Monday, 31 December 2007

January's publication...

What would you sacrifice to carve your name in history?

When Damia Miller is employed to promote revered Kinnerton and Dacre college, it doesn’t take her long to recognise that a grotesque antique painting recently uncovered on one of the college’s walls might hold the key to the college’s future.
Six hundred years earlier, master mason Simon of Kinnerton is preparing plans for his magnum opus, a college to rival anything in England. His work only interrupted when he becomes father to the son he has longed for for twenty years.
In the present day, Damia grows increasingly obsessed with the mysterious wall-painting and the college’s dark history. What is the painting trying to tell her? Why was the college named after its mason as well as its founder? And who does the statue of the carefree boy in the Toby Yard represent?
In mediaeval Salster, Simon of Kinnerton is struggling to come to terms with the fact that his son is disabled – cursed, in the eyes of many of Salster’s townspeople. But just as Simon himself is coming to accept young Toby a tragedy occurs whose repercussions will echo until the present day.

Testament is a startling feat of imaginative skill, distinguished by the breadth of its vision, and by the heartbreaking story at its centre: that of the sacrifice a child made for his father, six hundred years ago.

About the author:

After an idyllic farming childhood in West Wales, Alis underwent several culture shocks in rapid succession. She swapped a 60s comprehensive in the sticks for a sixteenth century Oxford college where she ate the lotus and read a bit of Eng Lit for three years; she then ‘graduated’ to a fast food restaurant where she worked for a year and was re-educated before becoming a London commuter whilst she trained as a speech and language therapist at City University.
Now, nearly two decades on, she still practices as a therapist some of the time. The rest of the time she writes at the home in Kent which she shares with her teenage sons - who resolutely fail to be dazzled by her industry at the keyboard - and her partner who is, gratifyingly, much more easily impressed.

She has, mostly, got over the culture shock.

Hi, Alis, tell us a little about your novel, Testament:
"Testament is a novel which reflects my own fascination with how the past can affect the present, even the long-ago past. The thought that the lives of people six hundred years ago can have a direct impact – practical, financial and emotional – on twenty-first century people is one that I find immensely attractive; it makes history alive in a way which just studying it as ‘stuff from the past’, self contained events which are now over, doesn’t. I’ve always had a penchant for split-time novels for that reason and I don’t suppose it’s any surprise that I ended up writing one.
I’ve often wondered whether human nature is universal – whether it really is human nature - or whether it is shaped by cultural circumstances, whether it has changed over centuries and millennia. That sounds deeply philosophical but what it amounts to in Testament is seeing whether, when presented with similar circumstances, people in the fourteenth century react in a significantly different way to contemporary people.
I’ve also discovered, not just in writing Testament, but in all my fiction, that I’m fascinated by communities. Testament is fundamentally about how we live as part of a community or how we survive without one. Why are some people drawn to defend communities and others to attack them? How do closed communities (like a mason’s lodge or an Oxbridge-type community) work and why are they so easily poisoned from within?"

How did you and Macmillan New Writing "meet"?
"The good, old-fashioned way - in the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook! I’d spent about a year re-writing Testament after getting very encouraging feedback from another publisher. When - with the usual regret, good wishes etc - they eventually didn’t take it on, knowing I had a book which at least one industry insider thought was good, I started combing through TW&AY. When I came across the words ‘Only open to unpublished authors’, I almost couldn’t believe my eyes – I had to get my other half to read it to see that it really did say ‘Send the complete novel by email as an attachment’ – nothing about ‘Submissions only by previous agreement’ or ‘No unsolicited MS’. I sent the typescript off in September and, after a truly agonising wait for the rejection letter, got the accepance email from Will in January."

What is your typical writing day?
"If it’s a week my boys are with us (they divide their time between our house and their Dad’s on a week-on, week-off basis) I wave them off to school at about 8, load the dishwasher, put a load of washing on, make sure the kitchen table has enough space for my computer and notebook amongst the paper debris which seems to accumulate no matter what I do and start. Actually, ‘start’ usually means ‘read several blogs’ once I’ve turned the computer on. Since I started my own blog I’ve become a compulsive reader of other people’s and there are a few that I read every day. I try to be working on the book by 8.30 but it sometimes creeps towards 9. Then I work til somewhere between twelve and one thirty, depending on how it’s flowing, when I go for a walk. I used to run but stopped last year because I developed a bad back – probably all the sitting down rather than the running, in truth. Actually, I’ll often break off and do the walk earlier if the writing’s not going so well, I find the rhythm of walking and the mental space that being outside gives me are sometimes able to free up my subconscious and get things moving again. And walking is so much more productive in this respect than running – mostly because, when walking, you can focus on things other than pain and getting sufficient oxygen to your muscles…
After lunch, if it’s a week the boys aren’t here, I’ll usually try and work til five o’clock, then post my own blog. If they are here, I need to get the blog done before five because, once they come home, there’s a run on computers for homework and – since our desktop crashed fatally a couple of months ago - I usually relent and let one of them have my laptop.
That all sounds deceptively organised. What you have to understand is that the day is punctuated with me constantly leaping up from the kitchen table where I write to make endless cups of tea (which often go cold, they just have to be there for some reason) or to hang the washing out, or make a phone call or (like this week) sort out car insurance, or… the endless variety of things by which I justify spending four days a week at home writing when I haven’t made a single penny out of writing yet and am, therefore, a horrible drain on family resources. The strange thing is, I find that, even if the writing’s going well, I can’t simply sit there for hours on end and type away. I have to kind of ‘sidle up’ to my story and peek at it, write a bit, then get up from the keyboard and go and do something else for a few minutes,as if I’m trying to convince my characters that I wasn’t really watching them, writing down their every word and action. It’s a weird process.
Then there are the things I do whilst sitting at the keyboard which aren’t strictly speaking, writing (no, I’m not talking about staring into space and thinking – that’s definitely writing) like cleaning fluff and cat hair out of my keyboard. Our cat should be bald, the amount of hair which lurks in my Toshiba. And checking to see whether anybody’s commented on yesterday’s blog, that’s a big timewaster too. I justify it by telling myself it’s all communication with the bookbuying public. Hmmm. How much self-delusion can one person seriously be under?
Then, depending on season, there are the endless arguments with self about whether one can work seriously outside in the sun. (I was so desperate this summer that I designed a little cardboard ‘hat’ for my laptop screen to cut out some sun-glare. It sort of worked but I looked totally mental peering with screwed up eyes at words I could barely see.) In the winter, the arguments morph into whether to turn the heating on. ‘Put another jumper on’, my green-tinted self says. After two jumpers, fingerless gloves and a hotwater bottle for my feet, when my fingers still refuse to find the right keys, I usually relent, and with all the thermostatic valves turned down except the ones in the kitchen, where I work, I turn it on.
As you will probably have worked out, I write straight on to my laptop, though, interestingly (interesting to me, anyway) I never word-process notes. All my notes are done in A4 notebooks, in pencil, and are done as manically-legged spider-diagrams. I’m an instinctively lateral thinker and find sequential thinking really hard, so sometimes, the sheer linear, onward march of a novel is difficult. I look at a page of notes for a chapter and think – it all seemed so perfect, why is it turning out to be so hard!"

Four random facts:

Worst thing about writing:
"No, it’s not the days when you look at what you’ve written and think you’re completely crap, they just have to be got through. It’s other people’s expectations. Family and close friends get it – they’re basically excluded from the creative process, sorry and all that, can’t be discussing the work-in-progress, just wait patiently a year or two and all will be revealed – but other people seem to imagine that you’ll want to tell them in detail about your book, and, moreover, that you will enjoy listening to them telling you about all the amazing things which have happened to them/their Aunt Mabel/this bloke at work about which they could – if they could find the time in their oh so busy life – write a really funny book about. It would sell a lot of copies, you know, make them a lot of money; if they could find the time. ‘I’ve often thought I could write a book if I had the time’ – are they the most irritating, annoying and slap-worthy words in the world? Well, no, probably not, but they are immensely aggravating, aren’t they, when you’ve just heard them for the hundredth time?"

Best thing about writing:
"Being left alone to do your own thing and – a nice spin-off - being a pleasant person to come home to in the evening. And, during the writing process itself, that moment when you suddenly realise, with perfect clarity, how a scene is supposed to work, or where a new and inevitable twist becomes clear, or when you finally realise what that huge climactic scene in your book has just got to be. The ‘click’ moment. For me, there’s no excitement like it. (Yes, I do lead a quiet life!)"

Writers you most admire:
"In no particular order: Tracey Chevalier, Sue Gee, Joanne Harris, Philippa Gregory, Minette Walters, Anita Shreve, Sarah Dunant, Jodi Picoult... Oh and, lest I forget, JK Rowling. I am a genuine and devoted HP fan. Aaargh, they’re all women! Never realised that before. Oh - Ian McEwan is up there too, but horribly variable – I can’t think of another writer of whom it’s true that I love some of their books and really dislike others. In general, I like writers who tell a story, draw realistic, engaging people and, preferably, teach me something I didn’t know before. And the sheer sensory overload of Joanne Harris’s books always reminds me how much richer my own books could be in that department!"

Most ludicrous moment in your life:
"Clearly, I have led a very dull life because I can’t think of much that’s ever happened to me which could be described as ludicrous. One of the most embarassing moments of my life was as assistant stage manager for the school play. (Either I don’t put myself in embarassing situations much or I’ve blocked them out – this was twenty-seven years ago, for goodness sake!) On the second night of the run, for no discernible reason apart from the fact that I must have had some kind of minor neurological event, I opened the curtains thirty seconds too early, before the actors were in place. This necessitated lightning crisis-management by the director and instantaneous generation of a few lines which Terence Rattigan never wrote to explain why the maid comes in to the room at the beginning of The Winslow Boy to find the windows open but the room entirely devoid of Boy! And the worst thing was, apart from an agonised look from my friend the Stage Manager as she saw the curtain opening, nobody said a word about what a total cretin I’d been, they just rallied round and sorted it! Why would I have preferred to be shouted at? You tell me…"

Thanks, Alis, and good luck with the publication of your book...

Testament is published on 18th January. For further information check out Alis' blog here, or to order a copy of Testament access the following links:

Saturday, 29 December 2007

Happy Holidays

Here’s hoping you all had a merry old time of it recently, and wishing you a great 2008.

Lots of writers have posted here about why they write, and I always say this is something I don’t want to think about. I always feel a little anxious that I would sit down, mull it over, realise there’s some easy-to-solve problem with my psyche, and cure myself of the need to keep writing it all down by simply buying a Paul Mckenna CD.

So this isn’t about why I write. It’s about what happens when I don’t write.

This Christmas was a special occasion for a slightly different reason. My Hubby had been working abroad, and he returned with a long holiday to take, so I decided to avoid all pens and paper, and concentrate solely on him for a while. I don’t write every day as a rule, but I do seven dedicated hours a week, so this was a real departure from my usual routine. I was quite interested to see what would come of this experiment of attempting to be a bit more normal.

The first week was a lot of fun. We played the Wii a lot. We dug out Scrabble and I let him win a few times. We entertained our baby Munchie and all had fun painting butterflies on scrap paper.

It was in week two that the problems started.

I got grumpy. I will admit I’m not always a ball of glowing happy sweetness, but this was beyond my normal tetchiness. I started to snap at Hubby and Munchie. I collected pens into bundles around the house and idly doodled on cheque books and toilet paper. Munchie’s chalkboard got covered in a morose off-the-cuff poem (you should avoid my poetry in all circumstances unless you happen to be a bit of a Vogon too) and the shopping list ended up in a diatribe about sprouts.

Then things got really bad. I may have stopped writing, but I couldn’t stop myself thinking about the book I’m working on at the moment. So I began to tune real life out. I didn’t hear anything that was said to me. I blanked people in the street. I let the answer phone take all my calls. After the fifteenth time of commenting on this, Hubby gave up and began a meaningful relationship with the Wii instead – at least that responded to his movements. I realised I was writing again, only this time I was writing in my head. There was no delineation between my characters and myself any more, because there was no allotted time to be them, and no allotted time to be separate from them.

I gave up and picked up the pen again, and thankfully became all too solid flesh once more. So that’s why I write – I’m only getting out the stuff I’d be thinking about all the bleeding time anyway. As long as I write, I’m insane for seven hours a week rather than all the time. And that has to be a plus, doesn’t it?

Thursday, 20 December 2007

A Fingerpost --------->

Michael Stephen Fuchs (author of the MNW books The Manuscript and Pandora's Sisters) has been rather quiet for the last few months, with only the rare mutter on his blog.

He has made up for this prolonged stillness by publishing a long post reflecting on the topic of life post-publication. It's marvellously written, and, though not the most uplifting thing you might read this holiday season, well worth a look.

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Nice Review of Peter's book

Hi guys! Has everybody seen this really nice review of Peter Anthony's A Town Called Immaculate on dovegreyreader scribbles?
Just thought I'd mention it in case this really nice blog isn't part of everybody's daily e-diet!

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Macmillan New Writing: the Motion Picture

Last night a few friends and I went to see The Golden Compass at the cinema, and as usual, after watching a movie adaptation (typically a bad movie adaptation) it got me thinking about adaptations of my own novels and whether or not they would be any good.

The problem with being a self-confessed cinema-bore, is that I know what makes a good film, and what makes a bad one. This means if someone were to make a movie adaptation of say, The Secret War, and it was a bad one, I would be able to see the car-crash coming from a mile away like someone with no breaks heading towards a brick-wall at a hundred miles an hour.

But would I care? Afterall, a movie adaptation produces “pound-signs” (or in David’s case, “dollar-signs”) whenever a book is optioned. And that doesn’t include when or if the film is made; if it goes into production there might be more money, not to mention increased sales of the book in question (though usually that’s a big “if” – the number of film-adaptations languishing in development-hell would dash many an author’s dreams). And it’s not like Macmillan New Writing is a virgin to the movie business either; Michael Stephen Fuch’s Manuscript was optioned last year by a British film company, as I understand.

Yep, there’s money to be made in movies, folks. Get it right, and there’s lots of money to be made.
But get it wrong though…

Well, there’s the catch. It might be a small one, depending on your point of view but it is best described by a horror movie called Rawhead Rex. This is a diabolical movie based on diabolical character – a demon no less. It is also based on a short story by Clive Barker, one of many contained in the rather viscerally titled “Books of Blood”. This eclectic and often groundbreaking series of anthologies blew my mind back in the early 1990’s when I first got into Barker’s stories, but the movie adaptation of RR must rank as one of the worst horror movies in creation and probably one of the worst adaptations of a written work (and if you count the numerous bad Stephen King adaptations, that’s pretty bad). In fact, for some years Rawhead Rex was the only short story in the Books of Blood I hadn’t read because the adaptation was so awful I couldn’t bring myself to read the source material, fearing it would be a different shade of awfulness.
(In the end, the short story was pretty good, one of the best in the collection as it happens.)

Now, if I had never read a Clive Barker novel/story before, after watching Rawhead Rex it is doubtful I would have ever tried to. And there lies the risk… A mundane adaptation, one that is forgettable, will not harm the author’s reputation - but an appalling car-crash of a movie will damage it, sometimes irreparably. And unlike your own written work, authors rarely have any control over movie adaptations (unless you’re JK Rowling).

The other issue is one of patience as well as control. It is very rare for an author to see more than one adaptation of the same novel during their lifetime, unless the first one was so terrible, and/or you live to be a hundred. That means only one chance to see your creation on the big screen. With that in mind, would you be pleased to let someone like Uwe Boll or the like, adapt your novel for the screen, knowing the result will certainly be utter cinematic-tosh, yet with the knowledge you’ll be getting quite a bit of money up front; or would you stick it out until the right director/producer came along running the risk that it won’t be filmed at all?

Personally, I like to think I have principles. I like to think that my writing career outside of Macmillan New Writing (where the world rights to the first two works rest in the hands of Macmillan Publishers as per the contract) will be one where I’ll personally vet each movie proposal that comes my way, to the point I would sacrifice some of those “pound signs” for a modicum of creative veto. That’s what I like to think, yet in this business, money can be quite blinding; the more money, the bigger those creative cataracts become.

I guess the argument is moot if no-one does adapt your book, but as I’ve discovered, surprises can happen, and there’s nothing to say that a big screen adaptation of say Shock and Awe, or Light Reading, or any of the other MNW titles won’t happen. Michael’s book certainly shows it is possible…

As for The Golden Compass… For the record, I thought the film was underwhelming. Something that could have been epic, with much emotional gravitas, was rushed and lacked any resonance. Creatively, if I were Pullman, I would be disappointed. Conversely, having seen the movie, I want to read Northern Lights (it was on my to-do list, but it’s now been bumped up a few places) as I gleaned from the film the potential for a bloody good story.
I for one won’t be going back to the cinema to watch the next two sequels, nor buy the DVD (unless it’s in the local HMV for a couple of quid – and even then I’ll probably regret wasting the money). But I think in this case it is another triumph for the humble paperback over a rather clueless movie studio, and I’m sure it won’t harm Philip Pullman’s reputation as a good writer either.

Sunday, 16 December 2007

Selling out, maaaaan.

With retailers seemingly selling out of Cover the Mirrors left, right and centre, I thought I'd have a rummage through the list of stockists I knew about and see how many of them still appear to have the book available for dispatch. The list is here in my blog - if any of you know of any more that I've missed, do please feel free to tell me.

Also, courtesy of Books

Friday, 14 December 2007

I’m Frank Saxon

Well it’s Christmas time, and if any of you “lucky” writers work in an office it’s the time of year where much tomfoolery and games occur. Admittedly we’ve had our fair share of quizzes and japery here already, including the obligatory “porn-star” name-game and “Star Wars” name-game.

So in this spirit, and before we disappear into Christmas bedlam, I propose we share our “Pseudonyms”. Now, I might be treading on a few toes if some of you MNWers already use a pseudonym, but my author’s name is a 100% me. And I’ve always wondered what my pseudonym would be…

So I’ve devised a great way of calculating one:
Take your first middle name (if you have more than one) and then add the surname of the main character from your first book.

There. Easy, isn’t it?

For the record, my pseudonym is Francis Saxon (and my porn-star name is Casey Feely*)

Merry Christmas to you all and see you in the New Year!!

(*The porn-star name, for those not in the know, is derived from the name of your first pet followed by your mum’s maiden name).

Monday, 10 December 2007

Why do we do it?

Hi – Yet another MNW writer joins the blog-party – my name’s Alis Hawkins and my book Testament will be the January MNW offering.
Many thanks to David not only for inviting me to contribute but also for all the amusing blog entries which I’ve been catching up with. Thanks also to all the rest of you for your posts which i've been enjoying – you are an amusing and talented bunch of people. Faye and Aliyah – looking forward to meeting you in Cambridge in January!

Anyway, as it’s my first post here (though you can catch all my deranged daily thoughts on my own blog) I thought I’d go for the novel-writing jugular…

Why do we write books? We all get asked it and, despite our protestations, I’m sure a most people who ask think it’s for the money. Let’s face it, whenever novelists are in the news it’s for some massive advance or huge sales - novelists plying their trade after a full day at work or barely making enough to keep up the payments on the garret don’t tend to feature much.

But we don’t do it for the money, do we? (Just as well, we’d be poverty-stricken fools if we did.) So, do we do it in the hope of money? I think not; unless you are a champion deferrer of gratification the pay-off is way too long term. And, if you factor in all those years of struggling and try to work out some sort of annual pay-rate…well, it would be well beyond depressing…

Then why do we do it? I can’t answer for other novelists, not even others here at MNW, so lets narrow the field a bit - why do I do it?

Like everybody who write books, I’m often asked ‘Did you always want to write?’ But the answer is that I didn’t. I wasn’t a child scribbler or a precocious juvenile novelist.
Early on, my passion was not writing at all but reading. I read my way through anything anybody gave me and the entire children’s section of the little library in my home-town. Don’t be too impressed, the children’s section was a bookcase roughly the size of an Ikea Billy-and-a-half.

I loved the other worlds that books created. I wasn’t picky. I read historical fiction, Jennings, sci-fi, Enid Blyton, me-and-my-pony stories… I lived in a farming community in rural west Wales, even books about ‘ordinary’ families living ‘ordinary’ lives seemed exotic to me.
I read in bed, at the table, at school, on the bus to school… if there wasn’t a book to hand I would take refuge in any print – the back of the cereal packet at breakfast, the ketchup-bottle label at supper, information on posters in school, rules of behaviour on the school bus, anything.
Was real life so boring or so awful? Not at all, it just didn’t seem as real to me as the life I read about in books. It was as if I couldn’t engage with reality all the time; I had moments of intense self-awareness when I saw myself and my immediate circumstances very clearly but the rest of the time the world I met in books was far more comprehensible.

I think a lot of reality, for me, is unregistered, that a lot of my life goes on beneath the radar of consciousness. I don’t ruminate much, I’m not one of those people who is always thinking, always teasing away at some problem or another. I often don’t know what I think until I’ve said it – either out loud or in print. And a lot of what I find I think is a surprise to me, or at least, the fact that I have such well-developed thoughts and opinions about stuff just sitting there waiting to be articulated is a surprise.

I’m notorious amongst my friends and family for being monumentally unobservant. Unless things are pointed out I’m likely to miss them – I have driven past accidents on the road without registering their horror, walked past people dressed as giant rabbits in the High Street without noticing that they were there. And yet, when I sit down to write, details which I must have been filing away come flooding out. I can describe somewhere in minute detail: architectural flourishes, reflections in windows, the smell of a little-used church hall, the precise discordance of a poorly-tuned paino... It’s weird. I’m clearly storing all this stuff away without any conscious awareness that I’m doing it.

So, do I write to find out what’s in my head? Not consciously. Sorry, that wasn’t meant to be funny, but perhaps it illustrates how little I understand why I do what I do. Consciously, I write because I am happiest when writing fiction, when I am feeling my way into another world, waiting for people to reveal themselves to me, to tell me their story. Nothing else I have ever done matches up in terms of consistent excitement; my other half can always tell when it’s been a good writing day because I’m so totally wired when she gets home.

But, exciting or not, revelatory or not, writing for me is much more like hide-and-seek than show-and-tell. Often, I feel that I am sneaking up on my story and reading it over its own shoulder, sidling up and catching snatches of conversation, seeing fleeting glimpses of people and their actions before they move away from me. Obviously, it’s my own subconscious I’m actually sneaking up on so the question is, why don’t I have access to it all the time? Why do I have to play grandmother’s footsteps with it and rush back shrieking when I turn around and catch myself looking?

Maybe it’s that mystery which keeps writing so exciting and interesting for me – maybe in writing my books I’m also finding out who I really am.

Playing with the Moon a 'Hidden Gem'

I've discovered that Playing with the Moon is one of the one hundred on the long (so actually very long) list for World Book Day's Hidden Gems initiative in the UK.

The basic idea is that readers vote on the 100 titles to create a shortlist of ten books, which will be discussed in reading groups and libraries and generally widely promoted. Then a final title will be selected.

This is all very exciting and unexpected.

Elsewhere on the site there's a short story competition and other activities aimed at children and schools.