Finding Time To Write

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I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels. Life’s a bitch. You’ve got to go out and kick ass.

— Maya Angelou

In my last post – quite long ago now – I said that you can’t write world-class fiction and conform to societal norms for women. It’s been an even longer time since Virginia Woolf said, in A Room of One’s Own, that if you don’t have a private income and staff and your own room, it’s going to be nearly impossible.

Jeanette Winterson, in an interview with The Guardian in 2004, didn’t think things have changed. “I never wanted children, but if I’d been deeply in love with a man and he’d wanted children, it would have been difficult,” she said. “I never wanted to be a part-time writer; work had to come first, which is selfish and self-directed, and you couldn’t do that as a wife and mother – though it may be possible now, in partnership with the right man, because boys have grown up differently.”

My husband is brilliant – he and my cleaner do nearly all the housework and he does our ironing, but even with the ‘right man’, it’s not easy.

If you are working, even part time, and doing the normal things expected of women in our society: baking cakes for fetes, checking on elderly neighbours, helping with care – or, more likely, wholly in charge of care – for children and other relatives, planning, shopping and making meals, keeping the garden looking nice, knowing where the hockey stick is, showing the world a groomed and nicely-dressed persona every morning, spending time nurturing the huge web of relationships that make up women’s social lives, spending time with your partner… If you then try to put reading and writing into the crazy mix of most women’s parenting years (and we are talking about over 20 years average), you are setting yourself up for failure.

A male writer can be moody, abstracted, absent from his children, ignore his friendships, be dishevelled and barely speak to his wife, let alone remember to take out the bins and mow the lawn… and if he is working and writing, people will actually see this kind of behaviour as heroic. It is not the same for women writers.

Let me give you an example… My male colleagues often show up to work actually a bit smelly, certainly untidy and often with stains on their jumpers, torn jeans, badly needing a haircut or perhaps a good shave… imagine a woman showing up to work in a similar state…yesterday’s makeup, hair on end, dirty clothes, smelling a bit (of smoke and drink)…unshaven legs, unplucked chin hairs…how well do you think any work place would support that woman?

I know it’s funny, but it shows the difference in our minds about what is acceptable behaviour for male writers and what is acceptable behaviour for female writers. Women have just as much passion and concentration and absorption in our relationship to our work as our male counterparts. But most of us can’t go away for three months on a residency, or live in our rooms, letting the rest of the family fend for themselves for half a year, or even wear a stained jumper or miss a shower. Hilary Mantel, in a recent conversation with Fay Weldon, moaned about having to get her hair done every day when she did American tours. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want Hilary Mantel to have to mess about with her hair when she could be writing. How much time does Martin Amis spend on his hair before he does television?

This concern is all about time. It takes time to listen to your elderly neighbour’s story about her day trip to Pontypridd, to bake two dozen sodding cupcakes, to avoid feeding your family fish fingers and chips for the two years you are writing your novel. It takes time to shower and blow dry your hair and pluck your effing chin hairs. And all that time you are doing all that stuff, is time you are not writing and you are not reading and you are not going to events where you can meet important people. It’s time when you are not able to have your chance to do your best. 


Back to kicking ass. Febreeze is a writing woman’s best friend and I highly advise you to keep a bottle on your dressing table for those days when yesterday’s jeans aren’t quite as fresh as you hoped. And when someone says something to you like ‘Don’t you line dry your sheets?’ or ‘Are you ready for Christmas?’ Say, ‘No. I write great books instead.’ ‘No. Did you get your Author’s Foundation Grant application into the post in time?’

I, my friends, have committed to a serious programme of kicking ass. And I suggest you do, too.


On Passions and the 24 Hour Day

“Our passions shape our books; repose writes them in the intervals.”

~Proust, The Past Recaptured, 1927

Photo on 07-08-2015 at 09.15I fully intended to write this morning. My bag for the coffee shop was packed. I went to bed at a reasonable hour. But it didn’t happen.

I didn’t sleep. I woke up from an anxious dream, where I was running a restaurant with friends from 30 years ago and arguing with them about the daily special. I woke up from another anxious dream, where everyone had to be in plaster casts and I had to choose, each day, which part of me would be immobile for the 24 hours. I woke up from another anxious dream…and gave up on writing today.

In the next four days, I’m trying to meet up with over 50 people. I’m trying to help my mother as much as she’ll let me and as much as I can. I’m trying to keep my teenager from going completely insane after I’ve withdrawn her from her real life for the summer. I’m planning my next 2000 mile drive. I’m recovering from the last 600 mile round trip journey. I’m already missing my cousins I’ve seen. I’m already dreading saying goodbye to my mother on Tuesday.

The fact is, if I want to write, I need to give myself more repose. That’s more repose than other women. And that’s scary. Sitting down and reading a book when there is laundry to fold is pretty near revolutionary in my home culture (there were many comments regarding this behaviour). Going away to write and leaving my mother to do her own vacuuming feels like elder abuse. I have four days left here, and I’d kind of like to remodel her bathroom as well as see my high school friends, my university crowd, the people I worked with for three years in my 20s, four more cousins, return my books to the library, buy books downtown, take back the shirt my husband feels is too loud, buy some bungie cords and clean my mother’s carpets. At some point, I’ll need to take my teenager swimming every day, as well.

I am currently repose-free.

I’m sure Marcel didn’t get himself into a fix like this. I’m sure fixes like this lead to the prevalence of suicide in women writers. But when your passion is your love for other people…that’s the fix you’ll get into.

Here, I think I’m meant to say something uplifting about the rich material I’ll have for my writing. But I’m not going to do that. Here, I’m going to tell you that if you aren’t able to be a different kind of woman to the woman your culture might require you to be, you won’t have the amount of repose it takes to write world-class fiction.

I Love Having Written…

‘I don’t like to write, but I love having written.’

Unknown Female American Magazine Writer of the 1930s

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At 5 am, I woke up on my mother’s sofa bed and checked my emails. I knew I was writing this morning, and I don’t usually check my emails before I write, but this morning, I just…did. My editor wrote that she’d like to have sight of my next book as soon as possible.

That’s why I don’t usually check my emails.

As I went to shower, I got The Fear. I wouldn’t be able to write the manuscript in time. I couldn’t remember how to write at all, actually. It was the wrong place, the wrong time, I was too tired. It was ridiculous, trying to write a novel in a busy coffee shop. It wouldn’t work. There was no way it would work. All this travelling can’t be good for me, as an artist. Why had I left my shed? I can’t possibly be a proper artist if I didn’t take it a bit more seriously…

 My hands were literally shaking when I opened up the file. I thought I might throw up. The anxiety was thrumming in my veins. The relief, which came about halfway into the second try of the fourth page, a good two hours later, was amazing.

I laughed in delight at the voice, how much I love the character, the whole situation of the plot. Having written really is wonderful…

Being a published author doesn’t make The Fear any better. In fact, it actually makes it worse…people are, as I wrote in my last post, actually watching. Experience does help, though. I know I’ve had The Fear before. I know I’ll have it again.

I just hope it’s not tomorrow.

Learning To Play The Violin In Public

“Life is like playing the violin in public and learning the instrument as one goes on.”

Samuel  Butler

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Regular readers of my blog will know that I’d been advised to change what I wrote here for a younger readership, to make it less about writing and more about the concepts and themes of my writing, to make it more engaging for children.

Well, that was all wrong.

So, here I am again, talking about the writing life and likely will be for quite some time. And here is something nobody tells you about the writing life: It’s embarrassing.

That’s right. I will personally guarantee that if you publish a book, story or poem in any form, you will have moments of toe-curling ultra-cringe. I’m having one right now, having announced that my blog will change and then, not a month later, announcing it won’t, actually.

The fact is, creative work is all about making it up as you go along. That means you will frequently get it wrong and have to make it up again. And, if you are any good, and people actually want to read/listen/watch what you do, that means you will mess up in public. Frequently. So, it’s not enough that the limitations of your character, intellect and understanding will be glaringly apparent in your creative work, you’ll also fall flat on your bottom in front of an audience on a fairly regular basis. There doesn’t seem to be a way around this, but if I find one, I’ll let you know.

So here I am, on my metaphorical bottom again. And not only that, since I’m on holiday and visiting my mother, I’m working in a cafe this morning. So I just took a selfie in front of a room full of farmers and scholars. With a flash.

Sigh. Sam Butler was so right.

The Wild Inside


I asked what wild animal my readers would most like to bond with. ‘A wolf’ was by far the most popular answer.

Dreaming the Bear, my latest book for 10+ readers (due out in February with Oxford University Press), is set in Yellowstone National Park. That’s where this photograph was taken and where, 20 years ago, wolves were re-introduced to live in the 5 million acres of wilderness. My lead character, Darcy, thinks about the wolves as she snowshoes through the thick pine forests.

30,000 years ago, some brave and friendly wolves got close to people and became dogs. When settlers walked from Asia to America on the icy land bridge 20,000 years ago, their dogs came with them. In dogs, the wolf and the human meet…but that’s not the only way we meet wolves.

We also meet them in our imagination. Because we know dogs so well, we can imagine wolves. If you learn about wolves and read about them, you can imagine them even better. And this imagining can take the wolf inside you, become part of what you are, or at least how you think of yourself

When I was about the age of my readers, I visited a zoo with a new enclosure, designed to make big cats very comfortable and happy. I leaned against a large pane of glass, looking for the black panther (in Jungle Book, Bagheera was my favourite character). My hand was on the glass as I pushed my face close, peering in. And then, in a moment, the panther was there. He leaned against the glass, too, putting his paw exactly opposite my hand on the glass. I could feel the heat of it, and see the challenge and curiosity in his big, golden eyes. That panther became part of me, or at least what I thought of myself. And I carried him with me.

Just like Darcy carries her bear…

A plan to reintroduce wolves to Scotland:

About wolf domestication:

About how wolves first lived with humans:

A video about how wolves have helped Yellowstone:

Why a Bear???

Grizzly-Bear-Wallpaper-1600x1200You can’t live close to bears and not get a bit obsessed with them. When you live in grizzly territory, you think about grizzlies all the time. When you go for a walk, when you have a picnic, when you nip outside in the dark to put something in the car…you think about bears.

Grizzlies are beautiful and graceful and amazing …and can kill you without even trying very hard. When you walk around knowing that, when you carry that knowledge in your mind for three or four years, you’ll soon have part of your brain that is always thinking about bears.

I was lucky enough to live in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem for eight summers. Somewhere inside my head, I’d been carrying the thought of bears, ready for Darcy and her story.

Dreaming The Bear will be published by Oxford University Press in February


It’s been over a year since I’ve written a blog post. In that year, a great deal has happened. One of the biggest things is that I now have two book deals!

Dreaming the Bear will be published by Oxford University Press in February 2016. Hospital High has been accepted by Lodestone Press, an imprint of independent publisher John Hunt. It will come out in late 2016/early 2017.

Both books are for young people, and both publishers feel my blog should be for young people, too. So the posts I write will be changing. They won’t be so much about how to write or the problems writers must overcome. They’ll be more about the stories I’m writing or have written and about me as a writer.

I want to take this opportunity to thank all my followers of this blog and I hope you’ll stay with me for the next bit of the journey…

In Between Tangoes

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I’ve talked about failure and rejection. I’ve talked about despair. I’ve talked about lethargy and procrastination.

But I haven’t talked much about joy.

This post is about the joy in a writer’s life.  I have joy to spare today.

For the first time in quite a long time, I wrote a book my agent simply loves. A simple, uncomplicatedly good book, which easily fits into the market’s requirements. It will be going out to publishers soon.

And that’s heavenly. That’s such good news, that I’ve been tangoing around the house, literally dancing around in utter glee. The dog thinks I’ve gone mad, and I’ve had to go to our new Waitrose in order to make myself sit down properly and write this post.

My new novel is a wonderful story, about a girl who befriends a wounded grizzly bear…but I won’t go any further than that. You’ll just have to trust me. It’s a cracking tale, and it’s set in a spectacular part of the world that I know quite well. The setting is so strong, it’s almost another character, and it gave me a great deal of excuse to let loose with my inner poet. I loved writing this book – I wrote 33,000 words in 11 days.  The ending made my husband (a hardy Northerner) cry.

thought it was pretty good, but Sophie had reservations. I’ve overcome her reservation with the polish-up, however, and she’s now just as keen as me.

And that feels…amazing. Out of all the people in the world, this story came to me. I got to write it, and I did a good enough job that other people can now experience it for themselves. Before I sat down last spring, Darcy and the bear and her father did not exist. Now, they live in at least two readers’ minds. Where there was nothing, now there is something.

All the stuff that comes after; money and reviews and (please God) award nominations and etc, that’s not the reward for the world. The reward is this moment, when I know I’ve made something good.

Excuse me. I’m just going to tango around the produce.

Ten Things I’ve Learned Playing Bubble Witch Saga

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I’ve been writing. No, I have, really. I’ve been away for a fortnight, travelling on my own, and I’ve been logging in the hours.

But I’ve also been thinking. Writers spend a lot of time thinking. It’s often called procrastination…but it’s not, really. The fact is, the part of your brain that does the writing needs time to just…think.

Philip Hensher watches (often quite crappy) television. On a recent school visit, he told young fans that his partner says, ‘Why don’t you do something?’ and he says, ‘I am. I’m writing.’ And then his partner says, ‘You’re not writing. You’re watching Deal or No Deal.’

Fay Weldon, this autumn in conversation with Hilary Mantel, says she has written a book a year for…forever. But she spends most of the year, ‘Sitting there, not doing anything. I have to do that.’ She said, ‘I sit and mess about for about eight or nine months and then do the rest in a huge rush.’

Right now, I’m playing an awful lot of Bubble Witch Saga.

I’m thinking. I’m thinking about my place in the publishing industry, about what I want this book to do, about what kind of writer I really want to be. And I’m thinking about the nuts and bolts of the writing. And I’m thinking about things I’m not telling myself, but will come out in the writing.

And these are things I’ve learned while playing it:

1. ‘They’ want you to do something…in this case, pay for extra bubbles or lives or other help to play the game. ‘You’ want to play the game, but not spend your family’s hard-earned cash on Bubble Witch Saga. Your play takes place in the overlap of those two desires. This makes things more difficult, but you can’t help that. It’s all about integrity and who you are.

2. It’s never a good idea to start a ticking bomb. Sometimes it seems like an adequate shortcut, but it’s usually not. Shorting yourself on time is not a good strategy.

3. Sometimes you will lose. If you didn’t, it wouldn’t be any fun and you wouldn’t be pushing yourself hard enough.

4. If you quit a game, the witches get all upset. That doesn’t mean quitting isn’t the right decision.

5. The goal of the game is to burst the bubbles at the top. If you spend time doing anything else, no matter how satisfyingly creative, you will not win.

6. Sometimes you can’t win, and should use your time to get better at playing that level.

7. Fiendishly difficult situations are difficult to engineer, so once you find a way around them, you can get around them again.

8.  Sometimes you can play beautifully but, because of the ways the bubbles bounce, you might not be awarded stars. This is about the bubbles and spiders, not you.

9. If you think about it, you can get your spiders lined up when your bubbles are ready to drop, giving you more of a chance at stars.

10. Friends are helpful. You need three to travel to a new level.

Happy thinking….

Other Writers II – Finding Your Tribe


Here I am at AWP in Seattle.

AWP is HUGE. Think of the biggest conference/exhibition you’ve ever seen and double it. Now imagine all the attendees are writers…scary, isn’t it?  I talked to staff in a big restaurant across the street from the venue. They’d never seen anyone eat like the writers. They’d never seen anyone drink so much, either (they kept running out of Jack Daniels and Pinot Noir). ‘And you talk so much,’ one waitress said, as everyone else nodded. ‘You’re always talking, and you interrupt each other to talk some more.’

With an estimated 14,000 writers in town, you do tend to see certain similarities in dress (some hip, some smart, most dishevelled) and behaviour. Most of us normally work alone, in a room, so we’re a bit overwhelmed and over-excited to be in such a big crowd. Some soon rather sort themselves into roaming packs. The memoirists and poets form big clubs and have long-running discussions in which sides are passionately taken.

But the fiction writers don’t do this…there’s too many of us. We go to many of the same panels and events, but we wedge ourselves into rooms designed for fewer attendees, sitting on each other’s feet to hear the speakers. And then we hide more, skulk in our hotel rooms.

There are so, so, so many of us. All publishing, or trying to publish novels this year, next year or the year after. Thousands and thousands of us, publishing novels. It can feel a little disheartening.

Talking to the many publishers present can help. The small and university presses, in particular, have to have a strong sense of mission. They know what ‘their’ kind of books/stories are and that’s what they look for. Other things might be good, but it’s not what they do.

That’s the attitude you need to have as a fiction writer. You need to know what you do and what you don’t do. You need to know who is doing the same kind of thing you are doing. You might admire and enjoy other kinds of writing, but you should have a good idea of your home interest, your tribe.

When you do this, you can build relationships with the writers and publishers that are working in your area. You can even club together and promote  the whole concept of your tribe. Genre writers – in particular romance writers and science fiction novelists – are brilliant at this.

It’s easy to feel like a voice in the wilderness in this game. Or else, like at AWP, one wildebeest in an enormous herd of wildebeests. When you find your tribe, it gives you power. Now you are a pack of wolves, making each other bigger and stronger by working together.

With what I am writing now, I am finding more and more people I recognise as part of my tribe…I’ve never fit well into one before. I’m looking forward to hunting with them and seeing what, together, we can bring down!