Monthly Archives: May 2014



Absolutely, you’re right. I never expected it would be this long. But, you know, stuff happens.

So a big thank-you to Caren Werlinger for thinking of me. A helpful kick up the bum!

As coincidence would have it, I have just written a new, unprompted blog (on reading in public), because it recently hit me that I was letting time slip away and nothing was getting done – not the novel, no short fiction, no blogs, no competitions, nu’hin. The dreaded DRIFT had set in, and I had been floating ever closer to the great goodnight while trying to keep up with loads of stuff which shrieked and jostled for priority over writing, most (but not all) unavoidable – scary! Not that I intend popping off any time soon, you understand; but I’ve been taking writing time, future, for granted. And that’s a terrible sin. So I’ll put up my tip-top-tips on doing readings (“Swatting the Butterflies”) blog as well. And I’ve got back into the novel – Halleluia! Managed only 1250 words on this week’s Writing Day, which is less than half my ideal rate, but the old novelising muscles have become flabby with lack of use. It will get better.

And now, friends, The Writing Process.

1. What am I working on?
The WIP has the dull working title of “House Advantage”, which I must change at some stage – well, I certainly hope I can come up with something a bit more stimulating!
The story begins in the London of 1970. The sixties have swung their last, and Britain is struggling with seismic political and cultural change. Sex has become commonplace with the pill now well-established, and there is plenty of experimentation going on. London still buzzes with the excesses of the fashion and entertainment worlds, but amongst its police corruption is rife, and in some boroughs nattily-dressed gang leaders rule their fiefdoms with oddly skewed but sternly enforced moral codes.
But at heart, this is still a conservative, buttoned-up country. The central characters are two young women, Nina and Georgie, who apply for jobs as trainee croupiers in a casino company. Nina is initially shy and has been brought up to assume that her husband knows best. She is still grieving for the baby she miscarried. Georgie is a fun, flirty girl who would love to have swung through the sixties, but she is sole carer and provider for her mother, an ailing ex-actress with whom she lives in a grim, draughty flat; there is never enough money.
The lives of Nina and Georgie change utterly when they start work at the casino; its tawdry glamour has a transformative effect. Plenty happens as the girls experience a new sense of freedom, enjoy friendships, party, mix and match, and see a darker side of Swinging London.
My own ten years of experiences as a croupier and later a pit boss have been a huge source of inspiration, but I see the book as having a feminist undertow. Although the movement had its formative years in the seventies, with Grier, Friedan and Steinem amongst its heralds, the sexism which women still faced daily was deeply ingrained, and by today’s standards, mind-boggling. We may not be 100% there yet, but by God, we’ve come a helluva way.

2. How does my work differ from others in the same genre?
Hmm, now what genre would that be? It isn’t just me; some of my predecessors on the Writing Process Tour have had similar issues with this question. “The market” (Agents? Publishers? Readers? Amazon? Waterstones?) loves these arbitrary confines, probably because it makes life easier for its arrangers, not to mention its accountants! (See my blog “A Plague on All Your Genres!”)
However, to the task: I suppose if I must cite distinguishing features, I think I write in a particularly English way. Not that I’m unique in that, of course. But I have been surprised and delighted to attract any attention at all in the US, let alone sales, let alone some benevolent reviews. My humour tends to be dry and occasionally a little whimsical. I don’t always couple-up the obvious candidates. I like characters to have less fashionable flaws than hot tempers, rebelliousness, addictive behaviour and so on; often awkwardness, vanity, carelessness and repression rather better suit who they are.

3. Why do I write what I do?
Naturally stories spring from subjects which interest me: domestic abuse and control issues, the sexuality spectrum, personality disorders, feminism, the adaptability of people faced with radical change, and the psychology of relationships, for example. And although I used to regret not having been to University, I now see the breadth of experience I have (not always!) enjoyed as being hugely beneficial for material.
Besides working in the gaming industry I have spent time running a business, becoming knowledgeable about gemstones and jewellery and their care and repair; I have spent many a late hour labouring over an engraving machine, inscribing sports trophies, or tokens of love; I have cleaned toilets, worked in a factory, sold door-to-door. I have committed crime. A great education for a writer.
And like most writers, I collect people. In crowds, on the bus, across the counter. I watch, hoovering up their quirks and mannerisms, their magnificent story-faces, their humour, their style, their humanity. A few long-lost people have been transferred almost complete to the page; I need to express my love and regret by bringing them back. Others are composites. But they all live, and have full lives outside my story. Writing makes Frankensteins of us all.

4. How does my writing process work?
As Stephen King, author of the essential “On Writing” points out, a story can start with a mundane, maybe static scene, and a “what if”. This can work particularly well for a short story, and has done for me. But for books, I want to recycle reality.
In both “Out Late with Friends and Regrets” and “House Advantage”, situations and incidents are based on experience, but the story is a story. It’s quite a job convincing people at times that although the book may have autobiographical foundations, the architechture above ground level is a construct of the imagination!
Scenes from the rough head-draft tend to play out like film clips in front of my inner eye, and when characters talk and interact I need to catch them in the moment. So I often end up with a file full of scenes and dialogues which may require some shuffling before finding their proper place. It doesn’t sound very organised, does it? And I like to be organised (OCD, some might say) in other spheres – see my lists! But book writing is a strange and individual process.
Logging the writing accomplished on Writing Day is a habit. Word count, cumulative total, a sentence on content and sometimes plot notes are useful, and these are recorded in an A4 spiral-bound notebook.
I admire writers with a brisk workrate, especially those who can write evenings and nights, sometimes with a family and/or breadwinning job to contend with too. My process is exasperatingly slow, with one day per week (more if possible) set aside for the task. Creative Writing lore usually advises the writer to blast through the first draft (“The first draft is always shite” as one of my open studies course tutors, an engaging Irishman, used to say) and do a heroic job of slash and burn second time round. Why can’t I do that? Because not, that’s why. Writing even half a page compels me do tweaks and edits, and I have to go over and over it till it reaches its initial, but far from final, stage of rightness. And that’s not the end; the perfect word or phrase can offer itself when I’m teaching a fitness class, or in bed asleep, or on the loo. My writing brain is the workaholic that I am not.
I gather that I am unusual in that I like the radio on, pop and rock, when I write. I’ve got to be able to see out (desk facing a blank wall? Are you mad?) and I like the door open to the rest of the house. Alone is good, but isolated is not.
So like the wheels of God, the writing process grinds exceeding slow. It would be good to have the first draft of House Advantage done by the end of the year. Really good. Wish me luck.

Next on the tag list: Andrea Bramhall, – Keep it going!


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Ten Tip-Top Tips for Surviving an Encounter with an Audience


So you’re published! Well done, and enjoy the moment.


And now you find that the most difficult part of writing a book is persuading people to read it. You’ve probably jostled with others on social media and publicised yourself as much as you dare, knowing that even a rationed little can quickly become too much.


Then one day you get the invitation; somebody wants you to read at an event! It may be a small gathering at a local library, a book group, or if you’re very lucky a bookshop launch or a literary event. You may be sharing the stage with others, or – scary stuff – you may be the main attraction. Eek!


Don’t turn it down. Being a bit apprehensive is perfectly natural, but there is nothing to beat real contact with your readers, and each appearance may send the magic network in a new direction.


Having had experience from both sides of the table,here are my top ten tips:

1. Don’t let being nervous worry you. It’s OK. Most readers/speakers are.

2.Wear something you feel both good and comfortable in, nothing that’s going to malfunction or pinch. That’s one potential anxiety out of the way.

3. Don’t eat (or drink!) too much, too close to speaking, and ask to have a glass of water handy, if your hosts haven’t already provided one.

4.You may have natural good posture, but if not, practise standing (or sitting) tall with your shoulders back and down without leaning back. Good, relaxed posture will ensure that you present as confident and authoritative.

5. Remember that the audience is there because they want to be; they are interested in you and your book, and know they will be expected to buy one! That is, of course, if you have copies for sale. And if so, keep the pile on the table small, with spares in a box or bag underneath. It could be embarrassing being left with horribly obvious stacks of unsold copies, although you don’t want to be caught short either.

6. Use eye contact. Be familiar with your material to such an extent that you can keep looking up without losing your place, and exploit the intimacy of a small audience to your advantage. Unless you are on a stage where the light is shining in your eyes, the audience is visible. Use this fact, and glance briefly at individual faces. Not the same ones every time!

7. Focus outwards, send your rays out into the audience. Look at the faces, react to the expressions with little nods and smiles or eyebrow movements as appropriate. Don’t be afraid to move around, unless there’s a static mic (usually isn’t), or even come round and sit on the front of the table (this says “I like you, and want to be closer to you”). You love your book; let that enthusiasm carry you.

8. Don’t rush it. Many readers gabble through their reading, racing to get the thing over with. This can ruin a reading; I’ve heard seasoned authors canter through a piece at such speed that their listeners can’t get hold of the meaning, let alone enjoy the nuances and finer points of the writing. After all, you know what it’s about, but this is the first time most of them will have heard it. You are there to entertain them, so don’t be afraid to enter right into the spirit and act it, as if you were telling a child a bedtime story. Perhaps omit the animal impressions.

9. Rehearse the pieces you plan to read. Practise aloud, again and again and again. You don’t have to know it by heart, but it really does help to know what’s coming next, and to be aware of when the audience might laugh, sigh, gasp, need to digest, etc. A technique I use is to mark the text where I’ll need to take a vital breath, and where it might be easy to stumble or emphasise the wrong word – it can be a lifesaver! And if you go wrong, if you trip up or make a mistake, so what? Smile briefly, say sorry if you must, forgive yourself instantly, and continue. Nobody will mind, or remember afterwards.

10. And go in with a positive attitude, telling yourself you’re going to enjoy your time in the spotlight. Your pleasure will transmit. You will never again have a first book, so make the most of it.

Break a leg!


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