Sunday, 15 March 2015

Catching up


I'll admit it, I've been out of circulation lately. For days and days I've thought, "I must write a blog post" and somehow never got round to it. I've realised that blogging is a habit, and once you get out of it, it's all too easy to let it go. I have a new admiration for those of you who post lively, informative, insightful, stylish views every other day - and I still love to read what you write, but have found it hard to follow your example.

For the most part, my excuses are sound. I had a first draft of a novel to deliver by the start of February, and I managed to do that. I had a few weeks' grace, when I thought I deserved some time out, away from anything connected to writing. I saw friends I had neglected while I was immersed in my book and my mother's final months.

Meanwhile the sitting room was disappearing under sequins and bits of painted set and emergency singing rehearsals for the mid-Feb village panto, orchestrated by the Panto King himself, still laughing raucously at his own jokes and inviting the world and his friend for drinks, tea and cakes.

 
A very eccentric British indulgence, the pantomime. A bit too much, I fear, for the French friends to whom I sent some photos. It seems to have confirmed to them how mad we are, and the response has been muted, to say the least. Was it Trevor in his signature panto role as Giant Underpants that horrified them? (Those red-striped pants have drooped rather off-puttingly since their first outing in Jack and the Beanstalk as few years ago...but they brought the house down). Perhaps it was our friend Richard, back by popular demand as The Dame (here, Widow Twanky, with a cheeky little song that included the immortal line..."I miss the hanky-panky, that came with Mr Twanky...") 
 
 
Or was it our neighbour John? Here in fine form as James Blond ("The name's Blond, James Blond") having just arrived by parachute to save the day - this was very much an original panto - for his big number, Blonds Have More Fun. Though he got his biggest laugh the night he forgot to put the blond wig on for one scene! 

 
The panto performances were still going when I got an email from New York from my editor saying that she'd read the first draft - and the news was good. There were points to address, but as a whole the verdict was better than I'd dared hope. I enjoyed myself very much at the last night party.
 
Then it was back to work on my book, with a deadline for the second draft. It might seem as if the fact of an author being sent back to re-work parts of a novel isn't good news, but I can assure you it is. It means the editor and publisher are willing to invest time and care in your novel, in order to make it the best it can be. The worst thing an author can hear from a publisher at this stage is, "Fine. Let's send it straight to copy editing." I have been there, and I can't bear to open the book that resulted, with its fundamental flaw clear and present.
 
Rob went to France for a while, but I stayed here working. I like being on my own, with freedom to organise my days as I want them, especially now daughter Maddy is in Madrid on a gap year before studying Spanish and Portuguese at university.
 
I also decided that I would take a few risks this year. I agreed to speak at a literary festival hosting some big names, though the idea terrifies me. For me, there's something strange about writers being expected to be able to speak engagingly and confidently when the reason (perhaps) they became writers was because they expressed themselves best silently, on paper. I have done talks about writing before, but always to small groups. But I managed to stand up and give a tribute to my mother at her memorial service, and if I can do that, I can surely do this.
 
So there we are, more or less up to date. I may go quiet again for a while, but I'm still here reading blogs, with renewed appreciation. 


Friday, 20 February 2015

A "Vignette" in France Magazine

 
A peek inside the March edition of France Magazine - Britain and the USA's     bestselling magazine about French life. I've written a personal account of a trip to Apt market with my daughter in search of the ghosts trapped in amber that you can sometimes see this time of year...
 
 
...when the stallholders selling the purest olive oil come to market:

 
As readers of this blog well know, I love writing and posting pictures about this market in Apt. I see that I described the town as a "scruffy old bear" but I meant it kindly, to imply the affection you might feel for a well-loved teddy rather than the threat of a starving grizzly. Though, if one such did ever make it here, there are more calming delicacies that you could shake a stick at.

 
If you haven't discovered France Magazine yet, I suggest you start with a visit to their website. You will find all sorts of delicious suggestions of new places that intrigue, as well as great photography and personal recommendations, recipes, history and even French language pages and puzzles. Make yourself a cup of coffee, sit back and have a little dream break.



Friday, 6 February 2015

Light at the end of the tunnel

 
Phew. I made the deadline and delivered the first draft of my new novel this week. I have no idea how good, or bad, it is. That's not false modesty, or disingenuousness; I genuinely don't know. Before I send it, I always print out the first draft because hard copy reads differently from the words on the screen. I don't know why that should be, but that's how it seems to me. No matter how many times I go over and over the text on screen - and I am a constant self-editor - I want to see it in the cold, hard light of day.
 
So I print out, only single-spaced so it looks more like a finished page in a book, rather than the double-spaced manuscript that publishers and agents want to see. Then I edit again on paper, as the world's most critical reader.
 
As such, I find some parts are better than I expected - and some are far worse. It's much easier to judge the pace and the amount of attention given to various aspects of the story when it's on paper. It may be different for other people, but this is how it is for me. I thought I had wrapped up the ending quite well, but last Sunday I ended up not doing a light polish of the text as I'd hoped, but writing 2,300 additional words to expand what now seemed rushed.
 
At this stage the book has taken over all rational thought. I consider the mundane necessities of life like going to the supermarket to be outrageous intrusions. I resent leaving my desk to answer the door or the telephone. All I can think about are the loose ends: the tiny plot and character issues that need to be tied up, the small mentions that ought to be recalled for proper satisfaction. I scribble these down on bits of ripped paper, newspaper, anything and put them in a pocket for decoding later.
 
At the end of this process, I make the changes on screen. It still seems extraordinary to be able to fit an entire book in a computer document, attach to an email and press send. It took me a whole day to print out my first novel, put it in the box the computer paper had come in, parcel up and take it to the post office!
 
So now I wait. (That part hasn't changed.) My editor in New York told me immediately that she is immersed in another project for the next few weeks, so not to expect a response for a while. I couldn't be happier. That's a fortnight's relaxation and decompression at least. As regular readers know, I have had a tough time to write through but now the pressure has lifted. It feels like a long time since the story began with a new place to explore and random observations in a notebook.


Sunday, 18 January 2015

The hardest deadline


When I returned from France in mid-September, I had a new book deal and a deadline. I thought it was going to be a bit tight, but there were exciting reasons why I wasn't going to argue. I would just put my head down and concentrate all my energies on writing, and I was sure that by the end of January, I would have a good first draft.

Sadly, real life intervened. I'd only been back a day when the first of several bombshells hit, and by the end of September I knew that looking after my mother was going to have to take precedence over writing. When she was in hospital, I got up early and wrote in the mornings before visiting time; when she came home for the end, I took my notes to work when she slept but usually failed to write a word.

January, new grit, I thought. I managed a week's work, still feeling terribly sad, but with time to concentrate, at least . My mother's memorial service was on January 8th. I managed to get to my feet to deliver a tribute I had written, but that very evening I came down with 'flu. Just reaction, I suppose. Last week I ploughed on with aching head and racking cough.

I put this out here not to elicit sympathy, though I know the loyal readers of this blog will be quick to offer it, both above and below the public wire, and they know how grateful I am. Actually, this is a post about writing. Sometimes it's not easy. I'm sure editors and agents would be understanding if I missed my deadline. But I won't do that because I pride myself not only in writing well enough to be published and paid for it, but on what that implies: being professional about my work.

I've written before about not having much truck with writer's block - I genuinely believe it's not much more than self-indulgence, an excuse to talk about writing without doing any. Of course there are days when I sit down at my desk with my head too full of other thoughts to find the right words for a story, or in a panic that I've literally lost the plot. But the mark of a professional is that you open the manuscript, take some deep breaths and go in. Then stick at it until the words come.

I'll let you know the state of play at the end of the month.
 

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Happy New Year 2015


 
 
I wish all of you a very Happy New Year, and a profound thank you for all the kind and lovely messages that I have received since my post about my mother. They really have been very gratefully received.
 
In return I send you this acquarelle by the artist Brigitte Willers in Provence: Mes Amours en Cage. I like the way she has captured the strong sunshine and the sense of optimism it creates even as nature is dying and renewing. You can see more of her work on this link to her website: Brigitte Willers.

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Lilies at Christmas



Lilies at Christmas

In wood fire heat, in closed-door warmth, the perfume rises.

White petals, pearl-glazed by glints of winter sun, release their incense. Sweet breaths of history blend with spiced fragments of the festival: old-English puddings, dried plums and orange (ashes on the tongue this year).

The lilies bloom: Heaven-scent, the Holy Mother’s divinity; the green leaves are her modesty, the stem her piety; dew-on-snow succulence, symbol of purity and birth. The trumpets blow and saffron-furred stamens tremble as we dare to sing with cracking voices and cheeks stretched tight.

Cut from the tightly-furled bulb, remembrance, these lilies are for my mother.  

November bouquets (sent in hope) wilted to sad outlines in a lamp-lit upstairs window as her faith in the coming adventure grew stronger, the finest of her many journeys. She is over the border now, gone to her mountain paths and woodland gardens, dancing under pines and holm oaks.

The funeral flowers remain.
 
 

My beloved mother Joy died twelve days ago, and the funeral was on Christmas Eve. She was brave and dignified to the end, having decided against surgical intervention for the cancer that was discovered at the end of September. For the last six weeks of her life, we cared for her at her home in South London with the help of hospice and district nurses. She will be missed beyond words.

I wrote about her here, last year: Joy and my writing.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

A quiet hello


I'm still here, even if blog posts have been increasingly few and far between. I've been trying hard to keep up a business-as-usual front but it hasn't been the best of times, for quite a few reasons since the end of the summer. I usually try to give this blog a positive feel although - as I have sometimes reminded my fellow Francophiles and readers of my books - the pictures of Provence life and pleasure are true but not the whole story.

My return to England brought a major disappointment and a feeling of being badly let down. I'm not going to go into details here about this or the subsequent, ever harder, hammer blows that have fallen since. Suffice to say, this hasn't been a good year so far, and it's set to get worse. I'm sorry if a lack of proper explanation is teasingly unsatisfactory but I'm not someone who wears my heart on my sleeve in public and as all of this, one way and another, involves other people, I have to respect their privacy.

So I hope you will still check out this site from time to time. I will do what I can to put up some posts, and try to make them less dismal than this one, but at the moment this is the best I can do.
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