The Post Festival World

A week after the Festival of Writing finished, one of the writers I met asked me how the post festival world was going. Busy, I said, manic, much as before really. In a way that’s true. After the leisurely summer, the children are now in full term throttle. There are evening activities most nights, including Wednesday when one child needs dropping off and another picking up at the same time  in different places) which is leading to all sorts of complications.  The secondary school has instituted a new homework schedule, and the primary school homework seems more challenging for number three, which is upping the ante of parental support required. In the meantime Chris is entering his busy time of year, with an average of 2 talks a week, (10 in the next fortnight) which always changes the dynamic of home life. And if that wasn’t enough, my own work is so busy that I am multitasking like there’s no tomorrow as I try and juggle three simultaneous deadlines. None of which is terribly conducive to writing. Or that’s the excuse I usually give myself.

And yet, and yet, I feel like something has shifted. I’ve always been a little bit obsessional about this story. (Well I have to be don’t I? I’ve been living with these people in my head for 8 years now) But now my obsession has reached heights I never dreamt of. I go to bed thinking about what they’re up to. I get up (several times at 6am) desperate to continue their story. On the bus, I force out all other thoughts as I try and progress their journeys that little bit further. And it’s working. Five weeks ago, I wrote that I thought I had about 10,000 words  to complete Part 4. Tonight I realise I’ve written about 8,000 of them, at least 3,000 since York. Given what’s going on in my life, that’s absolutely staggering. I’m pretty confident that I can get to the end of Part 4 by the end of the week, though I’m making no predictions beyond then. And though the words are not good enough yet – they  need shaping and tuning, simplifying and expanding – I can see ways that I might do that.

I do know it won’t take much to push me off balance. But for the moment, I’m flying.  No More Excuses. It’s time to get the job done.

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Telling the Family (Part 2)

The decision is made. In reality it was made a long time ago. Tonight was inevitable from the moment they met.  Now it has happened, there is one thing left to do.

“When are we going to let everyone know?” asks Matt

“You mean you haven’t updated your facebook status yet?” Alex grins. Matt rarely lets a moment go by without telling the world. His enthusiasm for social media is one of the things she loves about him. He grins back at her, he loves her gentle teasing, it makes him feel part of their own special club. He pulls her closer to him on the sofa.

“Only Mum said to come over at the weekend. I thought we could tell them then.”

“You’ve been planning this.” Alex looks at him appreciatively. “I like a Man with a Plan.”

He laughs, and gives her a peck. “No…not really…It just seems like a good time to do it.” She kisses him back. “It is a good time to do it.” She kisses him some more and soon they aren’t thinking of anything except each other. Pretty soon they have rolled off the sofa against a pile of books waiting to be placed in the newly constructed shelf. Lolita,  Persuasion, Fifty Shades of Grey scatter in the path of their rampant bodies. At the time they barely  notice the book spines pressing on their backs, though they will feel the bruises later. And it takes them a day to spot the Dan Brown is so stained it has to be thrown in the bin. Afterwards, they lie on the blue pile rug stroking each others’ skin as if for the first time. It is only hunger and Matt’s urgent need to pee that forces them off the floor.

By the time he returns, she is already dressed and is in the kitchen rifling through boxes.

“What are you looking for?” he ask as he pulls up his trousers.

“The frying pan.”

“What are we having?”

“Omelette…ah here it is,” she finds it at the bottom of a blue crate.

“Yum. Champagne?”

“You really were prepared.” She begins to chop vegetables. He takes the bottle from the fridge, carefully twisting the cork until the moment of release. Pop! It shoots up to the ceiling covering them both in the sticky spray.

“Cheers”  They clink glasses.

 “Here’s to the rest of our lives.”  Alex smiles. The future lies ahead of her. Everything she’s ever dreamt of right here in front of her eyes. It’s going to be great.

“I can’t wait to tell my parents, ” Matt smiles back, imagining the looks on their faces, the excitement they will feel. “I just can’t wait.”

Telling the Family (Part 1)

The decision is made. In fact, it has been made a long time ago. Tonight is just confirmation of the inevitable. Now it has happened, there is one thing left to do.

“When are we going to let everyone know?” asks Shirley.

“You mean you haven’t updated your facebook status yet?” To an outsider Jim’s voice always appears jovial. The snide intention behind such comments is pitched at a level audible to Shirley alone. It is comments like that…Years of comments like that…she resists the inward fume and forces her mouth into a smile.
“Only the kids are coming this weekend. I thought we could tell them then.”

“You’ve been planning this.” It is Jim’s turn to fume – manipulative as ever – she has forced this to happen exactly when it suits her.

“No…not really…Look we’ve both known…for a long time…haven’t we?” but she’s lost him already. He is staring at the  book case as if he is already calculating how to divide the spoils of thirty years. No doubt he will try to claim the heavy stuff – what he calls  “real literature” – Nabokov, Proust, Calvi – leaving her with the thriller collection, Francis, Grisham, Forsyth and the Dickens novels which he regards as over-rated soap opera. Perhaps she should let him, it seems to her,one of the more impossible acts of separation: dividing books that they’ve both enjoyed and given each other over the years. Then she thinks of how she was the one who introduced him to Will Self, to Borges, to Marquez, and sets her jaw in anticipation of the fight.

Jim continues his perusal of the shelves. He has some plastic boxes in his den. He has estimated their dimensions and now he is trying to work out how many books he will need per box. He cannot imagine how they will split the collection apart. He gave her half of  them. Should he claim them back? Doubtless, she will fight tooth and nail for the thrillers which she always enjoys on holiday, leaving him with the turgid books she thinks he likes- the  foreign writers with their overblown prose and complicated storytelling. Shirley interrupts his train of thought. “So, Saturday then? When the kids come?”  He grunts the grunt of resigned acceptance. The sooner he lets her have her own way, the sooner he can go his. He rises from the chair, departing upstairs for his den, where he will drink beer and watch Game of Thrones till the small hours.

Shirley watches his retreating back with relief. She has the evening to herself. She wanders into the kitchen, pours a glass of wine, and raises it silently: Here’s to the rest of my life. After the weekend, she’ll be on her own for good. She can’t wait.

The morning after…

The morning after started early. Three am to be precise. I was woken by my youngest having a bad dream. Years of broken nights have taught me that the only way to get back to sleep quickly is if you can minister to the little darlings without waking up properly yourself. I was nearly there, till I realised that he was wheezy, and by the time I’d toddled downstairs to get his puffer, I was wide awake and my mind buzzing. Usually this is an extremely bad thing for me. It’s the time of night when work anxieties crowd in and there is bugger all I can do about any of it. Sometimes, though, I strike lucky and the wee small hours prove fruitful as I churn out ideas, work out character’s motives, come up with the perfect sentence. (The only downside is I don’t always have pen and paper to hand, so sometimes fall asleep like Carrie in Homeland desperate to remember the vital breakthrough I’ve just made).  Fortunately, this morning, my mind was full of my 1:1’s. Two out of three had commented I could strengthen the opening chapter by rewriting the first few paragraphs. I resisted it initially, I’ve worked so hard on that passage, and I liked what I’d done with it. But on the train I began to realise they were right, and lying in the darkness this morning, I began to see how to go about it.

At four am the writing was crystal clear and I was certain  I’d cracked it. But at seven when I managed to crawl out of bed, the details were a bit fuzzy. As I threw myself back into the rhythm of life before school, uniform, breakfast, packed lunch, the words came back. I’m still not sure whether I should use the word “supposed” or not, but my critics were right, it certainly feels a stronger beginning. Even better, on the way to work, I realised that a couple more throwaway lines would prove a perfect link to the central section of the novel. And for once, I got all the way to the office without work thoughts crowding in. Of course, I’ve had precious little time since then…Supervision, budget building and lots of stuff not for public consumption, was followed by rushing to meet number 2 to show her the way to her new drama group;  returning home to feed the others; back on the bus to collect her and have tea, whilst Chris is at a work meeting. I know from the lovely people I met at the conference, I am not alone in having such a whirlwind life, and so it’s good to keep remembering JoJo Moyes’ advice to write what you can, whenever you can to keep your projects moving.

This is going to me last post for a while, I have a novel to write after all. I wanted to end, however, by saying that a spectacular and unexpected pleasure at York was meeting so many people who know my lovely twin Julia Williams. I am sorry if I startled some of you by my more than passing resemblance to her, but as I said at the time, it happens rather a lot. So here’s the poem, as promised.

A Case of Mistaken Identity

Shall I forgive you? It happens quite a lot –

a stranger greets me in the street, or on a bus –

it causes confusion more often than not.

Did you suffer from such a delusion? What

were you thinking – that I wouldn’t make a fuss?

Should I forgive you, since it happens a lot?

Perhaps you understood at first, but then forgot

alike was not the same, that there are two of us.

I know it’s confusing, more often than not.

Maybe, I should try again, give you another shot.

Perhaps, after all, I’ve been making too much fuss.

Could I forgive you, since it happens such a lot?

It’s not surprising, really, that you’ve lost the plot,

you’re not the first to be bemused by two of us,

It can be confusing, more often than not.

Maybe, after all, I’ve been making too much fuss.

For, if I can forgive the person on the bus,

surely, I can pardon you? It happens such a lot –

causing confusion more often than not.

Homeward Bound

Despite a late night blogging, and general exhaustion from the intensity of yesterday, I was awake at 6.30am this morning. I lay in bed for a while pondering whether to run or write, until I decided that tight dresses withstanding, writing had to take priority. Besides I was desperate for a cup of tea. By 7.30 I tapped out another few hundred words and was able to go to breakfast full of smugness at my positive word count. After packing, I was able to grab another half hour  by the lake accompanied by two geese, one sleeping with it’s head under it’s wing, one standing sentinel. I seem to remember being warned not to worry the geese, as they could potentially break your arm, but these two seemed to tolerate the gaggle of writers sitting by the waterside. With the sun shining on the lake it was as perfect a spot for writing as you could find.

My 1:1’s clashed with my workshop on acquisitions, so I had to leave while the speakers were getting in their stride. A bit unfortunate but inevitable with such a complex timetable to manage. I was a bit nervous about seeing the agent this morning as I had somehow failed to realise she was worked in the young adult market. Luckily she was totally forgiving  and full of good encouraging advice, finally laying to rest the ghost of a sneery tutor, who once said my writing was for “young adults” (nothing wrong with that but it’s not what I’m after, and he meant it as an insult). My reader this morning was able to assure me she clearly saw it as an adult text and since she’s a professional, and knows what she’s talking about that’s more than good enough for me.

My second 1:1 was a session with an editor – a “book doctor”. I was even more nervous about this one. I’d chosen my editor carefully from the CVs provided, because I wanted someone very good, but with excellence comes the pressure of knowing my work might not be up to scratch.  Thankfully my “doctor” was absolutely brilliant, made wise comments, got me thinking about the chapter in a different way and provided more than enough positive statements to make me feel this project is worth pursuing. I came away knowing I’d got loads of work to do, but I knew that anyway. I also know that my book is very ambitious, but if I keep at it, keep listening, keep working to make it the best it can be, there’s every chance I can achieve my aims.

Over coffee a chance conversation with an English woman who normally lives in San Francisco, was overheard by a second woman as she had once lived there too. The three of us hit it off and had a passionate discussion about the state of the nations, (probably a little too passionate in my case!) before I discovered the second woman is a neighbour in Oxford. So now I’ve made two new twitter friends and someone local to talk writing with. Result.

I caught most of a workshop on what agents want before I was lured out into the sunshine to take my final stroll round campus. This time I headed for the Derwent and Langwith Colleges, where I once spent freezing winter mornings observing duck behaviour. These are the quieter parts of the campus, .They were always beautiful when I lived there, but  now the willows and silver birches have doubled in size, and the bushes have spread out, they are even more so . Once again it reminded me that trees are a useful device for showing the passage of time through landscapes and glad I am already using this in “Echo Hall”. As I wandered back to James College, I was besieged with memories again – the day my friend Karen disappeared for twenty four hours, and we searched campus high and low until she returned from a friend’s just after we’d called the police; the time I had to look after several stroppy kids as part of a youth camp, and they’d run riot on top of the Biology building, scampered off in front of the Physics block until I uncharacteristically chased them down and turned the air blue, surprising them into compliance; and the computer lectures that sent me to sleep so often, my lecturer suggested I should bring a duvet. It has crossed my mind more than once this weekend, that perhaps if  I’d focussed my energies  a little bit more back then, when I had plenty of time to do so, I might have had a novel published by now…Youth is definitely wasted on the young.

Over lunch I was able to catch up with most of the people I’d met over the weekend, though if I missed you I’m sorry. I decided to leave a little early so I could have one final nostalgia tour of the city itself. Places you revisit are always supposed to be much smaller than you remember them, but today York actually felt much bigger. The river is wider, the streets more spread out, the shopping areas larger. But the medieval streets are still beautiful, Margaret Clitherow’s shrine as moving as ever, and though it was disappointing the Minster charges a ridiculous amount to enter, it was extremely pleasant sitting by the river remembering evenings spent running along it’s banks.

So now I’m homeward bound, basking in the afterglow of a  wonderful weekend spent amongst the nicest bunch of writing folk you could hope to meet; filled with a determination to plough on with my novel until it’s finally done; and extremely grateful to the wonderful people in the Writer’s Workshop who made it all happen.

I set myself a writing challenge this summer, to complete my second draft by this weekend. I may have failed in reaching my target, but at least I’m well on my way. And as JoJo Moyes reminded us yesterday, failure is part of the learning process.

I’m really looking forward to getting back to Chris and the kids – a weekend is far too long to be away, no matter how lovely the writing is. I know that once I’m back in the swing of home and work life, I’ll struggle as I always do, to make the time to make my writing happen. But after this weekend, I’m more determined than ever to press on with “Echo Hall.” I know it’s a good idea, I’ve been told it’s marketable. I’ve been told I can write. I’m the only person who can make it happen. So the biggest lesson I’ve learned this weekend, is – it’s time to make sure I do.

A tight dress and case of mistaken identity

Day two of the Writer’s Festival dawned with the campus wreathed in mist. Yet again, I felt right at home. Way back in 1983 when I came here for my interview, the place was shrouded in fog. In fact, I remember far more foggy days than sunny, so it was a real bonus for the mists to clear, and the sun to beat down on us all day.

After breakfast I had time to stroll round the bits of campus I missed on my run last night. This time I revisited Vanbrugh College, which hasn’t changed that much, though it’s a tad smarter than it was. My old corridor was being re-designed, and I managed to track down my room, though it looks like they are merging it with my neighbours to double the size. I stood at the window, trying to catch a glimpse of the Biology Lab clock, which was a critical aspect of my student days, as every morning I’d roll out bed, look out of the window and realise I was late for my 9am lecture. It took a moment to  realise the trees had grown so much they completely obscured the view. There was something really pleasing about that, as my novel, Echo Hall, is set in three periods of time, and the changing height of the trees is something I’ve used to mark the passage of time.

I then strolled back through Vanbrugh concourse where I cut my campaigning teeth persuading people to write letters for Amnesty International, and it was equally pleasing to see an excellent Amnesty poster on display. Nice to know York Students still have a bit of activism in them. I had time before the first talk to wander up to the JB Morell Library, one of my favourite places on campus. It’s been tarted up a bit, but it still has the central conceit of four floors of books that you can view from every level, and still provides me with the sense of wonder of the  infinity of knowledge and how little of it we have time to master.

Then it was time for the 9am speech (I’d already been up 2 hours, how my life has changed since I was 19).  The keynote speech by the  wonderful JoJo  Moyes. I have to confess, I had heard the name, but didn’t really know much about her, so my expectations weren’t high. I’m pleased to say that she blew me away, first because she was instantly loveable, witty, humble, and absolutely honest. So much of what she said resonated with me: write the best book you can, write what you have to write, stay with your novel. And so much of her experience was laced with failure and disappointment, and yet she could so clearly demonstrate what she had learnt in such a self-deprecating manner, it was terribly heartening. It was totally and utterly inspiring and well worth the entire conference fee just to be there. I loved her so much I bought one of her books and had her sign it. She was  delightful, and an excellent example of how to be a writer at conferences, accessible, friendly and open to her readers. What a treat.

Over coffee, I had several more treats,  meeting  up with Shelly Harris (@shellywriter) the conference postergirl, who  won Literary Live two years ago and has just published her first novel Jubilee. Shelly met my friend Anne at a writing retreat and we’d promised to look out for each other, so it was fabulous to bump into her by chance. She too was delightful, and I bought her book as well. She introduced me to Julie Cohen (@Julie_Cohen), another conference star, (I completed my book purchases with one of hers). Julie happens to know my twin Julia Williams as they are both members of the RNA. Julie did the double take most people do, when they know my twin and then meet me(Julia and I are startling alike,though she’s a lot more glamorous then I am). And then we had the perhaps inevitable moment of me running into another RNA writer, who Julia also knows but didn’t know I was there. Susan Alison (@bordercollies)rushed to hug me, before realising that I wasn’t quite the person she thought I was.  I always feel immensely sorry for people in this situation, it is so much more embarrassing for them than for me.It  has happened too many times to count.(In fact I’ve written a poem on the subject, but it’s at home, so it’ll have to wait for another blogpost). We luckily managed to recover ourselves as we worked  and it was fun to discuss with Julia on twitter later.

Inspired by JoJo’s rule of thumb to write everywhere, and the fact that for this brief weekend I can do what I like, when I like. I returned to my room and attacked my novel with vigour.I’d intended to work for two hours, but I flaked at one and had a nap. Ah well, I don’t get many of those in the daytime anymore, and I’m not as young as I was.

After lunch I queued up for my 1:1, at least 15 writers meeting  a similar number of agents/bookdoctors for 10 minute slots, managed with brilliant (if slightly scary) efficiency by a writing group in Hertfordshire. Waiting for my slot was  a bit nervewracking, reminding me of some of the less helpful tutorials on my writing course. But I needn’t have worried. My chosen agent was encouraging, supportive, interested, picked up on some weaknesses I hadn’t and gave me some useful pointers. The fact that she liked the premise, she liked the title, and appreciated some of the bits that worked well was more than enough, and I can immediately see a way to improving the material.

So that was enough to send me scurrying back to my room for a bit more writing. I broke for a workshop on landscape, and another snooze, but by 6.30pm I’d completed another couple of chapters. Given how slow I usually am, that was actually not bad going.

And then it was time for the Gala Dinner. They’d specified “cocktail dresses” and I don’t really have many of those. So I’d brought the one dress that fitted the bill, a rather lovely Monsoon number I bought for a family party a couple of years ago. The trouble is, I always need my beloved to zip me up, and in the last 6 months I appear to have expanded as much as the York campus. I struggled and strained for twenty minutes before knocking on neighbour’s doors to try and find someone to help. Luckily the first person I found was a woman, Jo, who tried her best for several minutes before we both gave up. I decided I’d have to just go partially zipped, but back in my room, I gave it one last shot. With a twisting of material, and losing of some underwear, I finally managed to get it zipped, and if that experience doesn’t make me lose weight, I don’t know what will.

Despite a bit of a mix up with the vegetarian food, I’ve had a marvellous evening. Jo, my neighbour happened to be on my table, and we had a great chat about her novel, which has a totally brilliant premise. (I won’t spoil it because it will definitely get published). We also had the fabulous organisers of the 1:1 sessions, all writers themselves, who gave us the lowdown on a festival spent control hordes of anxious writers desperate to get at the agent’s table. The other two people on our table had never met before, but discovered on talking to each other that they worked in the same building at work, which just goes to show what a small writing world it is. One of them had an excellent premise for a story set in 1963 Vietnam, and we had a fascinating chat about empire and colonialism.

The lovely children’s writer I met last night was feted for winning the Greenhouse Literacy Agency Funny Awards and the Opening Chapter winner read his very funny and intriguing beginning, which featured, Prague, a challenging assignment and unicorns, and the wine flowed freely. I also managed to hook up with Debbie Alper (@DebbieAlper) and Emma Darwin (@EmmaDarwin) who both know Julia and who happen to live in the same road I lived in East Dulwich. (This small writing world is frankly not much bigger than a fishbowl). Just before I left for the evening, I bumped into Helen one of the Literary Live authors, who was great to talk to, as not only is she a marvellous writer, but she is temporarily living the writing life most of us aspire to, in Paris, and writing full time (at least for the time being).

I ended the evening sitting by the lake, remembering so many nights wandering around in the past, and thinking how life connects, and reconnects us in ways we cannot ever imagine.

 Life is complex and full of surprises, which is why writing about it, is such a lot of fun.

Never go back?

They say you should never go back.  But you know what? Sometimes, “they” are SO wrong. The minute I got on the train to York I was filled with good vibes. Not only did I manage to increase my word count by resisting the internet and writing for three solid hours, but the minute I stepped onto the platform and gazed up at the familiar iron arches on the ceilings I was right back at home. The taxi ride with a witty Yorkie took me round the town walls, close to my 3rd year house, glimpsing sights of a city that appears to have changed very little in nearly thirty years.  Not something you could say about the University which appears to have tripled in size since I was here, spreading so far out from the core six colleges, that there is now a North, South,East and West campus. James College, where I am staying is new, and has subsumed the old Goodrich College, which has been removed up the road, replaced by a snazzy conference centre, complete with a jazzy greenlit bar. A far far cry from the grotty formica tables of my youth.
         Still the lake is still as lovely as ever (if smellier than I remembered} and once I’d settled into a student room double the size of my rabbit hutch of 1984, I couldn’t resist revisiting my old haunts by running round campus. It was a lovely nostalgia filled run:  there was the spot I fell of my bike and had to be rushed to hospital (a moment immortalised in one of my very poor poetry assignments); there was More House, the Catholic Chaplaincy, where my lovely friends Anne (@Bridgeanne), Judy and I used to spend many an evening discussing the novels we’d write; there was the turn off to my 2nd yr house at Badger Hill; Heslington Hall, the destination of the first run I ever took, leaving me red faced and breathless when I arrived; the dour Chemistry Department which has since morphed into a massive Science Park; Alcuin College site of the best disco on campus; the fabulous library which still has it’s magic cafe underneath; my old room at Vanbrugh college; the Biology lab where I failed to become a scientist; and all the student halls, where I learnt that activism starts with a leaflet posted in a doorway. A lovely trot down memory lane that brought me back to my room glowing with energy.
           But nice as the nostalgia was, I haven’t come here to relive my youth, I’ve come to network, to meet writers and agents and publishers. To garner a few tips and perhaps gather a bit of encouragement, and so far, so very very good.I’ve met a spread of conference participants, and from the publisher I  in the drinks queue, to the agent who’s running 2 workshops and 33 one to ones, to the writers I chatted to over dinner  and in the bar(a crime writer from Wales, a young adults fantasy writer from London, a general fiction writer from Newbury whose crazy life mirrors mine, and a picture book rhyming writer who’s just got been signed) everyone so far is friendly, welcoming, informative and passionate about writing. And if this wasn’t enough, we were treated to Literary Live, as 6 brave souls read from their novels whilst we the audience selected our favourite. The standard was high, and it was so close we had to count, and it was nice to see the winner was an Indian woman of advanced years, not something you see every day.
    So tomorrow we have Jo-Jo Moyes and I have a workshop on landscape, and a 1:1 with an agent. I’m also hoping to get a bit of writing done, and maybe even toddle up to the East campus to try out the new swimming pool.

This writing life…hard sometimes isn’t it?