Apr 20

The time I totally lost my s**t – and what I did to get it back again

An Arvon Writing Retreat is the cure for many ills –  including Cold Feet and Imposter Syndrome.

To have two novels published and two on the way is “a consummation devoutly to be wished” for any aspiring writer. I don’t expect sympathy for a career that is moving in the right direction so far, but no-one was more surprised than me when, on signing the contract for my fourth book, I went down with a severe case of crippling self-doubt.

It was a turning point.

The moment had arrived when I put aside all other work – and all other income –  to have a go at becoming that rare beast, a “full time novelist”. The trouble is, it was not because I have a huge backlist and readership, with regular royalty payments, but because I accepted a commitment to deliver a 90,000 word manuscript to a top five publisher with just four months from signing to delivery. Yikes. And in case you fondly imagine publishers accept late manuscripts with a resigned smile I can tell you, for a Christmas novel aimed at the commercial fiction market with a short but (hopefully) intense selling window, delaying publication to January or February is not a thing.

So, what did I do?  First, I indulged in a little panic at mine and my agent’s reputations being doubtless demolished at a stroke. Second, I sat down and thought about what I needed to help me deliver. I know enough about my process to understand a well-timed boost would give me a) encouragement in the earlier stages, knowing I had it coming up, and b) a massive boot up the backside later, when focus, concentration and a decent daily wordcount would provide the impetus for the sprint to the finish.

Then, I thought of Arvon.

I was at The Hurst for a screen writing course in 2015 which was incidentally when The Clock House was being renovated to become a dedicated Writers’ Retreat. That week I learned, usefully, I am not a script writer. I also learned the valued of being cradled in the arms of a place that understands a writer’s need for calm, beauty, simplicity, solitude (mostly) and the company of other writers (sometimes). Even the long physical journey to Shropshire – by way of transition from my normal life – these were all things I needed.

There was one more problem: As I had given up my proper job for a modest advance, I was in no position to fund it. Tricky. Then, I pulled myself together, applied to The Frances W Reckitt Trust and the Society of Authors, completed their simple application process and had funding confirmed instantly. I grabbed myself a place on a Retreat for six weeks before my delivery date.  I was lucky to get it. There are six-day retreats and four-day retreats to choose from but  the shorter ones are especially popular and seem to book up well in advance.

My Retreat

After months of rising panic, I am tearfully grateful to arrive. The transformation of The Clock House has been beautifully done. There is no grandeur but simply everything I need. Everything. It is clean, comfortable, uncluttered but not austere. There is a briskly efficient heating system, endless hot water, en suite apartments with separate study and bedroom but – wisely – no kettle, forcing us all to come out and forage in the communal kitchen. Managing a chronic pain condition is boringly exhausting and intrusive when away from home; I have to wonder, are there enough pillows? Yes. Can I have a hot bath whenever I like? Yes. Is the chair in the study going to allow me to write for long enough before I am forced to get up and ease my dysfunctional musculo-skeletal system? Yes, yes, yes! It is an amazing chair! I Google how to get one. Blimey. They cost a lot… maybe when I get my next advance.

The fridge is full of fresh, delicious food, plus loads of locally produced frozen meals with a good range of choice for all diets. It is easy to eat well. On the last night, the four of us have dinner together and end up chatting in front of the fire. We all met our goals, even the unreasonable ones, and I not only achieved a five-figure word count, I also planned out my tricky final chapters so I know my writing will stay on track after my return to real life.

Thank you Arvon, The Hurst, The Society of Authors and The Reckitt Trust. You have done more than facilitate my silly deadline, you have helped me silence my ‘not good enough’ voice – for now, at least.

And finally, thanks to Dan for the last-minute mercy dash to catch my train when the whole taxi thing went tits up. You are my knight in shining armour.

Feb 03

And then… my first ever Hardback book was launched!

So, in my exciting journey to get my books out there and build a readership, there are high points (and low points) but here’s a good one:

Book Launch

The Book Ferret, The High Street, Arundel

6-8pm, Thursday 15th February

Come and raise a glass to celebrate my publication day and be among the first to read ‘The Homecoming’ – Book One in the ‘Havenbury’ series – a story of love, lies and secrets in Havenbury Magna, a market town much like our own… Drinks, nibbles and a bit of light book signing (I’m off to buy one of those fab black italic marker pens, specially for the occasion, just like the ones real authors use). Do come. All welcome. Spread the word!

Jul 19

Revealed: the one career-killing thing agents and publishers do to aspiring writers.

If you are a writer approaching an agent or publisher, be aware….How ever good your novel, however polished your synopsis, there is one thing they do when you make contact with them that could kill your career like a bullet through the heart.

The warning came from an audience member at the 2017 RNA Conference last weekend, during a discussion about what bloggers, agents and publishers want from writers.

They Google for “crazy”,

if a quick Google of your name brings up some past indiscretion, a foolish comment perhaps, an unwise affiliation or even a seriously bad Facebook reveal of poor behaviour, your career could be dead in the water.

MBA literary agent Julia Silk, who was on the panel at the 2017 Romantic Novelist Association seminar, admitted she researched a writer who had approached her for representation and unveiled a Twitter storm started off by a remark they had made which was so heinous and appalling she not only decided not to take them on she seriously doubted anyone else would. “It was a career-killing incident,” she said. “It was that bad.”

For a full report on the panel discussion around what agents, bloggers and publishers want – and don’t want –  from writers make sure you get the next issue of ‘Romance Matters’. The magazine is available to members of the Romantic Novelists Association – the organisation writers of romantic fiction, along with others in the industry, can’t afford not to join.

Jun 22

Southern Rail Guards and why “doing your job” is optional, apparently.

Last night I was coming home after a publishing event in London I was on a late train from Victoria to Bognor Regis. There was a man in my carriage who was so staggeringly drunk and deranged I’m astonished he didn’t wet himself.  Actually he probably did wet himself.  I didn’t look.  Anyways, the entire carriage was treated to his mutterings, interspersed with unintelligible shouts for the entire journey. He was still drinking. His condition, therefore, did not improve.  Every now and then he would try to engage another traveller in conversation, but he was slurring so badly no-one could understand what he was saying.  His manner was quite intimidating because he was so loud and out of control. At one point he got up, tins and bottles clanking in the bags he was carrying and crashed down, face first, in the aisle, lying motionless until other customers helped him up and back into a seat.  At one point he swore violently and at length when it dawned on him he had missed his stop.  I got off just before the end of the line.  He was still there, shaking his head, slumped in his seat, talking to himself.

It was WHEN I GOT OFF (and only then) I FINALLY saw the train guard. It appears he had been in the carriage next to ours the whole time. At no point in a nearly two hour train journey – the train was running behind schedule of course – did he come through to check on us or even to check anyone actually had a ticket. He certainly didn’t check, even on a late train typically full of people who are – shall we say – “tired and emotional” that there was anyone who was vulnerable or volatile.

Even when I finally saw this guard/attendant/assistant/sugarplumfairy he was just scratching his arse and staring into space, making not the slightest effort to engage with the customers, despite my giving him the opportunity to meet my eye.  I didn’t interrupt his musings to point out his shortcomings because, being one stop away from the end of the line, he was shortly going to be unavoidably doing his job at last.

In retrospect, I just hope this drunk man didn’t choke on his own vomit before the person paid to keep people safe did something useful.

Speaking as a self-employed person, with total charge over my own destiny and the sense of personal responsibility that goes with it, I don’t rely on a patriarchal employer to run my universe thereby feeling it appropriate to stamp my foot like a three year old (i.e. strike repeatedly) when I think things might not be going my way. Shape up, whoever you are. In the real world you would have been sacked by now.

Jun 11

And another thing…

Can I just ask…? In a world where the big questions include; whether ISIS will ever come to its senses and stop killing people; will the Kyoto agreement do enough to stop our planet simply melting and would the US be better off leaving Trump’s wig to run the country rather than allowing his gob to get involved (it can probably type and spell more accurately) the big question that preoccupies me this morning is this:
What is it with men and yoga?
I mean, I commend the tenacity, the bravura, the sheer downright chutzpah of a bloke turning up, often with girlfriend or wife, (one can’t help but applaud the whole ‘joining in’ thing) but, the point is, I have conducted an extensive scientific study and have concluded there are five reasons why men should not do yoga:
1. They are not bendy.
2. They are ludicrously competitive. This is a problem because of the ‘not bendy’ thing, meaning they contort themselves into the most extraordinary shapes which are all blatant cheats of the poses they are supposed to be attaining, apparently in the belief that they are smashing it. They are not.
3. The noise is a tad off-putting, if I’m honest. The grunting noise, that is… It is a truth universally acknowledged that men doing yoga have to grunt like they are in that bit of the Rocky movie where Sly Stallone is training for a fight and getting all sweaty and pop-eyed. Honestly, I’m expecting ‘Eye of the Tiger’ to replace the Buddhist temple bells soundtrack at any moment.
4. And then there’s the shuffling from foot to foot, trying not to stare at women’s yoga-honed bottoms in their stretchy yoga pants. And failing.
5. And then, finally, talking about clothes, the outfit de rigeur for the occasional male yoga attendee seems to be tennis shorts. Short ones. Heaven knows why. I should have thought the opportunities/risks associated with unintended escapage and dangling are too horrible to contemplate. I can’t look. Wear joggers, people! Stretchy, all encompassing, it’s the way to go.
If you must do yoga, that is…

NEXT: Why, oh why, do men insist on gardening like they are fighting their way out of a South American jungle? Give them a pair of hedge trimmers and/or a strimmer and the average bloke could probably lay waste to Sissinghurst, Babylon and the lost gardens of Heligan in an afternoon. Not good.

May 31

My dark secret revealed at last

Yes, it’s true, despite my congenital inability to keep my gob shut I have been harbouring a BIG secret for several months now. OK, I might have told a couple of people… fine, maybe a few more than a couple, aaanyway my huge secret is:

Ta da!

I have signed a hugely exciting TWO BOOK DEAL with Allison and Busby http://www.allisonandbusby.com/ an independent publisher with a reputation for literary books with beautiful covers (well classy) who are just about to celebrate their 50th year. Deep sigh.

Thanks to my beautiful and clever literary agent Julia Silk at MBA Literary Agents I will shortly be working with Allison and Busby to launch a new series around the fictional Sussex community of Havenbury. Think ‘The Archers’ combined with ‘Twin Peaks’ only not quite so bizarre. The first book, provisionally titled ‘A Havenbury Secret’ will come out in hardback, digital and paperback under my new provisionally agreed writing name of ‘Rosie Howard’ at a date to be decided next year. The second book in the series will be out the following year. Beyond there, who knows?

I am thrilled about this new opportunity to get my material out there. I have so much to say and so many stories to tell about my characters in Havenbury who seem more real than real life some days.

“Brave new world that has such people in it.” (One of my favourite lines from The Tempest, Shakespeare.)


Feb 10

The one where I tell people NOT to follow their dreams

I can hear the screams of outrage but I just think we might have gone a teensy bit too far with the whole “You can do anything you put your mind to, follow your dreams, no limits, reach for the stars…” stuff.

Please can we accept that we can’t all excel at everything – even if we really, really want it more than anything in the whole, wide world and we’ve dreamed of it all our lives since we were a teeny tot. It is as if the whole silly, six-year-old “When I grow up I want to be a spaceman/doctor/antelope” thing can somehow actually replace careers advice. And work. And aptitude.

Personally, I am at the wrong end of my forties, blind in one eye with a mild connective tissue disorder which means I could develop tennis elbow just from getting out of bed. What if I suddenly announced I had decided to dedicate my life to tennis – a game I have hitherto gone out of my way to avoid – and would not rest until I reached centre court at Wimbledon? Would my friends tell me to go for it? Would they applaud my courage and commitment?

They would not. They would tell me to get over myself.

And then one of them would probably suggest I might have a writing deadline that needs some attention and they would be right. I do. Because, over the course of many years, I have gradually sloughed off the bits of my working life I find hard, unrewarding and alien, even if they were the things that might have much more easily delivered ‘success’. Instead, I have slowly built on a quiet and unflashy aptitude. I have nurtured a flame which I barely recognised, years ago but felt as a deep and satisfying exhilaration at turning out a piece of writing I was proud of; perhaps a paragraph that perfectly expressed an idea, or an opening line that caught the reader’s attention and drew them in. It might have been on an unglamorous topic. It probably was. I’ve written about everything from plastic packaging to mortgage lending over the years, but I have found myself on a path where, with my first novel having sold respectably and a proper, grown up literary agent now steadily helping me to build a career as a novelist, I am slowly achieving what I now know to be my dream. It has taken forty plus years to get to the foothills though. The summit of the mountain eludes me and probably always will, but I will keep steadily plodding on because I find it creatively satisfying. And I have an understanding husband. That helps too.

I don’t lay blame totally at the door of the explosion of talent shows where anyone whose granny is sick enough or story of adversity is sad enough can be catapulted to stardom whether they can sing, dance, play the spoons or – frankly – not. I think it may be more to do with a deeper and more alarming malaise, that a whole generation of young people have been brought up on a mindset where concentration spans are tiny and ambitions are infinite – a sense of entitlement to success – where, genuinely, someone can come up with a daft computer game or a video about a cat doing a funny thing which catches the public imagination and goes global, making them millions in hours. Although the majority don’t, of course.

And it worries me that the deep and abiding satisfaction that comes from honing an aptitude over years – and years – and years – of just quietly ‘doing it’ will not happen for a generation who are being told that overnight ‘success’ – whatever that is – is within their reach just as long as they plead for it passionately enough. The cold, empty light of disappointment will surely follow for most of them. Hopefully then, they will hear the tiny voice within them that tells them where to start on their real journey, not to worldwide acclaim – for the vast majority — but to follow their own path to fulfilment and quiet joy.

Although I do quite fancy being an astronaut.

Jan 15

The one about how the blame game means never having to say you’re sorry…

We live in a litigious society and some NHS Trusts have recently been criticised for allowing compensation lawyers to sponsor patient information leaflets in return for advertising their services. The question is, does the defensive, opaque and antagonistic mindset that almost inevitably results from constant fear of litigation truly serve the human need to understand what went wrong and then fix it?

Last October my father was given a terminal diagnosis. His decline was nasty, brutish and (mercifully) short but – although his death was inevitable – we did not, in the end, ameliorate his suffering as well as he deserved. His last days were unremittingly uncomfortable. Nursing him at home, we were hopelessly out of our depth.

After he died I felt I had a moral obligation to explore why he had been repeatedly refused a bed in our local hospice. He wasn’t close enough to death apparently, although I feel he proved his point rather elegantly in the end. Mercifully a cabal of friends with medical experience and our own GP helped me see that I did not have to take on this battle and that it was no more than the usual imperfect experience in an imperfect world.

I had cause to thank them again recently when the Care Quality Commission – responsible for overseeing the quality of care in our hospitals and care homes – published a report revealing many relatives involved in post death inquiries were dealt with insensitively; their input was given less weight than that of professionals, they were not kept appraised of developments and teams investigating were frequently defensive and antagonistic, with families sometimes turning up to meetings to discover lawyers present. The underlying drive for such unattractive behaviour – apart from a decent dose of incompetence in hopefully rare cases- was presumably the fear of expensive litigation. The other driver, as I see it, is an employer’s fear that overt criticism of individuals will lead them to litigate for workplace bullying or similar which is another unattractive consequence of the blame culture we live in, leading to a situation where no problem can be laid at the door of any specific individual.

‘Thank goodness I escaped all that,’ I thought to myself and then – a week later – I was pitched right into an NHS complaint of my own. Fortunately in my case, the stone-walling, blame-shifting, information withholding mindf*** I was subjected to was for nothing other than an admin balls-up concerning the scheduling of an elective operation. It was farcical in contrast to the experience bereaved families are put through. But still…. It happened at a time when I was ill. No-one submits to major surgery willingly; you have to be quite unwell to think it’s a good idea and I was, which made what happened a bit rubbish.
When I dared to ask for a litany of misleading information interspersed with yawning silences followed by a last minute delay to be sorted I was plonked onto a ‘complaints’ path without my knowledge or permission, meaning any effort to fix my problem was transmuted into an effort to bury it six fathoms deep. The person designated to deal with my ‘complaint’ whose job responsibilities seemed to centre largely on ordering the stationery with customer care added in as an afterthought, was keen to absolve his employer of responsibility by any means open to him. We will call him ‘Paperclip Boy’ to protect the guilty. ‘His first tactic was to deny the existence of a problem. I suppose it was worth a go but when I presented him with ample symptoms of an – as yet undiagnosed – problem he tried another tack, launching into a brief ‘investigation’ which led him to declare that the only ‘problem’ was my lack of ability to understand anything I had been told. When I pointed out that I am not known for my abject stupidity and I thought it strange his investigation did not include ‘asking me what actually happened’ I insisted on a meeting which he later declared was his idea. At the meeting, I laid out what I knew and had researched and he promised another ‘investigation’. By then, despite their best efforts to cover their tracks, my understanding of the balls up was pretty good and the meeting was mostly an exercise in working out what they could no longer deny. A mealy-mouthed apology letter swiftly followed, in which Paperclip Boy avoided all personal responsibility but was quick to name individuals outside the admin team to shoulder the majority of the blame. By then, my ‘complaint’ was primarily about how my ‘complaint’ had been dealt with, so I was still unimpressed because this aspect, focusing on the behaviour of Paperclip Boy himself, was ignored.

The post script is I had the operation I needed. It went fine and I have nothing but gratitude and admiration for the consultants and clinical team responsible for my care. I despair over the admin team though. Even the pre-op assessment was a farce, with five cancellations including a letter scheduling it for three weeks AFTER my surgery date. Thank goodness it wasn’t them doing the surgery.

So, the bottom line in this case is clearly the admin team is not fit for purpose but, when I examine my own quite disproportionate distress, the serial ineptitude upsets me considerably less than Paperclip Boy’s clumsy attempts to offload blame. But maybe, as a society, we are the makers of our own misfortunes?

If employers imbue in their employees the need to avoid blame at all costs, then the victims of mistakes inevitably suffer twice. If complaining simply compounds distress it is time to think again.

Dec 07

The one about Donald Trump and my daughter

Donald Trump makes me think. No honestly, he does. Largely he makes me think about casual misogyny, the objectification of women and low grade, unedifying sexual assaults by strangers – less the dark alley stuff of the worst nightmares… more the low, furtive, really rather pathetic groping that I suspect is commonplace, which is absolutely not to say it is acceptable, by the way.
When I was living in London, in my twenties, I lost track of the number of times I was casually groped on the tube, usually by people standing behind me (the groper’s version of covering their eyes and saying “you can’t see me”). I can’t remember every occasion in detail but there was the time when a man stood behind me on the steps down to the station (it was heaving and we were going down the steps at a rate of one every half minute or so). I’m pretty sure he didn’t have a gun in his pocket but he was definitely pleased to see me. A sharp backward jab with an elbow ended that encounter as I recall. That said, I felt for the poor man who put his hands up to his chest to brace himself in a crowded train carriage and was shoved suddenly forward from behind, ending up, through no fault of his own, with a palm to each of my breasts. Our eyes met. He blushed. No words were spoken. It was fine.
But it wasn’t just me; working in public relation I was in an office filled with articulate young women wearing sharp suits with short skirts and high heels. They could handle themselves. Rammed public transport provided endless opportunities for low grade creeps but we took it in our stride. I loved hearing of a colleague who reached behind her, grabbed the offending arm and hauled it into the air shouting “has anyone lost a hand because I’ve just found this one on my arse.”
I can’t remember the last time I was groped – well, not by a stranger anyhow. I was musing the other day that this must mark an improvement in society’s view of women. And then I remembered Trump. And then it occurred to me that, twenty years on I’m an old boiler who nobody really wants to grope so that’s a factor too. Plus I don’t live in London anymore. So… probably not much of a measuring tool.
When I look at my beautiful teenage daughter, I wonder at how insouciant we all were about such events and then I wonder if she will be able to deal with it the same way. I hope so, and what I hope even more is that she won’t have to. But then, if a man like Donald Trump can become a leader of the developed world then – sadly – I suspect she will.

Mar 10

Never Marry a Politician now out in every format you could possibly think of

Ok maybe not absolutely every format, but – as of this week – you can read my debut novel ‘Never Marry A Politician’ in all digital platforms AND paperback.  This means that, at last, when my father asks; “yes but when can I just go into a book shop and buy a copy?” the answer is “now”.

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