So now you’ve got a first draft …

A very common piece of advice for writers is to put their first draft in a drawer and wait. I’ve seen a month suggested as a good length of time. The thinking is that after that time has passed you will see it with fresh eyes and the editing will be easier.

Ha, ha, ha …

Now this is all very well but what the hell are you supposed to do in this month? In my case probably a week…

Here are a few ideas for you if you are facing this challenging period of time:

paperclips

Pointless pointy things and paperclips

  • buy paperclips [What? Well, it’s something to do, isn’t it?]
  • buy coloured clips [ditto]
  • buy coloured pointy things [double ditto]
  • colour coordinate your books [no, don’t actually, people will think you are disturbed]
  • dead head and water your … oh, good lord they’re actually dead so instead …
  • throw out your dead geraniums
  • phone your friends – oh, you haven’t got any
  • think about cleaning the kitchen floor [but under no circumstances actually do it]
  • pick up a passing poetry book and try and convince yourself that you are more poetic than you are currently feeling [being acutely aware that you want to inject a sense of poetry into certain parts of your book]
  • if all this fails to do the trick place a cat in a deck chair on the printed out draft along with spider man [you will require super powers to edit it] a glass eye [it happened to come to hand] a red heart and the oldest book you own, a 1799 history of the tower of London volume 1 price sixpence [No, I have absolutely no idea where it came from but here it is].
spiderman

Bonkers alchemy

  • take all your loose change [if your knees can take the strain] to one of those machines where it swallows it all up and gives you a voucher to spend. Feel the weirdness of not having one 1 pence piece in the flat apart from the one the machine rejected. Enjoy the weightlessness that goes with having no coppers anywhere near you.
  • consider the fact that with all your other 8 books you had that phase when you hated them and thought they were rubbish, hated yourself, thought you were… This is just another of those times so aren’t we maturing and isn’t this fun?
  • consider therapy
  • play this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ARt9HV9T0w8
  • no, no, no if you’re thinking of rollerskating
  • drink
  • do not under any circumstances start following the news because the toxicity of the national debate [UK/Brexit/October/2019. One month to go etc] will bleed into the toxicity of your relationship with your book and you will want to set fire to your hat [if you have one] or your head if you haven’t
  • don’t read quotes like this because Calvin was obviously feeling exactly like you are now

“The shelf life of the modern hardback writer is somewhere between the milk and the yoghurt.”

CALVIN TRILLIN – THE NEW YORK TIMES 14 JUNE 1987

  • iron everything you can find including the cat and the hamster
  • try to ignore the 147 random pains that may have sprung into your body at the moment you typed the words THE END
  • under no circumstances dwell on that weird dream you had about Boris Johnson wrecking your car and denying it, the one where you woke yourself up shouting in a rage OR-DAHHHHH, OR-DAHHHHHH…
  • do not practice mindfulness because you will sink into the existential nothingness that is your life without writing and it won’t be pretty
  • don’t open that drawer which contains packets of old strepsils, a torch, batteries which may or may not be flat, an ancient camera, a belt that you once put round your waist but which now fits the top of your thigh, many odd gloves and your great aunt’s handkerchief holder, currently containing no handkerchiefs, three old conkers and miscellaneous christmas cracker gifts including a tiny green frog which is supposed to hop but … Wheeeeeeeeeee…oh my god that’s brilliant I’m never throwing that out. DO NOT OPEN THE DRAWER because it will make you feel like falling asleep for 100 years.
  • on the other hand that’s the best idea you’ve had so far. If you can, sleep for a week, it’ll save your liver and  it’ll prevent you buying paperclips and then you can get up and start editing. Good luck and don’t forget to use the pointy things but don’t worry if you don’t there’s always that drawer to put them in where they can point pointlessly at the pointless things in there which you have just discovered include two f*****g bags of coppers [coins not policemen] and that tiny green frog.

THE END (although unfortunately as any fule kno, it probably isn’t).

PAST PRIME MINISTERS

I’ve been thinking about Prime Ministers recently and thought you might have been too. So here’s a handy list of trivial things you might not know about past British Prime Ministers. To cheer you up, or not, as the case may be. Since we’ve all had enough of you know what, I’m only dealing with Prime Ministers up to 1975. Here goes:

  • The First PM was Robert Walpole in 1721.
  • Shortest holder of the office was William Pultney, Earl of Bath who lasted from 10-12 February 1746. A contemporary commentator reported:

“And thus ended the second and last part of this astonishing administration which lasted 48 hours and three quarters seven minutes, and eleven seconds; which may truly be called the most honest of all administrations; the minister to the astonishment of all wise men never transacted one rash thing; and what is more marvellous left as much money in the Treasury as he had found it.”

  • Youngest to take on the office – the younger Pitt at the age of 24 in 1783
  • Average age of PMs on first appointment 52 years and six months.
  • Educational backgrounds:  (1) Schools – Eton 20, Harrow 7, Westminster 6, and the only other school to boast more than one is Glasgow High School with Campbell- Bannerman and Bonar Law. (2) Universities – Oxford 24, Cambridge 14, Edinburgh 2, Glasgow 2. (3) Colleges – Christ Church – 14, Trinity (Camb) 5, St John’s (Camb) 4.
  • Wealth of PMs  on taking office? Wealthiest probably 14th Earl of Derby with  a rent roll of £100, 000 pa in the 1850s. According to A.J.P. Taylor one of the few to ‘leave office flagrantly richer than when he entered it’ was Lloyd George.
  • Sexual morals – highly variable. When Melbourne was cited in a divorce suit his brother wrote to his sister: ‘Do not let William think himself invulnerable for having got off again this time. No man’s luck can go further.’ Lloyd George lived openly with his mistress.
  • Responses on becoming PM: Churchill felt he was ‘walking with destiny’. Stanley Baldwin asked people to pray for him. Gladstone who was cutting down a tree when informed of the arrival of the Queen’s Private Secretary said it was his mission to pacify Ireland. Disraeli was flippant and slightly cynical announcing that he had ‘climbed to the top of the greasy pole at last’. Melbourne said it was a ‘damned bore’ and was minded not to accept until his secretary ‘Ubiquity’ Young said: ‘Why, damn it, such a position was never occupied by any Greek or Roman, and if it only lasts two months it is well worth while to have been Prime Minister of England.’
PMs on plate

Three PMs on a plate: Disraeli (centre) Gladstone (bottom left) Salisbury (bottom right)

And what could be said to make up the mystery of the  perfect Prime Ministerial temperament?

“To define that temperament would not be easy. Courage, tenacity, determination, firm nerves, and clarity of mind are some of the qualities. So too are a certain toughness of the skin and a certain insensitivity. Nor should a Prime Minister be worried too much by scruples and doubts. And if tact and the power to manage men are there too, so much the better. No doubt few Prime Ministers have had every one of these virtues, but if they have not had most of them they have not got very far.”

Robert Blake in The Office of Prime Minister *

And finally, here is Macaulay writing to his father about the death of Canning in 1827 after only 4 months in office:

“To fall at the very moment of reaching the very highest pinnacle of human ambition! the whole work of thirty chequered years of glory and obloquy struck down in a moment! The noblest prize that industry, dexterity, wit and eloquence ever obtained vanishing into nothing in the very instant in which it had been grasped. Vanity of vanities – all is vanity.”

Letters of T. B. Macaulay (ed) Thomas Pinney.

That greasy pole is currently looking – well, pretty greasy, isn’t it?

*All the above from The Office of Prime Minister by Robert Blake (aka Dad).

The Question Every Writer Hates…

There comes a point in every published writer’s life when they receive a questionnaire from their publisher’s publicity/sales department. And on there is a question that no sane writer greets with any degree of enthusiasm: What writer are you like? Whereas your editor and agent may have charmed you by suggesting that they love your book because of its stunning originality, all the bloody sales department wants to do is put you in a box marked ‘Like this (hopefully a bestseller),’ and put ‘Girl’ in the title. This is the point where you realise that your book is a commodity like any other and shops need to know what shelf to put it on. Eggs go on the egg shelf. Beans go on the bean shelf.

It is dispiriting.

It is where you and your precious creation hit the market place and it’s broken egos all round and not even a tasty omelette as recompense.

But don’t despair. Here is what you will now reply:

‘As it happens my book is unique and may I refer you to page 160 of Pen in Hand by Tim Parks and what he has to say on the intensification of conformity. However if you would like to know what Pen in Hand is like I would refer you to the section of the bookshop marked: “Writers who write books about writing which make other writers laugh when they are feeling depressed in late August.” Oh, actually these books should be shelved in the “Gods and Goddesses” section and there should perhaps be a shrine in front of that for small offerings.  Thank you.’

Pen in Hand: Reading, Rereading and other Mysteries

The book’s full title is Pen in Hand: Reading, re-reading and other mysteries. Here are some of the chapter titles to tempt you:

  • why read new books?
  • the pleasures of pessimism
  • the books we don’t understand
  • how best to read auto fiction
  • in search of authenticity
  • raise your hand if you’ve read Knausguaard
  • the books we talk about (and those we don’t)

Do I have to go on? Buy it now. That is all. You don’t have to be a depressed writer to enjoy it but if you are it will certainly cheer you up.

This last bit from the ‘authenticity’ chapter made me laugh:

“The artist,” Simenon remarked, “is above all else a sick person, in any case an unstable one.”

To which I would reply: Speak for yourself you sex-crazed loon.

But to which Tim Parks replies:

“This is not an easy concept to teach in a creative writing course.”

Well, at least I’m not trying to do that.

P.S. When I first replied to that question, I was writing crime and as I remember it I said I was like Sara Paretsky, a writer I greatly admired. But to be frank the only thing I had in common with Sara Paretsky was that my main character was a female private investigator. And there was one really significant difference between her books and mine. Mine weren’t nearly as good.

 

 

BACK FROM THE DEAD & PRIDE MONTH

The reading and judging for the Historical Writers’ Association Gold Crown for Fiction 2019 is pretty much over now. I have read this many books in roughly three months. Here they are. I can’t tell you anything about them yet so here is a picture of them with their backs turned to give you an idea of bulk.

HWA Prize

Roughly 96 works of historical fiction.

And I will shortly be resuming business as usual. Although I have to say I seem to have forgotten what that is. Then this fell out of a newspaper and it reminded me that it’s Pride month. I love Pride month and I was reminded of this:

first pride

Oh yes…

In my day you just rocked up to Embankment, attached yourself to a group of fearsome drag queens and crossed your fingers. Now you have to have a ticket. Is that better or worse? Certainly inconvenient if you decide you want to go at the last minute. Anyway, I thought I’d do a bit of queer reading. There aren’t many queer characters in historical fiction and I feel a bit of a yearning for community. But I’m also a bit fictioned-out so Queer non-fiction here I come. These look a bit tasty don’t you think?

Pride month books

Book list for Pride Month

It’s a bit Gertrude Stein heavy admittedly, which may not bode well. Here’s a message from her at the beginning of her Selected Writings:

“I always wanted to be historical, from almost a baby on, I felt that way about it …”

I wonder how she’d have felt after reading 96 historical fiction novels? Historical? Or like me, simply hysterical.

I should be going back to work on my current novel but after all that reading I have no idea how to relate to it. Who was the person who wrote these 99,000 words? Would my book make a long list? Short list? Neither? Oh God, why bother. I think I’ll go and buy myself some geraniums instead and take some of these books (25 since you ask) to the charity shop.

My apologies to those of you whose blogs I usually follow and comment on. I hope to be functioning a bit better on that front in the coming weeks. Well, on all fronts actually. Maybe Gertrude will sort me out. If you’ve read any good LGBTQI non-fiction (or fiction) recently let me know and I’ll add it to my list.

READING, MOTHS AND WISTERIA …

I am currently judging a book prize that unsurprisingly involves reading a great many books. In fact I haven’t read this much since I did my History Finals – ten exams in five days and the whole of my degree resting on it. That was over thirty years ago and my most common recurring nightmare ever since has involved exams. For obvious reasons, I am not going to mention authors or titles at this stage but I thought you might like this snippet from my domestic life, the odd exchange between me and my other half (OH) as I started reading for the prize. Of course you would.

DAY ONE: Me: (ranting) When did books get so thick? I mean over 2 inches thick! Is this a new thing. Why haven’t I noticed? Do I never read long books because I don’t like writing them? Some of these are absolute whoppers! Do editors not exist anymore? OH: Get a grip and take some Rescue Remedy.

DAY SEVEN: OH: There’s more to life than books, you know. Me: Mmm?

DAY TEN: OH: (as another box of books arrives) Actually, I’m beginning to feel sorry for you.

DAY ELEVEN: Me: This one’s very good. OH: Well, thank God for that.

DAY THIRTEEN: Me: (looking at pile of books under the TV) to OH in wild panic. I’m never ever going to get through them all.

DAY FOURTEEN: OH: Are you regretting saying you’d do it? I might be if I were you. Me: This one is a bit bonkers but I think in a good way. Half an hour passes. Maybe, actually, in a bad way.

DAY FIFTEEN: Unfortunately a huge cloud of moths flies out from under the chair I am sitting in just as my partner walks into the room. OH: Do you see the moths there fluttering all around you? You’ve been sitting still so long reading you’re hatching moths! Me: No, no it’s because this package, that you might have thought was filled with a book, is actually filled with those moth-killing-sticky-pads. Look, here at my feet. They can smell the pheromones. I am not hatching moths because I have been sitting here for such a long time reading. No, I am not.

DAY SEVENTEEN: Me to OH: I cannot read more than four books in a week. That’s it. If one is a fat one then I can only manage three. OH: Can’t you cheat? Me: No.

DAY TWENTY-ONE: Me to OH I am never going to give a character of mine green eyes and I am never going to describe a character as having black eyes. Never, never, never… OH: Didn’t Sam (the protagonist in my crime novels) have green eyes? Me: Did she?OH: Whatever. Those moth pads aren’t working.

DAY TWENTY-EIGHT: I realise I have a very low tolerance for descriptions of landscape and also buildings. I wonder if I have ever described a building in any of my books or even a field, if it comes to that. I realise that my vocabulary for writing about buildings is extremely limited and become slightly fixated on it. Me to OH (on the bus heading in to town) Look at that building over there. That bit. The bit that slopes. How would you describe it? OH: It’s a roof! And whatever this is, from my point of view it does not count as conversation.

DAY THIRTY: Me: I need paragraphs. I cannot read a book without any indentations. I feel as if I’m being forced to read Henry James. No paragraphs mean no hope. OH: Is this the prima donna phase? You’re talking gibberish again. Go for a walk. The wisteria is out in the park. Go for a walk now. NOW.

IMGP0018 (2)

When I return there is a large pile of boxes in the hall. OH: (kicking them lightly) More books came while you away. Me: Oh God. OH. But have you seen the sticky moth pad things? They’re absolutely covered. Me: Wow!

Current state of affairs: Total number to read: 86. Number read: 31. Number of moth deaths: 112. Two months to go.

So here’s the question. How quickly do you read? How many books do you read in a week? Just asking for a friend.

 

 

 

 

CLEAR THE LOBBY!

Have you been watching? Have you given up hope? Are you marching on Saturday? Do you just want it all TO BE OVER. My apologies to non-British readers because this first paragraph is  about Brexit, it is not about spring cleaning.  I watch. I give up hope. I say things like, ‘Just don’t talk to me about it.’ I stop watching and then I start watching all over again. I read endless articles but by the time I reach the end of the article I have forgotten the beginning. Last week I watched all those votes (were they indicative? I’ve already forgotten) and became completely confused. However, I did enjoy watching the Speaker, John Bercow shout ‘Clear the lobby!’ at frequent intervals.  Bercow is a man who could stick his head into a badger’s set and pull out its inhabitants with his bare teeth. He is a man not to be cowed and he seems to have managed to infuriate the entire British media, who have plastered deeply unflattering pictures of him across their front pages today. It strikes me that he is a man who doesn’t give a damn.

Anyway moving swiftly away from politics, the purpose of this post is really to clear my own lobby. I have been asked to be one of the judges of the Historical Writers Association Gold Crown Award 2019 which is for the best historical novel first published in the UK in English and given that I am told it involves reading anything from 60-90 books  this blog is probably going to go quiet for a while, since continuing with my own work in progress and reading will probably be taking up most of my time. It may be that I manage to post more than I think but I just don’t know. So, as Captain Oates said as he walked out into a blizzard, ‘I am just going outside, and may be gone some time.’ However the good news is that when I come back (unlike Oates) I will certainly be in a position to recommend some historical fiction reads to you. Be good while I’m away.

Here’s a little bit of John Bercow if you’ve no idea who I’m talking about:

THE TRUTH CAFE, BITUMEN MODIFIER AND SNOW…

Every morning on the way to work I pass a cafe which is called Truth.  Each time, I peer inside and then think, No, not today. I’m not feeling truthful enough. If I had a cafe I would never name it Truth because it’s intimidating, isn’t it? I mean how do you live up to it? If they pour you a filthy coffee you might feel compelled to tell them which would be  very un-English and extremely stressful. A bit further up there’s  a cafe which is called AntipØde – the coffee is very nice but the music is discordant and percussive and there’s a tiny, dark seating area and often quite a long queue. I assume the music is to discourage lingerers.  I quite like the idea of  The Liar’s Cafe; it would introduce a whole new dimension to an everyday exchange like: ‘Have a nice day.’ Anyway, to cut a long story short this is why I often end up in Caffe Nero. There is nothing to overcome, the coffee is relatively reliable and the music is mellow enough for me to be able to hear myself think. However, if I am running late I go to Coffee Station, which is very close to the shop and where they do a mean flat white and excellent raspberry and white chocolate cake and they’re very generous in their portions. They also have a lovely seating area which has plants hanging down. I like a dangling plant on a chilly morning.

This week I was culling the crime section. I don’t think we really sell much crime but we get a huge amount of it donated and for every Ian Rankin I throw in a hessian sack there will probably be about ten in the back room waiting to be put out.  I save classic crime novels, ones like Edmund Crispin’s The Moving Toy Shop and kitsch covered Agatha Christie’s published by Fontana and Ngaio Marsh’s and I also tend to save any crime in translation that is slightly more unusual like Pierre Lemaitre, Dominique Manotti etc.

A customer comes over to me while I am dragging my sack away and holds out a book. I miss what she says to me and I think she’s asking me the price. It’s an Alexander McCall Smith. I’ve probably just culled this from the shelves. ‘The paperbacks are generally £2.50,’ I say. She goes a bit rigid on me and says, ‘I do not expect to have to pay to donate a book.’ She’s so prickly and grand about her one book donation I can’t help laughing and then naturally I have to apologise profusely for having misunderstood. ‘Do you have any others?’ she asks and I show her where they are on the shelf including the copy of the one she’s just given me.  It’s a mad old world.  It occurs to me later while I am eating my large slice of raspberry and white chocolate cake in the chilly staff room that in about 30 years the vast majority of the books I have written will probably have been pulped.

close up of snowflakes on snow against sky

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

This is what the writer Joe Moran had to say on the matter:

We are too sentimental about the physical entity of the book, and too embarrassed about its mortality. All I ask as an author is that, as I should like some say over the disposal of my bodily remains, I am consulted about what happens to my books if they are pulped. My first choice would be bitumen modifier, the pellets road builders use to bind blacktop to aggregate. A mile of motorway consumes about 45,000 books: the M6 toll road used up two-and-a-half million Mills & Boon novels. There is something pleasingly melancholic about converting unread books into the wordless anonymity of a road, like having your ashes scattered in a vast ocean.

If I can’t be a road, I would settle for artificial snow (also made of fibre pellets) falling gently in a Christmas film. At least being shredded is clean and conclusive. 

Bitumen modifier doesn’t sound very glamorous but I love the idea of my books being turned into artificial snow. Well, love is probably too strong a word. Obviously I’d prefer you all to be reading them. But it would be a romantic, magical end to all the blood, sweat and tears of writing if it ended up as snow on the end of a wolf’s nose. A ridiculous but beautiful death.

Here’s the link to Joe’s book On Roads.

KOALAS, ANARCHISTS AND DISRAELI…

Another day in the bookshop. Well, the Elvis books haven’t gone anywhere. I’m in the back of the shop where we store our overstock of books and I come across one of my father’s books. It’s Disraeli’s Grand Tour.

grand tour

Ahhhhh, I think … I tidy it up a bit and flick through it. Have I read it, I wonder? I come to the dedication: To Victoria. For a moment I think, ‘Who’s she?’ Before my marbles return and I remember that Victoria is me. Oh hello me, I think. Victoria. Part of the problem is that I was never called Victoria as a child, always Vicky. So even though my own writing name is Victoria I don’t really identify with the name at all. In the copy he signed for me, Dad recognized this because he writes next to Victoria Vicky with lots of love from the author, Daddy. Daddy is what he called his own father but I called him Dad. My father was a scrupulously fair man so as the youngest child  I got his 6th book dedicated to me after his parents, my mother and my two older sisters had theirs. He was also quite formal so he uses my full name even though it wasn’t one I ever remember him calling me.

Despite the cold, I lounge in the back of the shop reading his book. I like this bit where my father explains why writing his original biography of Disraeli took him eight years by using a quote by Dr Johnson concerning why it took Pope so long to produce his translation of the Iliad.

“Indolence, interruption, business and pleasure, all take their turns of retardation; and every long work is lengthened by a thousand causes that can and ten thousand that cannot be recounted.”

DR JOHNSON on POPE

I think I might try that next time my agent asks me how close I am to finishing my WIP. I have the feeling that my sisters and I were one of the interruptions and hopefully one of the pleasures as well, since two of us were born within those eight years and one of us two years before.

Disraeli was as far as I’m aware the only British Prime Minister who was also a best selling novelist. Imagine that today! What kind of novels do we think Theresa May would be writing if she were a novelist, or David Cameron or Tony Blair or John Major. The mind boggles. Mind you, Bill Clinton has just written a novel with James Patterson titled The President is Missing, although I daresay Patterson did all the writing. I wonder what that’s like.

Eventually I have to do some work. I come across this book: The Reader on the 6.27 *, which is about a man who works in a paper recycling plant and every day saves some pages from the maw of the recycling machine and reads them out to the people on his commute to work.

the reader

I decide I have to buy it. Maybe I should start reading out pages from the books I chuck in the recycling sacks on the journey back home on the bus. On the other hand …

As for things falling out of books. This week it’s bookmarks of koalas, anarchists and the 2002 Orange Prize for Fiction.

anarchists

I like the bookmark for the Anarchist Bookfair. When I turn it over there is the phrase ‘annus horribilis’ written in biro on the back. The Queen used this phrase to describe her year in a speech at the Guildhall in 1992, so maybe that’s the date of the bookmark.

There at the top of the 2002 Orange Prize for Fiction shortlist is Anna Burns for No Bones. Sixteen years later she won the Booker Prize with Milkman. Well done, Anna Burns. Well done indeed.

* I have started it and am thoroughly enjoying it.

 

 

JANUARY BLUES IN THE BOOKSHOP

On the way to work I’m greeted by a flattened wreath and bundles of Christmas trees all grouped together on the corner of the street. Pine needles are all over the pavements along with puddles of urine. The little dogs (they are mainly little round where I live) are back from their holidays. The bus is rammed to the rafters and it’s not helped by the fact that some bus stops have been closed and so there are larger groups of people at some of the stops than usual.

In Caffé Nero I drink my coffee and read the paper. A couple of headlines stand out. One on obese hedgehogs in need of home improvements and another saying that if you have too much stomach fat your brain will shrink. Oh dear! I wonder how much my brain will shrink when I lob the apricot croissant that I have just bought down my throat at about 1 o’clock. Caffé Nero is eerily empty. Maybe everyone has decided to save the pounds they spend on coffee in January.

All decorations are cleared from the shop and we have a tonne of deliveries.

I eye the over one hundred books on Elvis we still have. We’ve had them for rather a long time now. No one can bring themselves to throw them away. It could be said that we are caught in a trap. There must be someone out there, mustn’t there, who longs for these books? Over one hundred books on the King. Come on …

A book comes in called Mortification. The subtitle is: Writers’ stories of their public shame. Obviously I have to have it. It is followed by Michel de Montaigne’s essays. Someone has stuck a dinosaur sticker on his left ear so it looks like a rather unusual earring. It’s fab. I decide to buy this as well and I do not remove the dinosaur. I think Montaigne would approve.

michel

In case you think I’m making this stuff up.

Customers come in with tales of woe. A mother came for Christmas she caught a cold and now she has heart failure. January is always filled with death and disease. Business isn’t exactly clipping along. I could do with a little less conversation of the gloomy kind.

At the very end of the day a shifty looking man asks how much our audio cassettes are. We have a huge box of them. There is a group discussion and we arrive at the price of £1. When I tell him he says, ‘More like 50p,’ in a sort of sneering snarl and I want to hit him between his mean little eyes. It is amazing how often people come into the shop and try and bargain down our prices. Their thinking, I imagine, is that you got this stuff for nothing so you can sell it to me for less. I hate them. My colleagues are better at dealing with this than I am. I tend to shame people by repeating the phrase, ‘We are a charity…’ about 100 times followed by, ‘We have a duty both to the charity and to the people who donate to us to get a good price for the items/books they give us. We have to respect the effort they made to bring the books to us.’ Because it is an effort. And they could take them elsewhere. There are about three other charity shops along our street. But it’s never a good idea to  get into a face-off and in my heart of hearts I don’t believe in shaming people, however much I might dislike what they are doing. And to be honest if you’re bargaining over prices in a charity shop you are probably beyond shame anyway, so there we are. As I leave, I see the man scavenging over our donated books which have not yet been priced up. He is also looking at the Elvis books. My suspicious mind does not think he will be making an offer on them any time soon. Oh well, the next shift can have the pleasure of dealing with him and his blue suede shoes. No, he didn’t have any but I couldn’t resist…

On the bus home I glance at Mortification and can’t help noticing that out of 72 contributors only 15 are women. The editor in the introduction says that he asked for contributions from an equal mix of  men and women.  I wonder if women are affected more by shame, feel it more deeply and therefore found it too painful to contribute and then I feel really, really angry.

mort

So here is my story of writerly mortification.

The first book of mine that was published was part of a large  promotion of nine debut crime writers. Four of us were from the UK, five  from abroad. The ones from abroad had all been published, I think, the year before in their respective countries. One from Italy, one from Alaska, and three from America. They all had some kind of publishing history and I’ve no idea how much they were paid for their books. The group nature of the way that we were published was unusual and it meant that  we ended up spending quite a lot of time together, wine was drunk etc. It emerged that one of our UK number, X, had been paid an advance roughly four times the rest of us. He was also the one most worried that he might have been paid the least, so he had gone round asking us all what our advances were. The reason he had been paid four times the rest of us was unclear – it always is – none of us had been published before. But it might have had something to do with the fact that he had worked for a well known media outlet and publishers are complete tarts for journalists or anyone involved with the media because they think they have useful contacts that they will exploit on their own behalf. In my opinion his editor or someone at the publishers should have told him to keep his mouth shut about what he had been paid but they hadn’t and he was a loose canon. It was just one of those WTF moments in a writer’s life that you have to suck up but I was younger then and naive about the publishing business and the whole thing made me feel sick, very upset and well, mortified. You see, I didn’t think his book was four times better than mine.

Later, I ended up doing an event with this same writer. It was a crime panel in Newcastle and the title of the panel was ironically Making Crime Pay. On the panel was the crime writer Sheila Quigley, who had had a very well publicized advance for a two book deal of £300,000 which was roughly 38 times what I had been paid. She had a fantastic back story was a very nice woman and I didn’t begrudge her a penny of it.  But it was also clear that she had made a spectacularly better job of making crime pay than me or indeed X.  It was also obvious that everyone had come to see Sheila, (her books are set in the North East) all the questions were for her and afterwards a long queue formed for her to sign her book.  I remember simply not knowing what to do with myself. I started sort of spinning on the spot, maybe in the hope that I would turn myself into enough of a blur so that I would be rendered invisible or perhaps that I might turn into Wonder Woman and fly off somewhere. Does Wonder Woman fly? Or maybe I was looking for the exit. I remember desperately searching for wine and not finding any. I remember feeling as if I had lock jaw. I remember X who had a certain boyish demeanor being surrounded by a group of youngish women. One of the organisers very sweetly came up and asked me to sign a copy of my book. It was the only one I signed. Eventually they took us all out for a meal. My last contact with X was watching him insist that a taxi he was taking somewhere quite far out of town would definitely be paid for by the organisers.

Well, there we are, that wasn’t so bad was it? Give me another twenty years and I might even manage to make that funny.

NEW YEAR IN THE BOOKSHOP

On the top of the bus on the way to work scanning the world going by I have a strange feeling of déjà vu. It’s as if I am myself and not myself at the same time. It’s odd and unsettling and I wonder if I’m coming down with flu. When I stop worrying about that I can’t help noticing  that many a new coat has been bought for Christmas and there is a lot of brightly coloured fake fur going on. New and frisky fake fur that looks as if it might slide off the edge of a hood and scamper up the nearest tree and  very unlike my dear old parka which looks as if rats have nested in the hood  for the last ten years.

There’s no queue in Caffé Nero which means that most of London isn’t back at work yet. I sit contemplating the top of my flat white and wondering what state the shop will be in and what the new year will bring.

The shop is in excellent shape! The window table that was full of Christmas books is now full of green Viragos. A very great improvement in my opinion. And even better we have some good quality books to put out. We have a steady stream of phone calls. Are you open? Yes! Do you take…? Yes! Obviously top of many people’s New Years Resolutions is taking books to a charity shop. Volunteers phone in ill.

The first Eleanor Oliphant is Fine comes into the shop. Last years massive bestseller. I read this over Christmas and loved it. It was funny, thought provoking and incredibly readable. I have a rather ambiguous relationship with the bestseller lists.  As a writer who does not sell vast amounts, I am susceptible to the green-eyed monster getting hold of me and throttling me till my eye balls pop out. It’s annoying and self-defeating but I daresay human. It amused me on holiday to find that I was absolutely certain that the title was Eleanor Oliphant is Unwell. Interesting given that I must have read the title many, many times since the book was published.

A very old bus ticket for the number 11 bus route falls out of a book. Ah, those were the days. Bus conductors! Annoyingly there’s no date on it but the fare paid was 5p.

I can’t help noticing that we seem to have vast numbers of Crime and Punishment. Well, if December is the crime I daresay January delivers the punishment.

On the bus home there is an interestingly diverse number of different types of coughs. Dry and tickly, phlegmy and fruity, a veritable petri dish of disease, and as I step off the bus  the first dry tickle hits the back of my throat.

Back home it comes to me why I was feeling so unsettled. Or a line comes to me at any rate.

London in January  – a city reeling from a million broken resolutions. 

It’s the opening line of the first chapter in my book Cutting Blades. In it my character Sam Falconer, a private investigator, is sitting on top of the same bus I was this morning. So in effect I was being haunted by a character that I wrote 13 years ago. Interesting. Rather bizarrely given all the lines I have written in my novels this line is one I am particularly proud of. As a scene setter it’s not bad at all, is it?  I mean it’s not a *bishop kicking a hole in a stained glass window, it’s not Chandler or McBain, but even so it has a nice noirish feel to it. I grab hold of a copy and begin to browse through it. God, there’s so much of me in this, I think. What was I thinking of? And I snap the book shut. I go on Amazon and check out the reviews of it. I haven’t done that for years (the book was published in 2005) and I read a review in which someone says they ‘almost liked it.’ Then another in which the reviewer states: ‘Like I said the book is good. But just that. Good … Ms Blake just needs to work at her art just a little bit more and then she’ll be a great writer.’ Well, hey, thanks for the encouragement honey. For some reason I then start sobbing with laughter. Being a writer is such a ridiculous thing sometimes. What on earth possessed me to ever think it was a good idea?

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about writing and memory and in particular what effect using personal memories and experiences for writing fiction has on the original memory. If for example I take a childhood memory and use it to write fiction and if I do that multiple times, can it end up, over time, altering and overriding the original memory? Does the fiction become more real to me than the reality and what effect does that have on my relationship with my past. Complicated, I know but that is what the journey on the bus delivered to me today, so I have delivered it to you.

I have made only one New Year’s Resolution. To go and see as many of the Laurel and Hardy films at the BFI as I can. Way Out West here I come. It is on with a ‘short’ titled Laughing Gravy, that’s the name of a dog. And here is a clip of Stan Laurel laughing. Maybe he’d just read a review of his most recent film on Amazon. Watch Sharon Lynn’s face. She is definitely having a hard time keeping it straight.

Happy New Year and if you’re looking for a book set in January in London can I recommend Cutting Blades it’s good. But just that. And there’s the chance you might almost like it.

*”It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.”

Raymond Chandler – Farewell My Lovely