30 March, 2012


A little while ago I mentioned that I am working my way through the  BBC Top 100 Books. After I read each book I give it a mark out of 10 - not on how good it is (who am I to judge?), but just on how much I enjoyed it. Having meandered my way through 90% of the list, I have only had one book score 1/10 (On the Road by Jack Kerouac, if you're interested). Now however, I am perilously close to scoring a 0/10. I only give a book zero if I can't finish it. The rule I set myself is that I must read the first 100 pages at least, and I can only stop reading if I'm finding it too hard to read - not boring or irritating, just too hard. I might have met my match in Ulysses by James Joyce.

Have you read Ulysses? Is it worth getting through? 

Now I know Ulysses is a good book. I can find essays and quotes from tonnes of professors telling me so. But I don't understand it. I know that it is written to parallel the characters and events of Homer's poem Odyssey (which I'm mostly unfamiliar with) and that it is "revolutionary in its modernistic experimentalism". But I still don't understand. It's not the storyline exactly, it's the strange, stream-of-consciousness language itself. Let me give you an example of a paragraph from chapter two. Leopold has popped into a chemist on his way to a funeral (as far as I could tell anyway):

"Bring out the darkness of her eyes. Looking at me, the sheet up to her eyes, Spanish, smelling herself, when I was fixing the links in my cuffs. Those homely recipes are often the best: strawberries for the teeth: nettles and rainwater: oatmeal they say steeped in buttemilk. Skinfood. One of the old queen's sons, duke of Albany was it? had only one skin. Leopold yes. Three we have. Warts, bunions and pimples to make it worse. But you want a perfume too. What perfume does you? Peau d'Espagne. That orange flower. Pure curd soap. Water is so fresh. Nice smell these soaps have. Time to get a bath round the corner. Hammam. Turkish. Massage. Dirt gets rolled up in your navel. Nicer if a nice girl did it. Also I think I. Yes I. Do it in the bath. Curious longing I. Water to water. Combine business with pleasure. Pity no time for massage. Feel fresh then all day. Funeral be rather glum."

It's made me feel very uncultured and ignorant. I knew it was a very difficult book, but I'm a smart person, right? I never imagined I actually couldn't finish it. Funnily enough, I don't hate it - there's some beautiful language and ideas in there - I just don't get it at all. I don't get why it was so amazing that someone wrote a book that is so obscure I feel like a degree in classics is necessary. I'd hate to say I gave up on one of the greatest works of literature, but it's that or another month of wading. My only potential salvation is to use Wikipedia, which gives a breakdown of what's happening in each section. I just feel like I should be clever enough to read a novel without the aid of Wikipedia!

James Joyce himself is a really interesting man (there are autobiographical details in Ulysses) and he said a lot of really interesting stuff. He married a chamber maid called Nora Barnacle and his dying words are supposed to have been, "Does nobody understand?", for example. But there isn't space to talk about him now, so tell me...

Do you ever abandon a book part-way through? Have you ever read a classic that you can't see what the fuss is about?

20 March, 2012

Having the First Word

As part of our descent into middle-age, my husband and I like to listen to the radio when we go to bed. Our preferred entertainment is cosy crime, but last night there was a distinct lack of 1930s murders about and so we settled for listening to a show by the comic poet Tim Key. Tim was on a quest to find out what made the perfect opening line to a novel. Far from drifting off to sleep, I found myself beginning to fret about the first line of my current novel. Is it too pretentious? Too boring? Too short?

I love writing first lines. There's something terrifying and satisfying about getting off the starting blocks. I can still remember the first lines of stories I wrote years ago in some cases...

"The first time I killed my mother was August 1979."
"Ernest looked left again and then right once more before stepping out into the road; he always looked twice before crossing, always waited for the green man."
"I found God in the wordsearch today, Margaret."
"We knew it was The Gas."

Some of the stories were prize winners, others complete flops, but I still have an affection of those lines - the good ones and the clumsier ones. They are full of intent. Even my first attempt at a short story with its slightly bland, "On a clear day you can see all the way to France", is defined and measured by those first few words.

Of course, terrible first lines can be just as memorable as great ones. The most infamous first-line ever has to be by Edward Bulwer-Lytton.
"It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness."
I had heard that there was a competition in his honour, where entrants are asked to write an awful first line for an imaginary novel, but until listening to Tim Key, I hadn't realised that the much-mocked line itself was actual a rather clever joke about the way one of the characters speaks.

I've written before about how wonderful the opening to A Tale of Two Cities is, and I'm sure I only need to mention books like 1984, Pride and Prejedice, Moby Dick and Rebecca, to bring to your mind a few other famous first lines. Oddly enough, it is the last of these that has always stuck with me the most.
"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again."
I don't know why that's always haunted me, but it has.

I'd love to hear your favourite first lines - both ones you've written and ones you've read. What makes a good first line? Do you find them easy to write? Does the book you're reading now have a good first line? Share it with me - I find them irresistable!

I'm off to continue fretting over line one, page one...

15 March, 2012


Yesterday I had one of those cards through the doors, the ones that tell you to go and pick up a letter from the post office because some fool hasn't paid enough postage for it. So off I trotted and found that it was my Children's Novel manuscript being rejected and I was the fool who hadn't put enough postage on the return envelope. Talk about adding insult to injury - paying to pick up a rejection!

Last Friday I blogged about how I hadn't had any feedback on anything for ages, but I had just been shortlisted in a short story competition. Well, since then feedback has been rolling in thick and fast in the form of three rejections of one sort or another in the space of five days. Grand. It got me thinking about rejections. We all know the (often grossly exaggerated) stories of famous writers getting rejected - Iain Banks had written five novels before he got published, JK Rowling was rejected a billion times before somebody saw the potential, William Shakespeare was set upon by wild badgers and kept captive in the forest for three years before putting on a play*... And these stories can be both encouraging and rather disheartening. But however motivating it can be to know that Kathryn Stockett had her novel The Help rejected a ridiculous amount of times before it went on to sell millions and be made into an Oscar-wining film (thanks for the tip Angeline!), there's one thing I'm pretty sure of. I bet none of these famously-rejected authors spent their time reading articles on how to deal with rejection.

There seems to be an incredible number of articles, blog posts and book chapters about getting through the trauma of rejection. Yes, it's natural that a rejection makes you feel momentarily disheartened, and it's great to have the encouragment of friends when it happens, but if days later you're still moping around declaring that you're not cut out to be a writer, then you're probably right. Being rejected just means that you're writing. As an athlete nobody had to cajole me into entering another race when I'd performed badly or got injured. If they had needed to, then I shouldn't have been running.

So let's not give each other tips on what to do when that brown envelope drops through the letterbox (provided you've paid the right postage!). Let's celebrate our best and worst rejections together.

My least favourite was the one that came in the form of an e-mail with no signature line, just three words, 'Please see attached', and a rejection letter you could download. Call me old-fashioned but I think that's rude. I have no problem with standard rejection letters, I can completely see the necessity, but it doesn't take a lot to fill in someone's name and put your own name at the bottom.

My "favourite" rejection on the other hand was from a big agency in London who thought, "there is huge potential here; you write brilliantly and the premise is wonderful". They still rejected it, but at least they thought it was worth giving me a little feedback.

What have been your best and worst rejection experiences? How many times would you continue/ have you continued to send your work out before giving up?

* some examples may not be true in the literal sense

09 March, 2012

First Draft Blues

The first draft of my novel finally came together this week. Normally, I would leave a draft to stew for a while, but for various reasons I need to crack on with this a little bit and so I read the whole thing the following day. Reading a first draft is depressing, isn't it? Perhaps it's not for you; maybe your first drafts are a delight. But for me, there's that moment when I have to face the fact that the first draft - novel or short story - is not a masterpiece of literature. Of course, I always know it's not going to be, but I like to cling to the hope that I might read it and discover it's the best book ever written without needing any editing or re-structuring. Alas, yet again, I find that my draft is going to take a lot of work to even begin to resemble a book, let alone a masterpiece.

It's been odd writing an adult novel after writing a children's fantasy adventure. Where are all the sword-fights, snowstorms, strange creatures and daylight robberies? I enjoyed the process, but in a really different way this time. It wasn't as fun, but it was more satisfying in other ways. Despite that, I've been feeling down about writing this week. Maybe it's just the realisation that I'm not the next [insert name of great author here], or maybe it's just that end-of-project feeling, or maybe it was just that I've promised myself I'm going to read Ulysses soon. Whatever it was, I'm grateful to both God and the ChocLit publishing company for helping me snap out of it today.

I know I'm meant to write. Don't get me wrong - I don't know that I'm meant to be a successful writer, but that's a different thing altogether. Not only do I feel that it's what God wants me to do and what I love to do, but a pastor from New Zealand who had never met me before and knew nothing about me, randomly pulled me aside in a church service and told me that God wanted him to tell me to keep writing because I have what it takes. All the same, it's hard to remember that feeling of purpose some weeks, isn't it? I finally pulled myself together this morning and promised God I'd stop moping and get on with it, and I instantly knew something positive would happen today. Nothing has happened with my writing for weeks and weeks - no feedback, not even a rejection - but this afternoon I got an e-mail from ChocLit telling me that my short story is shortlisted in their current competition (results on 10th April). It's not a Booker Prize nomination but it'll do for me. It put a smile on my face and a spring in my... erm... pen, for the time being anyway.

If you could read back your first drafts and find you've managed to write something that was comparable to an established author, who would you want to be compared to? (Of course, you want your own style, not someone else's, but humour me here...)

07 March, 2012

The Lucky Seven Meme

I was tagged by the charming Freya Morris to take part in Jaycee's Lucky Seven Meme. As a light-hearted bit of relief from my usual ramblings on this blog, here goes...

The rules:

1. Go to page 77 of your current MS
2. Go to line 7
3. Copy down the next 7 lines - sentences or paragraphs - and post them as they're written. No cheating
4. Tag 7 authors
5. Let them know

(I am actually going to cheat anyway and use my last manuscript rather than my current one. I have a couple of people about to read my current one for me and I don't want to give away bits of the plot to them on the first draft! It's probably bad luck or something...)


“I hope you will find it at some point,” Rowan said, his reasonable voice only irritating Kit more. “But the longer you stay away from Earth, the safer you’ll be.”

“I’ve been alright for the last 13 years.”

“But now you’re the Crosser. And Hinton Blewitt will be out to find you.”

The name rang a bell. Kit ran through everything he had been told, until it came to him.

“The chief of the Colliders?”

“That’s him. He lives on Earth and you don’t want to be going anywhere near him, kid.”


  1. Andy Stewart
  2. Nari
  3. HC Clarke
  4. Tom Benson
  5. Angelina Trevana
  6. Dan Purdue
  7. Derek

Only participate if you want to! A good way of finding out what all my writer friends are up to...
(If you don't have 77 pages, try page 7. If you don't have a page 7, get writing!)