Monday, 15 December 2014

Brighton Festival Fringe Event

It's early days yet - but I'm just flagging up the fact that I'm delighted to be talking about historical fiction with the award-winning novelist Susanna Jones as part of the Brighton Festival fringe in May 2015. 

Susanna is the author of three contemporary novels: 'The Earthquake Bird'; 'Water Lily' and 'The Missing Person's Guide to Love' and of the historical novel 'When Nights Were Cold', which tells the intriguing and unsettling story of a group of female mountain climbers in the early 20th century. 

So far this is the information that we have:

Historical Fiction Now - writing and publishing panel and workshop. Novelists Susanna Jones and Sally O'Reilly on why they started writing historical fiction and their publishing experiences. Includes panel discussion with publishers and literary agents followed by lucky dip pitching session. Bring a one-page book idea/synopsis for possible feedback.

The venue is The Latest Bar and the time is 7pm on Thursday 21st May. 

Hope to see you there - and more details soon!

Thursday, 4 December 2014

What IS historical fiction?

I've just finished chairing a series of seminars about historical fiction for the Open University. (There's more about this series here.) There were six speakers, all brilliant and all with a different angle on historical writing and the way in which it relates to other forms of fiction - and to different academic disciplines. I'll be posting in more detail about the subjects we discussed in the next few weeks.

It may seem pretty straightforward to come up with a definition for historical fiction - surely we are simply talking about any story that is set more than 50 years ago? But even that is open to debate - Jerome de Groot, one of the seminar speakers, includes Alan Hollinghurst's  'The Line of Beauty' in the genre, whereas the Historical Novel Society insists that the 1980s are too recent. Whatever the cut off point in terms of time, it's also the case that this is a vast compendium of a genre. 

There are infinite possibilities for writers of historical fiction. It includes straightforward generic writing such as Tudor bodice rippers, and experimental writing like Ali Smith's 'How to be Both' which was the winner of this year's Goldsmiths prize for experimental fiction as well as being long
listed for the Booker.

I'm interested in the way in which this genre can be bent and shaped by different writers, and the way that it develops and morphs with time. I'm also interested in getting well away from the idea that this is a cosy or conservative genre, in which writers are playing safe. 

As Hilary Mantel says: ‘A relation of past events brings you up against events and mentalities that, should you choose to describe them, would bring you to the borders of what your readers could bear. The danger you have to negotiate is not the dimpled coyness of the past – it is its obscenity.’

Some stories may be more brutal than others, but the ‘obscenity’ of the past fascinates writers – war, murder, fear, oppression, loss, invasion, imprisonment and bereavement all feature in 21st century historical fiction, as does squalor, both moral and physical. And just as no subject is off limits, neither is any period, or any form of experimentation. Historical fiction is not an escape from the modern world, it can enable us to see contemporary life more clearly.

Like all writers, I am learning all the time, and this seminar series taught me a lot. What I’ve learned in the last couple of months is that the challenges and complexities of writing historical fiction relate to writing set at any time, and to any comprehension of the past, whether recent or remote. Put simply, this is about what can be known, how we can know it, and how that knowledge can be communicated.

Will this make it easier to write my next novel? Probably not. But I am certainly fizzing with ideas not only about the subject matter, but also about ways in which this story can be told. 

Saturday, 1 November 2014

"Hexenhammer" by Darla And The Blonde

I did post this yesterday but accidentally deleted it! It's a song inspired by my novel Dark Aemilia, written by the brilliant Nina Lovelace for her band Darla and the Blonde and the animation is the work of the equally brilliant Kingman Cheng.

The starting point is the scene in which Aemilia decides to summon a demon to saver her son from the plague. Hope you enjoy it,

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Man Booker prize - a celebration

Here is a Lit Spoof I wrote during my Creative Writing MA. Thought I'd share it on Post Man Booker Shortlist Annunciation Day. Dedicating it to all writers, everywhere. (BTW: topicality alert- this is a Generic Send-up, not a spoof of any of the books on the list, which I haven't read. Still trying to catch up with the 2005 shortlist, to be honest.)


Fentimore Ballantyne, a man little used to women, walks along the Rue de Rivoli, twirling his cane. Only twenty years since Armageddon, and he is on his seventh face.  He strolls towards what was once Montparnasse, and is now a bowling alley for the underclass. This week he is Alexander the Great – his symmetry is on an epic scale. He has cruel, flat eyes – his present physiognomy is inspired by carvings.  His lips are full, protruding over white, parading teeth. Perhaps the lips are not quite right? He purses them, uneasy.  He can afford another transplant.  He can afford any number of transplants. He invested in armaments when the credit crunch came.  Fentimore Ballantyne is a rich man, and his face is his only extravagance.

Where am I?  Clarissa Dalloway wakes up, stretches.  A man in her bed – oh yes!  The launch party of that silky little volume of journalistic musings. Never fails, a slim book, with large spaces around the words. She didn’t even write it. She just told the author to make it shorter. Keep them guessing.  The man is from a broadsheet. Married, of course.  They’re so much easier to pull.  She gets up, slips into her Betty Jackson slacks. Slakes her thirst with last night’s vintage champagne. How to deal with this one?  He is snoring, one arm dangling over the bed-edge, like a baby lion dozing on a branch.  Nice skin.  Hmm.  She hasn’t skinned one for a while.

The bleak cloud remnants are resting on the lid of the moor.  A man’s figure appears, against the huddle of wind-moulded rocks on the black edge of land. He is alone. His silhouette is motionless.  Deliberate as ritual, he begins to climb the hunks of stone. His movements are fast and strong.  Behind him, the sky is fading into invisible monoxide.  A single kite turns on its wing in the vastness, breathing in polluted air, watching. It sees a moor frog, crouching by a stone. Falls earthwards, grabs with dinosaur talons and the frog is gone.

It takes Clarissa one hour and nine minutes to cycle from her flat in Stockwell to the offices of Dalloway and Vixen, the most feared author’s agency in WCI. When she gets to work, Septimus has got there first.  With a pretence of solicitude, he has left a skinny latte by her Apple Mac. Next to it, an Apple Danish. Septimus has a congratulatory First from Piers Plowman college, Oxford. He likes to reference doubling, twins and the unfunny. 
            “Thanks, Sep,” she says, wiping her feet on the slush pile.
            “Good evening?” asks Septimus.
            “Marvellous, thank you.” She tosses the Danish into the bin.
            “Seemed to be getting very cosy with Brian Easton-Ellis.”
            “With whom?”
            “That Guardian chap.”
            She gives him her basilisk stare, and turns to the latest bright young novel. Post apocalyptic plastic surgery. Sooo predictable.

If one is a parent.  Sometimes… It’s like A and E. 

You, as an infant. Tugging the milk out of me, stronger than any lover.  We lay in bed, tumbled together, days merging into night. My child. My lost boy. No one has read my book yet, and that makes me very angry. Because.  As a writer, I write. You came into my life, and the very, very short sentences still flowed out of me. In small bursts. Like breast milk. Now, you tug on skunk. My pure, clear toddler is dead to me. 

He started smoking when things were bad between his father and me.  I don’t want to say too much about that now. It’s in very early draft form. An image – his ruffled little head, keep it visual. My boy, I know him.  He lies. He tells the truth. He is talented. I pay him for his poems, which are very fine.  We are pinned to each other with words. Even the house has had its own book. The rabbit is next.  It’s salt lick is addictive.
Clarissa wipes her lips, delicately.  The aspiring writer perspires gently into her alfalfa consomm√© . Over forty, up from the south coast.  Two books, neither of them did much.  Now she is marked by Bookscan, hunted down, a failure exactly measured in an absence of transactions.
             “The thing is…” says Clarissa.
            “You’re not… how shall I put this?”
            “Selling enough?”
            Clarissa sighs. “It’s not as simple as that.”
            “Isn’t it?”
            “The thing is, you’re neither one thing, nor another.”
            “I’m not?
            God, this is hard work, thinks Clarissa. (If she wasn’t a serial killer, she has no idea how she would hold it all together.)
         “Look,” she says, finally, pouring the rest of the half bottle of Chardonnay into her own glass. “You’re not commercial enough, and you’re not literary enough. And you’ve got form.  Okay?”

Monday, 8 September 2014

How to go to a writing conference

Being a writer is hard. I mean, not in the sense that being a miner or a crew member on a billionaire's yacht is hard, but in the sense of being lonely, uncertain and almost certainly doomed to failure. No one is going to make you go a mile underground to hack stuff out of the earth, or clean their Jimmy Choos at three am, but you will be forced by your own obsessive ambition to sit at your PC for many isolated, sedentary hours. The sun shines, the world spins on its axis and there you are, typing some stuff you will probably take out tomorrow because, actually, in the cold light of another day, it is a bit rubbish.

So how do you deal with this? You go for a run sometimes, or to the gym, you meet with other writers and rant/vent about being a writer, and then let them do the same. You try to Be Nice to Yourself, in ways that may or may not involve a. biscuits and b. booze.

And you go to conferences. Yay! Conferences are great. You brush your hair and put on acceptable clothing. You leave the house. You learn stuff, (You always, always learn something at a conference that it is impossible to learn in any other way, even by listening to Radio Four). And you talk to people.

The title of the post is 'How to go to a conference'. Here are my three top tips:

1. Talk to people.
2. Talk to people.
3. Talk to people.

I could do five or ten top tips, but you get the general idea.

This weekend I did just this. I was not only at a conference in London - the Historical Novel Society Conference 2014 - I was speaking at it. My subject was the way in which fact relates to fiction, and the way in which Macbeth inspired my novel Dark Aemilia. And though I obviously think this is a pretty interesting subject, my fellow panellists were riveting - and they were a very impressive bunch, including Robyn Young, Andrew Taylor and Elizabeth Gifford. (The downside of a writers' conference is that you will find out about brilliant writers and their books, and your reading pile will grow even higher as a result.) The session was also chaired by Jenny Barden, who is a fellow Tudor novelist.

Robyn talked about Robert the Bruce and her research trip to Scotland, and the way that the physicality of the land inspired and shaped her narrative. Andrew talked about a ghost story in the Forest of Dean - a black servant whose sister was raped by his white master's son killed the rapist in revenge, and his ghost still haunts the woods.  And Liz Gifford talked about her family history and the selkies in Scotland.

I cam't cover everything that happened, obviously, but hugely enjoyed talks by Conn Iggulden, who basically just needs his own TV show and is one of funniest, most natural public speakers I have seen, and Lindsey Davis, another highly entertaining speaker, who was both witty and very serious, a combination I like.

There was also a panel discussion about publishing and promoting historical fiction. I wish I could say there was a reassuring message here. But as Nick Sayers, one of the most respected editors in the business, gave as his single piece of advice to newbies 'Don't give up the day job' it is clear that only someone very naive would go into novel writing with a view to paying the mortgage, never mind paying it off.

The best panel I attended was 'My Era is Better than Yours' which set a number of writers the task of defending their own era against all comers. Former war correspondent Angus Donald was the star, bigging up the romance of the Medieval period as well as its violence, but everyone gave it their all, and writer/publisher Antonia Hodgson, author of  'The Devil in the Marshalsea' romped home with the Georgian period when it came to an audience vote. (And yes, I did wish I was writing a novel in the Georgian period after the discussion, and in about four years, when I have cracked the Restoration, I probably will be....)

All this and a host of meetings and card-swappings and the drinking of tea and coffee and wine and general bonhomie. And the chocolate cake was pretty good too.

Go to a conference! Go on. You know you want to.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Tom Hanks and the art of typing

Serendipity is very useful sometimes. I was thinking about blogging about typing, and then, what do you know, Tom Hanks obliging invents a Typing App. His timing is completely perfect.

I learned to type in the 1960s when I was five, as part of an experimental literacy programme at my infant school. I've no idea how successful the experiment was, but the fact that it was a one-off suggests that it wasn't groundbreaking. And ever since then, I have kind of loved typing and its ritual of mental and physical progress, of getting thoughts on paper.

I won a writing competition when I was 26 and the prize was a manual typewriter, an Olivetti, the symbol of Being An Author. But it was rather small and flimsy. When I decided to get down to it and really write, I used a retired golf ball typewriter my office was throwing out. It was more like a combine harvester than a mere typewriter,and took up nearly the whole desk in my bedroom in Brixton. (I lived in a house which was like something in an early Woody Allen movie, with trains passing so thunderously that the whole building trembled.)  I fed paper into the typemonster and tapped away on the QWERTY keyboard, watching my words clack into reality, looking ordered and serious, even when they were misspelled.(Which they frequently were.) When I needed to think, or sob with frustration, I would lean on the expansive keyboard. It was so large and flat you could have slept on it.

Now, like the rest of the world, I use a PC or a lap top, and my words are electronic, trapped in an glaring white screen which seems to have its own reality, its own authority. To escape, I often write in hand, in notebooks or on lined A4 pads which remind me of being at school. But my handwriting is sometimes hard to read back, particularly when I am in the throes of creativity (or delusion). So recently, I have been thinking it would be good to use a typewriter again. It seems to offer a half way house between the privacy and informality of a notebook and the misleading polish of a computer draft.

Will Self uses a typewriter, and waxes lyrical about it - here is an extract from an article he wrote for the Times in 2012: 

“I switched to working on a manual typewriter in 2004 (all my previous books had been composed either on an Amstrad word processor or more sophisticated computers), because I could see which way the electronic wind was blowing: dial-up internet connections were being replaced by wireless broadband, and it was becoming possible to find yourself seriously distracted by the to and fro between email, web surfing, buying reindeer-hide oven gloves you really didn’t need — or possibly even looking at films of people doing obscene things with reindeer-hide oven gloves. The polymorphous perversity of the burgeoning web world, as a creator of fictions, seriously worried me — I could see it becoming the most monstrous displacement activity of all time.”

He is absolutely right, of course. The virtual world is populated with distraction junkies, and that includes writers.

There is a whole world of typewriter obsessives out there - maybe we will see a rebirth of the clanketty typewriter as opposed to the bland computer keyboard? There is no romance in PCs or laptops, though I know Mac users will disagree with me. There are some photos on the excellent blog The Classic Typewriter Page

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Five top tips for summer writing

My last post focused on the fact that writing in the summer holidays is not a walk in the park. (Or if it is, you are on the way to the recycling point.) Part two is going to be Way More Positive. This is because, though it is probably reassuring to know that life after publication is not all wafting about in a cloud of smug complacency, there is also a vague expectation that a blog called How to be a Writer might include some useful advice.

So here are Five Top Tips for summer writing:

1. Write indoors, or in the shade. Sunbathe later. Writing in the sun equals migraine, there are mathematical equations to prove this.

2. Chunk your time. Vis a vis the sample 'to do' list in my last post, there is always shit to be done, and there is always writing to be done, so you need to do first one thing, then another, in blocks. Zone your day into writing time and non writing time. Zone your week in the same way - try and have at least one day on which you write and that is it. Nothing else is allowed to happen, and that includes coffee with your best friend.

3. Write first. You don't have to rise at dawn, drink lemon juice and be perfect, but it does help if you write early in the day, before your brain has silted up with invoices and cleaning tips. (I know this is hard if you are a parent and have early rising children, in which my advice is to send them to a summer play group or insist that your partner does some holiday child care and write then.)

4. Avoid social media. Yes, this is me, writing online, telling you to avoid going online. Avoid going online. I am still saying it.

5. Enjoy yourself. I am not of the persuasion that writing is a sort of self-torture, and that the only reason to do it is that you like the look of a published novel, or doing signings in Waterstones, or whatever the motive is meant to be if you write-but-hate-writing. I LOVE writing. I would go mad without it. Ergo, I enjoy it. If you don't, try something else. Life is short, and there are too many words out there already.

And here is a my Useful Link, an excellent book which is not written by me: Getting Things Done: How to Achieve Stress Free Productivity by David Allen Good time management isn't the answer to everything, but it is a big help when it comes to doing The Actual Writing and still sorting out the mortgage payments and all the other stuff the modern world insists on consisting of.