Recipe for a writer

To fashion oneself into a writer, first assemble your tools.

Pens – I am extremely fussy about pens and haven’t found one I really like in about three years. I like black bic medium biros with the pointy lids. I like strong, bold, penstrokes – not the anaemic writing you get from many biros now. I sometimes write with those felt-tippy ones but they mean everything I have including the cream sofa is now covered in Rorschach-style blots.  People often give me fancy pens for gifts and they instantly run out and I can never manage to find the right refill. My pens also seem to burst on me suspiciously often, unleashing gallons of ink (how does it all fit in?) at inopportune moments (such as in a job interview). If anyone can find me a nice, strong, non-leaking pen, please help.

Notebooks – I like something thick, side spiral-bound, A5, with a sturdy cover and binding, wide ruled lines, ideally a pocket in the cover to shove stuff in, and an elastic band round the whole thing. Got that? I like Paperchase ones best (feel free to send me some for free, Paperchase bods). I worked out I write about 150 words to a page in one of these, so that gives me a good indication of word count when I’m at the early writing stages.

Computer – if you commute like me you need the lightest one you can get. Mine weighs less than a bag of sugar but I still have chronic back and shoulder pain, maybe because I carry round skip-like handbags with four books, hairbrush, deodorant, purse, laptop, notebook, diary…etc. If the laptop’s your home computer too get an external mouse. For the moment I seem to have sidestepped serious RSI by doing this.  Don’t rely on your computer alone for storage because they can and do die on you, so you need…

Memory sticks – at least four thousand, just to be sure. Back your work onto all of them to avoid that late-night waking-in-a-sweaty-handed-screaming-terror that you’ve lost the lot. This has happened to me several times when laptops died or memory sticks failed. It does happen. And you won’t like it. You can get online storage ones but I couldn’t figure out how to use it and accidentally backed up an older version and lost a week’s work and threw a wobbly at my poor boyfriend who thought it would make a nice gift (sorry).

Then take everyone you’ve ever met, everywhere you’ve been in reality and dreams, that annoying sound your work colleague used to make in the back of their throat, the smell of the mimeograph machine in your primary school, snip in ideas from every book you ever loved.

Simmer for several years in a sweat of fear, sweat, tears, and tantrums and serve on a bed of crumpled inkstained paper.

Makes approximately one writer.

How books can stop all evil (except paper cuts)

I’m working on about 10 short stories at the minute. I told myself I’d do ten by the end of the year. I hadn’t written or had an idea for a short story in four years before this, so it just goes to show that ideas don’t come from particles flying in the air. Or rather, they do, but you have to attune your magnets to draw them in. (See Wyrd Sisters for more on this theory).

So, I have ten stories. Topics include: serial killers, stalking, ghosts, suicide bombing, dementia, stolen children, and war. The most frivolous one I have is about someone doing their best to avoid a marriage proposal. What’s the matter with me? Why am I so mean to all my characters? I was working on a story the other day about a child getting stolen, and had originally written that at the same time his mother gets injured so she can’t have any more children. Then I thought, hmm, that’s a bit mean. She seems nice. Let’s allow her to get pregnant again. Why not? Give her some hope.

The strange thing about writing –one of the strange things – is that you (usually) love your characters, and they are real to you. But at the same time you must make them suffer, kill them, send them to prison, take away everything they love, give them abusive childhoods, put them through painful indigestion, heart attacks, knocked-out teeth. And somehow, even though you love them, you enjoy it. Yes, writers are sadists.

Here’s an idea – maybe the UN should introduce grants so that the would-be sadistic dictators of the world can be writers instead and take out all that evil on fictional creations. It’d be cheaper than peace-keeping troops.  After all, they always say one of the reasons Hitler was so filled with hate was that he got turned down for the art academy, didn’t he? If only someone had suggested he wrote instead. Imagine if Chairman Mao had carried on his little red book series – the little red book of calm, anyone? The world could be a very different place if people channelled all their evil impulses into fiction (The Evil Empire of the Sun? That’d have stopped Darth Vader, for one). As for me, I have no urge to wound or maim in real life – I’ve got several characters to terrify, injure, and possibly kill off, and that’s quite frankly enough for today. Plus, writers are weak and peaceable folk on the whole. They spend all day moving only about 2% of their body mass. They’d never have the strength to pick up a gun.

Hear that, world? Make stories, not war.

However, we haven’t had an earthquake lately

I’ve always been a pessimistic person. I think the main reason is I can be absolutely CRUSHED by disappointment, so I always reasoned it was better not to get too excited in case something didn’t work out (like that time my primary-school team got beaten in the finals of the 1993 Ulster Credit Union quiz final (I did win a schoolbag though)).

Sometimes I’m right about this. For example when I made a ‘things that could go wrong’ list a while before my wedding, number one was ‘major transport disaster’. And as many readers will know, the gods of the earth obliged with eruptions, ash, and apocalyptic doom. Well, it was actually kind of a nice sunny day down on earth, but I’ll take the government’s word for it that total shut-down was needed. And of course the wedding was saved after all (different story) but the point is I had already done the worrying that something bad would happen.

What’s that you say? The worrying didn’t stop it happening? Yes, but shh. That’s not the point.

The point is pessimism can be a protective mechanism, but I’m starting to wonder if it can also sap some of the joy out of life’s best moments. Today I signed with a literary agent – the dream of most writers – and while I’m excited and grateful and thrilled I’m also having some strange up and down mood-swings. I feel like all the excitement is leaving me raw and open to disappointment once again. Like you almost can’t experience great days and dreams-come-true without not-great days and dashed hopes.

There’s a lot of questions.

Questions like: this is great, but what if I still never get published?

What if they change their minds?

Why does it upset me to see I made a mistake in one of the books? Of course I made mistakes, tons of them, probably. And am totally open to fixing those.

And of course…

If I’m good after all, why doesn’t everyone in the world love me and want to publish me on the spot, name their babies after my characters, get tattoos of my book covers, etc? (I mean it really is the least they could do).

It is rather confusing and makes me understand a bit more why everyone on reality TV shows is always weeping and talking about rollercoasters of emotion. And it makes me see that whatever I tell myself, I am still hoping all my dreams come true. I won’t be happy with just having tried. Like in the Credit Union finals when I was just the lass with the weird general knowledge, I want to win. And that means being open to not winning and all it brings.

Anyway, I have an agent! Time to enjoy that one for a while, whilst getting on with the most important thing – rehearsing what I’ll say when I go on Late Review… no, I mean writing my next book.

Conversation between Pooh and Eeyore:
Eeyore: “It’s snowing still”
Pooh: “So it is.”
Eeyore: “And freezing.”
Pooh: “Is it?”
Eeyore: “Yes. However, we haven’t had an earthquake lately.”

Your tinfoil hat order has now been processed

I ordered some weird stuff off Play and Amazon the other day. Books about spies, Russian defectors, and child geniuses. I was worried in case it started giving me suggestions like ‘People who buy this also end up buying: MEIN KAMPF’, or ‘Often bought together: this book and a tinfoil hat’.

I also worry about some of the Google searches I do. ‘Is it possible to kill someone with a beer bottle?’ ‘How fast do you die if your carotid artery is cut?’ ‘What do people wear in prison? What happens when you visit someone in prison?’ ‘What happens when a child gets taken into care?’ These Google spies we’re always reading about must have me on their list as some kind of murdering conspiracy-theory nut with shifty criminal associations.

But no. I’m just someone trying to tell stories which may happen to take place in a areas I know absolutely nothing about (law, the police). The spies/child geniuses/Russian defectors stuff is going to be for my next book, another one that came out of a dream (which was a dream about walking through an old shut-up house on a hot day, but somehow ended up also being about the other things). I’ve written a bit of it already, but of course it may change once I get going. I’m a bit reluctant to jump in straightaway. This time it might be nice to do some research first before dashing off the book then realising one of the characters has the wrong job and a whole section has to be rewritten because you have to tell someone what they’ve been arrested for right away apparently. (The murder/legal/child in care/prison stuff was for my last book, the one that’s in the award. It was fun to do research and track down an actual expert to answer my questions. Now, where can I find a Russian defector?) I feel somewhat at a loose end until I start my new book, so I’m filling it with some short stories. I haven’t written one in years, didn’t think I could, so it’s been an interesting exercise. Now, off to Google bombs, the word for having no sense of smell, and stalking. Really, it’s all for research. Honest, it is.

Pen Idol

Having spent most of today writing a ghost story for this and editing my second book (to the point where I couldn’t tell was there a fly in the room or were the commas dancing round the page), it made me realise why there are probably so few films about writers and writing. There’s a few films about writers going mad/shagging/dying/all of the above, but that’s about it.

You can see why. I mean, how do you come up with visual metaphors for the process? In Shakespeare in Love you see him scribbling on bits of paper (parchment?), tossing them aside, then reading bits out to her while bonking ecstatically (as Jilly Cooper would no doubt say) with Gwyneth Paltrow. In Proof (OK not about a writer but same idea) Gwyneth herself scribbling on white boards, muttering, ditto bonking with Jake Gyllenhaal. In Edge of Love, muttering, drinking, trying to bonk Keira Knightley. I haven’t seen Miss Potter but doubtless it has muttering, drawing, and talking to rabbits (hopefully that is all). Becoming Jane? Lusting after James McAvoy (and who can blame her), not much actual pen-work. The Hours? Smoking in chair with big nose, wandering round muttering (Muttering clearing essential part of writing process). And I have to say I like the bit in I Capture the Castle where they lock up Bill Nighy in the dungeon until he gets over his writer’s block. But that’s it. The lack of writing is the story. The actual doing of it, not so much. 

So, no one wants to make a film about someone sitting at a desk all day, covered in inkstains, muttering and spilling tea. But what’s this? Apparently the ‘People’s Book Prize’ (no, I don’t know either) are planning to launch an ‘X factor style’ completion.

There are many reasons why this would clearly never work. Where would be the excitement for the viewers? Here’s Mary hard at work on this week’s task…..10 hours later, Mary has moved to pick up a biscuit…Now Mary’s crying over the placement of a comma. ‘It’s been a rollercoaster ride….it’s literally the most important comma of my life blah blah….’Here’s Mary spending an hour wondering if it’s focused or focussed. How can that compare to Ann Widdecombe on a trapeze?

As organisers say, ‘”We have to glamorise writing, authors and books and stories themselves”. Does this mean give them an X-factor style makeover with big hair, false lashes like fifteen spiders welded to their eyes, ‘on trend’ dresses made of tinfoil, etc? I’d like to see how they plan to ‘glamorise’ (is that even how you’d spell it?) someone sitting at a computer for hours, squinting, making minute movements of the fingers, and occasionally bursting into tears or shouting ‘it should have been me, damnit’, while obsessively scanning The Bookseller site to see who’s had a book published.  


On the other hand it’s National Novel Writing Month (I guest international now) in November, so they could possibly make a TV show fun by locking all the writers up together and forcing them to produce 100,000 words in a month. You’d see tears and bitch-fights then, alright. It’s a shame the organisers of this new show didn’t think to put in an unpublished writers’ award. Isn’t that the appeal of X factor etc, to rummage around in the great unwashed handbag of the populace, finding desperados, loonies, and wannabees? An already published writer is dull. We want someone with the manic gleam in their eye that says they’re just waiting for you to go to Tesco’s so they can break into your house and kidnap your pet tortoise until you read their book, goddamnit!!! That would make for compelling viewing indeed.

The helicopters of hope are circling the mountain

Well readers (reader? hubristic assuming more than one?),it’s been an exciting day. First the shortlist for the Sony Reader Award was announced and there’s me on it! (Along with someone who teaches writing for a JOB…but as we all know the underdog always wins, so that’s OK. Think Mighty Ducks, Jamaican bobsled team, Dodgeball).

Then agents started finding ME through cyberspace. Very odd feeling. Must be similar to how kidnappers feel when hostages develop Stockholm Syndrome. Surely they are supposed to be running away, pretending to go out of business, changing name, having plastic surgery a la Face/Off etc? Not wanting to read my scribblings.

But they do, so hurrah! Just like in film, end of Dirty Dancing, uplifting 80s montage, bit in The Social Network where they reach 1 million and are mean to Andrew Garfield, etc.

As I also have a day job I’m luckily kept grounded by more prosaic requests, such as copying a whole pile of DVDs (no, do not work in illegal Chinese DVD factory, don’t worry), adding links to website, and replacing inaccurate hyphens. I’m also for some reason more inkstained than ever before. Is it oozing out of me in excitement?

Today has been a very exciting day and even if nothing comes of all this, the sheer thrill is enough to keep me scribbling, slogging, comma-hunting, looking up how to kill someone with a bottle, jostling for space on the train, etc, for many years to come.