18 April 2014

Womentoring...what a fabulous project, ladies!

I only found out about THIS AMAZING PROJECT on an on-line forum last Monday and immediately it felt it had been devised especially for me. I danced around with an energy I haven't felt for at least a year - or maybe it was because spring had finally arrived in my area of Yorkshire when a female mallard and her 15 duckings came to visit our pond that morning and the sun shone brightly and it was warm enough to have our  breakfast in the conservatory for the first time since last September. Whatever the reason, I set to and applied.

Of course, I will probably be unsuccessful. After all, it is completely bone fide and made up of some wonderful writers that I am sure it will be over-subscribed. But at least I made an effort. And I can apply again. However, at present, it has at least given me a boost to keep going with my WIP which has been languishing in the doldrums over the past few weeks because Jon is to undergo major heart surgery in two weeks time and my writing has paled in importance.

What I do know is that - in times past - I would have happily volunteered as a mentor but those days have passed due to my health problems. So I am even more in awe of those women writers who have volunteered to give their precious time free and willingly. Aren't women writers wonderful people! I've never met more than a few who are not encouraging, inspiring and willing to pass on their expertise with a smile and a shoulder to cry on when needed.

Sorry men. It's a female only initiative for now. But there's nothing to stop anyone of any gender or persuasion from setting up something similar. No wonder I suddenly feel the world is a better place and I am so happy to be a woman.

30 March 2014

The Groves of Academe

A very long time ago, I was 18 and full of youthful optimism. But I was also hideously naive and ill-informed. I have previously touched on the fact that my secondary schooling was not the best and, because I was, as I said, naive and ill-informed (and also brought up not to rock the boat) I didn't think to push myself  in any way. I did what I was supposed to do and didn't expect any more than that. And so it was when the moment arrived to think about further education, the possibility of Oxford or Cambridge universities never occurred to me - or rather no-one ever suggested the possibility to me or how I might go about it  if I did. As for completing my UCCA form (now called UCAS), I had no-one to guide me  My school didn't see that it had anything to do with them except to hand out the forms and sign the headmaster's report. I therefore chose universities not for their syllabuses but whether I: liked the sound of them. Birmingham? Manchester? Keele. Where? No way! (See? I told you I was dim.)

I had chosen to study English, French and Spanish for A level but I picked French for further study because I thought I was good at it (wrong again!) and because lovely Mr Archer, who had taught me the subject since I was eleven was the only teacher who was interested in me. My parents didn't know. After all, when they were eighteen, the Second World War was looming and, although they both did well at school, it was unheard of for people of their background to continue into further education. So it was a thrill when I got the chance but now, I realise, they were as overwhelmed by it as if I were choosing which planet to fly to.

Once I had made my choice and after Dad took me to various interviews at Bristol, Warwick and somewhere else I can't remember, I was offered a place at Bristol, subject to getting three Bs or higher. Only...I made a mess of my Spanish A level and failed. So it was on to clearing and I eventually went to Reading. Once there, things didn't go well for many reasons too complicated to go into here. I was so miserable and confused that I decided to pack it all in, come home and get a job - which is what I did.

I didn't settle at that either. I was in no fit state to do anything else but a routine office job and although I earned a good enough salary  it didn't satisfy me or make me any happier. Then an good friend said that I ought to re-consider higher education but not French. What about English Literature? After all, I had got a better grade for my A level English than my French and had enjoyed everything about the set texts I studied And so I had a major re-think. So, to cut what has turned into a very long story, I then went off to Queen Mary College, University of London.

Queen Mary College

London University had many similarities with Oxford and Cambridge except that it's scattered widely across the capital. Queen Mary College was in The Mile End Road, then a very poor area. There was no Canary Wharf or any of the recent regeneration. The English Department was tiny as the College was known primarily for its Engineering Department. But I also went to many lectures at Senate House in Bloomsbury (a fabulous example of Art Deco architecture) and got to known Dillons wonderful academic bookshop as well, the British Museum  and also the old haunts of Virginia Woolf and began my love affair with London which lasted for ten years.

Senate House

But I particularly grew to love my new East-End home and everything I was learning, even though, like many of the more traditional English courses of that time, we studied compulsory Anglo Saxon and nothing more contemporary than Dickens- except for an optional paper in 20th century literature which cut off at Thomas Hardy! (It's all changed now) The English Department has grown enormously and the syllabus looks so exciting!  But even back then I enjoyed it all and what it taught me. I worked hard and got a good degree. It nurtured my continuing love for, amongst many other things Anglo-Saxon culture, the Pre-Raphaelites, Victorian couture and even Virginia Woolf. When an English tutor once announced that there was no way he would ever hold seminars and tutorials about her, I could smell his disgust and decided there and then to study her in depth and alone! Which I did and never ever regretted. She remains a passion of mine.

But there are times now I wonder whether I might have had enough ability for an Oxford education - if I'd left it a few more years to mature from that naive schoolgirl who drifted unknowingly through the realities of life. Then again, had I gone there straight from school I'm convinced, with the benefit of hindsight, that I would have suffered an even more catastrophic nervous breakdown than I did. For that's what it was. Make no mistake.But back them, one was left to find one's own way out of such things. It's taken me much of my life.

This brings me - at last - to the book I enjoyed recently: The Unexpected Professor by John Carey. Despite the many and obvious differences between the author's experiences and my own, it chimed with my own undergraduate studies and the books I love. But more than that, it has rekindled my continuing passion for English Literature and the chance such a traditional study course (and it was old-fashioned even back in the 70s)  gave me to study the splendour in depth and range of our country's poets, dramatists and novelists. I don't agree with all of John Carey's passions. I am shocked even now by the way his book ignores almost all women's literature. And I am particularly appalled that there is no reference to Virginia Woof who, to me, is was a genius. But it has given me an understanding of what was like for a grammar school-educated youth to become an Oxford alumni.

20 March 2014

Historical Fiction: Do you read it for the history or the fiction?

The obvious answer is both. After all, if you only care about the history, then why on earth would you read historical fiction?

So, how far should a historical fiction writer play with the known facts? And how much research is necessary. This is a huge topic that is only lightly touched upon in this Guardian article. Historical fiction is not all the same, any more than academic historians and their books are the same. And what I might consider a convincing novel, rich with historical detail, might not convince some readers who are easily derailed by, say, what they see as anachronisms that fly straight over my head.

I may have said this before elsewhere but I loved history at school until I was taught, from the age of fourteen to sixteen by a woman I loathed and feared in equal measure. I still cannot cope with sarcasm but when I was a teenager I was so sensitive, it would render me speechless with tears. And the more I cried, the more she mocked me. It was because of that I opted out of history 'O' level and chose Art instead. With the advantage of hindsight it was a foolish thing to do and cut off my nose to spite my face and didn't help my academic prospects. It is therefore ironic that, 50 years later, the only fiction I want to write and read with a passion is historical. 

Without the restraint of history lessons, history became a joy. At first I devoured Jean Plaidy. My mother borrowed her books from the library and so did I because temptingly stacked in piles on the coffee table. For a while I shared her tastes. Then I went solo with my own adult ticket. Gosh, did I read some rubbish but libraries, for the reason they're free, are great for moulding personal reading tastes without fear. Because of public libraries I now know which periods of history and styles of historical fiction I love and which bore me to tears, which I think are worth reading and those I steer clear of. To this day, I have no idea why I hate anything Roman. (My heart sinks when Time-Team dig up yet another villa and cheer when they unearth any medieval cloister.) I adore the Anglo-Saxons and the early-Mediaeval period but am bored with the current fascination for Henry VIII and his six wives. I can raise no enthusiasm for the Regency period (apart from the fashions which I find elegant and restrained.) Georgette Heyer, for a reason I cannot fathom,  leaves me cold even though I adore Jane Austen for her language, wit and fierce intelligence. The Victorian era is a passion of mine (preferably in the early years of her reign before Prince Albert dies and she became a mad old bat in need of a good slapping) despite the dreadful arrogance of the British Empire and the dreadful attitudes to race born from it and still around today in Britain (yes, UKIP, I'm talking to you.) 

I can't explain any of it. Let's just say it comes from the clutter of my experiences,  personal preferences and prejudices I have amassed over the years. And that's what history is. There is no such thing as empirical 'truth'. This is why I enjoy  the variety of historical fiction. As long as it doesn't go too far and it becomes fantasy, which is a whole genre in itself. To me, historical fiction puts the personality and passion and joy into history, the latter in particular which was what was sadly lacking in Miss Faulds's lessons.

16 February 2014


You may have noticed I've been quiet for a while. Just in case anyone was worried (!) I thought I'd better explain that I am currently busy working through revisions of my work in progress. I shall be putting all my time and attention into that as well as getting myself fit and well. So it's extra naps, daily exercise, which involves sharpening up the brain as well as keeping physically fit. And in between I shall be licking my novel into shape as well.

I'm also doing a lot of reading.  It's high time I did a round-up of the novels I have enjoyed over the winter months. (I'm enjoying some entertaining crime fiction lately.) But that will have to wait. Onwards and upwards I keep telling myself.

27 January 2014

Feminism Grows Older

I may not have been one of the early pioneers of feminism but when I was in my early twenties, life for young women was very different from what it is now. Jobs were readily available for new graduates. However, I remember being very angry even when , armed with my ink-still-wet degree, I was told by a specialist recruitment agency for female graduates that if I wanted a book- or writing-related career I would need to acquire shorthand and typing skills, both with excellent speeds. Gnashing my teeth because it was not advice given to male graduates, I refused to take myself off to secretarial college...instead I got myself a poorly-paid job in a bookshop. I loved it, nonetheless. In fact, that bookshop so happened to be part of a company that has since been taken over twice and has now morphed into a well-known British book-chain that is still somehow in existence although struggling as is the whole industry in the digital age. But that's another story.

However, had I persevered with book-selling and not pursued a much more secure salary and promotion ladder, who knows? I might be James Daunt. (Don't laugh.) To be more realistic. I could have been the manager of a large Waterstones store before I retired. If I had, would I have still chosen to write fiction when I turned forty? And the answer is probably yes  - but it would have been different. I might have had the right contacts.

But I digress. We can all play the game of what-if? (After all, that's what being fiction writer is, after all.) What I really wanted to use this blog post for was to think back to my first steps beyond education and explain that, even now, women still get judged by their looks by society rather than their brains even in these days of equality. Yet, it's not young women writers who face inequality. They're doing very ell thank you, very mush. It's we much older women writers. And heaven help women like me who long ago, gave up the struggle to be photogenic. (It's not just writers. I'm thinking of the wonderful Professor Mary Beard as I type this. The nasty comments by men, many of whom should know better because they have been educated (A A Gill, I'm taking to you, sir) but still women are judged by their appearance.)

It just so happened upon this earlier today. Written by the equally wonderful Fay Weldon for The New York Times (hence the American spelling and vocabulary) it makes clear that the struggle for equality is by no means over - even for a writer with such a glittering career as hers. I saw her speak at the Harrogate History Festival late last year. And fascinating listening it was, too. However, I don't agree with it. Only those women writers who originally made it when young can now emerge older and wiser and able to be appreciated by what they write and not how they look.

For the majority of us, there's still a lot of work to do. But it's unlikely that young, fit and healthy young women will take it up. As Fay Weldon says, editors know what the market and readers want. It applauds old women but only when they've made their mark already and can now add longevity to their many accolades - and that includes Fay Weldon herself. Youth, as they say, is wasted on the young. But then, so is fame to those who have already achieved it. The old still get hungry.

18 January 2014

Writing rules I no longer follow

You know the ones? The internet is awash with these 'rules' as are writing magazines and books. I have been guilty of spouting them myself at one time - especially when I was green and starry-eyed and, let's face it, a bit full of myself.

So these are a few I have happily abandoned. But before I do, don't feel you have to do the same. That's the problem with rules or counter-rules. Trust your own judgement. If something works for you, then by all means do it. But don't beat yourself up if you cannot possibly do what others tell you to do. Having said that, it's a good idea to try them a few times but if they always fail, then it's not your fault. You a not a failure. Besides, failure is in the eye of the beholder.

I shall then end with a few nuggets of wisdom I have learned along the way that I truly believe in. You may not and you are probably a much more accomplished and successful writer than I could ever be. That's fine.

First list. Writing rules I no longer follow:

1. Always carry a notebook around with you. You wont remember things otherwise. (I've lost count of the notes I've jotted down. They either make no sense now or I can't find them and end up searching cupboards and old bags. [not the human variety, you understand.] If you forget, they weren't worth remembering. The essence always sticks with you.)

2. Make sure to maintain an internet presence. Without it, who will ever know who you are and have a book worth reading? (This may well be true for those who self-publish but I don't and have no intention of doing so, as you probably already know. There will be loads of you who think I'm a fool. Well, maybe I am. So be it. But I'd rather concentrate on being a better writer than getting to grips with all the latest gadgets. If this works for you, that's find but I always end up feeling stressed and inadequate.

3. You must write every day, however few words. (Balderdash! Writing creates a great many wasted words as a matter of course. So why add more because you're tired, stressed or feel you're no a writer if you don't. You'll only end up throwing even more away with the result you end up more depressed and convinced of your uselessness. This is another reason I loathe NanoWriMo. But if you love it, don't tell me. If it works for you. Fine. It does the opposite for me.)

4. If you wish to be published, only write for the market. (I say: be very aware of the current market - it changes more quickly than you think - however, at the same time the publishing process moves glacially. What's being published right now was probably written five years ago and conceived even earlier. Because of this, the market is volatile so make sure you enjoy what you write. You'll be stuck with it for a very long time.)

Second list. Writing advice I still believe in:

1. Read widely and voraciously. (All writers are readers first and foremost. You can't write if you are not book-crazy. But don't ignore what's being read now. Dickens and Jane Austen will never be bettered. BUT they wrote in totally different times. This is why those clever-slogs who type out Bleak House word for word and laugh when the rejections pour back in, [and yes, I mean you, Daily Mail] totally miss the point.)

2. Don't waste your time reading writing magazines, websites, blogs and books except when you're a total beginner or need an occasional kick up the backside or harmless enjoyment. (There's only so much that can be written about writing. Pick an author you admire and by all means read what they have to say. Be selective.)

3. Perfect your craft. Not by reading heaps of writing magazines and books in the hope that you'll 'discover' the trick, but by writing. When it suits you. Whether that means once a day, once a week, just do it. Don't procrastinate. Do it. If it turns out not to be for you, there's no shame in admitting it. But if it is for you, then do it until it's the very best you can make it. There'll always be someone who can write better than you - there always is - but if you keep working to make it better, it will be.

4. Finally, do remember it takes time. A lot of time. Luck does happen. Even I've had some and not all of it has been good for me in the long run. I've also had a load of dead-ends and disappointments - more than I would admit in public. What I also have is a stubborn belief that, one day, I'll get there. It might happen. It probably won't. But I shall always remain true to myself.

11 January 2014


Now I can't even comment on my own blog!

Thank you, Emerging Writer for your useful comments. The only way I can reply to you is to write a new post. I have done a bit of Googling since and find I am not alone and also that it may be a problem for many people who use Blogger.

I use Chrome. I have just tried to download Internet Explorer which seems to have disappeared from my PC but I can't find a version to download that's compatible with Windows XP. Sigh.

Basically, I have enough trouble with real-life problems without adding more at the moment. As I've said before, it's hardly important - just mildly irritating,

I could easily end up one of those people who opt out of the 20th, let alone the 21st, century, At present, it's looking very appealing! I might even wear a bustle.