QUICK READS

 

According to a 2012 National Literacy Trust Survey, as many as 1 in 6 adults finds reading a struggle.
Having been involved with books and reading all my adult life, as a publisher, journalist, a reviewer and most recently as a novelist, I find that a shocking statistic. I’ve always loved reading and continue to believe in books and the transformative power of reading at any and every level. Reading can widen your horizons without your even having to leave home. It’s a pleasure that that should be open to everyone at any age or stage of their lives. The fact that Quick Reads aims to make that possible is a wonderful thing.
Quick Reads is a charity that has been formed with a view to breaking down the barrier to reading. Every year they publish six short books that have been specially written to engage and encourage those who find reading difficult, for whatever reason.
In 2015, a new set of books will be published. I’m very proud to be one of the authors and extremely honoured to be in the company of Man Booker prize-winning novelist Roddy Doyle, author of The Commitments, bestselling novelists Jojo Moyes, Sophie Hannah and Adele Geras. What’s more there’s even a specially shortened version of the extraordinary a moving story of Street Cat Bob – the only cat I’ve ever seen do a high five!
I hope our books will provide plenty of enjoyment to readers as well as being another step on the way to reducing the statistic I quoted at the start. Oh, and they’re only £1 each!

THE WOMENTORING PROJECT

Today, April 15th, marks the start of a fantastic new MENTORING SCHEME FOR WOMEN WRITERS that I’m thrilled to be part of.

The WoMentoring Project aims to introduce successful literary women to other women writers at the beginning of their careers who would benefit from some insight, knowledge and support. The hope is that we’ll see new, talented and diverse female voices emerging as a result of time and guidance received from the mentors. I’m one of those mentors who are offering free advice to up and coming female writers who would otherwise find it difficult to access similar opportunities.

Why do we need it?

Like many great ideas the WoMentoring Project came about via a conversation on Twitter. While discussing the current lack of peer mentoring and the prohibitive expense for many of professional mentoring various writers, editors and agents were asked who would be willing to donate a few hours of their time to another woman just starting out. The response was overwhelming – within two hours over sixty volunteer mentors (including me!) had signed up.

The WoMentoring Project is run on an entirely voluntary basis and all the mentors are professional writers, editors or literary agents.

This is how it works

In an ideal world we would offer a mentor to every writer who needed and wanted one. Of course this isn’t possible so instead we’ve tried to ensure the application process is accessible while also ensuring that out mentors have enough information with which to make their selection.

Applicant mentees will submit a 1000 word writing sample and a 500 word statement about how they would benefit from free mentoring. All applications will be for a specific mentor and mentees can only apply for one mentor at a time. Selections will be at the mentor’s discretion.  
Interested? Then go straight to the website, check out the mentors, see who you think might be most helpful to you and apply.
Website www.womentoringproject.co.uk

Truly Madly Deeply, an anthology

 

How better to return to my blog that to celebrate the publication of Truly Madly Deeply, a collection of short stories by members of the Romantic Novelists Association that’s published TODAY, February 21st. In there you’ll find stories from Elizabeth Buchan, Adele Parks, Katie Fforde, Judy Astley, Kate Harrison and many more, including yours truly.
I have pleasant memories of writing my story in the shade of a terrace in Formentera (little island near Ibiza). I sat at a small table with my laptop as the sun beat down, with a pool just a step away.  If I listened hard, I could hear the sea in the distance and the odd shout as someone bicycled down to the beach.
Third Act was inspired by recently having seen a friend’s talented daughter playing Sybil in Coward’s Private Lives at the Sheringham theatre. Thinking about it, the image of a mother driving up the M11 at its most hellish in order to see her daughter’s first night in said play started knocking on my brain. Hot on the heels of that came the complications in her private life and her own memories of being in the same play at uni. I remembered a brush I’d had with an aspiring actor (now rather successful)at university myself and so, with that as a starting point, the story began to unfold and the twists in the tale began to take shape. I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed writing it  – as well as all the other terrific stories in the collection.
The print edition of Truly, Madly, Deeply has 24 new stories in it. The eBook edition has 11 more new stories in it.
Just click here and they’re all yours!
AND there are four copies of the print edition of Truly, Madly, Deeply to giveaway. Just enter using the Rafflecopter

EDITING: GETTING THE DISTANCE

 

 
I’m in the middle of editing my latest novel. The biggest problem I have on my hands is time. Or lack of it.
For those of us who try to write a novel a year, time is not a luxury allowed us. But we have to try to achieve a good distance from our work in order to objectify and improve it. Being able to achieve that distance gives you the ability to ‘kill your darlings’ – suddenly they aren’t your darlings any more. Over the years I’ve learned a few techniques that help.
I write my first draft on a computer, then send it to my agent and editor, both of whom make their comments. During that period of anything between two to six weeks, I don’t look at the novel at all, hoping that when I return to it, I shall see it with new eyes. That’s when the work begins. In fact, this is part of the process I enjoy the most – teasing out the characters, sharpening the plot, tightening the prose. To distance myself further, I try to make the process as different as I can from the original writing process.
First of all I print it out in a different typeface to the one I’ve been working in thus far. This was given to me as a tip by a successful writer years ago. My eye then isn’t used to it and doesn’t slide so easily over the passages I’ve become all too familiar with. Then I pick up a pencil. This has to be one of those coloured plastic propelling ones with a rubber on the top – sold in packets of four in WH Smiths – nothing else will do!
Reading the words on paper is, for reasons I don’t understand, a completely different experience to reading them on the screen. With editorial notes at my side, I’m quite ruthless about the slashing and burning process. Suddenly what my editor has said makes even better sense. In some regard, I imagine the process as similar to a sculptor working with a lump of marble – chipping away, chipping away and gradually – you hope – something more beautiful will begin to emerge, something that’s been lurking within waiting to be released.
Then back to the screen, reading  (in another typeface again, if I feel I need it) as I put in my corrections and cuts, checking that they work as well as I thought in the first place (not always the case).
And lastly – I read the whole thing out loud. Yes, really. Again I was encouraged to do this by another successful novelist. She was right. Any awkward phrases or stilted dialogue stand out a mile, ready for correction or cutting.
And yes, it takes time, but not ten years. By then I hope my experience of the novel is as close to a general reader’s as I can get.
And then it’s back to my editor … Wish me luck!

THE IMPORTANCE OF TITLES


I’m looking for a title. I did have one, but my publisher doesn’t think it works. It doesn’t matter what it was because it doesn’t exist any more but it was one I’ve been living with since I began writing at the beginning of the year when it defined the story for me. However when she described the negative reactions of her colleagues to it and their reasons, I began to see what she meant. There was little point in fighting for it when the people taking it into the world didn’t think it would work.

So how important is it to get the right title for your novel? I’d say very. The title is a vital selling tool. It’s the first thing to make an impression on any potential reader. It needs to pique their interest, make them want to know more. So it’s got to be arresting or intriguing, and make your book stand out of the crowd. The Madness of a Seduced Woman, A Woman’s Guide to Adultery, I Don’t Know How She Does It, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle-Stop Café – they all did it. But so does Stoner, The Poisonwood Bible  or  Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship. At least, I think so.

The title should convey something of the content of the book – whether you use a phrase, an object, a name, an event, whatever. Although I have once been told that this isn’t true, that if the title’s good enough it doesn’t matter about how much it reflects the content. I don’t think this was a joke.

But how do you find the right one, the crowd pleaser? Sometimes they just float unbidden out of the ether. Sometimes they’re to be found hiding in the text. Sometimes someone else suggests one. And sometimes they’re the result of weeks of thought, argument, slog and despair.

The problem I’m finding is that all this is very subjective. As with everything else in life, we bring our own baggage to interpreting what’s put in front of us. Different words and phrases have different connotations for different people. It’s hard sometimes to explain or justify one’s preference for one title over another. You just respond differently. And that’s why deciding a title by committee can never please everyone.

My list of new possibilities is growing. Some are better than others. But somewhere in there must be the one that will please me, reflect the book, and appeal to the publishers. All I have to do is find it.
 

A FEW OBSERVATIONS FROM ITALY

 

For the last ten days, we’ve been travelling around a patch of northern Italy, from Mantua to the Euganean Hills, Padua, Lake Garda and Verona.
Travelling to northern Italy at the end of October is a risk, weather-wise. Our friends who live near Florence and joined us for the middle weekend, said that they left home in balmy autumn weather. As they crossed the Appenines in our direction, all they could see beyond was low-lying cloud. And when I say low, I mean, low. So no, the weather wasn’t all it might have been until the sun came out for our last three days in Verona. But it was always warm, at least – even when it was pouring with rain at Lake Garda.
In our wanderings, we saw countless beautiful, less beautiful, startling and interesting  things. We ate and we drank, and we walked and walked and walked.
Most beautiful was unquestionably the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua  (perhaps you’ve seen it) its walls alive with Giotto’s expressive fresco cycle. No photos allowed. Perhaps most extraordinary was d’Annunzio’s house on Lake Garda – a monolithic house of a megalomanic filled with tiny opulent but dark (he was photophobic, we were told) rooms crammed with books, memorabilia, relics and objets d’art. Evidence if there ever was that one man’s clutter is another man’s treasure. 

 

Most disappointing was not being able to see the Mantegna ceiling in Mantua because of earthquake damage to the building. Nearby however was Sabbioneta, a small renaissance town with its own palazzo, synagogue, garden palace and the first free-standing theatre in  modern Europe: small and perfectly formed.

 

An unexpected pleasure was  in discovering the Giardino Giusti where we sat alone in the sun overlooking the roofs of Verona. As was finding the lower church in San Fermo.

 

Most surprising were the Euganean Hills where we stayed in a picturesque village where Petrarch spent his final years – a part of the world dotted with villas, gardens and small historic towns, its green volcanic hills  a welcome contrast to the industrial Lombardian plain. 

 

Best house wine – the local Lugana. The best food. Mmmm. I discovered pasta and polenta are not my thing but it was the wild mushroom season and I don’t remember a dud meal apart from a sandwich in Mantua of warm sliced white bread and melting processed cheese. Well, we were starving!  
One or two things I’d forgotten or never knew: 

*Italians don their winter wardrobe according to the time of year, not the weather. While we tourists were still in our summer kit, the Italians were wrapped up in scarves and the ubiquitous puffa jacket.

 

*Travelling out of season means running the risk of finding what you came to see shrouded under netting: ‘in restauro’. This is what we found in Mantua as they gear up to be a contender for European City of Culture 2019.

 

 

*Crossing the road at an unlit pedestrian crossing demands nerves of steel. The traffic doesn’t stop unless you hurl yourself in front of it.  Terrifying at first, you soon get the hang of it.

 

*The virulent orange drink that appears on many a lunchtime drinker’s table is a ‘Spritz’. Aperol, white wine, slice (orange) ‘n’ ice. Bitter enough to stop you drinking too fast. But better, I discovered, if made with CInzano and wine. Prettier too.

 

 

*The bag and shoe shops are stuffed with objects of desire. As I’d left my credit card on the kitchen table by mistake, the frustration I experienced when browsing inside was acute.

 

 

*Best ice-cream in the world. But everyone knows that.

 

 

*Sirmione, on Lake Garda, was home to three great writers, Catullus, Dante and one Naomi Jacobs from Ripon. She has her own plaque there.
*Red trousers definitely look better on Italian men!

 

 

Finally, I’d like to be able to tell you about what I read, but as I’m on the judging panel for the Costa Short Story Award this year, I can only say that I had my iPad and a constant supply of stories. Just off to read a few more now.

TO REVIEW OR NOT TO REVIEW …

Many years ago, I met the writer, Anthony Burgess. He told me he never gave a bad review. If a newspaper sent him a book, he would read it. If he didn’t like it, he would return it with a polite note saying he would rather not write about it. He knew only too well how much went into writing the book and believed that it was better to quietly ignore a writer whose efforts hadn’t paid off than demolish them publicly.
Wise words from a great novelist and I took them to heart.
It seems to me that, among other things,  this blog is a great opportunity for me to tell you about the things I love and want to recommend.  I’m going to be blogging about the books I read and enjoy. One of my other passions is going to the theatre. I go way more than is good for my bank balance, but I don’t care.  I scrimp and save and go anyway. So I’ll be telling you about the plays that I can’t stop thinking about.  I spent a very happy year last year as an Olivier Awards panellist. I was given a pair of tickets to every new show that opened in the West End (all 103 of them!). Of course I didn’t like everything but a lot of them were truly wonderful – The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, The Dolls House, This House, Richard III and Twelfth Night and Misterman were just a few that have stayed with me. This year, I’ve particularly enjoyed Chimerica by Lucy Kirkwood which I thought was thrillingly original and gripped me the to the last minute. And I’m looking forward to Ibsen’s Ghosts next week at the Almeida.
I love musicals too and see as many as I can – The Book of Mormon has been favourite so far this year. I’ve got my eye on The Scottsborough Boys (Young Vic) and Candide (Menier) in the next couple of months.
I’ve got my eye on The Scottsborough Boys (Young Vic) and Candide (Menier) in the next couple of months. And I’ll be writing about any films or TV shows that grab me too.
In fact, I’m off to the theatre again tonight.  So watch this space!

THE COFFEE SHOP BOOK CLUB

 

Welcome to my first blog!

I’ve been putting off writing this for months. Why? I’ve been apprehensive because writing the first one commits me to writing a regular blog and I haven’t been at all sure what I would write about. Or who would read it if I did. I could write about writing – but plenty of people do that extremely well already. So I’m just going to write about what interests me, as it comes up. So here goes …

Ten years ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was fantastically well looked after by Barts Hospital and, thanks to them, I became more aware of the extremely worthwhile work done by the charity Breast Cancer Care. As the books editor of Woman & Home, I commission a story every month for the magazine. (The link is coming – be patient!) After my treatment I was wondering who to commission next and looking at a list of those writers who had already appeared in the magazine. And what a list it was. It struck me that with those writers’ help we could put together an anthology, find a publisher and raise money for a charity. For obvious reasons I was keen it should be Breast Cancer Care. Fortunately that is one of the charities that Woman & Home support too. And so our first anthology was born that raised thousands of pounds.

In September this year, our fourth anthology of short stories was published by Orion – The Coffee Shop Book Club. The collection contains so many fantastic writers – Fern Britton, Elizabeth Buchan, Tracy Chevalier, Jenny Colgan, RJ Ellory, Julia Gregson, Tessa Hadley, Maeve Haran, Veronica Henry, Victoria Hislop, Eowyn Ivey, Cathy Kelly, Erin Kelly, Deborah Lawrenson, Kathy Lette, Lesley Lokko, jill Mansell, Val McDermid, Kate Mosse, Jojo Moyes, Adele Parks, Nicky Pellegrino, Ian Rankin, Cara Ross, Penny Vincenzi, Katherine Webb and me.

There’s something in it for everyone’s taste and £1 from every copy sold goes to Breast Cancer Care. It’s a perfect bedside companion.

A number of us celebrated the book with a virtual coffee morning on Twitter, when a number of the authors were there to talk to anyone who came to join the party. This was a bit of an experiment and, to begin with, it took a bit of getting used to as the questions poured in and we had to get used to the delays on the feed and remember to add the hashtag. But an hour and a half went by quickly and everyone enjoyed themselves with plenty of questions being answered.

On October 18th at 10.30am, Elizabeth Buchan, Cathy Kelly, Peny Vincenzi and I will be at the Bar des Arts at the Guildford Book Festival to talk about The Coffee Shop Book Club, writing short stories and anything else that comes up.

I hope we might see you there! And if not, do buy the book – it’s for such a good cause.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Coffee-Shop-Book-Club/dp/1409129748