigars, which are surreptitiously cleared away at some point in our conversation.

Two phones and a fax machine sit on another table within arm’s reach and behind Sir John is a tray with a selection of alcohol, while writer’s awards are lined up on the windowsill. Children’s artwork lines the shelves, walls and doors, along with more photographs and postcards. There’s a sculpted head of Sir John on another table and a multi-coloured portrait by Feliks Topolski behind it.

Sir John has a face that may never have been called handsome, that these days shows the ravages of old age and good living, but he is still an excellent subject for portraiture. He looks smaller and older than recent pictures allow, but what remains unchanged is the animation in his face. He has twinkling eyes behind the glasses and a huge cameo on his wedding ring finger. Today he’s also sporting some rather snazzy braces that he’s still doing up as I enter the room.

As an only child, son of a barrister specialising in divorce, and an actress, Kathleen, John Clifford Mortimer was born in Hampstead Heath in April 1923 and spent his school holidays in a basic woodsman’s cottage just down the road from his current address. His father used to pay 10 shillings (that’s 50p in decimal money) a week for the privilege. Back then, woodsmen, or bodgers, could scrape a living turning chair legs. That way of life has all gone and the holiday cottage has just come up on the market for a cool £2 million, to Sir John’s obvious dismay.

Instead of the artisan neighbours of his childhood, he has such luminaries as Jeremy Paxman, Jeremy Irons and Sir Melvyn Bragg living nearby. Around his house, which was built by his father and lived in by his mother until her death in the 1970s, he 45 acres of land, most of which is given over to woodland and uncultivated meadow, a haven for butterflies, bluebells and orchids.

Though Sir John reportedly had an unhappy childhood, he emphasises only the positive. True, his father, whom he remembers as extraordinary, forced him to learn vast tracts of Shakespeare, and he had to play all the parts before his critical audience of one, (“I had to perform and double as Hamlet and Ophelia”) but he points out that it shaped his life. By the age of eight he could recite great speeches from various plays and he retains a love of Shakespeare to this day.

Beating a fellow student at the Dragon School in Oxford to the part of Richard II, he revelled in the role.

“My life has never had such a triumph – I got a notice in the Oxford Times,” he chortles. Decades later he discovered his rival (“let’s call him Harry”) suffered long and bitter disappointment through Mortimer’s success.

“I ruined his life at the age of 12,” he says, somewhat contrite.

On asking more about his childhood I’m urged to go and see his play, ‘A Voyage Around My Father’ on stage at the Donmar Warehouse and starring Derek Jacobi. In fact, our conversation is littered with invitations to read a book, see a play or watch and episode of whichever Mortimer production is appropriate to a question. He has written more than 50 books, plays and scripts and received his knighthood in 1998 for services to the arts. He continues to write articles and attend literary engagements even now that walking is difficult and his voice has subdued to a husky whisper.

So was his venture into law a mistake?

“What I wanted to be was an actor,” says Sir John, adding on going to Harrow that ambition changed. Instead, he tried his hand at writing and sold a story to the Evening News for 10 shillings. He was still in school when the war started and at the age of 19 joined the Crown Film Unit making documentaries, taking over as a scriptwriter from Laurie Lee of  “Cider with Rosie’ fame.

“Someone said, would I like to be a writer, but I thought that I had to be a barrister as my father had grown blind,” he says.

What may also have been echoing in the young Mortimer’s ears was his father’s assertion that writers made rotten husbands, hanging around making tea while their wives tried to get on with their day.

“‘You want a job that gets you out of the house’, he said,” recalls Sir John. “That’s what I did,” he says, “but I was always a writer first, and a barrister on the side.”

I think if you can write you have to write – don’t you?

After graduating with a law degree from Brasenose College, Oxford, he married the writer Penelope Fletcher (or Penelope the First, as he calls her), several years his senior, who already had four children. Young and struggling, John found he had very little time for his own writing. his solution was to get up at four each morning, write, then go out to work as a divorce lawyer in his father’s practice, though in later years it was freedom of speech cases that made his name in legal circles.

So was he driven to write?

“It was a necessity. I think if you can write you have to write – don’t you? I also had to make money,” he says.

Two children of his own followed, Sally, who looks after an education charity, and Jeremy, who works for the BBC and is “big in radio drama.”

Somewhere along the line, in the course of the Swinging Sixties, when by his own admission he took on board all the pleasures open to a young and successful writer, he unknowingly fathered another child, Ross, during an affair with actress Wendy Craig. It’s  fact that only came to light two years ago when Ross was 42. Sir John has embraced his new-found offspring, though Craig has remained tight-lipped about the episode. Sir John talks eagerly about the latest additions to the Mortimer family, how much like his own father Ross looks and how he’s looking forward to another grandchild’s impending arrival, courtesy of Ross.

The rising star John and Penelope the First divorced in 1971, and he married Penelope Gollop the following year. Two more children, Emily, 34, a much-in-demand actress, and Rosie, 22, followed and it’s clear that family is important to this prolific man.

There’s excitement in his voice as he tells me that Emily, who lives in Los Angeles, is coming home for a party at Rosie’s gallery in Portobello Road, London, which Sir John is also going to attend. He is also thrilled that Lord Chief Justice Phillips is allowing his American fan club to use one of the courtrooms in the Royal Courts of Justice to stage a meeting with Sir John. There’s a note of disbelief in his voice as he recounts that the rule of law will have to wait for the product of his writing, but it’s a measure of just how much of an impact the man and his books have had, both here and in the USA.

On his legacy to the world he’s modest. perhaps in the light of recent controversy over how much of his original script was left unchanged he says only that he was “involved” in the 1981 television adaptation of Brideshead Revisited, the classic Evelyn Waugh novel depicting the golden age of the University of Oxford. In fact, his name was on the credits of what is considered a television classic. His books and plays speak for themselves, but he lets slip, obviously relishing the affirmation by a fellow playwright, that Tom Stoppard has been to see the latest production of “A Voyage Around My Father” and has written to say how much he enjoyed it.

“I’d like to do another play, if I could. It’s the most difficult thing to do, a play. You have to grip the audience’s attention for two hours,” says Sir John.

But for all the plaudits he’s at his most animated when talking of his family, stating the way to achieve immortality is through one’s children.

He loves his house on the Buckinghamshire-Oxfordshire border, which is as colourful as John Mortimer himself, bright yellow on white clapboard, topped off by a verdigris roof, It’s obviously central to family life and the clan gathers there whenever possible. Getting out into the garden Sir John is keen to point out the flowerbeds, chickens and the place where those piglets will be living.

Whizzing across the lawns on his motorised scooter, he insists on a trip through the kitchen garden, despite the uneven ground threatening to tip him over. These days, he may need assistance, but it’s clear John Mortimer is not yet ready to be put out to grass.

Why not stop being a writer?

I’ve just put the phone down to a charity fundraiser asking me to increase to my monthly direct debit donation. Couched in cautious terms, the invitation to put my hand a little more deeply into my pocket was polite enough and he emphasised that he would also be trying to recruit new donors. Slightly sickened by my reluctant self, I felt I had to say no. I didn’t want to explain further or try to justify my refusal, but it’s not the only charity I make a monthly donation to and I further support this particular cause by buying most of my Christmas presents through a gift scheme, by giving its shops unwanted presents and unused household items and by putting the odd fiver into a rattled (yes, I know they’re not supposed to be) collecting tin. I also have my seasonal favourites – October is Breast Cancer month, for example and a Red Nose Day doesn’t pass without more money leaving my bank account.

If I’m writing about this to salve my conscience, I can also think of a hundred reasons why I should have said yes, rather than no, to the request. I could stop some of my other outgoings, I’m not starving, nor do I live in a garret, but the truth is, since being made redundant last year, I’ve not exactly been rolling in cash either. I feel a curmudgeon for not ticking the metaphorical yes box, but the telephone call came immediately after I’d e-mailed a features editor asking if she had any freelance work going. I still get delicious commissions out of the blue from those who know and like my work, but also get editors offering to “pay my expenses” rather than pay me a fee. If only we could live on air and my children didn’t need shoes I could write for nowt but the love of putting words on screen and seeing them in print. I could give it all up and go out to clean other people’s houses, or get a job in a supermarket, I suppose; I could make a career change and retrain for something more lucrative, like teaching perhaps, but writing is what I do, it’s how I’ve earned a living, in between and around having children, for 25 years; it’s what I love and what I know, it’s just there’s not much money in the job at the moment.

On Twitter today a former colleague rued the end of another journalistic career through burnout, another dream that has ended in frustration. Since giving the charity canvasser the brush-off, I’ve spent the last half-hour pondering the fate of the journo. Our profession has never been particularly liked, but my long-standing retort to those complaining about inaccurate stories and made-up quotes has been to suggest they should switch to a more reliable source of news and information if they want to believe what they read. My friends and colleagues in the business would no more make up copy than they would serve their children a deadly nightshade salad. Our newsroom mantra was “Accuracy Above All” and we worked very hard to maintain integrity and fairness besides every day. We were never allowed to express opinion in our reporting, saving comment for our column, if we were lucky enough to have one. On a well-known local daily newspaper with a readership estimated at 250,000 at the time I was a staffer, serving a community your editor had to live in, reporting untruths and half-truths would have been a sure way of being drummed, unicorn-like, out of the city. My job couldn’t be compared with working on a national tabloid, where slap-dash reporters could get away with phone-tapping and careless editors could hide, ignorant, inside huge office buildings, safe in the knowledge their readers would never meet them, much less could afford to sue them.

What has changed recently is the amount of advertising and copy sales revenue newspapers and magazines generate and the number of feature writers looking for work in a shrinking print market. One side of the scales has dipped, while the other has risen. Besides all the old hacks of my acquaintance ready to turn out polished prose, there are hundreds of youngsters fresh from “Media Studies” courses prepared to work as interns – ie, as free labour. Blogs and online publications abound and every third website I visit seems to flash out the question “Why not be a writer?” to which the answer must surely be – because there are too many of us, earning too little, in an already overcrowded market.

When I worked as a magazine editor I used to have a slush pile, added to daily, teetering with uncommissioned feature offerings. Rarely, I would make time to take a look at these submissions. Occasionally I would find a gem – a gardening writer who, Mary Poppins-like, was practically perfect in every way, but more often than not I would wish I’d made time for another cup of coffee instead. I’ll never forget trying to explain, politely, to an apoplectic interiors writer, (who was married, at the time, to a famous novelist and columnist), why I wouldn’t be commissioning him in the future. His copy took three subbing sessions to knock into readable shape and in an office with few staff, where everyone worked long hours, it wasn’t worth the effort, despite his stellar connections. Instead I started using someone less flashy and more reliable –  a policy I never regretted. I had a “possibles” pile – people I could have used, if my sales staff doubled their advertising revenue on a regular basis or if a supplementary magazine was being launched. Only rarely could I try them out or offer them work – sometimes being picked for publication really is down to timing and luck, not just ability and contacts.

It drives my husband to distraction that some of the commissions I accept undervalue my writing skills to an almost derisory level. I get paid the same amount now as I earned 20 years ago. Why am I a writer? I’ve been asking myself that of late as yet another editor tells me they are having to pay their freelancers from a tiny budget that includes their own salary. In other words, the more they write for their publication themselves, the more money they get to keep. Since they’re already acting as features editor, flat plan editor, commissioning and copy editor as well as sub I can’t help wondering if next they’ll be hand-cranking the presses in a bid to save on printing costs.

All that written, however, I’ve recently re-worded my e-mail signature to include the word “journalist” to show that I am a professional, rather than an amateur, wordsmith. It took three years and a series of exams to gain that professionally recognised “senior” status, so I ought to be proud of the title, I’ve decided. At the same time, besides all the experience I have under my belt, I’m attempting to write a novel and so find myself back in the realms of the wannabe. I hope I can earn enough to survive on, between my factual writing, and any fiction that finally gets published. I don’t expect to generate J.K. Rowling-like returns from my penmanship, though I promise, if I did, I too would donate large amounts to charity, rather than the paltry sums I eke out of my present income.

Why did I become a writer? I write because, besides reading and looking after my children and, occasionally, my husband, that is what I do. It’s what I have done since I was a small child, old enough to scribble in my books and deface the frontispiece. Why not stop being a writer? Oh let me count the reasons…

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.

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