Monday, 12 October 2009

Focus Pulling

The last month has vanished in a blur of writing, interspersed with dashing down to the beach to ensure my legs still function, and the mandatory eating and sleeping (both badly). But a couple of highlights leap out at me. Firstly because they were fun and secondly because I learnt something from each of them.

The first was a meet-and-greet for myself and three other authors at our publisher's swish offices on the Embankment in London. It involved meeting a whole bunch of the team of Little,Brown UK who are responsible for making our novels appear on the shelves of the bookstores and supermarkets etc. Magically they transform a dog-eared manuscript into a bright and glossy book. I chatted with editors, copyeditors, cover designers, people in PR, in marketing, in UK sales, in overseas sales and many more. Plus, of course, the CEO herself, the impressive and charming Ursula Mackenzie. What a back-up team I have!

Sometimes when closeted in my study for weeks at a time, glued to my keyboard, writing feels a very solitary occupation, so it was good to be reminded that it's not. This lovely team of young people is bursting with commitment and energy to keep my books rocking and rolling. And they are used to authors. They understand our weird frailties. It's great to know there's a safety net out there - even if it is wielded with an occasional crack of the whip!

The other highlight was when I gave a talk at a Book Festival in Appledore. Dreamy blue skies, the sigh of somnolent waves and one of the prettiest little seaside towns on the north coast of Devon. The perfect setting. The Festival was warm and welcoming, expertly organised by Carol Saumarez and her band of enthusiasts. I had a great day out.

So what did I learn? That I need to get away from the shackles of my desk more often. I have a tendency to narrow my focus to my writing, a real bad habit. So I'm widening it - taking in the state of my kitchen cupboards and my cat's claws. Both are crying out for attention!

Which means I now have a new new motto: Just write - but hey, don't forget to lunch. Those authors I told you that I met at the meet-and-greet? Bernie Strachan and Louise Candlish. Together we're widening our focus on to a tasty crabmeat roulade and a colourful pinot in London's Covent Garden. Wish us luck.

Monday, 31 August 2009

Tempus fugit

The days are growing shorter. The nights creep in, stealing more than their fair share of my hours, and summer is fading fast. I find this alarming. Not that I don't like autumn - I do. I love its muted colours, its smell of damp earth, and all the kids going back to school instead of clogging up my favourite bakery. But autumn heralds the dreaded D word. Deadline.

It is approaching at a frightening speed. Guilt has taken up permanent residence in my lap and if I skive off for the day to yomp over Dartmoor or amble across a beach to watch the cormorants' amazing feats of underwater breath-control, I suffer for it the next day. Not long ago I heard a successful crime writer say, 'I don't agonise over it. I just write.'

So that is my new motto. Just write.

Friday, 31 July 2009

Displacement Activity

Displacement activity seems to be the order of the day. This morning I have been penning an interview for the Book Queen Club website about The Concubine's Secret/The Girl From Junchow. That means removing my thoughts from the pincer grip of my present book (title - The Jewel Of St Petersburg) and sliding them back into Lydia's convoluted mind. I know Lydia so well it is like falling into the arms of an old friend and I am enjoying pondering the interesting questions posed by Queenie C, my interviewer.

I've also just finished a short story that I was invited to write for a UK woman's magazine. As this was the first short story I had ever attempted, I found it a challenging exercise, vastly different from novel writing. This is just a sliver of time in someone's life. I especially adored the fact that I could see my way through the beginning, the middle and the end all in one day. Bliss! Can't wait to see it in print in September.

You see what I mean about displacement activity?

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Glory Days

Now that The Concubine's Secret/The Girl From Junchow is safely fledged and out of the nest, I am able to focus once more on the new book I am writing.

It is the prequel to The Russian Concubine - telling the story of the struggles of Valentina's young life during the glory days of tsarist Russia. The story of how she meets and falls in love with Jens Friis, a red-headed and red-blooded Dane, against the fierce opposition of her parents. At the same time the rumblings of the Revolution are growing louder in St Petersburg, as Tsar Nicholas II, the Imperial Duma and the Social Revolutionaries are at each other's throats.

So as you can see, it's still Russia I am addicted to. I'm having fun writing about a period of extravagant glamour and opulence as a change from the bleak austerity and grey harshness of the Stalinist regime. The tsar's court was an extraordinary hot-bed of intrigues, plots and rampant dissolution that made its UK cousin's court look positively monastic in comparison.

But the book is not going smoothly. I chivy myself with reminders: 'What book ever does?' and 'You've been here before!' Bitter crumbs of comfort. But it doesn't make it any easier. There is always a stage in a book when I get depressed, and right now, this is it. Little worms of doubt burrowing into my brain.

Do readers really think a book just flows out as smooth and creamy as milk from a cow? Don't they realise it's like slitting open your veins and watching your life-blood drip on to each page?

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

The Concubine's Secret

Today is Publication Day in the UK for The Concubine's Secret (titled The Girl From Junchow in US). I keep thinking I'll get used to this, the launch of my latest book, that I'll learn to take it in my stride as an author. But it doesn't get any easier.

It's still as nerve-racking as the first time, this whole process of letting one's beloved brainchild take its initial tottering steps. And I cannot shake my addiction to popping into book stores to check that it's on display, to loiter around the front tables, seeing who is - or more worryingly, who isn't - picking it up. The temptation to thrust it into shoppers' hands is strong, but I resist.

WHSmith is doing me proud with a special promotion of The Russian Concubine and The Concubine's Secret in a pack together and I love the idea of both Lydia's stories going out hand in hand. They belong together. Writing a sequel was a risky step, but I learnt a lot while doing it.

One of the main delights for an author when writing a book is getting to know the main characters, watching them develop and feeling them grow. You inevitably fall in love with them with all the passion and heady excitement of a new relationship. But when I came back to them for the sequel after a year's break, it was different. We were old friends by then, had been through a lot together, so our relationship had changed.

It's a bit like having children and one day you look at them and realise they've grown up, no longer 'trailing clouds of glory'. You have to adjust. Form a new relationship. And that's what I did with Lydia, enjoying seeing her mature but grieving the loss of her childish innocence. I needn't have worried though. She still led me on a wild and convoluted chase, took me to places I hadn't planned for, and swept me up in the intensity of her love for Chang An Lo.

I loved writing The Concubine's Secret but the time has come to let go. That's what I'll be doing when on Saturday (4th July) I'll be signing books at Torbay Bookshop, Paignton, Devon.

Saturday, 30 May 2009

Publication Day

Great excitement. My new book, The Girl From Junchow (titled The Concubine's Secret in UK) is published this week in the US by my lovely publisher Berkley - and yes, at long last it IS the sequel to The Russian Concubine. Lydia is back!

As the sequel to an already successful book, The Girl from Junchow carries a weight of expectations on its shoulders. But I think fans will enjoy this complex story, seeing Lydia grow up and mature during the course of this book. The story portrays her attempts to seek out her father in Russia, but she is driven by much more than just the need to be reunited with him. New characters emerge in her life and old characters leave. Is one of them Chang An Lo?

Hah! You'll have to read the book to find out.

I love the cover that Berkley have created. The pastel palette is exquisite. Berkley has used the same model as on the cover of The Russian Concubine, but turned her round to face out - clothed this time! There is a delicate virginal quality to it that captures something that lies at the heart of Lydia herself - however much her wayward spirit drives her on to hunt out the challenges in her path. I'd pick this cover off a shelf myself.

Getting the cover (and title) right is a fine art. Publisher's agonise over it. A cover can make or break a book. It's the first point of contact between the writer and the reader. No time to make a second impression. A fleeting moment to seize the attention and persuade the buyer to pick it up. Then it's over to me, as they browse the first few lines. But don't fret, Lydia is there, waiting for them. I wish her luck.

Monday, 4 May 2009

London Bookfair

I sneaked a break away from my desk and enjoyed a day at the London Bookfair at Earl's Court. My first time at a Bookfair and what an eye-opener! Let me assure you these agents and publishers work like beavers. They earn their pound of flesh. The place was humming with industry.

Downstairs were the publishers' stalls, but upstairs in the Rights enclosure there were hundreds of tables set out in rows where agents met up with publishers and foreign agents and scouts from all over the world. A non-stop schedule. If any of them had a voice left by the end of the three days, I'd be surprised.

But it was fun too. My agent, Teresa, introduced me to a great bunch of foreign agents who deal with my books abroad. Lovely to put faces to names. The highlight was lunch with my wonderful American agent, Patty - a delicious Indian buffet within the hall.

From there I moved on to tea and carrot cake with my UK Sphere publisher, Joanne. She got me on a high because of the preparations for the launch of my new book The Concubine's Secret (The Girl From Junchow in the USA). Publication day is 2nd July (2nd June in USA). Not long to go.

By the end of the day I fell into the train, buzzing. Head full of plans, stomach full of food. Makes a change from banging my head on my desk all day!

Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Magnolia madness

Spring is here and I am looking out at my magnolia tree in full flower outside my study window. If that scrawny old tree can produce such magnificence, then hey, so can I! Where's my pen?

Spring is my favourite time of year. Not only does the garden look glorious but also, after the lazy, sluggish, dead days of winter, the blood starts to flow faster. The heart beats stronger. Each year I find this is my most prolific period of writing.

The new book is well under way - I can't tell you too much about it yet, but suffice to say it is one final outing into Russia. This time under Tsar Nicholas II. So it's all grand balls and fancy dresses, a radical change from the miseries of the Stalinist regime.

This will probably be my last book to take place in Russia because I'm already planning to move on to pastures new with the following book. But notice that I said 'probably'. Never say 'never again'!

The wrist is well on the mend, though still on a strict physio schedule, and the new bicycle that caused all the problems is up for sale. Good riddance!

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Out and About

Last week I was out and about - wrist in a splint - meeting and greeting my readers in Kent and in London. In Sevenoaks Library I had the huge pleasure of sharing the platform with a fellow Sphere author, Nina Bell.

We discussed and compared our inspiration for starting a book and how we go about our research, avoiding pitfalls and blatant errors. Nina has set her book, The Inheritance, in the horsey world of eventing, so her experience of research is very different from mine. It was both amusing and enlightening. We had a great evening with a keen crowd of readers.
For the signings at the end I had to strip off my splint and apologise for the wobbliness of my signature.

The next evening in Westminster Arts Research Library Nina and I were joined by the historian Mackenzie Ford, whose first novel The Kissing Gates is set during World War I. He sat between us, bringing an impressive gravitas to the occasion, and together we answered questions from our audience and from the enthusiastic Dr Sasha who was in the chair.

What struck me forcibly was that however much we differ as individuals, how similar are our work routines and techniques in the way we get ourselves to the end of a book. It's obvious really. Basic self-discipline and gritted teeth. A publisher cracking a whip encouragingly in the background also helps!

I always tell would-be writers that it's not starting a book that counts, it's finishing it. The world is littered with first chapters hiding at the back of drawers, gathering dust. Set yourself achievable goals along the way - and go for it. The most satisfying words in the English language are The End.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Bones & Books

Time for an update on the Broken Wrist versus Writing situation. I think the Writing is winning. But I whisper it softly.

It has been an interesting and at times laughable few weeks as I've struggled to make sense of the daily frustrations, and I have made good use of my own personal Dragon. This Dragon - for those who aren't familiar with it - is a speech recognition programme for computers and it has enabled me to read out my left-handed scribbles to my computer. It produces on screen either something approximating what I'm saying or something that bears absolutely no resemblance whatever, depending on its mood at the time

The best thing is that Dragon does save on the chore of typing, but first I still have to write my words by hand. Fortunately the bionic metal-plated wrist is strengthening as each week passes, and I can now balance a precarious pen between fingers and thumb to produce a just legible scrawl. So I have no excuse. Time to chain myself to my desk once more.

But wait. I am relishing this extra unanticipated thinking time. I find myself reluctant to abandon it yet. Instead of plunging head-first into the story immediately after the Christmas break, I have had time to re-evaluate plot lines, to discover further research avenues, and - this is the big one - to delve deeper into my characters, taking them apart, layer by fragile layer.

So, Broken Wrist versus Writing? Writing is definitely the winner. And so am I!

Sunday, 11 January 2009

Disaster 2009

As I prepared to launch myself into the new year, I was determined to buck the trend towards doom and gloom. All around us the news is grim. So I was intending to talk cheerfully about the way book sales will boom as people seek out cheaper forms of entertainment and escape. How books will boost morale.

Hah! So much for my good intentions. Instead it turns out that I could do with some morale boosting myself. What a way to end 2008! On Christmas Day I took a nosedive off my new bicycle and shattered my right wrist. My RIGHT wrist. My writing wrist.

So I am now a right-handed writer unable to write. What good is that? Of course I know I can peck at a keyboard left-handed as I am doing now or use a dictaphone - or digital voice recorder as the techies now call them. I can even teach my computer to use a voice recognition programme. NO, NO, that's not how I write. For me the creative process works in a mysterious and unfathomable way as the words flow from my head, down my arm and into my right hand. They spill on to paper from the tip of my pen. I even think more clearly with a pen in my hand. Yes, I know there's all that stuff about use of your left hand stimulating a different part of the brain. I'll be extremely interested to see what comes out of it.

So as you can tell, 2009 has arrived with a new and totally unexpected challenge, a demand that I adapt. Okay, that is my New Year's resolution. Adapt. With a scary metal plate in my wrist and intense curiosity in my head as to how I'm going to set about it, I venture forth on my new book. But hey, maybe I'm wrong. Maybe this is actually Good News, not bad.

I'll let you know. Happy new year.