Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

My friend @LawrencePatrice nudged me during the seminar by Children’s Laureate @malorieblackman: “First non-white face I’ve seen on a panel.”

Fair point. I had seen one other, but I’d been to the full three days of #lbf14, dozens of seminars, averaging 4 speakers per panel. That’s not a pretty statistic. Of course, there were black faces to be seen. Picking up our dirty coffee cups, cleaning our toilets, but they were silent, largely invisible. What is going on? This is 2014.

Race is a visible marker of class. Where there are no black people, generally the white people will not be working class. Certainly that’s the case here. Publishing is an overwhelmingly upper middle class profession. Patrice’s comment crystalised a feeling I’d had all week, that new-kid outsider sensibility that makes me want to write for Young Adults: I don’t belong here, this is not my place.

How can it be, in the centre of a great world city, in a global industry which is seeking new markets, that our home-grown non-white and working class talent is invisible? The industry is so keen to get at the expanding Asian market, but it won’t put a black face on a book cover, unless it’s an ‘issue’ book.

There were so many union jacks in evidence, it could have been a BNP convention (apart from the literacy barrier). But it’s a fake heritage Britishness that is being sold, completely unlike the reality that surrounds us. And it’s getting worse. Publishing is a costly, and thus risk-averse enterprise. If industry wisdom dictates that black faces on covers damage sales, then that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. And recession and shrinking print book sales act as a multiplier, making the risks more fearful and conservatism the norm.

Then there’s the dirty secret of unpaid labour. Publishing is a desirable industry so there are always people who will be prepared to work for nothing — as interns, or producing free content in their own time, like book bloggers and Tubers. But that is not an option for working class people, however talented. How do you afford massively over-inflated London rents, without a hand-up from Mummy and Dadddy? How do you find the time to follow your passion for free, when you have to work to eat?

But I have hope. Malorie mentioned her inspiration, Toni Morrison, saying: “If you can’t find the book that features people like you, then you have to write it.” She went on to write dozens of books, and now she is, deservedly, the Children’s Laureate, and is devoting herself to encouraging young people to read and write their stories, about people like themselves.

Traditional publishing is entrenched, feeling itself under threat from the digital revolution. That same revolution has demolished the barriers to entry. It’s never been easier to publish. And those neglected audiences will find the writers who speak for them. Apparently, on Wattpad, the self-publishing platform used by millions of young people, the fastest growing category is Muslim romance. When I logged on there, out of four featured covers, one is of a beautiful black girl. Obviously doesn’t put off their readers. White publishing, this is why you’re shrinking. If you won’t provide it, they’ll get it elsewhere

How to finish something

Posted: March 13, 2014 in novel writing, writing

Not rocket salad, but so true

12 Books in 12 Months

Do you ever feel like you’ve got so much to do that you’re forever catching up with yourself?

I do.  It’s got to the stage where my whiteboard of stuff to do (yes, I have a whiteboard with stuff to do installed on a wall so it’s the first thing I see when I come home from work) looks like this:

20140309-144712.jpg My super cool whiteboard.

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this really happened to me, just after I sent off the pitch to NFM:


introduction to crime writing

You know how they always tell you to have your ‘elevator pitch’ — 2-minute summary of your project  — ready just in case? This really happened to me.
I’m in the Algarve in a tourist resort to get some head space to work on a writing proposal. I’m chatting with my nice friend who asked me to look up the Dancing on Ice results  — which I do. She’s 81 years old and tells me she’s reading 50 Shades of Grey on her kindle. I say I read the first book and sort of could work out the ending.
“Yes, I prefer crime and thrillers,” she says.

We talk about Patricia Cornwell, PD James’ Death Comes to Pemberley, and A Touch of Frost.
I tell her about the project I’m working on here:
“It’s about a woman who’s kidnapped. Only she’s a bit unusual — she’s a 15-stone pole-dancer…”

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My Butterfly

Posted: May 22, 2013 in writing

I was sitting alone in the library cafe with a pen in my hand and that look on my face.

“Are you alonely?” she asked, very politely, with that slight oriental ‘r’ sound replacing the ‘l’.

I interpreted her question as a pretty mis-phrasing of an enquiry whether the empty seat next to me was taken.

“No, please. Go ahead.” I gestured with my pen-hand to the seat.

She hesitated.

“Do sit down,” I said, reflecting how confusing some of our constructions must be to the non-English speaker.

I watched as she sat herself down with a neat folding motion, her hands ending at rest on her lap. There was something of the geisha about the movement, though she was dressed in that rather doll-like fashion of Japanese or Korean students. Black mini-skirt, white stockings topped by childish ankle-socks, a fitted t-shirt with an oversize butterfly motif and a gauzy fabric embellishment suggestive of wings at the shoulder.

“You writer?” she asked.

I glowed in the reflected light of Hemingway and Sartre. Squint and this could be Paris.

“You not alonely?” This time the question was more challenging, an implied ‘though’. You’re a writer and you’re not ‘alonely’?

“I’m not sure I understand you,” I said.

She smiled and it lent her rather bland face an impish teasing quality. “You not understand me? That is funny.”

I admit I can get a little prickly when I think someone is making fun of me. I felt a surge of objection but that was wafted away by a glance at her charming amused expression. She had dimples when she smiled, adding to her doll-like appearance.

“Are you implying that a writer should be lonely?” I asked, trying to match her playfulness.

“You told me sit down,” she said simply.

“Yes, but that was politeness. I thought you wanted to know if the seat was taken.”

“You want me leave the seat?” Again that slight ‘r’ sound: you want me alleve the seat?

“No, of course not. You’ve only just sat down. We’ve barely met. I’m Sam, by the way.”

“Sam. Like Sam Spade. You like Hammett?”

“Yes, I do actually. I used to devour those hard-boileds when I was a teenager.” I had a disturbing flash then of a hard-boiled-egg eating competition. Was that from Cool Hand Luke?

“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate,” she said, which astonished me. That line from Cool Hand Luke: was she reading my mind?

“So, let’s start again,” I said. “I’m Sam. And you are?”

“Your Butterfly.”

“Your Butterfly?” Presumably an Anglicisation of her original name.

She giggled. “No. Your Butterfly. Sam’s Butterfly.”

This was a bit peculiar. Still, I shrugged, “My Butterfly, well, how do you do?”

“That is just polite question? You want me answer?”

She had that attentive way of waiting for an answer, which some people find inscrutable, but I thought a refreshing relief from European over-emoting, which is just disguised self-preoccupation.

“Tell me something about yourself, My Butterfly. It’s an interest name.”

“You familiar with Lao Tse story?”

“Lao Tse wakes up, having dreamed he was a butterfly. Or is he a butterfly dreaming he is a man? I had a similar dream myself.”

“What if,” she asks quietly, “both man and butterfly are aspects of the same dream? Both being dreamt by the Great Tao?”

This is a report I wrote after the Northern Film and Media Pitching Your Project workshop, which may be of interest to those attending the SSWAG Pitching Your Book workshop tomorrow:

There were 9 participants with 9 projects. We were given 9 minutes to read all 9 one-page proposals. We were to notice what struck us going through them all, and if any one stood out.

tell me less

This, for me, was the most eye-opening moment of the day. I looked at the 9 proposals before me. More than 9 pages: some people hadn’t kept to the limit. My overwhelming feeling was: tell me less.

I wanted some way to sift through the information coming at me. Christina’s words: give them what they need to know up front, I heartily endorse. Be clear. Suddenly the truth of that was borne in on me quite physically. I couldn’t see what I was looking at. Where’s the white space?

what I noticed

The difference between the verbal and the written pitches. The two that stood out on the verbal pitching would, if I’m honest, have gone in the bin on the strength of the written effort. One, for the spelling and grammar; the other, because it looked utterly boring – solid blocks of uninterrupted text.


Play to your strengths. If you’re a bubbly attractive presenter, but not so hot on your written pitch, get help on your weaker area. Spell-check and double check; run it past a writer friend; as with the verbals: practice, practice, practice.

Clarity and concision

My written pitch was commented on by half the participants as a model of clarity and concision. You can see it here. Don’t, though, copy it. It has its faults. And your pitch must represent your vision, your strengths.

I could claim credit for it, but really it’s the flip side of my lack of preparation. I was given a last-minute place on the workshop after someone dropped out. I had a few hours’ notice to create my one-page proposal. Less is more. The time limit concentrated my mind. I also emailed to find out what it should include and the preferred format.


Give them what they ask for, not more. If they say one-page, give them one page. If you don’t know what they want, ask – or look at their website. You can always point them to where they can look for more. Which brings me to:


None of us put our details on our proposal. Always, always do this. (Unless it’s for a competition, in which case follow the Rules.) You’re not a secret agent. Every piece of paper or media that emanates from you should point straight back at you. You want them to know how to contact you, to see more, to arrange a meeting. On multi-page documents, put page numbers, title and some identifier in the footer.

Lay-out tips

  • no tiny fonts. 11 or 12 point for preference
  • don’t use Times Roman, sans serif fonts are easier to read, and more web-compliant
  • bold titles but don’t waste space with huge fonts in the title
  • use sub-heads for things you want to draw attention to
  • use bullet points or numbered lists
  • allow some white space
  • see below for the special rules for feature film scripts

Content tips

  • be concise: leave them wanting to know more
  • use hook-lines and images
  • have a clear premise
  • have an easy-to-read summary or synopsis
  • strong characters, vividly presented
  • read your summary for pace
  • if you have a ‘name’ on board, that will act as a hook
  • a clear lay-out should reflect a clear concept

Striking graphics

  • use colour, but test on a monochrome printer – your proposal may be photocopied and you still want it to be legible
  • for factual or entertainment programmes, use pictures, sketches and other graphics
  • for drama scripts, your words should paint the pictures
  • use your company logo or brand. Every proposal is a marketing opportunity

shortlist of thousands

Yes, you read that right. Channel 4 considered a shortlist of over a thousand for 46 programme slots. Commissioners receive thousands of submissions a year. This is what we’re up against. A minute to scan a proposal is probably quite generous.

what is it?

They are looking for this basic information: genre, length and format, number of episodes, channel, strand, slot on the schedule, audience.

who are you?

All contact details. If you are a company, who is the named contact person for the project?

Why are you the person/ people to do it? Can you deliver? What is your track record? For drama, the most important person is the writer. If you have a ‘name’ on board, use it.

can we afford it?

Always include a budget or at least a ball-park figure. They need to know what it will cost, and what sort of production values. If your budget is substantially over the norm, you need to justify it. If it is cheaper, then you can use it as a selling point (provided you can deliver on budget). Everyone loves a bargain.

always prepare for the best case

Dating books recommend you wear underwear that you wouldn’t mind being seen in by George Clooney. (I had to type that sentence very carefully: with George Clooney, in George Clooney, in with George Clooney, within George Clooney.)

Buyers are looking for something to fall in love with. Your project may be it.

FEATURE FILMS: special rules

Feature film scripts follow a rigid (and boring) format. If you deviate from it, you mark yourself out as an amateur. You can find out about film script formats in any screenwriting book.

Drama scripts also follow industry-standard formats. You can download a template from the BBC Writers Room.

Someone sent me a link to BBC Radio 4 – On the Ropes: Max Moseley. Since sadomasochism is one of the threads in my new novel, I thought I’d share these thoughts.
Overall, Moseley came over as thoughtful, articulate and rational. The interviewer, John Humphreys, came over as a moralistic twat. Amazing how sexual moralism can make a wealthy Tory son of fascists seem progressive compared to Humpreys’ reactionary spouting. Moseley pointed out that what consenting adults do in private is nobody’s business but their own. How can it be ‘in the public interest’ what people do in private, if nobody is being harmed? Public figures are surely allowed a private life. Isn’t that a universal human right?
The interviewer made great play of the fact that the women involved in the orgy were being paid. Moseley pointed out that these women, in their private lives, with their chosen partners, did the same things unpaid. Humphreys snorted derisively: they would say that. I know a few pro dommes and all of them do it because they like it. Of course they like getting paid too! But getting paid for something doesn’t in itself make that activity disreputable. I like writing and would do it whether I was paid or not, but it doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like to get paid for it. Indeed, I’m sure Mr Humpreys, in private, likes to pronounce moralistically. I’m sure he’d be the first to argue that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be paid. The reason for calling these women prostitutes and making much of their being paid is to make a connection in the listener’s mind between their activity and the image of street prostitutes, trafficked women and vulnerable teenagers forced into selling themselves. But it’s an illegitimate connection. Those women are coerced not consenting. It is the absence of consent that is key, not payment.
Moseley was interesting, too, in that he’d kept this side of his sexuality secret from his wife of fifty years. As a novelist, what a stunning idea! Secrets are always powerful in any drama. They create motive and mystery and suspense. When you have trouble plotting, it’s always good to give your character a secret. My heroine comes from the other end of the political spectrum. She’s an anarcho-eco- erstwhile feminist, and her reasons for keeping her secret are to do with the repressive moralism espoused by some ‘progressive’ people – especially a certain type of feminist. One could contrast Moseley’s “It’s nobody’s business but my own” attitude with that of Tommy Sheridan, who also took on the News of the World.

Months are rooms and the first of the month the doorway. I always like to make a new start at the beginning of the month. But where to start?
The answer is, of course, wherever. But that’s no help at all.
I had some homework from Kath Kenny: threshold. So how about start with that feeling of standing on the brink of something, reluctant to commit. Like starting a new novel, or restarting an old one. The blank page always feels perilous, but there’s nothing to do but do it.
I’d started a kind of poetic word association string – I was inspired by the poems I’d written at the weekend – and that threw up ‘threesome’ and then I was off…
which resulted in this piece:

Like most writers who aspire to be better, recognised, worthy (whatever it is you think you’re not at the moment), I devour descriptions of other writers’ lives. sometimes I even mythologise my future self – you know, that self who effortlessly bounces out of bed and gets to the task they set themself, whether it is finishing Chapter 3 or free-writing 5k words. I know I’m not like that (or only for very brief periods) but somehow the belief still persists: tomorrow we will be somehow different, more focused, more energetic.
Why would I believe that?
Because today, in its particularity, is different, more random. Tomorrow selves are idealised, free from the binds and chafes of contingency, clean and clear of the accidental, the just-happens-to-be-so. Let’s drink to them in their imaginary world. then get back to our own messy one where we have to operate in the midst..