Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Dot Lumley, agent and friend

This is a very very long overdue blog, partly because I have been thinking about the best way to write it, and haven't known where to begin...

The beginning I suppose would be good.

Dot Lumley was my agent for 13 years, and we always got along so well, I couldn't imagine not being with her. Sadly she became ill last year, and in January this year, she told me the unwelcome news that she was terminally ill. She faced her illness with fortitude, bravery, calm and humour, but unfortunately in October she lost her battle, and I lost my wonderful agent and friend.

I first heard of Dot, when I was looking for an agent. I had had more rejections then hot dinners, from people who loved my writing, but didn't love it enough to take it on, and a very good publishing friend suggested Dot. I was pretty much on the verge of giving up (I had ambitiously, and foolishly decided that two years was the longest I should attempt this writing lark, not realising quite what a long haul it was going to be), and I tentatively sent off three chapters and a synopsis of the first manuscript I had written. I should say the first ms I wrote was pretty rubbish. It was a real, How Not To Do It kind of experience. I started to write it when I went freelance in 1998, and wrote in between editing projects. I had no focus, and my personal life was in some array, so the first draft was VERY gloomy. Thanks to some huge amounts of help from Hilary Johnson, I was able to knock it into an okish shape after nearly two years, but though I had lots of people telling me I could write, like I say, none of them loved what I was writing.

Then along came Dot.

I got a fax (yes it was that long ago!), to say she loved White Wedding, and would I like to be represented by her. Would I? Would I, hell! (I still have that fax...)

The only slight drawback was that I was very heavily pregnant. In fact, no 3 was due the following week. So I wrote a delighted email back, and said if she could bear with me, I would be back in the writing saddle the following year. As it turned out, Dot had to bear with me for rather a long time. She sent White Wedding out to lots of different people, and got a lot more thanks, but no thanks rejections. In the meantime I had a go at a few other things, but lacking time, didn't finish anything. Then, I fell pregnant again. So there was a hiatus of a whole year, when I didn't write a thing (though I did manage to work out the plot of what was to be my first published novel, Pastures New), and Dot patiently stuck with me, giving me encouragement, telling me it would all come good in the end.

After nearly four years without a deal, I decided the time must come for me to tackle another full length novel, so I sat down and wrote my second book, called Coming Full Circle about young mums and their family dilemmas - a kind of prototype for the sort of book I write now, I guess. This one got a bite. Someone was interested, and I went and had a very enjoyable lunch, sadly no contract, but the request to cut all but a third of the book and rewrite. Which I did, and Dot rang me and said, "Fingers crossed, I think we're 90% there!" I was as you can imagine, rather excited. But Dot, being steady, kept me on an even keel, which is just as well, as book no 2 fell on the final hurdle.

At this point, I really felt like giving up. There were many good friends in the RNA who kept me going, and encouraged me, but without Dot's faith in me, I don't think it would have been enough. She always thought I could do it, and finally after six years, her persistence and patience paid off and I had my book deal.

During all that time, we'd only met a couple of times - the first time bonding over a shared love of Carrie (which I'd read as a teenager) and which she'd pulled out of the US box at the publisher's she was working at in the 70s, fantasy and genre fiction in general. She got me as a writer, and understood what I was trying to do. She gave me space to do my own thing, and generally had faith in me that I would eventually get it right.

As the years went on, we would meet regularly - usually at the London Book Fair, often at publishing parties, and once a year or so in London for lunch. Our meetings were always full of publishing chat, wine, and generally way too short. Until last year, I foolishly imagined those meetings would carry on indefinitely. It was with great sadness I attended LBF this year, and didn't get to meet Dot, as she was too ill,  but I'm pleased she made it to the Harper Collins Summer Party, where we were able to sit and chew the fat, and I got the chance to tell her how grateful I was for the faith she'd always had in me.

Publishing can be a fickle business, but Dot was one of those people to whom loyalty is paramount, and it is tantamount of the high regard that she was held in, that none of her thirty authors left her when they found out she was ill. Not only that, but I have so many friends throughout the publishing world who've told me of her kindness and encouragement, even when she didn't take them on.

Dot passed away in early October, and I went to her funeral in Torquay. She had a low key non religious ceremony, as befitted her nature, and is buried in a green cemetery in a wood overlooking Torquay. A lovely peaceful spot, which seemed entirely in keeping with her life and beliefs.

Life moves on, and I am in the process of doing so too, but I will always miss Dot, and be grateful that she had faith in me, before anyone else did.

I simply couldn't have done it without her, and I shall miss her wise counsel very much.

 Dot Lumley
16th September 1949-5th October 2013

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

New dawn, new day, new LIFE...

No 4 on her first day at school

 First day back 2006, no 4 starting school

13 years ago no 1 started school. Tomorrow she starts her final year at school. But more momentously then that, no 4 started secondary school today. After thirteen years of the school run, I am finally free. Woopdewoop!! (On the down side this means I am now of course really old, having given up so much of my middle youth to tramping back and forwards from school, but you can't have everything).

Back when no 1 started, we didn't even have no 4, and the first term was a blur of putting tights on small children (I remember that bit with grim horror), struggling out of the door in time, loading two small children in the double buggy and speed walking as fast as poor no 1's little four year old legs could take her, while envying other less encumbered mothers then I. It also rained constantly that term, and I remember just keeping my head down and holding out for things to improve. Which they did. Namely in the form of new friends, some of whom are now very dear old friends, who have supported me through thick and thin over the last few years.

And by the summer term, when I had ditched the double buggy, with no 2 and no1 squabbling over the buggy board, life did seem to be getting a bit easier. Then I got pregnant again, and for the next few years the school run was an awful lot of hard work. And it was back to the double buggy again. A friend dubbed me the Monkey Mother once, when he saw me pushing said buggy, with no 2 perched on the handlebars and her arms wrapped round my neck, and no 1 trotting dutifully by my side. My buggies had such a hard life, none of them survived long, and I probably got through three or four doubles plus numerous singles before I finally consigned the last buggy to the dustbin.

By that time eldest two oldest two were well capable of strolling the mile to school but were bored with it. So we used to play traffic lights to and fro from school (green for go, orange for slow down, red for stop), which worked a treat. We had also got into numerous after school activities (when no 1 started it was straight home after school), so I frequently struggled to tennis or swimming lessons weighed down with extra bags. And of course on sunny days, when they came out of school I'd be dumped with coats, jumpers, bags, you name it. To the point at which I started to refer to myself as packhorse mummy...

I had one year when no4 went to nursery full time round the corner from the others' school, which necessitated a longer walking route, plus THREE lots of newsletters, info, sports days, Christmas fairs etc, and then one year when they were all in the same location (though the two little ones were in the infants and oldest in the juniors), and then it was as though things were going backwards.

Six years ago, no 1 started secondary school. Protesting much more loudly about it then her youngest sister it had to be said. A trauma I still haven't quite recovered from. But I still had three on the school run. Life didn't feel like it had changed that much. Two years later, she was followed by no 2. Half and half. And then no 3 left and suddenly I was down to one on the school run, and I was one of the unencumbered mums I'd envied so much that first year.

Over the last year, there's been a slow withdrawal as no 4 has wanted more independence and started to walk home on her own. So I've gradually got used to not being at the school gate every day (a bonus, no school yard gossip, which I always hated, but also I barely see friends anymore) I had expected tears on her last day, but because we had to rush off to get a plane, and because suddenly it dawned on me how much freer I was going to be, I didn't actually shed a tear, though I had a lump in my throat. The school run has been part of my life for so long now, I'm not quite sure how I'm going to manage without it.

My children are growing up and doing what children do, preparing to leave me. (No 1 horribly soon now). I shall miss the chats we had, and the funny stories they told me on the way home from school, but I've grown up too. I'm no longer a young mum with babies and toddlers, I'm a (shall we say mature?) mum with 3 gorgeous teens and one pre teen, who provide me with much entertainment about the doings of their school day round the dinner table. It's time for all of us to move on. And scarily, time for me to find myself again, after seventeen years of being wrapped up in their lives (I am still wrapped up in them, but increasingly less so.)

And as for no 4, she is thrilled to pieces. After years of listening to stories about big school, she's finally joined her sisters there. She has the kudos of knowing people in the sixth form, Year 11 and Year 9 (unlike my big sisters who didn't acknowledge me at school, hers seem quite happy to), and she made a promise to her big sister today which should stand her in good stead. "It's all right," she said. "I won't behave like a Year 7. My skirt's rolled up, I don't have a back pack, and I won't go round in packs."

I think she'll be just fine.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Summer holidays

We've just come back from possibly our last family holiday. No 1 turns 18 next year, and I'm not sure quite how long we're going to keep her onside (though she did say, free holidays still appeal...). Family holidays can be tricky affairs. There is always the problem of, as no 1 succinctly put it, Undiluted Family, an issue that last year had me wanting to run away from home. (That being somewhat impractical, I am instead turning my desire into a story about a woman who runs away from domesticity into a fantasy circus in her head.) When the children were young, holidays were often more exhausting then staying at home, and then as they got a bit bigger we had the worry of mil at home while we were away, which wasn't exactly conducive to relaxation. Added to which the fact that we spend most of the year not in each other's pockets (me and Spouse included) means it takes time to adjust to the rhythm of living together 24/7. In years gone by that has caused some tension to say the least, and on one or two holidays we've returned lucky not to be divorced (the most memorable being our disastrous camping trip round Europe, where it rained constantly, no 2 broke her arm in Switzerland, we got burgled in France, Spouse had tonsilitis, and the weather eventually defeated us so we came home three days early.) And then of course there was the excitement caused four years ago when a panic attack the day before sent me to A&E for several hours, which is something that still lingers in my mind as I prepare to go away again. Being ill on holiday is no fun at all.So... a family holiday is always a bit of an unknown, and I'm never quite sure if I'm going to enjoy it or not.And they all seem a far far cry from the relaxed affairs Spouse and I enjoyed before we had children.

This year we chose to go to Side in Turkey, a place Spouse on our visited 18 years ago on a backpacking holiday prior to having children. We'd already made the momentous decision to have a baby, but as far as I was concerned, nothing much was happening. I was overdue when we went away, but I'd taken a test and it was negative, so I assumed I wasn't pregnant. My cycle being incredibly erratic at the time, being 2 weeks late wasn't really a big deal, and I remember feeling very disappointed that I was so late, because I had the romantic notion of conceiving on holiday. Of course, it turned out by the time I got home that I was already 9 weeks pregnant and the pregnancy test had lied. In the meantime, I'd climbed up mountains, nearly scuba dived, just missed climbing up a cliff and jumping into the sea on a boat trip (Spouse had had the wit to see what was happening as the rest of the mugs from the boat were led off on an adventure), felt so sick I was sure I had Turkey tummy but luckily hadn't taken any medicine for it, all completely unaware that my desired outcome had already happened. I'm glad I didn't know, as I would have been worried sick on my last childfree holiday, and having spent the last 17 years being worried sick on most of our family holidays, I'm relieved I have those happy memories of relaxation.

The good news though, is that those days look set to return. While I had my usual holiday anxieties - I hate flying and it really doesn't get any better, even with a little help from diazepam, I'm always slightly spooked by the thought of child snatching (though not quite as scared of that as I was), and now having teenage daughters in Turkey I got an extra layer of worry about one of them being persuaded to run off with a Turkish waiter, and I don't sleep well away from home, but...this year I really did manage to relax. The kids are now old enough that we can leave them and go off for a wander, as most of the time they just want to laze around by the pool, and there was so much to see and do in Side it felt much more like the holidays we used to take.

We had a very tight window for the holiday this year, as no 1 is currently doing an engineering work placement, and no 4 didn't finish school till 23 July. So we did something we've never done before and went away the day term finished (not to be recommended) - I managed not to blub my way through her leaving assembly and we dashed home, she got changed and we were in a taxi to Gatwick ten minutes later. The disadvantage of this was that our flight didn't land till 9.30 Turkish time. We'd booked a car the other end, but due to (my) cock up, the people we were renting the villa off also sent us a taxi to take us there. We saw a man with a sign saying Williams and naturally followed him, thinking he was taking us to an out of town hire car company. It was only when we'd been in the cab for about ten minutes, that we realised our mistake. Cue lots of very expensive phone calls to sort it out, and luckily the car hire people sent someone over the next day. It turned out to be just as well we'd cocked up, as I doubt we'd have found the place on our own, as it appears in the part of Side we were staying in there are no road names, only numbers.

We didn't get to the apartment till about 11pm, by which time everyone was starving and Spouse and I were concerned about whether we could actually find anywhere to eat (on our last Turkish trip we stayed in a one  eyed resort which had one restaurant). Fortunately, Mete, the guy who looked after the apartment pointed us in the direction of a local place called Hawaii, which turned out to be good value and a really fun place to go. So that was easy.

Side itself didn't disappoint. The old town is literally built on the ruins of the Roman town, and when Spouse and I were last there, we stayed in an apartment in the old town, which to our delight was still there. It is more built up either side of the old town (particularly on the west side - if you ever go there, stay on the east side), but it does look as if they are trying hard to preserve what they have. The only disappointment with that is, last time we were there, we had dinner in a restaurant which was in the ruins of the ancient basilica, but now they're (quite rightly!) excavating the area properly, and the restaurant has gone. Though we did find a neat place which had it's back wall on the other side of the basilica facing out to sea, and was a lovely relaxed place, with unpushy staff, cheap (if limited) food, and a great view.

When we were there last, the amphitheatre was surrounded by rubble, and you couldn't get into it, though Spouse and I did have a go, risking life and limb scrabbling up the outside of it (which I certainly wouldn't have done had I known I was pregnant!), but now it's open to the public, and was well worth a visit. In the evening as you walk into town,down the ruins of what I presume was the ancient market, or certainly where there were colonnaded shops, you can get a fabulous view of the sun setting over the amphitheatre and it is absolutely magical. To add to the magic, there was a family of camels living opposite our apartment, who spent the day taking people for rides round the ruins. The kids had a go, while we followed them, with the baby camel which accompanied the adults everywhere. The baby took it upon itself to go a different way, and Spouse ended up camel man for the day as he took it home. Actually... I suspect if he'd played his cards right, Spouse might have ended up as camel man for life, as Mr Camel Man gave us drinks afterwards, and seemed very keen to pair his three sons up with our daughters, and I suspect would have taken me into the job lot if Spouse had shown an interest:-)

Other highlights of the holiday included a trip to the Duden Falls, where you can walk behind the waterfall. Again an absolutely magical experience, and something that really fired my imagination - I now have a picture of where my dragon can live in the teen fantasy that I have been writing for a thousand years - ; a boat trip to the Manavgat Falls which included seeing turtles; a trip to Alanya (a place we also stayed in) where we walked among the ruins of an old castle, and found a seal in the shipyard; and a scary trip to the mountains looking for a placed called Selge which ended up with us being chased by Turkish women who wanted to take us on a tour of the ruins. It was a bit like Deliverance, Turkey style, particularly as Spouse kept driving up a road that was not only overrun with cows on the way home, but had a road which got progressively stonier and higher, until we decided to cut our losses and turn round and go home, braving the scary Turkish ladies on the way back.

However, the best bit for me was having a Turkish bath. Something I've always wanted to do but never had the nerve to try on my own. Another blessing of the children being older was they could come with me, result!  Our day started with quite the funniest thing I have ever done, which was to have a mud bath. We went into an outside pool which was knee deep in clayey water, with about twenty strangers, none of whomspoke English. Tentatively, people started applying the clay to their skin. Then a mud shower started, and soon everyone was standing underneath it getting liberally hosed down with clay. Which is one way to break the ice. We were soon resembling mud statues, and as we dried, we all started to look like something out of Dr Who. The funniest sight was a very large elderly German gentleman, who kept slapping mud on his tummy and saying "Sehr Komisch!", which he was, particularly.

After ten minutes it was time to shower off, again, hilarious as the mud got everywhere, in our ears, eyes, hair, bikinis...and of course the water was freezing cold, which led to more guffaws of laughter from our German friend. I don't think I've ever seen anyone enjoy themselves so much, and I think I shall laugh about it forever.

Mud finally dispensed with, we trooped off to the sauna, which the children loved, though ironically in England none of them would be old enough to have one, followed by the salt and steam rooms. No 4 found the steam room so exciting, she kept standing up and down to see if she could see us through the steam. "She's such a child," her big sisters said wearily.

The best bit was undoubtedly the Turkish bath. You lie on big slabs of marble, and get liberally washed over, before having a body scrub, followed by a bubble wash. I have never seen so much foam, and I was amused to see our German friend getting a big smack on the arse with the loofah. It didn't dent his enthusiasm, "Super!" he said to us as he left, giving us the thumbs up. And he was right. I've never felt so clean and fresh in my life.

We then spent twenty minutes in the relaxation room, where I was persuaded to let the girls have their feet nibbled by fish (at extra cost, natch), and then it was time for our 20 minute massage. Or in my case, a hard sell attempt to get me to have a full body, medical massage, because apparently my back is in such a terrible state my circulation is poor, and I am probably going to die if I don't do something about it. This is not a good thing to tell a hypochondriac who has a slight phobia about being ill on holiday... I had also run out of money, but the man kept saying, "no problem, we go to your hotel." Much as I hate being bullied, it is quite difficult to resist such a hard sell when you are half naked, so I agreed in the end, trying not to fret about the fact that my massage alone cost nearly as much as the rest of the day. However, I suddenly remembered that Spouse had promised me a spa day for my birthday, and it was still cheaper then in England so...

The massage itself was fabulous and we all felt happy and glowing as we left - me running out of money turned out not to be a problem as they simply took me to the apartment and I ran in and got some more dosh, which seemed very trusting...

All in all it was a fabulous experience, and if we ever go to Turkey again, one I will definitely repeat. The kids loved it too, so I've ended up promising them a spa day for their 21st birthdays. Better get saving now...

The rest of the holiday was spent doing the usual swimming, relaxing and reading, which was just what the doctor ordered as we'd all been running around like mad things before we went. I got through about 13 books this year, including the JK Rowling/Robert Galbraith book, which I'd thoroughly recommend, a Jo Nesbo, a Peter James  - both of which authors I'll, now go back to -, Ben Hatch's very funny Road to Rouen, Caroline Smailes' and Nik Perring's brilliant Freaks, to name but a few. But my overall favourite had to be Neil Gaiman's fabulous The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which was beautiful, mysterious, terrifying, magical, witty and wise, and I will be blogging about it later.

I didn't get any writing done, but I did manage a lot of thinking. I am having to get up early for the rest of the holiday to drop no 1 at the station, so while the others sleep, the plan is, I get cracking on the next Hope Christmas book, and finish my dragons, and work on my runaway mum story...

It's nice to go away, but you know, the sign of a really good holiday is that it's even nicer to be back...

Thursday, July 04, 2013

How I wrote Midsummer Magic: A post to celebrate publication day

As with a lot of my books, the kernel of the idea for Midsummer Magic came from this fab song by the Pierces, which I fell in love with the first time I heard it. I knew I wanted to write a summery book, and I also wanted it to feel a little magical, and this song made me think of  long, enchanted summer evenings. I love the video too, it feels quite mystical and earthy, which was also what I was after.

I mulled around ideas in my head and as I had to come up with something for my lovely editor, so I came up with this very rough synopis.

Recently engaged Josie and Harry are visiting Josie’s parents in the country to make plans for the wedding, together with her best friend Diana, and his best friend, Ant.  Unbeknownst to Josie and Harry, Ant and Diana have met previously and don’t get on. Sparks fly from the minute they meet, and one thing is certain, come the big day this is one Best Man who won’t be making eyes at the Chief Bridesmaid…
The weekend away takes place during the Summer Solstice, and as a dare, the four friends decide to stay out all night on the hills by the local Standing Stones, where local mythology says, a young married couple will find happiness, wealth and fertility if they can last a whole night there on Midsummer’s Eve...
In the village itself, Tatiana Okeby, an aging soap star is making preparations for her role in the local summer outdoor production of A Midsummer Night Dream. A night in the pub with Anthony Slowbotham, the rather unlikely local lothario, to wind up her agent and one time lover, Auberon Fanshawe, turns out not quite how she expects, thanks to the intervention of Auberon’s assistant, one Freddie Puck, who manages to persuade her a walk in the hills is just what she needs to be doing right now…
But as night time falls, a summer mist comes down, and the world seems somehow changed. Not all is at it seems, and not everyone seems to have remembered the boundaries of love…

If you are kind enough to read the book, you'll see that quite a few details have changed from this - not least Anthony Slowbotham's name, as I realised I had three male characters whose name began with A! At this stage I was also seeing Harry and Josie's stories running parallel with Tatiana's and Auberon's, but as the story progressed in my head, I started weaving them together. As you might have guessed from the giveaway names, I had also already started to look at A Midsummer Night's Dream for inspiration. Initially I was going to have Puck enchant my lovers with a magical potion as he does in the play, but when I came to read the text more closely (the funny thing about Shakespeare is you think it's all so familiar, then you reread and realise .. it's not), I came to see that wouldn't quite work, without making him seem like some kind of weird drug pusher. I also realised on closer inspection that the whole reason Oberon and Titania fall out (over a little boy in her entourage she won't give up), would look very wierd in a modern book, so I dropped that bit entirely and created a story for Tatiana and Auberon based on a relationship that had gone badly wrong. I also decided that hypnotising my characters would be a great way to get them into all sorts of trouble.I then wrote my longer, more detailed synopsis, which I won't share here as it will give too much away. Though I can tell you it too changed hugely in the writing!

The next bit, was of course getting down to writing. Oh dear reader, I am sure I've mentioned before,  but procrastination is my middle name. So I let the summer slip through my fingers, before finally getting down to business in September. It was only  the impending senses of doom brought on by a deadline at the end of November that kicked my butt into gear, and I started to get going.

All my first drafts are written by hand. (And did I mention, I write with Uniball pens, and yes, the lovely people at Uniball did sponsor me to say that!) I find for me it's the best way to get the story out. For some reason I am more scared by a blank computer screen then by a blank page, and a sort of stream of consciousness thing takes over and I find the writing flows more freely. The downside is, terrible hand cramp, and then I have to type it up, but I do like working this way. This is how some of that first draft looked:

I filled three notebooks in the end. I use Pukka Pads. (They haven't sponsored me to say that!) After I've scrawled out my first draft (my handwriting is terrible), I type it up and realise that it is waaaayyy too short, as I haven't added what my first editor, Maxine, used to call colour.  So then I do some more thinking and plotting, and write scribbled notes like this to help me, and after usually two more rewrites, it's ready to send to my editor, which I did with this, in early December.

Claire, my editor is not only very nice, but really thorough, and brilliant at picking up the bits that don't work. The first official draft of Midsummer Magic had alot of pointless running around in the dark, where I fell in love with the idea of creating mayhem for my characters, but didn't execute it well enough. So then it was back to the drawing board. Claire sent me these notes, we had some conversations about them, and you can see from my scribbles on the manuscript, her thoughts got my ideas going again. For me, I see being edited as a collaborative process, and I am always open to suggestion, and ways to make the book better. It's my baby, and this time I literally couldn't see the wood for the trees, and I needed Claire's clear insights into what wasn't working and what was.

During this stage of rewriting, I started to layer things more, trying to weave in Tatiana and Auberon's story more into the main narrative, adding in detail about the Cornish landscape in June, searching for Shakespeare connections to use as best I could. I watched/read A Midsummer Night's Dream obssessively, and deciding it was all getting a bit samey, worked harder to give my characters more misunderstandings. This is the version I sent to Claire, together with my research notes (alot were about wild flowers!), together with a map I drew of my fictional village of Tresgothen, so I could work out where I was sending my characters too.

I then had a combined line edit/copyedit to work on, which looked like this. Using the track change facility on Word, Claire highlights specific parts of the narrative, where I'm being too wordy or repetitive, and where things can be cut for pace. As well as Claire's comments, I also have the copyeditor's ( lovely Keshini, who worked at Avon when I was first published by them) comments. These are all about making things consistent, checking grammar, spelling, and factual content, and making me aware when I've been an idiot and made silly mistakes. Kesh is very good at it picking up silly things I've missed, and I find her input invaluable.

I think that stage probably took us to mid April, and then the page proofs came in. This is where my story starts looking like a proper book. And even though I have been doing this for YEARS, and worked on hundreds of proofs in my time, I still get a buzz out of seeing that title page with my name on it!  I usually read through the proofs once, and then check it more thoroughly against the copyedited version. Nowadays things are done digitally (in the dark ages when I was first in publishing page proofs would be typeset from scratch so there were more mistakes), so the proofs are usually quite clean, but sometimes changing computer programmes does wierd things to the font, typesize etc. And there are always things that you've missed which suddenly look glaringly obvious at proof stage. Having said that, it's still always possible to miss stuff, as I discovered to my chagrin in Last Christmas when I had Cat make meringue with egg yolks, and in  A Merry Little Christmas, when I forgot to change Lucy's condition from cystic fibrosis to cerebal palsy. In case you are thinking How Did She POSSIBLY Miss That? My defence is that after so many times of reading a manuscript you go word blind, and your brain automatically corrects things, so you read it as you intended to write it, not as it actually is. That's my excuse and I'm sticking to it!

The deadlines for writing Midsummer Magic where tight all the way through, so I didn't send my comments on the proofs back till May (luckily just before my op!). It is a huge testament to the dedication and hard work of the brilliant Avon team that the books were ready in time for today's publication. I know how tight the turnarounds were and I salute them. So here it is:  the final book, and very beautiful it looks too.

I hope if you're kind enough to buy it, you 'll enjoy it. And thanks for sharing my pub day to me. With the memory of my lovely mother in law in mind, I raise my glass to you, and say Prosit!

Monday, June 24, 2013

Feminism and the modern world

 When I was very young - say 6/7ish - my mother who isn't prone to taking to the streets to protest, became very angry in our local sweetshop. I dimly understood why at the time. It was something to do with magazines she didn't like. Around the same time I also remember her shooing away teenagers who congegrated in the bush at the park which backed onto the bottom of our garden, to snog and smoke, as teenagers do. 6 year old me was fascinated to see a girl in a bra and skirt, and a little puzzled as to what was making my mum so cross.

As I grew up, I came to understand what had made my mother so angry, and as a young woman, dealing with the casual sexism of page 3, having my bum pinched by boys, or being aggressively chatted up by men in bars, I became angry too. And a feminist. I remember many arguments while I was a student with guys my own age, who simply didn't get where I was coming from. Well you wouldn't would you, if you've never been discriminated against. I was determined that I was going to be independent, combine a career with a family and never rely on a man...

Then real life intervened, as it is wont to do. I didn't stop being a feminist, as such, but quite frankly it went on the back burner in the years when my children were small. Daily life was such a struggle, I didn't have the energy for gender politics. And to be honest, I don't think it was much easier for Spouse. While I was firefighting at home, the onus was (and still is to a large extent) on him to bring the bacon in.

However, I have four daughters, and I want them to learn from my mistakes (have a career that pays you enough to make it worthwhile carrying on working, would be one lesson I'd teach them), and I also want them to feel the world is their oyster, and being a girl shouldn't be a reason for them to ever think they can't do anything. To an extent, I think that's worked. They've grown up in a world which expects equality, and they are so sure that it exists, they think at the moment feminism is irrelevant. The gender war is over, it's all done and dealt with. My eldest daughter is planning on a career in engineering, and sees her sex as no barrier (I can remember there was one girl on the civil engineering course when I was a student) - hurrah for her. The second, however has no idea what she wants to do bar being a wife and mother. Which I find dispiriting to say the least.  She not only thinks feminism is irrelevant, but for her, it's almost as if it hasn't happened.

Because in the time when I had my head down and wasn't paying attention, I feel that we've gone backwards. Sure I had a lot of teasing from boys about feminism in my student days, but they respected my opinion, and on occasion I won some of them round. I was immensely depressed to read this article the other day about a bunch of teenage girls who started a feminist society at their school and got this foul and vicious reaction to it.

Have things really got so bad? Why are boys behaving in such a vile manner because girls are calling for more equality? The guys I knew when I was young might have been sexist, but they knew they were, and they also on the whole have grown into men who've tried at least to take an equal share in domestic tasks, and bringing up families. We've a long way to go still, but I genuinely thought things had got better. But in fact, I think it's got worse, and my daughters face a far harder time then I did.

One of the problems I think is that this generation has been much more exposed to sex from a young age then we were. I can remember being horrified watching Britney Spears on Blue Peter doing a routine which was totally inappropriate when my kids were under 10. Trying to buy clothes that didn't make them look tarty has also been a huge issue. And currently I am battling with my lot about the underwear they buy. They get it from places like Primark, and think it's pretty - a lot of it looks like it should belong in a brothel.  They watch Waterloo Road and Eastenders where people casually hop in and out of bed, with very little discussion about the emotional impact. I know I'm beginning to sound like a prude (I'm really not!), but it seems to me, the pendulum has swung too far the other way from, sex  being taboo, to it almost being something you do as recreational activity.

Added to that mix, there's the hideous modern day fact of online porn, which any savvy teen can access with a click of a mouse. So what? You might say, porn isn't new. Teenagers having sex too young isn't new. And yet, there is something new, pernicious and very worrying about the situation we are currently in, as this article makes clear:
As a mum of teenagers it doesn't surprise me at all. Granted, I did have a fairly sheltered teenage life (being a catholic, kept the boys I knew in check, thank god), but these are some of the stories I've heard from my kids:
- a 14 yo girl who got drunk for the first time, was filmed by a boy as she was being felt up by another boy. He was only stopped from putting the video up on YouTube by her sister threatening to go to the police
- a 13 yo girl was bullied after naively talking openly to a boy she knew about masturbation. Their conversation went viral and everyone got to know, and she was labelled a slut
- a 13yo boy made it his mission to ask every girl he knew to let him finger her
- a 14yo girl was asked to give head to a boy who had an STD. She refused only because he had an infection.
- 15yo girls regularly give head to boys in the loos.

Maybe all that went on 30 years ago, but it certainly wasn't my experience. I wasn't asked to have sex on a regular basis as my 15 year old has been. The latest coming from a boy she barely knew, who asked her if she was up for it now he was "legal", conveniently ignoring the fact that she isn't.

On top of that because of the false image of sex the boys have witnessed, girls now regularly feel pressurized to shave all their hair off to match the expectations of what goes on in porn films. I know that happens because my daughter has succumbed to that one. She's also been sent pictures of erect penises, which she finds funny, fortunately, I suppose, but I don't. I think the pressure on her and her peer group is intolerable. And it's not that great for the boys either, many of whom must struggle with the disconnect between what they see and what they should be doing with girls. And what makes it worse is, thanks to the advent of technology, it's always there, a click away, something they cannot escape from easily.

So what's the answer? In an ideal world parents would simply police it. We'd get savvy, and pull internet connections and block phones, and make sure that we knew what our kids were up to. But it really isn't as easy as that. You can do all that at home if you like (we try to, with patchy results), but as soon as they've left the house, they can do as they please. Plus keeping up with the technology is a real challenge - I was ahead of the game with no 1 being on Facebook before she was, but no s 2&3 have blackberries and I don't have BBM. Nor do I have an ipod and use snapchat - an innocentish app which kids use to send pictures to each other, which could easily be used for sexting purposes. And it's the sheer proliferation of this stuff, that makes it so hard to deal with. It's not something we parents can tackle alone, and most of us aren't equipped for it, quite frankly.

 I think education is one approach, and I thoroughly applaud Sarra Manning for writing about teenage sex in a messy and realistic way. I'd rather my kids read books like that, then learnt about sex via the internet.

And I think being open and honest about this stuff with your kids is also vital. Again something I try to do with varying results - you get a lot of "Ew! That's gross, Don't want to talk about it" kind of reactions. And teenagers are notoriously secretive, so they won't always talk to you about it even if you try. I think schools need to be proactive - making boys aware that what they are viewing is totally unrealistic, and that  they need to respect girls, and making girls aware that No, really does mean no, and empowering them to be able to say it. That's vital more then ever today I think.

I've also subscribed to these two campaigns:
I think it's vital we make both the government and internet providers see that the current situation is unacceptable and we should all be doing everything we can to protect our children. I get there's a freedom of speech issue here, and have no issue with consenting adults having access to whatever porn they want. But children shouldn't be being exposed to this stuff, at an age when they're impressionable and learning to become sexual beings. They need to do that in a safe environment, one that they can retreat from if necessary.  Otherwise, things are only going to get a lot worse.

Feminism irrelevant? My daughters have got is so wrong. Today it's more important then ever.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Fair, Fat and Forty...

Lordy, lord. Here I go again... nearly two months since my last blogpost. (I feel momentarily like I am in the confessional).

I do actually have a reasonably good reason this time. Which is, dear reader, that I have recently had an operation to remove my gall bladder.  When I blogged in January, I mentioned that I had had an horrendous hangover in January. What I didn't mention was that though I gave up alcohol for the month and stopped having hangovers, I realised at the end of it I still wasn't quite feeling right. Not only that, but I had two or three episodes of acute pain in the middle of the night. And when I say acute, I mean ACUTE... the sort of pain that leaves you curled up in a ball moaning slightly hysterically as nothing, but nothing makes it stop. Not only that I was having acid heartburn that Gaviscon just wasn't reaching, and I had the faint feeling of nausea a lot of the time. When I gave it some thought, I realised I had been feeling like that this (without the acute bouts of pain) pretty much forever. I had put up with it, as I thought the acid burning etc was a result of the stress I'd been under when mil was ill, but after the first time I had pain, I looked up my symptoms online (I know I know, fatal)  and  in between scary things like  cancer and heart attacks, gallstones screamed right out at me. Particularly as the first bad attack I had was after making a chicken pie (gallstones don't like fat you see. They really don't like it at all.).

It took a bit of to and froing from the doctor to make sure what was going on before he referred me for an utlrasound and an endoscopy (where they stick a camera down your throat. Lovely.). By now I was convinced it was gallstones (except in the stilly watches of the night when my imagination tends to run riot), as my mother suffered from them some time ago and it as as they say familial. Added to which according to the medical mythology  of my ma (an ex nurse), being fair, fat and forty means I am a prime candidate (my GP helpfully added fertile to the mix. Man, gallstones could have been made for me).

I was incredibly lucky in that I didn't have to wait too long for my tests, and the ultrasound revealed in seconds that I had a bag full of gallstones, or "one sick gallbladder" as the cheerful chap doing the ultrasound told me. I was so relieved to hear the words, "normal" repeated as he scanned my liver, pancreas, kidneys etc, I failed to take on the import of what this meant, until when I said cheerfully, "I'm so relieved," he replied, "It's not that great you have to have an operation." Which was true, but quite frankly, considering what the alternatives could have been (part of the symptoms I've been having including pains in my chest, eek, heart attack alert!), I was hugely relieved.  I was not so happy the next day, when I had to have my endoscopy without realising I should have told them I wanted to be sedated first (does ANYONE in their right minds actually want a tube shoved down their throat  while being wide awake?), but I got through that too, to discover there was nothing more the matter with me, then having a bunch of gallstones.

As is the way of these things, as soon as I started to mention it, turns out dozens of people I know have had their gall bladder out, it's really common etc etc, and amazingly you can function pretty well without it. Hurrah for that (apart from the fact it squeezes bile on to your food as it goes through into your stomach, I'm not entirely sure why we need one, and the pain it was causing me was enough for me to want to get rid of it as soon as I could.) I started to eat a sensible low fat diet, avoiding fatty foods as much as possible (one spectacularly bad attack came after I'd made Beef Wellington for Spouse's birthday meal.), giving up on things I really really love, like pate and soft cheeses - my one moment of weakness at a wedding had dire consequences - and waited to see the specialist.

Again, I was really lucky, as I got to see a lovely consultant pretty quickly too, and he too said straight away that the pesky thing had to come out pronto. I had been imagining I was going to have to wait until the summer, which would have been a pain, but possibly more practical in terms of organising the family, but I was initially given a date early in May. Not wanting to turn it down, we said yes straight away and then I started to fret about the children. I wasn't going to be able to drive for a week, how would the housework get done, no 1 had AS levels coming up, no 4 had her Sats, I didn't want either of them worried. Mind you, what do I know? No 1 cheerfully told me she was in a little exam bubble and didn't care. That'll teach me...

The first date turned out to be on a Bank Holiday so they moved me to the next week, the start of exams, and also no 1's birthday week (quite frankly, she was more worried about whether I was going to be ok for that, and I was trying to work out how I could make a cake that wouldn't go off before hand), but luckily as it turned out that got cancelled too. Spouse had arranged to take two days off, and it was too late to book patients in, so we had a pre op holiday, the two of us instead, which was much nicer.

Finally I was given a date of the 17th May first thing in the morning, and then panic started to set in. I've only ever had one operation, a long time ago, and I felt lousy after the anaesthetic. I also hated the feeling of being not asleep exactly, but in a kind of dark space of nothingness - as Spouse so eloquently described it, it's like a little slice of death. Besides, though it's not common, what if I DIDN'T wake up??? (Luckily the research about Friday operations being the most dangerous was published after my op). So cometh the hour, I was a gibbering wreck. So much so that when lovely Mr Consultant came to see me before the op, he said, "You look terrified." - because I was. Who in their right mind wouldn't be?

However, hats off to the medical staff. It's all so routine for them, it makes it feel more routine for you, the patient. The anaesthetists were particularly cheering, one kept me chatting while the other slickly got a line in and injected me with something sleep inducing. I can just remember asking if everyone is as scared as me (the answer was pretty much yes), before drifting off. This time, I am pleased to report, I didn't get a sense of black nothingness. I just shut my eyes at 8.30am, and opened them to discover it was ten past ten, and I was being looked after by a very lovely nurse, who it turned out had trained with my sister. Small world...

Then I was brought back into the side room I had come into in the morning, where Spouse and I sat and had several cups of tea and I attempted to eat biscuits, before the anaesthetist arrived to tell me everything had gone well, and the nurse eventually told me I could get dressed and go home. Yes. GO HOME.... As I'd had key hole surgery, I was up and out before you knew it. To my amazement, though I felt sore, I was able to walk to the car, and didn't feel the need for any pain relief till I went to bed. (Though big sis, who has just gone back to nursing full time, told me off big time. The thing is, I don't think I was being especially brave, but after the pain of gallstones, which literally doesn't ease up for hours, a bit of soreness felt like nothing.)

I had been advised to take at least a week off (eek! how was I going to manage that), but thanks to Spouse who did literally mountains of washing and organised the kids to help far better then I could, my lovely twin for popping over to help for a couple of days, and no 1 organising me while she took study leave, everything happened that had to happen. The second week was half term, and nos 3 and 4 were away for some of it, so that meant less to organise, and so I was able to take it easy. And for the first time in years, I literally stopped. Which has been a revelation, quite frankly. The world didn't end, life went on, the house hasn't fallen apart, the kids have got to school. I could get used to this.

Three weeks in, and the pain is abating, though I notice more twinges if I overdo things, the house is starting to look a little rough around the edges, and work is building up so my period of enforced idleness has to sadly come to an end. But... the good news is my stitches are healing up, I'm beginning to feel better, and I can eat pate again... Bliss.

With grateful thanks to all the amazing staff at Ashtead Hospital who looked after me so well.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

National Stationery Week

I know, I know, I haven't blogged for months, but in my defence, I have been really busy. And there's a new book coming soon, so be nice to me.

Anyway, today, rather belatedly, I am writing about National Stationery Week  which is happening this week, and a campaign to get people writing more by hand, organised by the National Literacy Trust, and a stationery company called Uniball. I got involved a couple of weeks ago, when I was asked to come and talk on the radio about the importance of communicating by hand in these techie days of email and texting.

The day started for me incredibly early - which is something quite frankly as a stay at home mum, I am not used to anymore - as I had to be in London for the first interview at 7.30. Conveniently it was a) the Easter holidays and I didn't have to get children out of the door, so they could snore peacefully while I wended my way up to town and b) two out of four of said children had gone on a school trip.

Actually, it was a real treat for me to be up and about that early, getting on a train to town. It reminded me of the good old days when I was a real person, with a proper job, and had no one to worry about much except getting myself to and fro from work. And there is something delicious about early morning in London, and coming into town as the city wakes up.

I am not sure Daniel, my wonderfully efficient host for the day, from 4mediarelations who organised everything, was as entranced with London's morning magic, as this kind of thing probably happens tediously often for him, but he made me very welcome, and within minutes I was sitting in a studio talking to Radio Leicester about the importance of writing by hand. Uniball had done some fascinating research into how and why people still use handwritten notes these days (and the good news is, they still do), which proves that most of us feel more cared for when someone actually bothers to write for us. To help us out (the bulk of the radio interviews were undertaken by Conal Presho from the Literacy Trust), the clever people at 4Media had broken the research down into region, so when we were chatting we could throw in a few pertinent facts. I tried this out on my first interview, and was immediately thrown the curveball that Uniball would say that it was their research, to which I responded, that they'd sponsored it, so the answers were what people actually thought, not what Uniball wanted them to say!

It was a fascinating day, very fast and furious - and Gurdeep, who manned the decks in the radio studio deserved a medal for being so calm, as did Conal who did 26 interviews back to back. I did 7 and found that hard enough. I learnt alot about how radio works, and being a writer stored in my brain lots of useful facts of new jobs for my characters to do (thank you Daniel,  Rachel from Smallman Media and Bekki from Uniball for such useful insights!), and really enjoyed discussing the central message of the day.

Because, writing is still a vital component of what we do every day. The majority of people aren't writers as I am, but every one needs to be able to communicate by hand at some point in their daily life. Far too many people come into the workplace these days without the necessary skills to do so. Part of the vital work the Literacy Trust do is to help them get those skills. It's a cause I believe in passionately, and on a personal level I know that I much prefer getting letters to emails.

So go on, make someone's day, pick up a pen and write them a letter!

To find out more about the valuable work of the National Literacy Trust, go to

In conjunction with this campaign, Uniball are running a storywriting competition here.

Friday, February 01, 2013

New year, new me etc...

Hello peeps. Yes, I do still exist. I am not sure why I post so infrequently anymore, except to say social media has taken over my life.. sometimes in the world of twitter it is easier to express a thought instantly then, spend time blogging. But today I have decided it is time I reconnected with this blog once more, otherwise it will be overtaken completely by spambots....

Anyway here I am ready to share with you the wonders of Dry January...

To say I drink too much is probably putting it mildly. I'm not even going to tell you how many units I drink a week, because it is far too embarrassing, and if I don't tell my GP that stuff, I'm certainly not telling you. I also suffer badly from not having an off switch - or I do have one, but it kicks in just after the LAST glass of wine I should have had, ie, way too late.

So for a long time now, I have been thinking I should cut down. I'm ok at having a couple of dry days in the week, but come about Wednesday, I usually feel a glass of vino calling. I blame the children myself... When they were young and I was entirely without a social life, I started to drink wine more regularly after they'd gone to bed, and it's a habit that's not only stuck, but crept up on me. Particularly since I stopped smoking. It's easy to say that you drink or smoke or do whatever your vice of choice is because of the stress in your life, but I can honestly say at the moment, considering what stress I have had in recent years, there is now comparatively little stress in my life, so THAT excuse won't wash anymore.

Over the last few years I've tried (and failed dismally, to the crowing of my family) to give up alcohol for Lent. And this year at Christmas my big sis started talking about dry January. To much sneering from my loved ones, I mumbled something about trying that. I should really have known better, my big sis not only once talked me into doing a very hideous fell run on New Year's Day (WITH a stonking hangover, thanks Jo), but also conned me years ago into doing a 10k, which she then backed out of, after I'd signed up for.
But she is much more abstemious then I am, so was sure she'd make a better fist of Dry January then I would.

I didn't want to commit to anything though, knowing how pathetically weak willed I am (I can only say it is a VERY good thing I have never tried hard drugs), so while I toyed with doing it for charity, I gave up on the idea pretty swiftly. I really wasn't sure I was even going to make it through one day, let alone a month. So I decided a quiet approach was best, and I wasn't going to make any bold and meaningless promises to anyone, if only to avoid the family mirth when I failed yet again.

As it happened, I woke up on New  Year's Day with a hideous hangover. I'd like to say we'd been to a wild party, but all that had happened was Spouse had switched to beer without me realising, so I drained the second bottle of wine all by myself with horrendous consequences. I felt so ill, the thought of alcohol the next day was the last thing on my mind (I swear the only reason I am not an alcoholic is that I can't do hair of the dog), and is it happened, I didn't feel much like it the next day either.  I was slightly tempted on the 3rd, but the lingering memory of the hangover was a powerful impediment. By the Friday I was feeling quite pleased with myself. Normally, I'd be the first to open the wine on Friday night, but that night I had to do a lot of offspring related driving, so I didn't drink then, which meant  four sober days. And I managed to resist the temptation on Saturday and Sunday, despite much provocation in the shape of family rows. And then it was Monday, and I'd done a whole week.

Although I am very weak willed, I also possess a stubborn streak. Having got through a week, I was damned if I wasn't going to get to the end of the month. (A similar thing kicked in when I stopped smoking and kept me on the straight and narrow till I kicked the habit). The second week was tough, but by the third week I was feeling ok about it. And now it's February (and while the last two days have felt more testing then the previous three weeks), I have miraculously stuck to my guns and done what I set out to do.

And the resulting health benefits? (I am resolutely IGNORING the irritating article I read in the Mail saying there are none). Well,  I do feel healthier, though I still struggle to get up in the mornings, and I don't seem to have lost any weight, which is annoying. However, I can report that exercise is much easier, and I run faster then I did when I was drinking.

Tonight is Friday, and I can have a drink. At the moment, I am not entirely sure I will have one. Alot of the desire to drink seems to have seeped away. Whether it comes back as soon as I have a glass I don't know, but I'm certainly going to try to keep to a few dry days a week if I can. And as the children are developing social lives which involve me going out late to pick them up, it looks as though my weekend drinking is going to be a thing of the past. So Dry January has been a good preparation for the teenage years, and maybe I won't resent the sacrifice so much anymore...

In the meantime, I have at least proved to myself I'm not as alcohol dependent as I thought, and have nearly cracked 10 minute miles for the first time in years. So it has had it's benefits...

And my sister? Nah, she didn't even last the week...