Friday is Writing Day

 Bishopsgate Institute_©_Mike_EllisIt’s a lovely idea. I’d arranged to meet a member of my Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators’ critique group each Friday, for some serious, no-chat, just get on with it writing.

This needed equally serious,no-chat,  just get on with it suroundings: away from home, and the ever-present risks of dispacement activity. We’re lucky enough to be able to visit the stunning Bishopsgate Institute,with its library of ‘ world-renowned collections on London history, labour and socialist history, free thought and humanism, co-operation, and protest and campaigning.’

It’s a gorgeous, old-school library: all wooden parquet floors, tall shelves and stunning stained glass windows, wonderfully combined with historial artefacts and all the current magazines you could possible want for a day’s displacement, I mean research, activity.

The first two weeks went by with us both unavailable. I opened out the last Friday of the month for any SCBWI-er in London to come along: also making it harder for me to chicken out. So I can report a wonderful day of productivity: steps closer to publication and an unqualified success. Hurrah! Or …

Friday: get up late. Persuade daughter that sad packed lunch of tiny bread and cheese and water is character-forming opportunity to cook for herself later. Swear at person slowly paying for Tube ticket in single coins of unknown currency. Sit in train in tunnel while driver says she isn’t sure why we are there. Make will in diary. Avoid psychotic black cab driver bent on pedestrian destruction. Shiver on icy street. Chat brightly to SCBWI member who has arrived and desperately try to recall meeting them at conference as described.

Gaze at lovely surroundings and take seat closest to radiator. Arrange six notebooks containing bits of writing, plot ideas, character sketches in optimum position on desk. Gaze some more. Hate main character. Gaze some more. Loo break. Look at postcards and consider purchase of tote bag to add to enormous collection of unused tote bags.

Sneaky look at social media. Set up app to prevent sneaky looks at social media. Rewrite first paragraph. Rewrite rewrite. Check how much of scheduled undisturbed 30 minutes has gone on new app. Decide it can’t be only two minutes. Gaze at surroundings. Discuss lunch and possible attendance at free classical concert in next room. Go for lunch.

Return to find out another writer has arrived. Whispered discussion of progress. Agree surroundings are magnificent. Reset app.  Spot stacks of books for sale. Examine dozens of books at length. Remember recent clearing of hundreds of books.

Reset non-disturbance app. Rewrite rewritten rewrite. Consider turning contemporary ghost story set in England into historical fantasy set abroad.  Start planning series of blog posts for newly-commissioned work. Gaze some more. Find text  from friend who has arrived for catch-up. Meet friend for hot chocolate with writer in cafe. Discuss translation, educational IT, websites, photos, daughters and NHS. Announce must return to writing.

Meet staff member and discuss London Fortean Society meetings, children and writing. Agree surroundings are magnificent. Anxious call from A Level burn-out casualty. Plan evening of writing to email for comment from writing partners. Divert to bookshop to buy two brilliant new books published this week by Robin Stevens and Melinda Salisbury. Robin_Stevens_Arsenic_for_Tea


Get inspired.

Write all evening.


Photo of Library, Bishopsgate Institute, © Mike Ellis

Other photos from writers’ websites

Melinda Salisbury

Robin Stevens

Goodbye to Writeidea

Look at that amazing tweet. I’ll come back to it during this lengthy, rambling but happy post. I’ve been volunteering for East London’s free reading festival for the last two years and now I’m saying goodbye. Here’s my round-up from 2013 which pays a quick word of tribute to some of the amazing writers to take part last year.

This time was different and much more demanding as I was also curating the Festival Fringe. I’m very proud of introducing this idea last year and hope it continues. Unlike many of the big lit fests, the main festival Writeidea folk actually get paid. But the Fringe folk do it for free and they are a wonderful and noble race.

It seems very, very hard to single out anyone or any session from this year to mention and time is too fleeting to do them all justice. So I am going to mention some random personal highlights both in and around Writeidea, which should not be taken too seriously by those involved.They’re partly personal as they involve the folk I invited to take part, as this is my blog and it is all about Me.

Anyway, please don’t sue me or my tiny child will not have goose this Christmas (she won’t anyway as the Great Vegan Experiment is underway. Sort of):

Best Festival Footwear: A Gordian knot of a tie between Liz de Jager’s Boots of Awesome

Sarah Jackson’s category-creating shoes

and the Socks that Launched a Lambchop into Space, as wrangled by brilliant Nikesh Shukla.

Best Creative Use of a Fire Alarm

No, it wasn’t me smoking in the loos (honest) but someone did. Despite the fact that, among others, poor Jake Arnott had his fascinating talk full of 18th century slang interrupted: I’m almost glad that it happened. That alarm gave the world its first Create a Comic on the Street by a Supermarket masterclass, from the unflappable Louie Stowell.

Look here she is in the Guardian doing something similar but sans fire alarms. I met Louie through last year’s Writeidea, making it even more of a Good Thing.

Best Historical Talks

I live-tweeted Tom Holland on the origins of Islam until my tendons howled with multi-syllabic exhaustion

And I got to talk to him about cricket in the pub after. Alhough I missed his talk, archaeologist Dave Sankey on the Crossrail excavations beneath Stepney was standing room only and easily one of the most popular events this year.

Best Local and Alternative Histories

Organiser of the East End Suffragettes Festival Sarah Jackson read from her ace book about Sylvia Pankhurst and her awesome contemporaries – in the East End where it all happened, at a time of austerity and attacks on the freedoms on women. A real privilege to hear such a generous and talented person. That was followed up by the last but most definitely not least Fringe event: a fascinating look at London’s urban legends from Scott Wood of the London Fortean Society. From Springheeled Jack (talk coming up in January) to vengeance- (or not) inspired gargoyles, I could listen to Scott all night.

Best BSL Interpreted Talk

Another superb writer I invited but had to miss, darn it, as a Fringe Curator’s work is never done – star of the YA universe, here in his factual persona with This Book is Gay *bows*: the Queen of Teen, James Dawson. At least I got to meet him during that fire alarm break. And he got some lively signing done: ‘sexyfuntime’ caused no difficulties at all … 

Personal Biggest Coup Feel

Three top indie publishers – some of whom may well have done similar paid-for prestigious events elsewhere – came to talk book trade and times for free.  These are very special people. Meike of Peirene Press is bringing contemporary European literature to new audiences, Kit from Influx has published one of my favourite contemporary poets, Chimene Suleyman, and is doing amazingly radical work (watch out for the anonymous anarchist) and Sam from Galley Beggars brought us wonders as diverse as Simon Gough, Baileys’ prizewinner Eimar McBride and possibly the greatest author ever: Francis Plug.

Best New Getting Folk Involved Sessions

I know ‘interactive’ is the right word. But it feels a little impersonal for three events that were each in their own way very special ways for people to come together in real life. Lots  got together to eat cakes and write letters. Proper ones, on paper, thanks to the lovely Letter Lounge.


I am very, very proud to have organised the first Death Cafe in Tower Hamlets. Lots of us talked, listened, laughed and cried. We were really lucky to have this led by Annie Broadbent, again for free, gave a wonderful talk about dealing with bereaved people.

Another expert in dealing with difficult conversations, Ione Rojas of Furry Tales, came to help. And it all came just in time for me to deal with another death.

And there was #QuizYA created by Jim Dean of YaYeahYeah who has read more, preached more and inspired more people to read, love and be social over Young Adult (and other) books than anyone can possibly do with a mere 24 hours in the day. He’s busy bringing lots of lovely indie bookshops to daily view at the moment with #indieadvent. A real star.

Other generous people helped that to happen – that’s brilliant debut writer Robin Stevens on Jim’s left – @redbreastedbird mentioned at the beginning. She’s taking over the Young Agatha Christie mantle: one murder and bunbreak at a time. Robin also gave up her time for free, to chair a terrific session with Tanya Byrne: Tanya makes such beautiful, original writing look effortless. More pride here, at getting such hugely-talented YA writers involved. I don’t think I’ve ever written such a pleased with myself piece 😉

But that tweet, back at the beginning, has to be my Desert Island highlight: the one thought I’m taking away with me. This isn’t a humblebrag but a proper, delighted, ”I done good one. I helped out at a festival, invited writers and publicised it to booklovers. Sally, a young writer and bookblogger came to see, hear and meet writers she admires. Now she’s even more inspired to write. Here she is with Liz de Jager, author of the utterly brilliant Banished and Vowed, who also gave up lots of time and energy to give a brilliant free session on fan fiction.

I’m really sorry to step down as the Festival’s only non-staff  volunteer organiser but I’ve taken on a big role with the Society Of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and only have so much volunteering time to spare. But that tweet gives me a truly wonderful, my work here is done feeling. It’s been fun. And next year I will be in the audience.




Lists, writing and memory

Folkestone_Triennial_Spencer _Finch


Ray Bradbury used lists to spark off his ideas for writing. The one above was detailed by Maria Popova, on her excellent Brain Pickings blog. There can’t be many people with an interest in any creative process who aren’t aware of her inspirational posts: it’s like having an enthusiastic friend who calls to say “Wow! Have you see THIS?” and you know it’s worth reading.

Bradbury elaborates: ‘…when you get the list down, you begin to word-associate around it. You ask, Why did I put this word down? What does it mean to me? Why did I put this noun down and not some other word? Do this and you’re on your way to being a good writer.’

Just look at the words Bradbury’s subconscious throws up: a short story in themselves. Mine is more along the lines of THE CAT LITTER. THE WASHING. THE SHOPPING. THE DINNER. THE BANK. THE HOMEWORK. Someone save me from the tedium of my own thought processes. I can’t go on …

To be honest, that was a deliberate list. I didn’t use the unconscious processes most beneficial for triggering thought and associations. A look at the Weekly Blog Club summary up to remind myself of the optional theme: colour, and there’s mention of blue light and blue sky.

Blue. That’ll do nicely: ‘SEA. SKY. HARE. FLOWER. FILM. FALL.’


SEA. The sea in Folkestone can be the blue of postcards but this is rare. One of my favourite highlights of the last Folkestone Triennial was Spencer Finch’s  The Colour of Water You can still see the colour wheel pictured above and spin it to choose that day’s Channel hue. The second part of the piece was only up for the duration: a daily-hoisted flag chosen to match that day’s sea-colour.

SKY. HARE. The picture of Mark Hearld’s “Pisanello’s Hare” here does not show the mouth-wateringly glorious blue of the sky captured in an original print. I’m lucky enough to own one of these and it’s the colour I see when I think ‘sky.’ It really deserves some Doge: ‘Such clear. Many cerulean. Wow.’

FLOWER. A blue hyacinth: from a bulb I planted in the little communal space downstairs and rescued after a hail-deluge this week. It scents the whole flat. In homage to Janet E Davis and her stunning still life paintings, I created Blue Hyacinth with Blue Heirlooms and Random Blue Washing-Up Liquid Bottle Lid. Unlike multi-talented Janet, I’ll never be an artist.
Blue Heirlooms and Random Blue Washing-Up Liquid Bottle Lid

FILM: Blue, by Derek Jarman. I saw him introduce this hypnotic and unique film at Edinburgh in 1993 – not belong before his too-early death – at a screening with the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Here’s one of Jarman’s last interviews, given at that time.

That’s more than 500 hundred words: my new self-imposed blog post limit. But it’s the last thought that might lead to something: FALL.

I’m 17, being followed by a drunk boy I don’t want to see, near the Road of Remembrance on the Leas in Folkestone (not far from the Spencer Finch work.) It’s the slope that some ten million soldiers marched down in two World Wars, to sail to Europe. LeavingForTheFront-300x155

I tell him to go away. He says he will, if that’s what I really want, then swings himself backwards over a drop of at least 50 feet. His fall is broken by bushes of rosemary planted in memory of those soldiers. I remember screaming.

There are flashing blue lights: police and ambulance. Who called them? No mobile phones back then.  ‘Did you push him?’ a policeman asks. I’m upset, angry: of course I didn’t.

We go to the hospital, miles from home, in which my father will die more than 34 years later.

I talk to a woman in a waiting room: we’re both from Folkestone. Her husband is being seen by doctors.  He’s a workmate of the boy. His name is Blue.

Soon after, I’ll go to university. The boy will be forgotten.

Pics: Folkestone Triennial, St jude’s Gallery, WW1 Centennial Network

Once More, With Feeling

‘Once More with Feeling’ pic from Den of Geek


“She needs back up.”

Those of you who also worship at the shrines of St Buffy and St Joss will recognise those words with no further ado. You will also note the clever play on words in that last sentence (‘ado’: geddit?). For anyone else: I’m sorry for you but it is not too late.

Life’s never too short for catching up with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I read an academic book  recently, full of textual analysis of Buffy, that stripped all the life out of Joss Whedon’s sharp humour and observation, so brilliantly terse and witty and wise. Those last five words in turn are an homage to E.F. Benson’s Lucia. It’s an homage-y sort of day.

‘Once More, with Feeling’ epitomises for me everything that is awe-inspiring about Joss Whedon. He risks a hugely-successful series to include a musical: one that he has written and directed. It does everything imaginable: moves on the plot, defines and explains characters and their actions, is technically accomplished and manages to be moving and utterly hilarious at the same time. This one episode alone earns him the title of writing genius as far as I’m concerned.

So: to back up. I’m rubbish at it:  the singing, the watching the back of the person who saves the world (A Lot) and, even more importantly, the IT variety. At the bottom of the living room cupboard by the window, there is a laptop that maybe, just maybe, still contains every existing photograph of my honeymoon. I watched the screen catch fire a year or so ago and have never dared to check that what seems like a very dead machine is in fact deceased.

I’d rather hold on to the little hope that it might not be. Those photos aren’t backed up anywhere.

Last night, while watching another genius at work – Graham Linehan’s final IT Crowd on 4OD – the screen of the machine on which I’m writing went black. We switched it off for an hour and you probably heard my sigh of relief as it rebooted.

So today, I’ve been backing up the 70K of my novel that was backed up by Scrivener – but only on this machine where the software’s also downloaded. All my writing eggs in one basket. Now it’s also safely in the interwebs on My Writing Spot; twee name but great service for writers by Google. And breathe. I just have to remember to do so every day.

This week I have mostly discovered that out of every hundred words of my prose, at least 50 will be ‘that’. I ‘m trying to stop my teen protagonist sounding either like a middle-aged academic studying mythology or a foot-stamping toddler. I’m getting better at varying sentence beginnings so they don’t all start ‘I’ (get lost, Freud) and not every single sentence still has someone frowning, sighing, turning or gasping.

Whedon-don is unattainable, I know. But the writing’s getting better and it’s still great fun.




Kill the Talking Elk

Leap_the_Elk  _and_Princess_Tuvstar_ John_Bauer
Leap the Elk and Princess Tuvstar, John Bauer

Not the rubbish sequel to Drop the Dead Donkey: writing advice from my daughter.

It hasn’t been quite the productive week for writing I planned, mainly because of two events. The first is lovely but has kept me busy: I’m volunteering to help organise this year’s Writeidea Festival, London’s only free literature festival. I’ll post about that as soon as the website is live. Do please follow @writeidea to find out more in the meantime.

The second wasn’t quite so much fun. I ran into a nasty git and was assaulted. I’ll post about that too after he’s been sentenced early next month. It’s preoccupied my thoughts to an extent that has taken me by surprise, hardened cynic that I am.

So: writing. It’s now 1120 on Friday morning and I have written about four words since I got up at 0700. I’ve edited the first 5K words again and am about to rewrite a first turning point, where the action steps up a gear and forces a change for the main character. Her name has also changed over the past week.

She was nicknamed Moo and this has altered to Mu. Because, reasons. It might not sound much but it feels like one of the family wandered home and announced they wanted to be known as something different.

Anyway, back to elk. I have rather a thing about elk. I have been to Sweden perhaps 20 times now and, apart from at Skansen, the wonderful open air museum in Stockholm, I have never seen an elk. This is a constant source of amusement to my Swedish family, who take a sadistic delight in pointing out the abundance of elk in my absence.

‘Oh, look over there! That’s where we saw the mama elk and her twin babies, yesterday before you arrived/the day after you left.’ I’ve seen elk-hunting platforms on all over Småland, where most of my siblings live, and evidently ex-brother-in-law Adolf (I bet no-one else has one of those round here) makes a comfortable living from organising such hunting.

They are beautiful creatures. Although I know they kill a number of people each year by running into cars, I love seeing the elk warning signs on the road and long to meet one face to face in the wild.

So, when I wanted some form of magical animal in my Young Adult fantasy novel, part of which is set in Swedish forests, elk seemed obvious. A talking elk might not be in the league of Pantalaimon, Lyra’s daemon by Phillip Pullman in His Dark Materials – the greatest animal sidekick in literature – but he was the best I could do.

Sadly, Amelia loathes him. She also dislikes my heroine but rather fancies one of the boys in the story. I’m taking any views to mean the characters have some three-dimensionality or credibility so am not too worried about them.

I’ve learning a lot about my writing. I begin loads of sentences with pronouns (see?) and repeat phrases constantly. Description comes hard to me and I’m naturally concise, probably as a result of years of news- rather than feature-based journalism and pr.

And I think that the elk stays. For the moment.

The pic is by John Bauer, illustrator of Swedish folk stories, taken from


lyra's_bench_oxford_botanic_gardenBlog writing has taken a back seat to hospital visits over the last two weeks. We’ve also undergone a settling Sixth Former into new school procedure that has been lengthy and worrying. All done now.

I’ve been keeping up with scraps of writing and thinking about my novel from time to time. Now I’ve decided it’s time to cut the prevaricating and procrastinating.

It’s Reservoir Dogs time: let’s go to work. Of course, that ended really well for them. Maybe I need a new slogan. #amwriting is always a good thing to write on Twitter. Though Twitter itself is one of many diversions that need to be set aside for a while, I think.

I’ve written 73,703 words, which the wonderful writing tool Scrivener tells me is 211 paperback pages. Much of that was done during last November’s National Novel Writing Month. I scrapped about half of the 50K I wrote then when I picked it up again in the spring. I suspect the other half needs to be started from scratch again too.

But rather than confront that, to date I’ve rewritten a couple of scenes until all the life has gone out of them. A few others are just lines of conversation, in an attempt to try something new and fill in the gaps later. I should know by now that later doesn’t happen.

So: public commitment time. I have six months left of paid employment. I’ve written the first draft of a novel for young adults. The second draft will be finished by the end of October.

There’ll be fortnightly progress reports here. That started off as ‘weekly’ but I have no doubt that various daughter/cats/rants will intervene.

The photo is inspiration, from a literary pilgrimage to Oxford Botanic Garden. I’m sure you know what that means …

All offers of kicking me off Twitter, beta reading or coffee-making will be welcome.