Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

 

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

20 Tips For Surviving The Builders

And the builders are OUT… phew! I’m breathing a huge, dusty sigh of relief and allowing life as I know it to resume.

I’ve totally renovated four homes so far and although I don’t think this one will be the last, I have promised my family some peace and quiet… for a while.

I’ve learned (the hard way) a few useful things about having the builders in and thought I’d share my top 20 tips in case they’re useful to anyone else in this nerve-shreddingly stressful situation.

1.     Get as much done all at the one time as you possibly can. I’ve tried doing a bathroom here, a kitchen the next year, redecorating bit by bit and it’s not ideal. Plumbers and electricians come in and sigh: ‘Who did the kitchen like that? For the new bathroom, I’ll have to re-do all that piping/ wiring.’  Or worse, hauling their ladders and equipment into the kitchen, they scratch your new hall paintwork or eeek, your brand new floor. The more work you can get done at once, the better the price should be.

2.     Move out if at all possible. Even for the first few weeks. This allows you and your family to remain sane and be dressed without plaster dust on your clothes, in your hair, all over your beds and even in your food. It also lets the builders forge ahead without having to worry about water, gas and electrics having to be reconnected every evening.

3.      If you have to stay at home, tape polythene sheets over doors, buy a brush, dustpan, even a cheap vacuum cleaner just to deal with builder mess. Do not use your lovely Dyson to scoop up plaster dust and rubble. Do not let the builders use it either: it will die!

4.     If you work from home, you HAVE to find somewhere else to go. Trust me here. The library, a café with wifi, you have to get out. You cannot listen to Lesser Known Hits of the 80s, plus drilling and bumping and banging for weeks on end and get work done.

5.     Be VERY choosy about which builder you use. Do not rush this decision. Get recommendations from people you trust, or neighbours… even bathroom and kitchen suppliers. Go and see previous work the builder has done. Ask the owners if the work was quick and tidy, if the builders were polite, stuck to the agreed budget, turned up on time, stayed with the job right to the end. If a builder is available straight away, beware. Good builders have to be booked in advance. If you’re in an old house, you need a builder used to renovating old property.

6.     I don’t like tradesmen who only want to be paid in cash and I don’t like it if they want part of the money up front. Both of these things suggest they’re not running their business well and they won’t run your project well either. I totally wanted to sack a builder once, but had paid too much up front to be able to do it.

7.     Some money part way through is OK. But you need a week or two after the work is completed before you pay your final bill. So you can work out what the little problems are and ask for them to be fixed before you settle up.

8.     Plan, plan, plan. Make drawings of your rooms. Think about plugs, lights, tiling, cabinets, the way the door opens… Make as many decisions ahead of the work as possible. There will still be lots of decisions to make on the spot. Take some guidance from your builder – he might from experience know of a better way to do it…

9.     …But don’t do everything the builder way – sometimes they can go overboard with plastic trimming, beading, coving, laminate flooring and everything in beige and before you know it the heart and soul of your characterful old house has been ripped out and MDF-ed over.

10.   Consider using an architect. I asked an architect friend, who recommended the office junior, who made several visits and lots of plans. She had great ideas, oversaw getting the building warrant and all the relevant permits and charged us less than we expected for her time.

11. If your decorator umms and ahhs and says: ‘Are you sure? That’s quite a dark/ bright/ unusual colour?’ Just say YES. If you want a beautiful paint job with proper sanding down and many layers of paint, say so. Expect it to take longer and cost more than slapping the stuff on.

12.  Don’t freak out when standing in an empty newly painted room. By the time you’ve put in sofas, pictures, lamps, shelves, books – the colour will be lovely and just the way you imagined it.

13. Be business like with your builders. They’re not your new friends; they’re not your Dad/ uncle/ boss. You’re in charge. If things aren’t going the way you want, ask about it. Explain what you want. Listen. Sometimes you will have to compromise because what you want doesn’t work. But don’t accept something you really don’t want. The builder is going to move on and you’ll be left regretting this bit of work for the next five, ten years or longer.

14. When you first agree a price with the builder, try and get everything you can think of onto that estimate. There will always be a few extra jobs at the end, which will put the price up, but try not to make it a great long list of extras. Otherwise your bill might be a nasty shock.

15. Agree a timetable. Expect it to take a bit longer. But do not accept endless weeks of delay. If this is happening, you need to find out why and ask them to get back on track.

16. Keep all your estimates, bills and receipts in a dedicated folder. File all those guarantees. Unused paint tins, lightshades that didn’t match, bookcases that didn’t fit, unopened boxes of tiles – all can be returned if you have the receipt.

17. Get everything finished! Don’t leave wires dangling while you procrastinate on a bathroom cabinet, don’t leave plywood on the floor while you dither about tiles. After all the pain you’ve gone through, you NEED the big ‘tah dah’ when it all comes together and looks brilliant.

18. Accept that budget limitations can lead to creative and brilliant results. My £9 a metre bathroom tiles look amazing. Crown and Dulux have colours just as pretty as Farrow and Ball’s (use tester pots to find them). Two IKEA pendant lights can look even better than one designer one. A cheap bookcase properly assembled and fitted to the wall by a joiner looks almost as good as a bespoke one.

19. Realise that your wine/ chocolate/ biscuit consumption will rocket during this horribly stressful and expensive time.

20.  Remind yourself that it will be worth all the pain, expense and hassle. We’ve created a big family kitchen, renovated an old bathroom, plus put in a second bathroom and already, one week in, this has transformed home life.

 

World Book Day | My best advice to writers

Today is World Book Day. To mark the occasion I thought I’d repost this blog from my old site. I think there’s plenty here to think about for anyone who loves books, loves writing — and for anyone thinking of trying to write a novel. I’d love to hear your comments:

How do I get started writing?

I could write chapters and chapters, probably a whole book about writing. But I’m going to try and break it down into FAQs for you. If I haven’t answered your question, then please drop me a line. But these are my best answers to the questions I’m often asked. Also, I’m not just a published writer who ‘has it easy’ (‘What does she know about rejections?’) I’m also married to a trying-to-be-published writer. So I know about the process from many angles.

You sit down and you start. There we go. You don’t put it off until you ‘have the time’ or ‘feel in the mood’. You just apply your behind to the chair and get on with it. Because all that time you are wasting thinking about writing your amazing novel, I’m actually at my computer writing.

If we were runners, you would be thinking about taking up running and I would be training six days a week, so come the race – who has the best chance of finishing?!

Writing is a complex art. Expressing your ideas, characters and story in words is a skill which takes a lifetime to master. I’ve been writing fiction for 14 years now and I’m only beginning to get the hang of it. Just because you can read novels does not mean you can write them. Just because a book is easy to read does not mean it is easy to write.

Plus, it’s a very competitive business. There are so many fantastic writers already out there, if you want to join them, you’re going to have to get very, very good.

I feel it’s best to give you tough love. If you want to write novels – long, gripping novels people are going to give up hours and hours of their precious lives to read, you’re going to have to start training for the ultra-marathon!

What will help with my writing?

Reading will help enormously. Read all kinds of books. Find the kind of writing that you love; the kind of book you could pick up again and again. Is it horror? Is it rom com? Is it sci-fi? Is it historical fiction? What inspires you? What kind of book would you love to write?

Then write! Write and write some more. Write little chunks: blogs, diary entries, short pages. Hone your skills. Try a poem, then a short story. Try out chapter one. Try out the final chapter. Play with words. Describe the people you see on the train. Invent a background for them. Practise dialogue. Turn a news story into a short story. Write, write, write. Train your brain and your fingers to turn your thoughts into great sentences, then your sentences into stories.

Don’t expect to be a genius immediately. It takes time to get good. I was writing stories, essays and diaries all the time I was growing up. I spent my early 20s being a newspaper journalist. I must have written millions of words before I got started on chapter one. My first book attempt was in the bin by chapter four and I began again.

Think of JK Rowling, she’d been working on that first Harry Potter manuscript for YEARS before she showed it to anyone and even then all the big publishers turned her down! Her enormous success had nothing to do with luck: it was because she had a huge story to tell, sheer persistence and worked bloody hard.

 Are any books helpful?

I’m helped by reading and re-reading all the writers I love: Nancy Mitford, Anne Tyler, Agatha Christie, John Irving, JK Rowling, Roald Dahl, Candace Bushnell and many more.

I’ve also found these books very inspirational and packed with great advice: Robert McKee’s Story, Stephen King’s On Writing, Michelle Wallerstein’s Mind Your Business.

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan always get my romantic comedy juices flowing, along with every film written by Nora Ephron.

Should I join a writing group?

I’ve never joined a writing group. This is because I am such a loner and solitary animal. Also, I didn’t think I could bear the criticism! You have to be tough to write and keep on writing, but oh my goodness writing makes you vulnerable. As soon as you’ve written something, you’ve created a work that people can criticise. And believe me, everybody has an opinion. You just need to go onto Amazon to see that.

But writing groups can be hugely helpful. They help people to focus on what they want to write, they help people make contacts, plus they inspire you to get the work done. Only you can know if a group is a good idea for you. You could always try one and see. You could even advertise and set one up in your area.

 Where do I get ideas from?

EVERYWHERE!! As Paul Smith the fashion designer wrote: ’Inspiration is everywhere, if at first you don’t see it, look again!’ Open your mind to ideas. They really are everywhere. I used to worry about having enough things to write about, now I worry about finding the time to write about all my ideas. What sort of things have happened to you? What’s happened to your friend? Could it be re-worked? Could it be made much more exciting? What’s in the news? What’s in National Geographic? See reality as your springboard into the swimming pool of story.

You need to have a story. A really intriguing, interesting tale. You need to have great, memorable, fully-fleshed characters. If you are writing rom-com, you need to have some really hilariously funny scenes; some heart-meltingly tender scenes and you need a love story where something is always in the way of the happy couple.

Dig deeply into all your wide experience of life. How do your own relationships work? What makes you fall in love? What makes you angry? Sad? Confused? Despairing?

Should I do research?

ABSOLUTELY!! Go to the places you are writing about. Interview people who’ve done something like your heroine. You will get one million more great ideas doing this than you can ever dream of at your desk.

 Should I have a plan?

YOU’D BE MAD NOT TO!

Readers are viewers. They are used to more plot in a half an hour sit-com than they ever got in a full Dickens novel. You must plot your baby to death. You must keep your reader nailed to the chair. You will never manage this without a detailed plan. I work on my plans for weeks. I don’t write a word until I have every chapter outlined and the whole story completely outlined. Even then, it still changes, improves, gets messed around.

 Should I listen to criticism?

Only if it’s from someone you really trust. Writing something that makes your Mum beam with pride is not hard. Writing something that will move and engage perfect strangers is much more tricky. When you have a first draft you are really happy with, tell your story to a couple of friends who have been briefed to be firm but fair. Don’t make them read the whole thing. Try out the outline of your story on them. Does it excite them? Interest them? Do their eyes glaze over? Where are the problems?

Should I re-write?

Re-writing is the number one skill. It separates the amateurs from the professionals. About 50% of my time, maybe more is spent re-writing my work. I get to the end of my first draft in a hurry. I’m making sure the story works and I’m getting to know my characters. Then I start re-writing and the really hard work follows. But this is the sweat and tears that makes stories good.

How do I get an agent?

I have no idea!! You need an agent, because hardly any publishers look at manuscripts which don’t come from agents (check their websites to find out). But agents are like fairy dust.  Agents are very, very busy looking after those super important clients who earn them vast amounts of money.  With your unpublished manuscript, you are so far down the pecking order, your precious work will be handed to the work experience girl if you are lucky.  But remind yourself, big deals with brand new authors are made all the time. Agents and publishers continue to need new writers.

Do your research, find agents who represent your kind of work. Submit exactly as it says on the website. Send only your very polished, very best work. Write a covering letter of genius, brilliantly written about your brilliant story. Get them hooked. Make yours the manuscript at the top of the pile.

 I’ve been rejected, now what?

If you’ve sent your best work to many reputable agents or publishers and they’ve all said no thanks, you have to dust yourself down and think hard about what to do next. You could find more people to send it to… you could self-publish. You could put your work in a drawer and work on your next idea. You could stop and rest for a while… or go on a course, read books about writing, train your writing muscles to get better and stronger. No decision is right or wrong here. You have to decide what’s best for you. But I can promise the more you read, write and re-write, the better you will get.

 I’ve published one book, how do I keep going?

Your book is published, the world did not stop turning, Hollywood did not call, you are not as rich as Dan Brown. Welcome to the club. Look very hard at what worked; look even harder at what didn’t work. Don’t blame yourself for everything, but don’t accept no blame. Maybe you need to get much better. Think up a much stronger story. Do more research. Maybe you need to flex your PR muscles on your next time out.

Take your new career seriously. Find an amazing new story, fresh avenues for your work. Make lots more contacts in all sorts of connected fields.

All authors need these quotations pinned up above their desk:

‘Try again, fail again, fail better.’   Samuel Beckett.

‘Never, never, never, NEVER, give up.’   Sir Winston Churchill.

Do I self-publish on the internet?

Previously, I would always have said no, it’s a waste of time and money and you won’t make a penny. But the game has changed. Some writers are now fabulous e-book successes. In ten years time we may all be self-published on the internet. Do your research, don’t get ripped off and don’t put anything out there that isn’t your absolutely best work. Expect to do a lot of self-promoting. Success on the internet is just like success with a publisher, it’s all about talent and hard work. We are all only as good as the last thing we’ve written and the next big thing we’re writing.

 Will writing make me rich?

Let’s be realistic here. One in hundreds of thousands of writers will become rich: maybe through genius, epic hard work or sheer good luck. Just like one in hundreds of thousands of actors, painters and all kinds of creative people. The rest of us will range from making a great living to struggling on penniless. Love your work, devote yourself to your work and hope that the money will follow. If you have success, be like several wise old actors I know and save your money hard because success may not come around again immediately. Yachts and villas on the Med are for gas barons and internet billionaires not, usually, novelists.

Will writing make me happy?

I love to write. I love the hours when I am so in the flow, so in my made-up world that I forget about everything else. But I spend all day, most days, withimaginary people and many head-doctors would consider this a worrying condition!

Creative people often struggle with mental health issues – we get depressed, we fret, we drink or smoke, take drugs, or comfort eat or all of the above. Maybe we were like this when we began; maybe the nature of our work makes us more like this. I do believe that writing makes you vulnerable. Plus it can become obsessive. Writing can take up all the time you have, no manuscript is ever ‘finished’, and you can use writing as a way of opting out of everything else life has to offer.

You need balance!

You need to look after the other areas of life too: friends, family and your health. You need regular breaks from writing, reading other writing and thinking about writing – hard, I know! But there must be room for relaxation, laughter and holidays. If I am turning into a basket case, I shut everything down and hang out with my children. Sometimes you just have to go away and come back to the keyboard with fresh perspective.

 Should I give up my day job?

I have mixed feelings about this. Basically I did give up my day job and the terror got me writing like a dervish. Happily, I landed a two-book deal which gave me enough money to take another year off to write more. For several years I combined fiction writing with freelance journalism, now I write fiction full-time but I know I have journalism skills if I need to go back to them.

I’m not sure I would advise an 18 year old to study creative writing at college and nothing else. But sometimes, you have to walk the wire without the safety net because if you put your heart and soul into writing it might work much better than if you potter about at the weekends only.

Giving up the day job to write is scary and stressful. Please approach it very, very carefully, fully consulting your nearest and dearest and burn no bridges. Bear in mind that many, many well known writers combine writing with other jobs and careers which reliably pay the bills.

 Finally…

I really hope this has helped. Very, very best of luck out there. May your story be the next huge thing the world didn’t even know it was waiting for! And if it isn’t – please love the ride. Writing is fantastic – like dreaming with the lights on. Work hard, master the art, bring your dreams to life and WRITE ON!!

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

 

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

20 Tips For Surviving The Builders

And the builders are OUT… phew! I’m breathing a huge, dusty sigh of relief and allowing life as I know it to resume.

I’ve totally renovated four homes so far and although I don’t think this one will be the last, I have promised my family some peace and quiet… for a while.

I’ve learned (the hard way) a few useful things about having the builders in and thought I’d share my top 20 tips in case they’re useful to anyone else in this nerve-shreddingly stressful situation.

1.     Get as much done all at the one time as you possibly can. I’ve tried doing a bathroom here, a kitchen the next year, redecorating bit by bit and it’s not ideal. Plumbers and electricians come in and sigh: ‘Who did the kitchen like that? For the new bathroom, I’ll have to re-do all that piping/ wiring.’  Or worse, hauling their ladders and equipment into the kitchen, they scratch your new hall paintwork or eeek, your brand new floor. The more work you can get done at once, the better the price should be.

2.     Move out if at all possible. Even for the first few weeks. This allows you and your family to remain sane and be dressed without plaster dust on your clothes, in your hair, all over your beds and even in your food. It also lets the builders forge ahead without having to worry about water, gas and electrics having to be reconnected every evening.

3.      If you have to stay at home, tape polythene sheets over doors, buy a brush, dustpan, even a cheap vacuum cleaner just to deal with builder mess. Do not use your lovely Dyson to scoop up plaster dust and rubble. Do not let the builders use it either: it will die!

4.     If you work from home, you HAVE to find somewhere else to go. Trust me here. The library, a café with wifi, you have to get out. You cannot listen to Lesser Known Hits of the 80s, plus drilling and bumping and banging for weeks on end and get work done.

5.     Be VERY choosy about which builder you use. Do not rush this decision. Get recommendations from people you trust, or neighbours… even bathroom and kitchen suppliers. Go and see previous work the builder has done. Ask the owners if the work was quick and tidy, if the builders were polite, stuck to the agreed budget, turned up on time, stayed with the job right to the end. If a builder is available straight away, beware. Good builders have to be booked in advance. If you’re in an old house, you need a builder used to renovating old property.

6.     I don’t like tradesmen who only want to be paid in cash and I don’t like it if they want part of the money up front. Both of these things suggest they’re not running their business well and they won’t run your project well either. I totally wanted to sack a builder once, but had paid too much up front to be able to do it.

7.     Some money part way through is OK. But you need a week or two after the work is completed before you pay your final bill. So you can work out what the little problems are and ask for them to be fixed before you settle up.

8.     Plan, plan, plan. Make drawings of your rooms. Think about plugs, lights, tiling, cabinets, the way the door opens… Make as many decisions ahead of the work as possible. There will still be lots of decisions to make on the spot. Take some guidance from your builder – he might from experience know of a better way to do it…

9.     …But don’t do everything the builder way – sometimes they can go overboard with plastic trimming, beading, coving, laminate flooring and everything in beige and before you know it the heart and soul of your characterful old house has been ripped out and MDF-ed over.

10.   Consider using an architect. I asked an architect friend, who recommended the office junior, who made several visits and lots of plans. She had great ideas, oversaw getting the building warrant and all the relevant permits and charged us less than we expected for her time.

11. If your decorator umms and ahhs and says: ‘Are you sure? That’s quite a dark/ bright/ unusual colour?’ Just say YES. If you want a beautiful paint job with proper sanding down and many layers of paint, say so. Expect it to take longer and cost more than slapping the stuff on.

12.  Don’t freak out when standing in an empty newly painted room. By the time you’ve put in sofas, pictures, lamps, shelves, books – the colour will be lovely and just the way you imagined it.

13. Be business like with your builders. They’re not your new friends; they’re not your Dad/ uncle/ boss. You’re in charge. If things aren’t going the way you want, ask about it. Explain what you want. Listen. Sometimes you will have to compromise because what you want doesn’t work. But don’t accept something you really don’t want. The builder is going to move on and you’ll be left regretting this bit of work for the next five, ten years or longer.

14. When you first agree a price with the builder, try and get everything you can think of onto that estimate. There will always be a few extra jobs at the end, which will put the price up, but try not to make it a great long list of extras. Otherwise your bill might be a nasty shock.

15. Agree a timetable. Expect it to take a bit longer. But do not accept endless weeks of delay. If this is happening, you need to find out why and ask them to get back on track.

16. Keep all your estimates, bills and receipts in a dedicated folder. File all those guarantees. Unused paint tins, lightshades that didn’t match, bookcases that didn’t fit, unopened boxes of tiles – all can be returned if you have the receipt.

17. Get everything finished! Don’t leave wires dangling while you procrastinate on a bathroom cabinet, don’t leave plywood on the floor while you dither about tiles. After all the pain you’ve gone through, you NEED the big ‘tah dah’ when it all comes together and looks brilliant.

18. Accept that budget limitations can lead to creative and brilliant results. My £9 a metre bathroom tiles look amazing. Crown and Dulux have colours just as pretty as Farrow and Ball’s (use tester pots to find them). Two IKEA pendant lights can look even better than one designer one. A cheap bookcase properly assembled and fitted to the wall by a joiner looks almost as good as a bespoke one.

19. Realise that your wine/ chocolate/ biscuit consumption will rocket during this horribly stressful and expensive time.

20.  Remind yourself that it will be worth all the pain, expense and hassle. We’ve created a big family kitchen, renovated an old bathroom, plus put in a second bathroom and already, one week in, this has transformed home life.

 

World Book Day | My best advice to writers

Today is World Book Day. To mark the occasion I thought I’d repost this blog from my old site. I think there’s plenty here to think about for anyone who loves books, loves writing — and for anyone thinking of trying to write a novel. I’d love to hear your comments:

How do I get started writing?

I could write chapters and chapters, probably a whole book about writing. But I’m going to try and break it down into FAQs for you. If I haven’t answered your question, then please drop me a line. But these are my best answers to the questions I’m often asked. Also, I’m not just a published writer who ‘has it easy’ (‘What does she know about rejections?’) I’m also married to a trying-to-be-published writer. So I know about the process from many angles.

You sit down and you start. There we go. You don’t put it off until you ‘have the time’ or ‘feel in the mood’. You just apply your behind to the chair and get on with it. Because all that time you are wasting thinking about writing your amazing novel, I’m actually at my computer writing.

If we were runners, you would be thinking about taking up running and I would be training six days a week, so come the race – who has the best chance of finishing?!

Writing is a complex art. Expressing your ideas, characters and story in words is a skill which takes a lifetime to master. I’ve been writing fiction for 14 years now and I’m only beginning to get the hang of it. Just because you can read novels does not mean you can write them. Just because a book is easy to read does not mean it is easy to write.

Plus, it’s a very competitive business. There are so many fantastic writers already out there, if you want to join them, you’re going to have to get very, very good.

I feel it’s best to give you tough love. If you want to write novels – long, gripping novels people are going to give up hours and hours of their precious lives to read, you’re going to have to start training for the ultra-marathon!

What will help with my writing?

Reading will help enormously. Read all kinds of books. Find the kind of writing that you love; the kind of book you could pick up again and again. Is it horror? Is it rom com? Is it sci-fi? Is it historical fiction? What inspires you? What kind of book would you love to write?

Then write! Write and write some more. Write little chunks: blogs, diary entries, short pages. Hone your skills. Try a poem, then a short story. Try out chapter one. Try out the final chapter. Play with words. Describe the people you see on the train. Invent a background for them. Practise dialogue. Turn a news story into a short story. Write, write, write. Train your brain and your fingers to turn your thoughts into great sentences, then your sentences into stories.

Don’t expect to be a genius immediately. It takes time to get good. I was writing stories, essays and diaries all the time I was growing up. I spent my early 20s being a newspaper journalist. I must have written millions of words before I got started on chapter one. My first book attempt was in the bin by chapter four and I began again.

Think of JK Rowling, she’d been working on that first Harry Potter manuscript for YEARS before she showed it to anyone and even then all the big publishers turned her down! Her enormous success had nothing to do with luck: it was because she had a huge story to tell, sheer persistence and worked bloody hard.

 Are any books helpful?

I’m helped by reading and re-reading all the writers I love: Nancy Mitford, Anne Tyler, Agatha Christie, John Irving, JK Rowling, Roald Dahl, Candace Bushnell and many more.

I’ve also found these books very inspirational and packed with great advice: Robert McKee’s Story, Stephen King’s On Writing, Michelle Wallerstein’s Mind Your Business.

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan always get my romantic comedy juices flowing, along with every film written by Nora Ephron.

Should I join a writing group?

I’ve never joined a writing group. This is because I am such a loner and solitary animal. Also, I didn’t think I could bear the criticism! You have to be tough to write and keep on writing, but oh my goodness writing makes you vulnerable. As soon as you’ve written something, you’ve created a work that people can criticise. And believe me, everybody has an opinion. You just need to go onto Amazon to see that.

But writing groups can be hugely helpful. They help people to focus on what they want to write, they help people make contacts, plus they inspire you to get the work done. Only you can know if a group is a good idea for you. You could always try one and see. You could even advertise and set one up in your area.

 Where do I get ideas from?

EVERYWHERE!! As Paul Smith the fashion designer wrote: ’Inspiration is everywhere, if at first you don’t see it, look again!’ Open your mind to ideas. They really are everywhere. I used to worry about having enough things to write about, now I worry about finding the time to write about all my ideas. What sort of things have happened to you? What’s happened to your friend? Could it be re-worked? Could it be made much more exciting? What’s in the news? What’s in National Geographic? See reality as your springboard into the swimming pool of story.

You need to have a story. A really intriguing, interesting tale. You need to have great, memorable, fully-fleshed characters. If you are writing rom-com, you need to have some really hilariously funny scenes; some heart-meltingly tender scenes and you need a love story where something is always in the way of the happy couple.

Dig deeply into all your wide experience of life. How do your own relationships work? What makes you fall in love? What makes you angry? Sad? Confused? Despairing?

Should I do research?

ABSOLUTELY!! Go to the places you are writing about. Interview people who’ve done something like your heroine. You will get one million more great ideas doing this than you can ever dream of at your desk.

 Should I have a plan?

YOU’D BE MAD NOT TO!

Readers are viewers. They are used to more plot in a half an hour sit-com than they ever got in a full Dickens novel. You must plot your baby to death. You must keep your reader nailed to the chair. You will never manage this without a detailed plan. I work on my plans for weeks. I don’t write a word until I have every chapter outlined and the whole story completely outlined. Even then, it still changes, improves, gets messed around.

 Should I listen to criticism?

Only if it’s from someone you really trust. Writing something that makes your Mum beam with pride is not hard. Writing something that will move and engage perfect strangers is much more tricky. When you have a first draft you are really happy with, tell your story to a couple of friends who have been briefed to be firm but fair. Don’t make them read the whole thing. Try out the outline of your story on them. Does it excite them? Interest them? Do their eyes glaze over? Where are the problems?

Should I re-write?

Re-writing is the number one skill. It separates the amateurs from the professionals. About 50% of my time, maybe more is spent re-writing my work. I get to the end of my first draft in a hurry. I’m making sure the story works and I’m getting to know my characters. Then I start re-writing and the really hard work follows. But this is the sweat and tears that makes stories good.

How do I get an agent?

I have no idea!! You need an agent, because hardly any publishers look at manuscripts which don’t come from agents (check their websites to find out). But agents are like fairy dust.  Agents are very, very busy looking after those super important clients who earn them vast amounts of money.  With your unpublished manuscript, you are so far down the pecking order, your precious work will be handed to the work experience girl if you are lucky.  But remind yourself, big deals with brand new authors are made all the time. Agents and publishers continue to need new writers.

Do your research, find agents who represent your kind of work. Submit exactly as it says on the website. Send only your very polished, very best work. Write a covering letter of genius, brilliantly written about your brilliant story. Get them hooked. Make yours the manuscript at the top of the pile.

 I’ve been rejected, now what?

If you’ve sent your best work to many reputable agents or publishers and they’ve all said no thanks, you have to dust yourself down and think hard about what to do next. You could find more people to send it to… you could self-publish. You could put your work in a drawer and work on your next idea. You could stop and rest for a while… or go on a course, read books about writing, train your writing muscles to get better and stronger. No decision is right or wrong here. You have to decide what’s best for you. But I can promise the more you read, write and re-write, the better you will get.

 I’ve published one book, how do I keep going?

Your book is published, the world did not stop turning, Hollywood did not call, you are not as rich as Dan Brown. Welcome to the club. Look very hard at what worked; look even harder at what didn’t work. Don’t blame yourself for everything, but don’t accept no blame. Maybe you need to get much better. Think up a much stronger story. Do more research. Maybe you need to flex your PR muscles on your next time out.

Take your new career seriously. Find an amazing new story, fresh avenues for your work. Make lots more contacts in all sorts of connected fields.

All authors need these quotations pinned up above their desk:

‘Try again, fail again, fail better.’   Samuel Beckett.

‘Never, never, never, NEVER, give up.’   Sir Winston Churchill.

Do I self-publish on the internet?

Previously, I would always have said no, it’s a waste of time and money and you won’t make a penny. But the game has changed. Some writers are now fabulous e-book successes. In ten years time we may all be self-published on the internet. Do your research, don’t get ripped off and don’t put anything out there that isn’t your absolutely best work. Expect to do a lot of self-promoting. Success on the internet is just like success with a publisher, it’s all about talent and hard work. We are all only as good as the last thing we’ve written and the next big thing we’re writing.

 Will writing make me rich?

Let’s be realistic here. One in hundreds of thousands of writers will become rich: maybe through genius, epic hard work or sheer good luck. Just like one in hundreds of thousands of actors, painters and all kinds of creative people. The rest of us will range from making a great living to struggling on penniless. Love your work, devote yourself to your work and hope that the money will follow. If you have success, be like several wise old actors I know and save your money hard because success may not come around again immediately. Yachts and villas on the Med are for gas barons and internet billionaires not, usually, novelists.

Will writing make me happy?

I love to write. I love the hours when I am so in the flow, so in my made-up world that I forget about everything else. But I spend all day, most days, withimaginary people and many head-doctors would consider this a worrying condition!

Creative people often struggle with mental health issues – we get depressed, we fret, we drink or smoke, take drugs, or comfort eat or all of the above. Maybe we were like this when we began; maybe the nature of our work makes us more like this. I do believe that writing makes you vulnerable. Plus it can become obsessive. Writing can take up all the time you have, no manuscript is ever ‘finished’, and you can use writing as a way of opting out of everything else life has to offer.

You need balance!

You need to look after the other areas of life too: friends, family and your health. You need regular breaks from writing, reading other writing and thinking about writing – hard, I know! But there must be room for relaxation, laughter and holidays. If I am turning into a basket case, I shut everything down and hang out with my children. Sometimes you just have to go away and come back to the keyboard with fresh perspective.

 Should I give up my day job?

I have mixed feelings about this. Basically I did give up my day job and the terror got me writing like a dervish. Happily, I landed a two-book deal which gave me enough money to take another year off to write more. For several years I combined fiction writing with freelance journalism, now I write fiction full-time but I know I have journalism skills if I need to go back to them.

I’m not sure I would advise an 18 year old to study creative writing at college and nothing else. But sometimes, you have to walk the wire without the safety net because if you put your heart and soul into writing it might work much better than if you potter about at the weekends only.

Giving up the day job to write is scary and stressful. Please approach it very, very carefully, fully consulting your nearest and dearest and burn no bridges. Bear in mind that many, many well known writers combine writing with other jobs and careers which reliably pay the bills.

 Finally…

I really hope this has helped. Very, very best of luck out there. May your story be the next huge thing the world didn’t even know it was waiting for! And if it isn’t – please love the ride. Writing is fantastic – like dreaming with the lights on. Work hard, master the art, bring your dreams to life and WRITE ON!!

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

 

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

20 Tips For Surviving The Builders

And the builders are OUT… phew! I’m breathing a huge, dusty sigh of relief and allowing life as I know it to resume.

I’ve totally renovated four homes so far and although I don’t think this one will be the last, I have promised my family some peace and quiet… for a while.

I’ve learned (the hard way) a few useful things about having the builders in and thought I’d share my top 20 tips in case they’re useful to anyone else in this nerve-shreddingly stressful situation.

1.     Get as much done all at the one time as you possibly can. I’ve tried doing a bathroom here, a kitchen the next year, redecorating bit by bit and it’s not ideal. Plumbers and electricians come in and sigh: ‘Who did the kitchen like that? For the new bathroom, I’ll have to re-do all that piping/ wiring.’  Or worse, hauling their ladders and equipment into the kitchen, they scratch your new hall paintwork or eeek, your brand new floor. The more work you can get done at once, the better the price should be.

2.     Move out if at all possible. Even for the first few weeks. This allows you and your family to remain sane and be dressed without plaster dust on your clothes, in your hair, all over your beds and even in your food. It also lets the builders forge ahead without having to worry about water, gas and electrics having to be reconnected every evening.

3.      If you have to stay at home, tape polythene sheets over doors, buy a brush, dustpan, even a cheap vacuum cleaner just to deal with builder mess. Do not use your lovely Dyson to scoop up plaster dust and rubble. Do not let the builders use it either: it will die!

4.     If you work from home, you HAVE to find somewhere else to go. Trust me here. The library, a café with wifi, you have to get out. You cannot listen to Lesser Known Hits of the 80s, plus drilling and bumping and banging for weeks on end and get work done.

5.     Be VERY choosy about which builder you use. Do not rush this decision. Get recommendations from people you trust, or neighbours… even bathroom and kitchen suppliers. Go and see previous work the builder has done. Ask the owners if the work was quick and tidy, if the builders were polite, stuck to the agreed budget, turned up on time, stayed with the job right to the end. If a builder is available straight away, beware. Good builders have to be booked in advance. If you’re in an old house, you need a builder used to renovating old property.

6.     I don’t like tradesmen who only want to be paid in cash and I don’t like it if they want part of the money up front. Both of these things suggest they’re not running their business well and they won’t run your project well either. I totally wanted to sack a builder once, but had paid too much up front to be able to do it.

7.     Some money part way through is OK. But you need a week or two after the work is completed before you pay your final bill. So you can work out what the little problems are and ask for them to be fixed before you settle up.

8.     Plan, plan, plan. Make drawings of your rooms. Think about plugs, lights, tiling, cabinets, the way the door opens… Make as many decisions ahead of the work as possible. There will still be lots of decisions to make on the spot. Take some guidance from your builder – he might from experience know of a better way to do it…

9.     …But don’t do everything the builder way – sometimes they can go overboard with plastic trimming, beading, coving, laminate flooring and everything in beige and before you know it the heart and soul of your characterful old house has been ripped out and MDF-ed over.

10.   Consider using an architect. I asked an architect friend, who recommended the office junior, who made several visits and lots of plans. She had great ideas, oversaw getting the building warrant and all the relevant permits and charged us less than we expected for her time.

11. If your decorator umms and ahhs and says: ‘Are you sure? That’s quite a dark/ bright/ unusual colour?’ Just say YES. If you want a beautiful paint job with proper sanding down and many layers of paint, say so. Expect it to take longer and cost more than slapping the stuff on.

12.  Don’t freak out when standing in an empty newly painted room. By the time you’ve put in sofas, pictures, lamps, shelves, books – the colour will be lovely and just the way you imagined it.

13. Be business like with your builders. They’re not your new friends; they’re not your Dad/ uncle/ boss. You’re in charge. If things aren’t going the way you want, ask about it. Explain what you want. Listen. Sometimes you will have to compromise because what you want doesn’t work. But don’t accept something you really don’t want. The builder is going to move on and you’ll be left regretting this bit of work for the next five, ten years or longer.

14. When you first agree a price with the builder, try and get everything you can think of onto that estimate. There will always be a few extra jobs at the end, which will put the price up, but try not to make it a great long list of extras. Otherwise your bill might be a nasty shock.

15. Agree a timetable. Expect it to take a bit longer. But do not accept endless weeks of delay. If this is happening, you need to find out why and ask them to get back on track.

16. Keep all your estimates, bills and receipts in a dedicated folder. File all those guarantees. Unused paint tins, lightshades that didn’t match, bookcases that didn’t fit, unopened boxes of tiles – all can be returned if you have the receipt.

17. Get everything finished! Don’t leave wires dangling while you procrastinate on a bathroom cabinet, don’t leave plywood on the floor while you dither about tiles. After all the pain you’ve gone through, you NEED the big ‘tah dah’ when it all comes together and looks brilliant.

18. Accept that budget limitations can lead to creative and brilliant results. My £9 a metre bathroom tiles look amazing. Crown and Dulux have colours just as pretty as Farrow and Ball’s (use tester pots to find them). Two IKEA pendant lights can look even better than one designer one. A cheap bookcase properly assembled and fitted to the wall by a joiner looks almost as good as a bespoke one.

19. Realise that your wine/ chocolate/ biscuit consumption will rocket during this horribly stressful and expensive time.

20.  Remind yourself that it will be worth all the pain, expense and hassle. We’ve created a big family kitchen, renovated an old bathroom, plus put in a second bathroom and already, one week in, this has transformed home life.

 

World Book Day | My best advice to writers

Today is World Book Day. To mark the occasion I thought I’d repost this blog from my old site. I think there’s plenty here to think about for anyone who loves books, loves writing — and for anyone thinking of trying to write a novel. I’d love to hear your comments:

How do I get started writing?

I could write chapters and chapters, probably a whole book about writing. But I’m going to try and break it down into FAQs for you. If I haven’t answered your question, then please drop me a line. But these are my best answers to the questions I’m often asked. Also, I’m not just a published writer who ‘has it easy’ (‘What does she know about rejections?’) I’m also married to a trying-to-be-published writer. So I know about the process from many angles.

You sit down and you start. There we go. You don’t put it off until you ‘have the time’ or ‘feel in the mood’. You just apply your behind to the chair and get on with it. Because all that time you are wasting thinking about writing your amazing novel, I’m actually at my computer writing.

If we were runners, you would be thinking about taking up running and I would be training six days a week, so come the race – who has the best chance of finishing?!

Writing is a complex art. Expressing your ideas, characters and story in words is a skill which takes a lifetime to master. I’ve been writing fiction for 14 years now and I’m only beginning to get the hang of it. Just because you can read novels does not mean you can write them. Just because a book is easy to read does not mean it is easy to write.

Plus, it’s a very competitive business. There are so many fantastic writers already out there, if you want to join them, you’re going to have to get very, very good.

I feel it’s best to give you tough love. If you want to write novels – long, gripping novels people are going to give up hours and hours of their precious lives to read, you’re going to have to start training for the ultra-marathon!

What will help with my writing?

Reading will help enormously. Read all kinds of books. Find the kind of writing that you love; the kind of book you could pick up again and again. Is it horror? Is it rom com? Is it sci-fi? Is it historical fiction? What inspires you? What kind of book would you love to write?

Then write! Write and write some more. Write little chunks: blogs, diary entries, short pages. Hone your skills. Try a poem, then a short story. Try out chapter one. Try out the final chapter. Play with words. Describe the people you see on the train. Invent a background for them. Practise dialogue. Turn a news story into a short story. Write, write, write. Train your brain and your fingers to turn your thoughts into great sentences, then your sentences into stories.

Don’t expect to be a genius immediately. It takes time to get good. I was writing stories, essays and diaries all the time I was growing up. I spent my early 20s being a newspaper journalist. I must have written millions of words before I got started on chapter one. My first book attempt was in the bin by chapter four and I began again.

Think of JK Rowling, she’d been working on that first Harry Potter manuscript for YEARS before she showed it to anyone and even then all the big publishers turned her down! Her enormous success had nothing to do with luck: it was because she had a huge story to tell, sheer persistence and worked bloody hard.

 Are any books helpful?

I’m helped by reading and re-reading all the writers I love: Nancy Mitford, Anne Tyler, Agatha Christie, John Irving, JK Rowling, Roald Dahl, Candace Bushnell and many more.

I’ve also found these books very inspirational and packed with great advice: Robert McKee’s Story, Stephen King’s On Writing, Michelle Wallerstein’s Mind Your Business.

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan always get my romantic comedy juices flowing, along with every film written by Nora Ephron.

Should I join a writing group?

I’ve never joined a writing group. This is because I am such a loner and solitary animal. Also, I didn’t think I could bear the criticism! You have to be tough to write and keep on writing, but oh my goodness writing makes you vulnerable. As soon as you’ve written something, you’ve created a work that people can criticise. And believe me, everybody has an opinion. You just need to go onto Amazon to see that.

But writing groups can be hugely helpful. They help people to focus on what they want to write, they help people make contacts, plus they inspire you to get the work done. Only you can know if a group is a good idea for you. You could always try one and see. You could even advertise and set one up in your area.

 Where do I get ideas from?

EVERYWHERE!! As Paul Smith the fashion designer wrote: ’Inspiration is everywhere, if at first you don’t see it, look again!’ Open your mind to ideas. They really are everywhere. I used to worry about having enough things to write about, now I worry about finding the time to write about all my ideas. What sort of things have happened to you? What’s happened to your friend? Could it be re-worked? Could it be made much more exciting? What’s in the news? What’s in National Geographic? See reality as your springboard into the swimming pool of story.

You need to have a story. A really intriguing, interesting tale. You need to have great, memorable, fully-fleshed characters. If you are writing rom-com, you need to have some really hilariously funny scenes; some heart-meltingly tender scenes and you need a love story where something is always in the way of the happy couple.

Dig deeply into all your wide experience of life. How do your own relationships work? What makes you fall in love? What makes you angry? Sad? Confused? Despairing?

Should I do research?

ABSOLUTELY!! Go to the places you are writing about. Interview people who’ve done something like your heroine. You will get one million more great ideas doing this than you can ever dream of at your desk.

 Should I have a plan?

YOU’D BE MAD NOT TO!

Readers are viewers. They are used to more plot in a half an hour sit-com than they ever got in a full Dickens novel. You must plot your baby to death. You must keep your reader nailed to the chair. You will never manage this without a detailed plan. I work on my plans for weeks. I don’t write a word until I have every chapter outlined and the whole story completely outlined. Even then, it still changes, improves, gets messed around.

 Should I listen to criticism?

Only if it’s from someone you really trust. Writing something that makes your Mum beam with pride is not hard. Writing something that will move and engage perfect strangers is much more tricky. When you have a first draft you are really happy with, tell your story to a couple of friends who have been briefed to be firm but fair. Don’t make them read the whole thing. Try out the outline of your story on them. Does it excite them? Interest them? Do their eyes glaze over? Where are the problems?

Should I re-write?

Re-writing is the number one skill. It separates the amateurs from the professionals. About 50% of my time, maybe more is spent re-writing my work. I get to the end of my first draft in a hurry. I’m making sure the story works and I’m getting to know my characters. Then I start re-writing and the really hard work follows. But this is the sweat and tears that makes stories good.

How do I get an agent?

I have no idea!! You need an agent, because hardly any publishers look at manuscripts which don’t come from agents (check their websites to find out). But agents are like fairy dust.  Agents are very, very busy looking after those super important clients who earn them vast amounts of money.  With your unpublished manuscript, you are so far down the pecking order, your precious work will be handed to the work experience girl if you are lucky.  But remind yourself, big deals with brand new authors are made all the time. Agents and publishers continue to need new writers.

Do your research, find agents who represent your kind of work. Submit exactly as it says on the website. Send only your very polished, very best work. Write a covering letter of genius, brilliantly written about your brilliant story. Get them hooked. Make yours the manuscript at the top of the pile.

 I’ve been rejected, now what?

If you’ve sent your best work to many reputable agents or publishers and they’ve all said no thanks, you have to dust yourself down and think hard about what to do next. You could find more people to send it to… you could self-publish. You could put your work in a drawer and work on your next idea. You could stop and rest for a while… or go on a course, read books about writing, train your writing muscles to get better and stronger. No decision is right or wrong here. You have to decide what’s best for you. But I can promise the more you read, write and re-write, the better you will get.

 I’ve published one book, how do I keep going?

Your book is published, the world did not stop turning, Hollywood did not call, you are not as rich as Dan Brown. Welcome to the club. Look very hard at what worked; look even harder at what didn’t work. Don’t blame yourself for everything, but don’t accept no blame. Maybe you need to get much better. Think up a much stronger story. Do more research. Maybe you need to flex your PR muscles on your next time out.

Take your new career seriously. Find an amazing new story, fresh avenues for your work. Make lots more contacts in all sorts of connected fields.

All authors need these quotations pinned up above their desk:

‘Try again, fail again, fail better.’   Samuel Beckett.

‘Never, never, never, NEVER, give up.’   Sir Winston Churchill.

Do I self-publish on the internet?

Previously, I would always have said no, it’s a waste of time and money and you won’t make a penny. But the game has changed. Some writers are now fabulous e-book successes. In ten years time we may all be self-published on the internet. Do your research, don’t get ripped off and don’t put anything out there that isn’t your absolutely best work. Expect to do a lot of self-promoting. Success on the internet is just like success with a publisher, it’s all about talent and hard work. We are all only as good as the last thing we’ve written and the next big thing we’re writing.

 Will writing make me rich?

Let’s be realistic here. One in hundreds of thousands of writers will become rich: maybe through genius, epic hard work or sheer good luck. Just like one in hundreds of thousands of actors, painters and all kinds of creative people. The rest of us will range from making a great living to struggling on penniless. Love your work, devote yourself to your work and hope that the money will follow. If you have success, be like several wise old actors I know and save your money hard because success may not come around again immediately. Yachts and villas on the Med are for gas barons and internet billionaires not, usually, novelists.

Will writing make me happy?

I love to write. I love the hours when I am so in the flow, so in my made-up world that I forget about everything else. But I spend all day, most days, withimaginary people and many head-doctors would consider this a worrying condition!

Creative people often struggle with mental health issues – we get depressed, we fret, we drink or smoke, take drugs, or comfort eat or all of the above. Maybe we were like this when we began; maybe the nature of our work makes us more like this. I do believe that writing makes you vulnerable. Plus it can become obsessive. Writing can take up all the time you have, no manuscript is ever ‘finished’, and you can use writing as a way of opting out of everything else life has to offer.

You need balance!

You need to look after the other areas of life too: friends, family and your health. You need regular breaks from writing, reading other writing and thinking about writing – hard, I know! But there must be room for relaxation, laughter and holidays. If I am turning into a basket case, I shut everything down and hang out with my children. Sometimes you just have to go away and come back to the keyboard with fresh perspective.

 Should I give up my day job?

I have mixed feelings about this. Basically I did give up my day job and the terror got me writing like a dervish. Happily, I landed a two-book deal which gave me enough money to take another year off to write more. For several years I combined fiction writing with freelance journalism, now I write fiction full-time but I know I have journalism skills if I need to go back to them.

I’m not sure I would advise an 18 year old to study creative writing at college and nothing else. But sometimes, you have to walk the wire without the safety net because if you put your heart and soul into writing it might work much better than if you potter about at the weekends only.

Giving up the day job to write is scary and stressful. Please approach it very, very carefully, fully consulting your nearest and dearest and burn no bridges. Bear in mind that many, many well known writers combine writing with other jobs and careers which reliably pay the bills.

 Finally…

I really hope this has helped. Very, very best of luck out there. May your story be the next huge thing the world didn’t even know it was waiting for! And if it isn’t – please love the ride. Writing is fantastic – like dreaming with the lights on. Work hard, master the art, bring your dreams to life and WRITE ON!!

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

 

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

20 Tips For Surviving The Builders

And the builders are OUT… phew! I’m breathing a huge, dusty sigh of relief and allowing life as I know it to resume.

I’ve totally renovated four homes so far and although I don’t think this one will be the last, I have promised my family some peace and quiet… for a while.

I’ve learned (the hard way) a few useful things about having the builders in and thought I’d share my top 20 tips in case they’re useful to anyone else in this nerve-shreddingly stressful situation.

1.     Get as much done all at the one time as you possibly can. I’ve tried doing a bathroom here, a kitchen the next year, redecorating bit by bit and it’s not ideal. Plumbers and electricians come in and sigh: ‘Who did the kitchen like that? For the new bathroom, I’ll have to re-do all that piping/ wiring.’  Or worse, hauling their ladders and equipment into the kitchen, they scratch your new hall paintwork or eeek, your brand new floor. The more work you can get done at once, the better the price should be.

2.     Move out if at all possible. Even for the first few weeks. This allows you and your family to remain sane and be dressed without plaster dust on your clothes, in your hair, all over your beds and even in your food. It also lets the builders forge ahead without having to worry about water, gas and electrics having to be reconnected every evening.

3.      If you have to stay at home, tape polythene sheets over doors, buy a brush, dustpan, even a cheap vacuum cleaner just to deal with builder mess. Do not use your lovely Dyson to scoop up plaster dust and rubble. Do not let the builders use it either: it will die!

4.     If you work from home, you HAVE to find somewhere else to go. Trust me here. The library, a café with wifi, you have to get out. You cannot listen to Lesser Known Hits of the 80s, plus drilling and bumping and banging for weeks on end and get work done.

5.     Be VERY choosy about which builder you use. Do not rush this decision. Get recommendations from people you trust, or neighbours… even bathroom and kitchen suppliers. Go and see previous work the builder has done. Ask the owners if the work was quick and tidy, if the builders were polite, stuck to the agreed budget, turned up on time, stayed with the job right to the end. If a builder is available straight away, beware. Good builders have to be booked in advance. If you’re in an old house, you need a builder used to renovating old property.

6.     I don’t like tradesmen who only want to be paid in cash and I don’t like it if they want part of the money up front. Both of these things suggest they’re not running their business well and they won’t run your project well either. I totally wanted to sack a builder once, but had paid too much up front to be able to do it.

7.     Some money part way through is OK. But you need a week or two after the work is completed before you pay your final bill. So you can work out what the little problems are and ask for them to be fixed before you settle up.

8.     Plan, plan, plan. Make drawings of your rooms. Think about plugs, lights, tiling, cabinets, the way the door opens… Make as many decisions ahead of the work as possible. There will still be lots of decisions to make on the spot. Take some guidance from your builder – he might from experience know of a better way to do it…

9.     …But don’t do everything the builder way – sometimes they can go overboard with plastic trimming, beading, coving, laminate flooring and everything in beige and before you know it the heart and soul of your characterful old house has been ripped out and MDF-ed over.

10.   Consider using an architect. I asked an architect friend, who recommended the office junior, who made several visits and lots of plans. She had great ideas, oversaw getting the building warrant and all the relevant permits and charged us less than we expected for her time.

11. If your decorator umms and ahhs and says: ‘Are you sure? That’s quite a dark/ bright/ unusual colour?’ Just say YES. If you want a beautiful paint job with proper sanding down and many layers of paint, say so. Expect it to take longer and cost more than slapping the stuff on.

12.  Don’t freak out when standing in an empty newly painted room. By the time you’ve put in sofas, pictures, lamps, shelves, books – the colour will be lovely and just the way you imagined it.

13. Be business like with your builders. They’re not your new friends; they’re not your Dad/ uncle/ boss. You’re in charge. If things aren’t going the way you want, ask about it. Explain what you want. Listen. Sometimes you will have to compromise because what you want doesn’t work. But don’t accept something you really don’t want. The builder is going to move on and you’ll be left regretting this bit of work for the next five, ten years or longer.

14. When you first agree a price with the builder, try and get everything you can think of onto that estimate. There will always be a few extra jobs at the end, which will put the price up, but try not to make it a great long list of extras. Otherwise your bill might be a nasty shock.

15. Agree a timetable. Expect it to take a bit longer. But do not accept endless weeks of delay. If this is happening, you need to find out why and ask them to get back on track.

16. Keep all your estimates, bills and receipts in a dedicated folder. File all those guarantees. Unused paint tins, lightshades that didn’t match, bookcases that didn’t fit, unopened boxes of tiles – all can be returned if you have the receipt.

17. Get everything finished! Don’t leave wires dangling while you procrastinate on a bathroom cabinet, don’t leave plywood on the floor while you dither about tiles. After all the pain you’ve gone through, you NEED the big ‘tah dah’ when it all comes together and looks brilliant.

18. Accept that budget limitations can lead to creative and brilliant results. My £9 a metre bathroom tiles look amazing. Crown and Dulux have colours just as pretty as Farrow and Ball’s (use tester pots to find them). Two IKEA pendant lights can look even better than one designer one. A cheap bookcase properly assembled and fitted to the wall by a joiner looks almost as good as a bespoke one.

19. Realise that your wine/ chocolate/ biscuit consumption will rocket during this horribly stressful and expensive time.

20.  Remind yourself that it will be worth all the pain, expense and hassle. We’ve created a big family kitchen, renovated an old bathroom, plus put in a second bathroom and already, one week in, this has transformed home life.

 

World Book Day | My best advice to writers

Today is World Book Day. To mark the occasion I thought I’d repost this blog from my old site. I think there’s plenty here to think about for anyone who loves books, loves writing — and for anyone thinking of trying to write a novel. I’d love to hear your comments:

How do I get started writing?

I could write chapters and chapters, probably a whole book about writing. But I’m going to try and break it down into FAQs for you. If I haven’t answered your question, then please drop me a line. But these are my best answers to the questions I’m often asked. Also, I’m not just a published writer who ‘has it easy’ (‘What does she know about rejections?’) I’m also married to a trying-to-be-published writer. So I know about the process from many angles.

You sit down and you start. There we go. You don’t put it off until you ‘have the time’ or ‘feel in the mood’. You just apply your behind to the chair and get on with it. Because all that time you are wasting thinking about writing your amazing novel, I’m actually at my computer writing.

If we were runners, you would be thinking about taking up running and I would be training six days a week, so come the race – who has the best chance of finishing?!

Writing is a complex art. Expressing your ideas, characters and story in words is a skill which takes a lifetime to master. I’ve been writing fiction for 14 years now and I’m only beginning to get the hang of it. Just because you can read novels does not mean you can write them. Just because a book is easy to read does not mean it is easy to write.

Plus, it’s a very competitive business. There are so many fantastic writers already out there, if you want to join them, you’re going to have to get very, very good.

I feel it’s best to give you tough love. If you want to write novels – long, gripping novels people are going to give up hours and hours of their precious lives to read, you’re going to have to start training for the ultra-marathon!

What will help with my writing?

Reading will help enormously. Read all kinds of books. Find the kind of writing that you love; the kind of book you could pick up again and again. Is it horror? Is it rom com? Is it sci-fi? Is it historical fiction? What inspires you? What kind of book would you love to write?

Then write! Write and write some more. Write little chunks: blogs, diary entries, short pages. Hone your skills. Try a poem, then a short story. Try out chapter one. Try out the final chapter. Play with words. Describe the people you see on the train. Invent a background for them. Practise dialogue. Turn a news story into a short story. Write, write, write. Train your brain and your fingers to turn your thoughts into great sentences, then your sentences into stories.

Don’t expect to be a genius immediately. It takes time to get good. I was writing stories, essays and diaries all the time I was growing up. I spent my early 20s being a newspaper journalist. I must have written millions of words before I got started on chapter one. My first book attempt was in the bin by chapter four and I began again.

Think of JK Rowling, she’d been working on that first Harry Potter manuscript for YEARS before she showed it to anyone and even then all the big publishers turned her down! Her enormous success had nothing to do with luck: it was because she had a huge story to tell, sheer persistence and worked bloody hard.

 Are any books helpful?

I’m helped by reading and re-reading all the writers I love: Nancy Mitford, Anne Tyler, Agatha Christie, John Irving, JK Rowling, Roald Dahl, Candace Bushnell and many more.

I’ve also found these books very inspirational and packed with great advice: Robert McKee’s Story, Stephen King’s On Writing, Michelle Wallerstein’s Mind Your Business.

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan always get my romantic comedy juices flowing, along with every film written by Nora Ephron.

Should I join a writing group?

I’ve never joined a writing group. This is because I am such a loner and solitary animal. Also, I didn’t think I could bear the criticism! You have to be tough to write and keep on writing, but oh my goodness writing makes you vulnerable. As soon as you’ve written something, you’ve created a work that people can criticise. And believe me, everybody has an opinion. You just need to go onto Amazon to see that.

But writing groups can be hugely helpful. They help people to focus on what they want to write, they help people make contacts, plus they inspire you to get the work done. Only you can know if a group is a good idea for you. You could always try one and see. You could even advertise and set one up in your area.

 Where do I get ideas from?

EVERYWHERE!! As Paul Smith the fashion designer wrote: ’Inspiration is everywhere, if at first you don’t see it, look again!’ Open your mind to ideas. They really are everywhere. I used to worry about having enough things to write about, now I worry about finding the time to write about all my ideas. What sort of things have happened to you? What’s happened to your friend? Could it be re-worked? Could it be made much more exciting? What’s in the news? What’s in National Geographic? See reality as your springboard into the swimming pool of story.

You need to have a story. A really intriguing, interesting tale. You need to have great, memorable, fully-fleshed characters. If you are writing rom-com, you need to have some really hilariously funny scenes; some heart-meltingly tender scenes and you need a love story where something is always in the way of the happy couple.

Dig deeply into all your wide experience of life. How do your own relationships work? What makes you fall in love? What makes you angry? Sad? Confused? Despairing?

Should I do research?

ABSOLUTELY!! Go to the places you are writing about. Interview people who’ve done something like your heroine. You will get one million more great ideas doing this than you can ever dream of at your desk.

 Should I have a plan?

YOU’D BE MAD NOT TO!

Readers are viewers. They are used to more plot in a half an hour sit-com than they ever got in a full Dickens novel. You must plot your baby to death. You must keep your reader nailed to the chair. You will never manage this without a detailed plan. I work on my plans for weeks. I don’t write a word until I have every chapter outlined and the whole story completely outlined. Even then, it still changes, improves, gets messed around.

 Should I listen to criticism?

Only if it’s from someone you really trust. Writing something that makes your Mum beam with pride is not hard. Writing something that will move and engage perfect strangers is much more tricky. When you have a first draft you are really happy with, tell your story to a couple of friends who have been briefed to be firm but fair. Don’t make them read the whole thing. Try out the outline of your story on them. Does it excite them? Interest them? Do their eyes glaze over? Where are the problems?

Should I re-write?

Re-writing is the number one skill. It separates the amateurs from the professionals. About 50% of my time, maybe more is spent re-writing my work. I get to the end of my first draft in a hurry. I’m making sure the story works and I’m getting to know my characters. Then I start re-writing and the really hard work follows. But this is the sweat and tears that makes stories good.

How do I get an agent?

I have no idea!! You need an agent, because hardly any publishers look at manuscripts which don’t come from agents (check their websites to find out). But agents are like fairy dust.  Agents are very, very busy looking after those super important clients who earn them vast amounts of money.  With your unpublished manuscript, you are so far down the pecking order, your precious work will be handed to the work experience girl if you are lucky.  But remind yourself, big deals with brand new authors are made all the time. Agents and publishers continue to need new writers.

Do your research, find agents who represent your kind of work. Submit exactly as it says on the website. Send only your very polished, very best work. Write a covering letter of genius, brilliantly written about your brilliant story. Get them hooked. Make yours the manuscript at the top of the pile.

 I’ve been rejected, now what?

If you’ve sent your best work to many reputable agents or publishers and they’ve all said no thanks, you have to dust yourself down and think hard about what to do next. You could find more people to send it to… you could self-publish. You could put your work in a drawer and work on your next idea. You could stop and rest for a while… or go on a course, read books about writing, train your writing muscles to get better and stronger. No decision is right or wrong here. You have to decide what’s best for you. But I can promise the more you read, write and re-write, the better you will get.

 I’ve published one book, how do I keep going?

Your book is published, the world did not stop turning, Hollywood did not call, you are not as rich as Dan Brown. Welcome to the club. Look very hard at what worked; look even harder at what didn’t work. Don’t blame yourself for everything, but don’t accept no blame. Maybe you need to get much better. Think up a much stronger story. Do more research. Maybe you need to flex your PR muscles on your next time out.

Take your new career seriously. Find an amazing new story, fresh avenues for your work. Make lots more contacts in all sorts of connected fields.

All authors need these quotations pinned up above their desk:

‘Try again, fail again, fail better.’   Samuel Beckett.

‘Never, never, never, NEVER, give up.’   Sir Winston Churchill.

Do I self-publish on the internet?

Previously, I would always have said no, it’s a waste of time and money and you won’t make a penny. But the game has changed. Some writers are now fabulous e-book successes. In ten years time we may all be self-published on the internet. Do your research, don’t get ripped off and don’t put anything out there that isn’t your absolutely best work. Expect to do a lot of self-promoting. Success on the internet is just like success with a publisher, it’s all about talent and hard work. We are all only as good as the last thing we’ve written and the next big thing we’re writing.

 Will writing make me rich?

Let’s be realistic here. One in hundreds of thousands of writers will become rich: maybe through genius, epic hard work or sheer good luck. Just like one in hundreds of thousands of actors, painters and all kinds of creative people. The rest of us will range from making a great living to struggling on penniless. Love your work, devote yourself to your work and hope that the money will follow. If you have success, be like several wise old actors I know and save your money hard because success may not come around again immediately. Yachts and villas on the Med are for gas barons and internet billionaires not, usually, novelists.

Will writing make me happy?

I love to write. I love the hours when I am so in the flow, so in my made-up world that I forget about everything else. But I spend all day, most days, withimaginary people and many head-doctors would consider this a worrying condition!

Creative people often struggle with mental health issues – we get depressed, we fret, we drink or smoke, take drugs, or comfort eat or all of the above. Maybe we were like this when we began; maybe the nature of our work makes us more like this. I do believe that writing makes you vulnerable. Plus it can become obsessive. Writing can take up all the time you have, no manuscript is ever ‘finished’, and you can use writing as a way of opting out of everything else life has to offer.

You need balance!

You need to look after the other areas of life too: friends, family and your health. You need regular breaks from writing, reading other writing and thinking about writing – hard, I know! But there must be room for relaxation, laughter and holidays. If I am turning into a basket case, I shut everything down and hang out with my children. Sometimes you just have to go away and come back to the keyboard with fresh perspective.

 Should I give up my day job?

I have mixed feelings about this. Basically I did give up my day job and the terror got me writing like a dervish. Happily, I landed a two-book deal which gave me enough money to take another year off to write more. For several years I combined fiction writing with freelance journalism, now I write fiction full-time but I know I have journalism skills if I need to go back to them.

I’m not sure I would advise an 18 year old to study creative writing at college and nothing else. But sometimes, you have to walk the wire without the safety net because if you put your heart and soul into writing it might work much better than if you potter about at the weekends only.

Giving up the day job to write is scary and stressful. Please approach it very, very carefully, fully consulting your nearest and dearest and burn no bridges. Bear in mind that many, many well known writers combine writing with other jobs and careers which reliably pay the bills.

 Finally…

I really hope this has helped. Very, very best of luck out there. May your story be the next huge thing the world didn’t even know it was waiting for! And if it isn’t – please love the ride. Writing is fantastic – like dreaming with the lights on. Work hard, master the art, bring your dreams to life and WRITE ON!!

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

 

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

20 Tips For Surviving The Builders

And the builders are OUT… phew! I’m breathing a huge, dusty sigh of relief and allowing life as I know it to resume.

I’ve totally renovated four homes so far and although I don’t think this one will be the last, I have promised my family some peace and quiet… for a while.

I’ve learned (the hard way) a few useful things about having the builders in and thought I’d share my top 20 tips in case they’re useful to anyone else in this nerve-shreddingly stressful situation.

1.     Get as much done all at the one time as you possibly can. I’ve tried doing a bathroom here, a kitchen the next year, redecorating bit by bit and it’s not ideal. Plumbers and electricians come in and sigh: ‘Who did the kitchen like that? For the new bathroom, I’ll have to re-do all that piping/ wiring.’  Or worse, hauling their ladders and equipment into the kitchen, they scratch your new hall paintwork or eeek, your brand new floor. The more work you can get done at once, the better the price should be.

2.     Move out if at all possible. Even for the first few weeks. This allows you and your family to remain sane and be dressed without plaster dust on your clothes, in your hair, all over your beds and even in your food. It also lets the builders forge ahead without having to worry about water, gas and electrics having to be reconnected every evening.

3.      If you have to stay at home, tape polythene sheets over doors, buy a brush, dustpan, even a cheap vacuum cleaner just to deal with builder mess. Do not use your lovely Dyson to scoop up plaster dust and rubble. Do not let the builders use it either: it will die!

4.     If you work from home, you HAVE to find somewhere else to go. Trust me here. The library, a café with wifi, you have to get out. You cannot listen to Lesser Known Hits of the 80s, plus drilling and bumping and banging for weeks on end and get work done.

5.     Be VERY choosy about which builder you use. Do not rush this decision. Get recommendations from people you trust, or neighbours… even bathroom and kitchen suppliers. Go and see previous work the builder has done. Ask the owners if the work was quick and tidy, if the builders were polite, stuck to the agreed budget, turned up on time, stayed with the job right to the end. If a builder is available straight away, beware. Good builders have to be booked in advance. If you’re in an old house, you need a builder used to renovating old property.

6.     I don’t like tradesmen who only want to be paid in cash and I don’t like it if they want part of the money up front. Both of these things suggest they’re not running their business well and they won’t run your project well either. I totally wanted to sack a builder once, but had paid too much up front to be able to do it.

7.     Some money part way through is OK. But you need a week or two after the work is completed before you pay your final bill. So you can work out what the little problems are and ask for them to be fixed before you settle up.

8.     Plan, plan, plan. Make drawings of your rooms. Think about plugs, lights, tiling, cabinets, the way the door opens… Make as many decisions ahead of the work as possible. There will still be lots of decisions to make on the spot. Take some guidance from your builder – he might from experience know of a better way to do it…

9.     …But don’t do everything the builder way – sometimes they can go overboard with plastic trimming, beading, coving, laminate flooring and everything in beige and before you know it the heart and soul of your characterful old house has been ripped out and MDF-ed over.

10.   Consider using an architect. I asked an architect friend, who recommended the office junior, who made several visits and lots of plans. She had great ideas, oversaw getting the building warrant and all the relevant permits and charged us less than we expected for her time.

11. If your decorator umms and ahhs and says: ‘Are you sure? That’s quite a dark/ bright/ unusual colour?’ Just say YES. If you want a beautiful paint job with proper sanding down and many layers of paint, say so. Expect it to take longer and cost more than slapping the stuff on.

12.  Don’t freak out when standing in an empty newly painted room. By the time you’ve put in sofas, pictures, lamps, shelves, books – the colour will be lovely and just the way you imagined it.

13. Be business like with your builders. They’re not your new friends; they’re not your Dad/ uncle/ boss. You’re in charge. If things aren’t going the way you want, ask about it. Explain what you want. Listen. Sometimes you will have to compromise because what you want doesn’t work. But don’t accept something you really don’t want. The builder is going to move on and you’ll be left regretting this bit of work for the next five, ten years or longer.

14. When you first agree a price with the builder, try and get everything you can think of onto that estimate. There will always be a few extra jobs at the end, which will put the price up, but try not to make it a great long list of extras. Otherwise your bill might be a nasty shock.

15. Agree a timetable. Expect it to take a bit longer. But do not accept endless weeks of delay. If this is happening, you need to find out why and ask them to get back on track.

16. Keep all your estimates, bills and receipts in a dedicated folder. File all those guarantees. Unused paint tins, lightshades that didn’t match, bookcases that didn’t fit, unopened boxes of tiles – all can be returned if you have the receipt.

17. Get everything finished! Don’t leave wires dangling while you procrastinate on a bathroom cabinet, don’t leave plywood on the floor while you dither about tiles. After all the pain you’ve gone through, you NEED the big ‘tah dah’ when it all comes together and looks brilliant.

18. Accept that budget limitations can lead to creative and brilliant results. My £9 a metre bathroom tiles look amazing. Crown and Dulux have colours just as pretty as Farrow and Ball’s (use tester pots to find them). Two IKEA pendant lights can look even better than one designer one. A cheap bookcase properly assembled and fitted to the wall by a joiner looks almost as good as a bespoke one.

19. Realise that your wine/ chocolate/ biscuit consumption will rocket during this horribly stressful and expensive time.

20.  Remind yourself that it will be worth all the pain, expense and hassle. We’ve created a big family kitchen, renovated an old bathroom, plus put in a second bathroom and already, one week in, this has transformed home life.

 

World Book Day | My best advice to writers

Today is World Book Day. To mark the occasion I thought I’d repost this blog from my old site. I think there’s plenty here to think about for anyone who loves books, loves writing — and for anyone thinking of trying to write a novel. I’d love to hear your comments:

How do I get started writing?

I could write chapters and chapters, probably a whole book about writing. But I’m going to try and break it down into FAQs for you. If I haven’t answered your question, then please drop me a line. But these are my best answers to the questions I’m often asked. Also, I’m not just a published writer who ‘has it easy’ (‘What does she know about rejections?’) I’m also married to a trying-to-be-published writer. So I know about the process from many angles.

You sit down and you start. There we go. You don’t put it off until you ‘have the time’ or ‘feel in the mood’. You just apply your behind to the chair and get on with it. Because all that time you are wasting thinking about writing your amazing novel, I’m actually at my computer writing.

If we were runners, you would be thinking about taking up running and I would be training six days a week, so come the race – who has the best chance of finishing?!

Writing is a complex art. Expressing your ideas, characters and story in words is a skill which takes a lifetime to master. I’ve been writing fiction for 14 years now and I’m only beginning to get the hang of it. Just because you can read novels does not mean you can write them. Just because a book is easy to read does not mean it is easy to write.

Plus, it’s a very competitive business. There are so many fantastic writers already out there, if you want to join them, you’re going to have to get very, very good.

I feel it’s best to give you tough love. If you want to write novels – long, gripping novels people are going to give up hours and hours of their precious lives to read, you’re going to have to start training for the ultra-marathon!

What will help with my writing?

Reading will help enormously. Read all kinds of books. Find the kind of writing that you love; the kind of book you could pick up again and again. Is it horror? Is it rom com? Is it sci-fi? Is it historical fiction? What inspires you? What kind of book would you love to write?

Then write! Write and write some more. Write little chunks: blogs, diary entries, short pages. Hone your skills. Try a poem, then a short story. Try out chapter one. Try out the final chapter. Play with words. Describe the people you see on the train. Invent a background for them. Practise dialogue. Turn a news story into a short story. Write, write, write. Train your brain and your fingers to turn your thoughts into great sentences, then your sentences into stories.

Don’t expect to be a genius immediately. It takes time to get good. I was writing stories, essays and diaries all the time I was growing up. I spent my early 20s being a newspaper journalist. I must have written millions of words before I got started on chapter one. My first book attempt was in the bin by chapter four and I began again.

Think of JK Rowling, she’d been working on that first Harry Potter manuscript for YEARS before she showed it to anyone and even then all the big publishers turned her down! Her enormous success had nothing to do with luck: it was because she had a huge story to tell, sheer persistence and worked bloody hard.

 Are any books helpful?

I’m helped by reading and re-reading all the writers I love: Nancy Mitford, Anne Tyler, Agatha Christie, John Irving, JK Rowling, Roald Dahl, Candace Bushnell and many more.

I’ve also found these books very inspirational and packed with great advice: Robert McKee’s Story, Stephen King’s On Writing, Michelle Wallerstein’s Mind Your Business.

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan always get my romantic comedy juices flowing, along with every film written by Nora Ephron.

Should I join a writing group?

I’ve never joined a writing group. This is because I am such a loner and solitary animal. Also, I didn’t think I could bear the criticism! You have to be tough to write and keep on writing, but oh my goodness writing makes you vulnerable. As soon as you’ve written something, you’ve created a work that people can criticise. And believe me, everybody has an opinion. You just need to go onto Amazon to see that.

But writing groups can be hugely helpful. They help people to focus on what they want to write, they help people make contacts, plus they inspire you to get the work done. Only you can know if a group is a good idea for you. You could always try one and see. You could even advertise and set one up in your area.

 Where do I get ideas from?

EVERYWHERE!! As Paul Smith the fashion designer wrote: ’Inspiration is everywhere, if at first you don’t see it, look again!’ Open your mind to ideas. They really are everywhere. I used to worry about having enough things to write about, now I worry about finding the time to write about all my ideas. What sort of things have happened to you? What’s happened to your friend? Could it be re-worked? Could it be made much more exciting? What’s in the news? What’s in National Geographic? See reality as your springboard into the swimming pool of story.

You need to have a story. A really intriguing, interesting tale. You need to have great, memorable, fully-fleshed characters. If you are writing rom-com, you need to have some really hilariously funny scenes; some heart-meltingly tender scenes and you need a love story where something is always in the way of the happy couple.

Dig deeply into all your wide experience of life. How do your own relationships work? What makes you fall in love? What makes you angry? Sad? Confused? Despairing?

Should I do research?

ABSOLUTELY!! Go to the places you are writing about. Interview people who’ve done something like your heroine. You will get one million more great ideas doing this than you can ever dream of at your desk.

 Should I have a plan?

YOU’D BE MAD NOT TO!

Readers are viewers. They are used to more plot in a half an hour sit-com than they ever got in a full Dickens novel. You must plot your baby to death. You must keep your reader nailed to the chair. You will never manage this without a detailed plan. I work on my plans for weeks. I don’t write a word until I have every chapter outlined and the whole story completely outlined. Even then, it still changes, improves, gets messed around.

 Should I listen to criticism?

Only if it’s from someone you really trust. Writing something that makes your Mum beam with pride is not hard. Writing something that will move and engage perfect strangers is much more tricky. When you have a first draft you are really happy with, tell your story to a couple of friends who have been briefed to be firm but fair. Don’t make them read the whole thing. Try out the outline of your story on them. Does it excite them? Interest them? Do their eyes glaze over? Where are the problems?

Should I re-write?

Re-writing is the number one skill. It separates the amateurs from the professionals. About 50% of my time, maybe more is spent re-writing my work. I get to the end of my first draft in a hurry. I’m making sure the story works and I’m getting to know my characters. Then I start re-writing and the really hard work follows. But this is the sweat and tears that makes stories good.

How do I get an agent?

I have no idea!! You need an agent, because hardly any publishers look at manuscripts which don’t come from agents (check their websites to find out). But agents are like fairy dust.  Agents are very, very busy looking after those super important clients who earn them vast amounts of money.  With your unpublished manuscript, you are so far down the pecking order, your precious work will be handed to the work experience girl if you are lucky.  But remind yourself, big deals with brand new authors are made all the time. Agents and publishers continue to need new writers.

Do your research, find agents who represent your kind of work. Submit exactly as it says on the website. Send only your very polished, very best work. Write a covering letter of genius, brilliantly written about your brilliant story. Get them hooked. Make yours the manuscript at the top of the pile.

 I’ve been rejected, now what?

If you’ve sent your best work to many reputable agents or publishers and they’ve all said no thanks, you have to dust yourself down and think hard about what to do next. You could find more people to send it to… you could self-publish. You could put your work in a drawer and work on your next idea. You could stop and rest for a while… or go on a course, read books about writing, train your writing muscles to get better and stronger. No decision is right or wrong here. You have to decide what’s best for you. But I can promise the more you read, write and re-write, the better you will get.

 I’ve published one book, how do I keep going?

Your book is published, the world did not stop turning, Hollywood did not call, you are not as rich as Dan Brown. Welcome to the club. Look very hard at what worked; look even harder at what didn’t work. Don’t blame yourself for everything, but don’t accept no blame. Maybe you need to get much better. Think up a much stronger story. Do more research. Maybe you need to flex your PR muscles on your next time out.

Take your new career seriously. Find an amazing new story, fresh avenues for your work. Make lots more contacts in all sorts of connected fields.

All authors need these quotations pinned up above their desk:

‘Try again, fail again, fail better.’   Samuel Beckett.

‘Never, never, never, NEVER, give up.’   Sir Winston Churchill.

Do I self-publish on the internet?

Previously, I would always have said no, it’s a waste of time and money and you won’t make a penny. But the game has changed. Some writers are now fabulous e-book successes. In ten years time we may all be self-published on the internet. Do your research, don’t get ripped off and don’t put anything out there that isn’t your absolutely best work. Expect to do a lot of self-promoting. Success on the internet is just like success with a publisher, it’s all about talent and hard work. We are all only as good as the last thing we’ve written and the next big thing we’re writing.

 Will writing make me rich?

Let’s be realistic here. One in hundreds of thousands of writers will become rich: maybe through genius, epic hard work or sheer good luck. Just like one in hundreds of thousands of actors, painters and all kinds of creative people. The rest of us will range from making a great living to struggling on penniless. Love your work, devote yourself to your work and hope that the money will follow. If you have success, be like several wise old actors I know and save your money hard because success may not come around again immediately. Yachts and villas on the Med are for gas barons and internet billionaires not, usually, novelists.

Will writing make me happy?

I love to write. I love the hours when I am so in the flow, so in my made-up world that I forget about everything else. But I spend all day, most days, withimaginary people and many head-doctors would consider this a worrying condition!

Creative people often struggle with mental health issues – we get depressed, we fret, we drink or smoke, take drugs, or comfort eat or all of the above. Maybe we were like this when we began; maybe the nature of our work makes us more like this. I do believe that writing makes you vulnerable. Plus it can become obsessive. Writing can take up all the time you have, no manuscript is ever ‘finished’, and you can use writing as a way of opting out of everything else life has to offer.

You need balance!

You need to look after the other areas of life too: friends, family and your health. You need regular breaks from writing, reading other writing and thinking about writing – hard, I know! But there must be room for relaxation, laughter and holidays. If I am turning into a basket case, I shut everything down and hang out with my children. Sometimes you just have to go away and come back to the keyboard with fresh perspective.

 Should I give up my day job?

I have mixed feelings about this. Basically I did give up my day job and the terror got me writing like a dervish. Happily, I landed a two-book deal which gave me enough money to take another year off to write more. For several years I combined fiction writing with freelance journalism, now I write fiction full-time but I know I have journalism skills if I need to go back to them.

I’m not sure I would advise an 18 year old to study creative writing at college and nothing else. But sometimes, you have to walk the wire without the safety net because if you put your heart and soul into writing it might work much better than if you potter about at the weekends only.

Giving up the day job to write is scary and stressful. Please approach it very, very carefully, fully consulting your nearest and dearest and burn no bridges. Bear in mind that many, many well known writers combine writing with other jobs and careers which reliably pay the bills.

 Finally…

I really hope this has helped. Very, very best of luck out there. May your story be the next huge thing the world didn’t even know it was waiting for! And if it isn’t – please love the ride. Writing is fantastic – like dreaming with the lights on. Work hard, master the art, bring your dreams to life and WRITE ON!!

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

 

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

20 Tips For Surviving The Builders

And the builders are OUT… phew! I’m breathing a huge, dusty sigh of relief and allowing life as I know it to resume.

I’ve totally renovated four homes so far and although I don’t think this one will be the last, I have promised my family some peace and quiet… for a while.

I’ve learned (the hard way) a few useful things about having the builders in and thought I’d share my top 20 tips in case they’re useful to anyone else in this nerve-shreddingly stressful situation.

1.     Get as much done all at the one time as you possibly can. I’ve tried doing a bathroom here, a kitchen the next year, redecorating bit by bit and it’s not ideal. Plumbers and electricians come in and sigh: ‘Who did the kitchen like that? For the new bathroom, I’ll have to re-do all that piping/ wiring.’  Or worse, hauling their ladders and equipment into the kitchen, they scratch your new hall paintwork or eeek, your brand new floor. The more work you can get done at once, the better the price should be.

2.     Move out if at all possible. Even for the first few weeks. This allows you and your family to remain sane and be dressed without plaster dust on your clothes, in your hair, all over your beds and even in your food. It also lets the builders forge ahead without having to worry about water, gas and electrics having to be reconnected every evening.

3.      If you have to stay at home, tape polythene sheets over doors, buy a brush, dustpan, even a cheap vacuum cleaner just to deal with builder mess. Do not use your lovely Dyson to scoop up plaster dust and rubble. Do not let the builders use it either: it will die!

4.     If you work from home, you HAVE to find somewhere else to go. Trust me here. The library, a café with wifi, you have to get out. You cannot listen to Lesser Known Hits of the 80s, plus drilling and bumping and banging for weeks on end and get work done.

5.     Be VERY choosy about which builder you use. Do not rush this decision. Get recommendations from people you trust, or neighbours… even bathroom and kitchen suppliers. Go and see previous work the builder has done. Ask the owners if the work was quick and tidy, if the builders were polite, stuck to the agreed budget, turned up on time, stayed with the job right to the end. If a builder is available straight away, beware. Good builders have to be booked in advance. If you’re in an old house, you need a builder used to renovating old property.

6.     I don’t like tradesmen who only want to be paid in cash and I don’t like it if they want part of the money up front. Both of these things suggest they’re not running their business well and they won’t run your project well either. I totally wanted to sack a builder once, but had paid too much up front to be able to do it.

7.     Some money part way through is OK. But you need a week or two after the work is completed before you pay your final bill. So you can work out what the little problems are and ask for them to be fixed before you settle up.

8.     Plan, plan, plan. Make drawings of your rooms. Think about plugs, lights, tiling, cabinets, the way the door opens… Make as many decisions ahead of the work as possible. There will still be lots of decisions to make on the spot. Take some guidance from your builder – he might from experience know of a better way to do it…

9.     …But don’t do everything the builder way – sometimes they can go overboard with plastic trimming, beading, coving, laminate flooring and everything in beige and before you know it the heart and soul of your characterful old house has been ripped out and MDF-ed over.

10.   Consider using an architect. I asked an architect friend, who recommended the office junior, who made several visits and lots of plans. She had great ideas, oversaw getting the building warrant and all the relevant permits and charged us less than we expected for her time.

11. If your decorator umms and ahhs and says: ‘Are you sure? That’s quite a dark/ bright/ unusual colour?’ Just say YES. If you want a beautiful paint job with proper sanding down and many layers of paint, say so. Expect it to take longer and cost more than slapping the stuff on.

12.  Don’t freak out when standing in an empty newly painted room. By the time you’ve put in sofas, pictures, lamps, shelves, books – the colour will be lovely and just the way you imagined it.

13. Be business like with your builders. They’re not your new friends; they’re not your Dad/ uncle/ boss. You’re in charge. If things aren’t going the way you want, ask about it. Explain what you want. Listen. Sometimes you will have to compromise because what you want doesn’t work. But don’t accept something you really don’t want. The builder is going to move on and you’ll be left regretting this bit of work for the next five, ten years or longer.

14. When you first agree a price with the builder, try and get everything you can think of onto that estimate. There will always be a few extra jobs at the end, which will put the price up, but try not to make it a great long list of extras. Otherwise your bill might be a nasty shock.

15. Agree a timetable. Expect it to take a bit longer. But do not accept endless weeks of delay. If this is happening, you need to find out why and ask them to get back on track.

16. Keep all your estimates, bills and receipts in a dedicated folder. File all those guarantees. Unused paint tins, lightshades that didn’t match, bookcases that didn’t fit, unopened boxes of tiles – all can be returned if you have the receipt.

17. Get everything finished! Don’t leave wires dangling while you procrastinate on a bathroom cabinet, don’t leave plywood on the floor while you dither about tiles. After all the pain you’ve gone through, you NEED the big ‘tah dah’ when it all comes together and looks brilliant.

18. Accept that budget limitations can lead to creative and brilliant results. My £9 a metre bathroom tiles look amazing. Crown and Dulux have colours just as pretty as Farrow and Ball’s (use tester pots to find them). Two IKEA pendant lights can look even better than one designer one. A cheap bookcase properly assembled and fitted to the wall by a joiner looks almost as good as a bespoke one.

19. Realise that your wine/ chocolate/ biscuit consumption will rocket during this horribly stressful and expensive time.

20.  Remind yourself that it will be worth all the pain, expense and hassle. We’ve created a big family kitchen, renovated an old bathroom, plus put in a second bathroom and already, one week in, this has transformed home life.

 

World Book Day | My best advice to writers

Today is World Book Day. To mark the occasion I thought I’d repost this blog from my old site. I think there’s plenty here to think about for anyone who loves books, loves writing — and for anyone thinking of trying to write a novel. I’d love to hear your comments:

How do I get started writing?

I could write chapters and chapters, probably a whole book about writing. But I’m going to try and break it down into FAQs for you. If I haven’t answered your question, then please drop me a line. But these are my best answers to the questions I’m often asked. Also, I’m not just a published writer who ‘has it easy’ (‘What does she know about rejections?’) I’m also married to a trying-to-be-published writer. So I know about the process from many angles.

You sit down and you start. There we go. You don’t put it off until you ‘have the time’ or ‘feel in the mood’. You just apply your behind to the chair and get on with it. Because all that time you are wasting thinking about writing your amazing novel, I’m actually at my computer writing.

If we were runners, you would be thinking about taking up running and I would be training six days a week, so come the race – who has the best chance of finishing?!

Writing is a complex art. Expressing your ideas, characters and story in words is a skill which takes a lifetime to master. I’ve been writing fiction for 14 years now and I’m only beginning to get the hang of it. Just because you can read novels does not mean you can write them. Just because a book is easy to read does not mean it is easy to write.

Plus, it’s a very competitive business. There are so many fantastic writers already out there, if you want to join them, you’re going to have to get very, very good.

I feel it’s best to give you tough love. If you want to write novels – long, gripping novels people are going to give up hours and hours of their precious lives to read, you’re going to have to start training for the ultra-marathon!

What will help with my writing?

Reading will help enormously. Read all kinds of books. Find the kind of writing that you love; the kind of book you could pick up again and again. Is it horror? Is it rom com? Is it sci-fi? Is it historical fiction? What inspires you? What kind of book would you love to write?

Then write! Write and write some more. Write little chunks: blogs, diary entries, short pages. Hone your skills. Try a poem, then a short story. Try out chapter one. Try out the final chapter. Play with words. Describe the people you see on the train. Invent a background for them. Practise dialogue. Turn a news story into a short story. Write, write, write. Train your brain and your fingers to turn your thoughts into great sentences, then your sentences into stories.

Don’t expect to be a genius immediately. It takes time to get good. I was writing stories, essays and diaries all the time I was growing up. I spent my early 20s being a newspaper journalist. I must have written millions of words before I got started on chapter one. My first book attempt was in the bin by chapter four and I began again.

Think of JK Rowling, she’d been working on that first Harry Potter manuscript for YEARS before she showed it to anyone and even then all the big publishers turned her down! Her enormous success had nothing to do with luck: it was because she had a huge story to tell, sheer persistence and worked bloody hard.

 Are any books helpful?

I’m helped by reading and re-reading all the writers I love: Nancy Mitford, Anne Tyler, Agatha Christie, John Irving, JK Rowling, Roald Dahl, Candace Bushnell and many more.

I’ve also found these books very inspirational and packed with great advice: Robert McKee’s Story, Stephen King’s On Writing, Michelle Wallerstein’s Mind Your Business.

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan always get my romantic comedy juices flowing, along with every film written by Nora Ephron.

Should I join a writing group?

I’ve never joined a writing group. This is because I am such a loner and solitary animal. Also, I didn’t think I could bear the criticism! You have to be tough to write and keep on writing, but oh my goodness writing makes you vulnerable. As soon as you’ve written something, you’ve created a work that people can criticise. And believe me, everybody has an opinion. You just need to go onto Amazon to see that.

But writing groups can be hugely helpful. They help people to focus on what they want to write, they help people make contacts, plus they inspire you to get the work done. Only you can know if a group is a good idea for you. You could always try one and see. You could even advertise and set one up in your area.

 Where do I get ideas from?

EVERYWHERE!! As Paul Smith the fashion designer wrote: ’Inspiration is everywhere, if at first you don’t see it, look again!’ Open your mind to ideas. They really are everywhere. I used to worry about having enough things to write about, now I worry about finding the time to write about all my ideas. What sort of things have happened to you? What’s happened to your friend? Could it be re-worked? Could it be made much more exciting? What’s in the news? What’s in National Geographic? See reality as your springboard into the swimming pool of story.

You need to have a story. A really intriguing, interesting tale. You need to have great, memorable, fully-fleshed characters. If you are writing rom-com, you need to have some really hilariously funny scenes; some heart-meltingly tender scenes and you need a love story where something is always in the way of the happy couple.

Dig deeply into all your wide experience of life. How do your own relationships work? What makes you fall in love? What makes you angry? Sad? Confused? Despairing?

Should I do research?

ABSOLUTELY!! Go to the places you are writing about. Interview people who’ve done something like your heroine. You will get one million more great ideas doing this than you can ever dream of at your desk.

 Should I have a plan?

YOU’D BE MAD NOT TO!

Readers are viewers. They are used to more plot in a half an hour sit-com than they ever got in a full Dickens novel. You must plot your baby to death. You must keep your reader nailed to the chair. You will never manage this without a detailed plan. I work on my plans for weeks. I don’t write a word until I have every chapter outlined and the whole story completely outlined. Even then, it still changes, improves, gets messed around.

 Should I listen to criticism?

Only if it’s from someone you really trust. Writing something that makes your Mum beam with pride is not hard. Writing something that will move and engage perfect strangers is much more tricky. When you have a first draft you are really happy with, tell your story to a couple of friends who have been briefed to be firm but fair. Don’t make them read the whole thing. Try out the outline of your story on them. Does it excite them? Interest them? Do their eyes glaze over? Where are the problems?

Should I re-write?

Re-writing is the number one skill. It separates the amateurs from the professionals. About 50% of my time, maybe more is spent re-writing my work. I get to the end of my first draft in a hurry. I’m making sure the story works and I’m getting to know my characters. Then I start re-writing and the really hard work follows. But this is the sweat and tears that makes stories good.

How do I get an agent?

I have no idea!! You need an agent, because hardly any publishers look at manuscripts which don’t come from agents (check their websites to find out). But agents are like fairy dust.  Agents are very, very busy looking after those super important clients who earn them vast amounts of money.  With your unpublished manuscript, you are so far down the pecking order, your precious work will be handed to the work experience girl if you are lucky.  But remind yourself, big deals with brand new authors are made all the time. Agents and publishers continue to need new writers.

Do your research, find agents who represent your kind of work. Submit exactly as it says on the website. Send only your very polished, very best work. Write a covering letter of genius, brilliantly written about your brilliant story. Get them hooked. Make yours the manuscript at the top of the pile.

 I’ve been rejected, now what?

If you’ve sent your best work to many reputable agents or publishers and they’ve all said no thanks, you have to dust yourself down and think hard about what to do next. You could find more people to send it to… you could self-publish. You could put your work in a drawer and work on your next idea. You could stop and rest for a while… or go on a course, read books about writing, train your writing muscles to get better and stronger. No decision is right or wrong here. You have to decide what’s best for you. But I can promise the more you read, write and re-write, the better you will get.

 I’ve published one book, how do I keep going?

Your book is published, the world did not stop turning, Hollywood did not call, you are not as rich as Dan Brown. Welcome to the club. Look very hard at what worked; look even harder at what didn’t work. Don’t blame yourself for everything, but don’t accept no blame. Maybe you need to get much better. Think up a much stronger story. Do more research. Maybe you need to flex your PR muscles on your next time out.

Take your new career seriously. Find an amazing new story, fresh avenues for your work. Make lots more contacts in all sorts of connected fields.

All authors need these quotations pinned up above their desk:

‘Try again, fail again, fail better.’   Samuel Beckett.

‘Never, never, never, NEVER, give up.’   Sir Winston Churchill.

Do I self-publish on the internet?

Previously, I would always have said no, it’s a waste of time and money and you won’t make a penny. But the game has changed. Some writers are now fabulous e-book successes. In ten years time we may all be self-published on the internet. Do your research, don’t get ripped off and don’t put anything out there that isn’t your absolutely best work. Expect to do a lot of self-promoting. Success on the internet is just like success with a publisher, it’s all about talent and hard work. We are all only as good as the last thing we’ve written and the next big thing we’re writing.

 Will writing make me rich?

Let’s be realistic here. One in hundreds of thousands of writers will become rich: maybe through genius, epic hard work or sheer good luck. Just like one in hundreds of thousands of actors, painters and all kinds of creative people. The rest of us will range from making a great living to struggling on penniless. Love your work, devote yourself to your work and hope that the money will follow. If you have success, be like several wise old actors I know and save your money hard because success may not come around again immediately. Yachts and villas on the Med are for gas barons and internet billionaires not, usually, novelists.

Will writing make me happy?

I love to write. I love the hours when I am so in the flow, so in my made-up world that I forget about everything else. But I spend all day, most days, withimaginary people and many head-doctors would consider this a worrying condition!

Creative people often struggle with mental health issues – we get depressed, we fret, we drink or smoke, take drugs, or comfort eat or all of the above. Maybe we were like this when we began; maybe the nature of our work makes us more like this. I do believe that writing makes you vulnerable. Plus it can become obsessive. Writing can take up all the time you have, no manuscript is ever ‘finished’, and you can use writing as a way of opting out of everything else life has to offer.

You need balance!

You need to look after the other areas of life too: friends, family and your health. You need regular breaks from writing, reading other writing and thinking about writing – hard, I know! But there must be room for relaxation, laughter and holidays. If I am turning into a basket case, I shut everything down and hang out with my children. Sometimes you just have to go away and come back to the keyboard with fresh perspective.

 Should I give up my day job?

I have mixed feelings about this. Basically I did give up my day job and the terror got me writing like a dervish. Happily, I landed a two-book deal which gave me enough money to take another year off to write more. For several years I combined fiction writing with freelance journalism, now I write fiction full-time but I know I have journalism skills if I need to go back to them.

I’m not sure I would advise an 18 year old to study creative writing at college and nothing else. But sometimes, you have to walk the wire without the safety net because if you put your heart and soul into writing it might work much better than if you potter about at the weekends only.

Giving up the day job to write is scary and stressful. Please approach it very, very carefully, fully consulting your nearest and dearest and burn no bridges. Bear in mind that many, many well known writers combine writing with other jobs and careers which reliably pay the bills.

 Finally…

I really hope this has helped. Very, very best of luck out there. May your story be the next huge thing the world didn’t even know it was waiting for! And if it isn’t – please love the ride. Writing is fantastic – like dreaming with the lights on. Work hard, master the art, bring your dreams to life and WRITE ON!!

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

 

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

20 Tips For Surviving The Builders

And the builders are OUT… phew! I’m breathing a huge, dusty sigh of relief and allowing life as I know it to resume.

I’ve totally renovated four homes so far and although I don’t think this one will be the last, I have promised my family some peace and quiet… for a while.

I’ve learned (the hard way) a few useful things about having the builders in and thought I’d share my top 20 tips in case they’re useful to anyone else in this nerve-shreddingly stressful situation.

1.     Get as much done all at the one time as you possibly can. I’ve tried doing a bathroom here, a kitchen the next year, redecorating bit by bit and it’s not ideal. Plumbers and electricians come in and sigh: ‘Who did the kitchen like that? For the new bathroom, I’ll have to re-do all that piping/ wiring.’  Or worse, hauling their ladders and equipment into the kitchen, they scratch your new hall paintwork or eeek, your brand new floor. The more work you can get done at once, the better the price should be.

2.     Move out if at all possible. Even for the first few weeks. This allows you and your family to remain sane and be dressed without plaster dust on your clothes, in your hair, all over your beds and even in your food. It also lets the builders forge ahead without having to worry about water, gas and electrics having to be reconnected every evening.

3.      If you have to stay at home, tape polythene sheets over doors, buy a brush, dustpan, even a cheap vacuum cleaner just to deal with builder mess. Do not use your lovely Dyson to scoop up plaster dust and rubble. Do not let the builders use it either: it will die!

4.     If you work from home, you HAVE to find somewhere else to go. Trust me here. The library, a café with wifi, you have to get out. You cannot listen to Lesser Known Hits of the 80s, plus drilling and bumping and banging for weeks on end and get work done.

5.     Be VERY choosy about which builder you use. Do not rush this decision. Get recommendations from people you trust, or neighbours… even bathroom and kitchen suppliers. Go and see previous work the builder has done. Ask the owners if the work was quick and tidy, if the builders were polite, stuck to the agreed budget, turned up on time, stayed with the job right to the end. If a builder is available straight away, beware. Good builders have to be booked in advance. If you’re in an old house, you need a builder used to renovating old property.

6.     I don’t like tradesmen who only want to be paid in cash and I don’t like it if they want part of the money up front. Both of these things suggest they’re not running their business well and they won’t run your project well either. I totally wanted to sack a builder once, but had paid too much up front to be able to do it.

7.     Some money part way through is OK. But you need a week or two after the work is completed before you pay your final bill. So you can work out what the little problems are and ask for them to be fixed before you settle up.

8.     Plan, plan, plan. Make drawings of your rooms. Think about plugs, lights, tiling, cabinets, the way the door opens… Make as many decisions ahead of the work as possible. There will still be lots of decisions to make on the spot. Take some guidance from your builder – he might from experience know of a better way to do it…

9.     …But don’t do everything the builder way – sometimes they can go overboard with plastic trimming, beading, coving, laminate flooring and everything in beige and before you know it the heart and soul of your characterful old house has been ripped out and MDF-ed over.

10.   Consider using an architect. I asked an architect friend, who recommended the office junior, who made several visits and lots of plans. She had great ideas, oversaw getting the building warrant and all the relevant permits and charged us less than we expected for her time.

11. If your decorator umms and ahhs and says: ‘Are you sure? That’s quite a dark/ bright/ unusual colour?’ Just say YES. If you want a beautiful paint job with proper sanding down and many layers of paint, say so. Expect it to take longer and cost more than slapping the stuff on.

12.  Don’t freak out when standing in an empty newly painted room. By the time you’ve put in sofas, pictures, lamps, shelves, books – the colour will be lovely and just the way you imagined it.

13. Be business like with your builders. They’re not your new friends; they’re not your Dad/ uncle/ boss. You’re in charge. If things aren’t going the way you want, ask about it. Explain what you want. Listen. Sometimes you will have to compromise because what you want doesn’t work. But don’t accept something you really don’t want. The builder is going to move on and you’ll be left regretting this bit of work for the next five, ten years or longer.

14. When you first agree a price with the builder, try and get everything you can think of onto that estimate. There will always be a few extra jobs at the end, which will put the price up, but try not to make it a great long list of extras. Otherwise your bill might be a nasty shock.

15. Agree a timetable. Expect it to take a bit longer. But do not accept endless weeks of delay. If this is happening, you need to find out why and ask them to get back on track.

16. Keep all your estimates, bills and receipts in a dedicated folder. File all those guarantees. Unused paint tins, lightshades that didn’t match, bookcases that didn’t fit, unopened boxes of tiles – all can be returned if you have the receipt.

17. Get everything finished! Don’t leave wires dangling while you procrastinate on a bathroom cabinet, don’t leave plywood on the floor while you dither about tiles. After all the pain you’ve gone through, you NEED the big ‘tah dah’ when it all comes together and looks brilliant.

18. Accept that budget limitations can lead to creative and brilliant results. My £9 a metre bathroom tiles look amazing. Crown and Dulux have colours just as pretty as Farrow and Ball’s (use tester pots to find them). Two IKEA pendant lights can look even better than one designer one. A cheap bookcase properly assembled and fitted to the wall by a joiner looks almost as good as a bespoke one.

19. Realise that your wine/ chocolate/ biscuit consumption will rocket during this horribly stressful and expensive time.

20.  Remind yourself that it will be worth all the pain, expense and hassle. We’ve created a big family kitchen, renovated an old bathroom, plus put in a second bathroom and already, one week in, this has transformed home life.

 

World Book Day | My best advice to writers

Today is World Book Day. To mark the occasion I thought I’d repost this blog from my old site. I think there’s plenty here to think about for anyone who loves books, loves writing — and for anyone thinking of trying to write a novel. I’d love to hear your comments:

How do I get started writing?

I could write chapters and chapters, probably a whole book about writing. But I’m going to try and break it down into FAQs for you. If I haven’t answered your question, then please drop me a line. But these are my best answers to the questions I’m often asked. Also, I’m not just a published writer who ‘has it easy’ (‘What does she know about rejections?’) I’m also married to a trying-to-be-published writer. So I know about the process from many angles.

You sit down and you start. There we go. You don’t put it off until you ‘have the time’ or ‘feel in the mood’. You just apply your behind to the chair and get on with it. Because all that time you are wasting thinking about writing your amazing novel, I’m actually at my computer writing.

If we were runners, you would be thinking about taking up running and I would be training six days a week, so come the race – who has the best chance of finishing?!

Writing is a complex art. Expressing your ideas, characters and story in words is a skill which takes a lifetime to master. I’ve been writing fiction for 14 years now and I’m only beginning to get the hang of it. Just because you can read novels does not mean you can write them. Just because a book is easy to read does not mean it is easy to write.

Plus, it’s a very competitive business. There are so many fantastic writers already out there, if you want to join them, you’re going to have to get very, very good.

I feel it’s best to give you tough love. If you want to write novels – long, gripping novels people are going to give up hours and hours of their precious lives to read, you’re going to have to start training for the ultra-marathon!

What will help with my writing?

Reading will help enormously. Read all kinds of books. Find the kind of writing that you love; the kind of book you could pick up again and again. Is it horror? Is it rom com? Is it sci-fi? Is it historical fiction? What inspires you? What kind of book would you love to write?

Then write! Write and write some more. Write little chunks: blogs, diary entries, short pages. Hone your skills. Try a poem, then a short story. Try out chapter one. Try out the final chapter. Play with words. Describe the people you see on the train. Invent a background for them. Practise dialogue. Turn a news story into a short story. Write, write, write. Train your brain and your fingers to turn your thoughts into great sentences, then your sentences into stories.

Don’t expect to be a genius immediately. It takes time to get good. I was writing stories, essays and diaries all the time I was growing up. I spent my early 20s being a newspaper journalist. I must have written millions of words before I got started on chapter one. My first book attempt was in the bin by chapter four and I began again.

Think of JK Rowling, she’d been working on that first Harry Potter manuscript for YEARS before she showed it to anyone and even then all the big publishers turned her down! Her enormous success had nothing to do with luck: it was because she had a huge story to tell, sheer persistence and worked bloody hard.

 Are any books helpful?

I’m helped by reading and re-reading all the writers I love: Nancy Mitford, Anne Tyler, Agatha Christie, John Irving, JK Rowling, Roald Dahl, Candace Bushnell and many more.

I’ve also found these books very inspirational and packed with great advice: Robert McKee’s Story, Stephen King’s On Writing, Michelle Wallerstein’s Mind Your Business.

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan always get my romantic comedy juices flowing, along with every film written by Nora Ephron.

Should I join a writing group?

I’ve never joined a writing group. This is because I am such a loner and solitary animal. Also, I didn’t think I could bear the criticism! You have to be tough to write and keep on writing, but oh my goodness writing makes you vulnerable. As soon as you’ve written something, you’ve created a work that people can criticise. And believe me, everybody has an opinion. You just need to go onto Amazon to see that.

But writing groups can be hugely helpful. They help people to focus on what they want to write, they help people make contacts, plus they inspire you to get the work done. Only you can know if a group is a good idea for you. You could always try one and see. You could even advertise and set one up in your area.

 Where do I get ideas from?

EVERYWHERE!! As Paul Smith the fashion designer wrote: ’Inspiration is everywhere, if at first you don’t see it, look again!’ Open your mind to ideas. They really are everywhere. I used to worry about having enough things to write about, now I worry about finding the time to write about all my ideas. What sort of things have happened to you? What’s happened to your friend? Could it be re-worked? Could it be made much more exciting? What’s in the news? What’s in National Geographic? See reality as your springboard into the swimming pool of story.

You need to have a story. A really intriguing, interesting tale. You need to have great, memorable, fully-fleshed characters. If you are writing rom-com, you need to have some really hilariously funny scenes; some heart-meltingly tender scenes and you need a love story where something is always in the way of the happy couple.

Dig deeply into all your wide experience of life. How do your own relationships work? What makes you fall in love? What makes you angry? Sad? Confused? Despairing?

Should I do research?

ABSOLUTELY!! Go to the places you are writing about. Interview people who’ve done something like your heroine. You will get one million more great ideas doing this than you can ever dream of at your desk.

 Should I have a plan?

YOU’D BE MAD NOT TO!

Readers are viewers. They are used to more plot in a half an hour sit-com than they ever got in a full Dickens novel. You must plot your baby to death. You must keep your reader nailed to the chair. You will never manage this without a detailed plan. I work on my plans for weeks. I don’t write a word until I have every chapter outlined and the whole story completely outlined. Even then, it still changes, improves, gets messed around.

 Should I listen to criticism?

Only if it’s from someone you really trust. Writing something that makes your Mum beam with pride is not hard. Writing something that will move and engage perfect strangers is much more tricky. When you have a first draft you are really happy with, tell your story to a couple of friends who have been briefed to be firm but fair. Don’t make them read the whole thing. Try out the outline of your story on them. Does it excite them? Interest them? Do their eyes glaze over? Where are the problems?

Should I re-write?

Re-writing is the number one skill. It separates the amateurs from the professionals. About 50% of my time, maybe more is spent re-writing my work. I get to the end of my first draft in a hurry. I’m making sure the story works and I’m getting to know my characters. Then I start re-writing and the really hard work follows. But this is the sweat and tears that makes stories good.

How do I get an agent?

I have no idea!! You need an agent, because hardly any publishers look at manuscripts which don’t come from agents (check their websites to find out). But agents are like fairy dust.  Agents are very, very busy looking after those super important clients who earn them vast amounts of money.  With your unpublished manuscript, you are so far down the pecking order, your precious work will be handed to the work experience girl if you are lucky.  But remind yourself, big deals with brand new authors are made all the time. Agents and publishers continue to need new writers.

Do your research, find agents who represent your kind of work. Submit exactly as it says on the website. Send only your very polished, very best work. Write a covering letter of genius, brilliantly written about your brilliant story. Get them hooked. Make yours the manuscript at the top of the pile.

 I’ve been rejected, now what?

If you’ve sent your best work to many reputable agents or publishers and they’ve all said no thanks, you have to dust yourself down and think hard about what to do next. You could find more people to send it to… you could self-publish. You could put your work in a drawer and work on your next idea. You could stop and rest for a while… or go on a course, read books about writing, train your writing muscles to get better and stronger. No decision is right or wrong here. You have to decide what’s best for you. But I can promise the more you read, write and re-write, the better you will get.

 I’ve published one book, how do I keep going?

Your book is published, the world did not stop turning, Hollywood did not call, you are not as rich as Dan Brown. Welcome to the club. Look very hard at what worked; look even harder at what didn’t work. Don’t blame yourself for everything, but don’t accept no blame. Maybe you need to get much better. Think up a much stronger story. Do more research. Maybe you need to flex your PR muscles on your next time out.

Take your new career seriously. Find an amazing new story, fresh avenues for your work. Make lots more contacts in all sorts of connected fields.

All authors need these quotations pinned up above their desk:

‘Try again, fail again, fail better.’   Samuel Beckett.

‘Never, never, never, NEVER, give up.’   Sir Winston Churchill.

Do I self-publish on the internet?

Previously, I would always have said no, it’s a waste of time and money and you won’t make a penny. But the game has changed. Some writers are now fabulous e-book successes. In ten years time we may all be self-published on the internet. Do your research, don’t get ripped off and don’t put anything out there that isn’t your absolutely best work. Expect to do a lot of self-promoting. Success on the internet is just like success with a publisher, it’s all about talent and hard work. We are all only as good as the last thing we’ve written and the next big thing we’re writing.

 Will writing make me rich?

Let’s be realistic here. One in hundreds of thousands of writers will become rich: maybe through genius, epic hard work or sheer good luck. Just like one in hundreds of thousands of actors, painters and all kinds of creative people. The rest of us will range from making a great living to struggling on penniless. Love your work, devote yourself to your work and hope that the money will follow. If you have success, be like several wise old actors I know and save your money hard because success may not come around again immediately. Yachts and villas on the Med are for gas barons and internet billionaires not, usually, novelists.

Will writing make me happy?

I love to write. I love the hours when I am so in the flow, so in my made-up world that I forget about everything else. But I spend all day, most days, withimaginary people and many head-doctors would consider this a worrying condition!

Creative people often struggle with mental health issues – we get depressed, we fret, we drink or smoke, take drugs, or comfort eat or all of the above. Maybe we were like this when we began; maybe the nature of our work makes us more like this. I do believe that writing makes you vulnerable. Plus it can become obsessive. Writing can take up all the time you have, no manuscript is ever ‘finished’, and you can use writing as a way of opting out of everything else life has to offer.

You need balance!

You need to look after the other areas of life too: friends, family and your health. You need regular breaks from writing, reading other writing and thinking about writing – hard, I know! But there must be room for relaxation, laughter and holidays. If I am turning into a basket case, I shut everything down and hang out with my children. Sometimes you just have to go away and come back to the keyboard with fresh perspective.

 Should I give up my day job?

I have mixed feelings about this. Basically I did give up my day job and the terror got me writing like a dervish. Happily, I landed a two-book deal which gave me enough money to take another year off to write more. For several years I combined fiction writing with freelance journalism, now I write fiction full-time but I know I have journalism skills if I need to go back to them.

I’m not sure I would advise an 18 year old to study creative writing at college and nothing else. But sometimes, you have to walk the wire without the safety net because if you put your heart and soul into writing it might work much better than if you potter about at the weekends only.

Giving up the day job to write is scary and stressful. Please approach it very, very carefully, fully consulting your nearest and dearest and burn no bridges. Bear in mind that many, many well known writers combine writing with other jobs and careers which reliably pay the bills.

 Finally…

I really hope this has helped. Very, very best of luck out there. May your story be the next huge thing the world didn’t even know it was waiting for! And if it isn’t – please love the ride. Writing is fantastic – like dreaming with the lights on. Work hard, master the art, bring your dreams to life and WRITE ON!!

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

 

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

20 Tips For Surviving The Builders

And the builders are OUT… phew! I’m breathing a huge, dusty sigh of relief and allowing life as I know it to resume.

I’ve totally renovated four homes so far and although I don’t think this one will be the last, I have promised my family some peace and quiet… for a while.

I’ve learned (the hard way) a few useful things about having the builders in and thought I’d share my top 20 tips in case they’re useful to anyone else in this nerve-shreddingly stressful situation.

1.     Get as much done all at the one time as you possibly can. I’ve tried doing a bathroom here, a kitchen the next year, redecorating bit by bit and it’s not ideal. Plumbers and electricians come in and sigh: ‘Who did the kitchen like that? For the new bathroom, I’ll have to re-do all that piping/ wiring.’  Or worse, hauling their ladders and equipment into the kitchen, they scratch your new hall paintwork or eeek, your brand new floor. The more work you can get done at once, the better the price should be.

2.     Move out if at all possible. Even for the first few weeks. This allows you and your family to remain sane and be dressed without plaster dust on your clothes, in your hair, all over your beds and even in your food. It also lets the builders forge ahead without having to worry about water, gas and electrics having to be reconnected every evening.

3.      If you have to stay at home, tape polythene sheets over doors, buy a brush, dustpan, even a cheap vacuum cleaner just to deal with builder mess. Do not use your lovely Dyson to scoop up plaster dust and rubble. Do not let the builders use it either: it will die!

4.     If you work from home, you HAVE to find somewhere else to go. Trust me here. The library, a café with wifi, you have to get out. You cannot listen to Lesser Known Hits of the 80s, plus drilling and bumping and banging for weeks on end and get work done.

5.     Be VERY choosy about which builder you use. Do not rush this decision. Get recommendations from people you trust, or neighbours… even bathroom and kitchen suppliers. Go and see previous work the builder has done. Ask the owners if the work was quick and tidy, if the builders were polite, stuck to the agreed budget, turned up on time, stayed with the job right to the end. If a builder is available straight away, beware. Good builders have to be booked in advance. If you’re in an old house, you need a builder used to renovating old property.

6.     I don’t like tradesmen who only want to be paid in cash and I don’t like it if they want part of the money up front. Both of these things suggest they’re not running their business well and they won’t run your project well either. I totally wanted to sack a builder once, but had paid too much up front to be able to do it.

7.     Some money part way through is OK. But you need a week or two after the work is completed before you pay your final bill. So you can work out what the little problems are and ask for them to be fixed before you settle up.

8.     Plan, plan, plan. Make drawings of your rooms. Think about plugs, lights, tiling, cabinets, the way the door opens… Make as many decisions ahead of the work as possible. There will still be lots of decisions to make on the spot. Take some guidance from your builder – he might from experience know of a better way to do it…

9.     …But don’t do everything the builder way – sometimes they can go overboard with plastic trimming, beading, coving, laminate flooring and everything in beige and before you know it the heart and soul of your characterful old house has been ripped out and MDF-ed over.

10.   Consider using an architect. I asked an architect friend, who recommended the office junior, who made several visits and lots of plans. She had great ideas, oversaw getting the building warrant and all the relevant permits and charged us less than we expected for her time.

11. If your decorator umms and ahhs and says: ‘Are you sure? That’s quite a dark/ bright/ unusual colour?’ Just say YES. If you want a beautiful paint job with proper sanding down and many layers of paint, say so. Expect it to take longer and cost more than slapping the stuff on.

12.  Don’t freak out when standing in an empty newly painted room. By the time you’ve put in sofas, pictures, lamps, shelves, books – the colour will be lovely and just the way you imagined it.

13. Be business like with your builders. They’re not your new friends; they’re not your Dad/ uncle/ boss. You’re in charge. If things aren’t going the way you want, ask about it. Explain what you want. Listen. Sometimes you will have to compromise because what you want doesn’t work. But don’t accept something you really don’t want. The builder is going to move on and you’ll be left regretting this bit of work for the next five, ten years or longer.

14. When you first agree a price with the builder, try and get everything you can think of onto that estimate. There will always be a few extra jobs at the end, which will put the price up, but try not to make it a great long list of extras. Otherwise your bill might be a nasty shock.

15. Agree a timetable. Expect it to take a bit longer. But do not accept endless weeks of delay. If this is happening, you need to find out why and ask them to get back on track.

16. Keep all your estimates, bills and receipts in a dedicated folder. File all those guarantees. Unused paint tins, lightshades that didn’t match, bookcases that didn’t fit, unopened boxes of tiles – all can be returned if you have the receipt.

17. Get everything finished! Don’t leave wires dangling while you procrastinate on a bathroom cabinet, don’t leave plywood on the floor while you dither about tiles. After all the pain you’ve gone through, you NEED the big ‘tah dah’ when it all comes together and looks brilliant.

18. Accept that budget limitations can lead to creative and brilliant results. My £9 a metre bathroom tiles look amazing. Crown and Dulux have colours just as pretty as Farrow and Ball’s (use tester pots to find them). Two IKEA pendant lights can look even better than one designer one. A cheap bookcase properly assembled and fitted to the wall by a joiner looks almost as good as a bespoke one.

19. Realise that your wine/ chocolate/ biscuit consumption will rocket during this horribly stressful and expensive time.

20.  Remind yourself that it will be worth all the pain, expense and hassle. We’ve created a big family kitchen, renovated an old bathroom, plus put in a second bathroom and already, one week in, this has transformed home life.

 

World Book Day | My best advice to writers

Today is World Book Day. To mark the occasion I thought I’d repost this blog from my old site. I think there’s plenty here to think about for anyone who loves books, loves writing — and for anyone thinking of trying to write a novel. I’d love to hear your comments:

How do I get started writing?

I could write chapters and chapters, probably a whole book about writing. But I’m going to try and break it down into FAQs for you. If I haven’t answered your question, then please drop me a line. But these are my best answers to the questions I’m often asked. Also, I’m not just a published writer who ‘has it easy’ (‘What does she know about rejections?’) I’m also married to a trying-to-be-published writer. So I know about the process from many angles.

You sit down and you start. There we go. You don’t put it off until you ‘have the time’ or ‘feel in the mood’. You just apply your behind to the chair and get on with it. Because all that time you are wasting thinking about writing your amazing novel, I’m actually at my computer writing.

If we were runners, you would be thinking about taking up running and I would be training six days a week, so come the race – who has the best chance of finishing?!

Writing is a complex art. Expressing your ideas, characters and story in words is a skill which takes a lifetime to master. I’ve been writing fiction for 14 years now and I’m only beginning to get the hang of it. Just because you can read novels does not mean you can write them. Just because a book is easy to read does not mean it is easy to write.

Plus, it’s a very competitive business. There are so many fantastic writers already out there, if you want to join them, you’re going to have to get very, very good.

I feel it’s best to give you tough love. If you want to write novels – long, gripping novels people are going to give up hours and hours of their precious lives to read, you’re going to have to start training for the ultra-marathon!

What will help with my writing?

Reading will help enormously. Read all kinds of books. Find the kind of writing that you love; the kind of book you could pick up again and again. Is it horror? Is it rom com? Is it sci-fi? Is it historical fiction? What inspires you? What kind of book would you love to write?

Then write! Write and write some more. Write little chunks: blogs, diary entries, short pages. Hone your skills. Try a poem, then a short story. Try out chapter one. Try out the final chapter. Play with words. Describe the people you see on the train. Invent a background for them. Practise dialogue. Turn a news story into a short story. Write, write, write. Train your brain and your fingers to turn your thoughts into great sentences, then your sentences into stories.

Don’t expect to be a genius immediately. It takes time to get good. I was writing stories, essays and diaries all the time I was growing up. I spent my early 20s being a newspaper journalist. I must have written millions of words before I got started on chapter one. My first book attempt was in the bin by chapter four and I began again.

Think of JK Rowling, she’d been working on that first Harry Potter manuscript for YEARS before she showed it to anyone and even then all the big publishers turned her down! Her enormous success had nothing to do with luck: it was because she had a huge story to tell, sheer persistence and worked bloody hard.

 Are any books helpful?

I’m helped by reading and re-reading all the writers I love: Nancy Mitford, Anne Tyler, Agatha Christie, John Irving, JK Rowling, Roald Dahl, Candace Bushnell and many more.

I’ve also found these books very inspirational and packed with great advice: Robert McKee’s Story, Stephen King’s On Writing, Michelle Wallerstein’s Mind Your Business.

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan always get my romantic comedy juices flowing, along with every film written by Nora Ephron.

Should I join a writing group?

I’ve never joined a writing group. This is because I am such a loner and solitary animal. Also, I didn’t think I could bear the criticism! You have to be tough to write and keep on writing, but oh my goodness writing makes you vulnerable. As soon as you’ve written something, you’ve created a work that people can criticise. And believe me, everybody has an opinion. You just need to go onto Amazon to see that.

But writing groups can be hugely helpful. They help people to focus on what they want to write, they help people make contacts, plus they inspire you to get the work done. Only you can know if a group is a good idea for you. You could always try one and see. You could even advertise and set one up in your area.

 Where do I get ideas from?

EVERYWHERE!! As Paul Smith the fashion designer wrote: ’Inspiration is everywhere, if at first you don’t see it, look again!’ Open your mind to ideas. They really are everywhere. I used to worry about having enough things to write about, now I worry about finding the time to write about all my ideas. What sort of things have happened to you? What’s happened to your friend? Could it be re-worked? Could it be made much more exciting? What’s in the news? What’s in National Geographic? See reality as your springboard into the swimming pool of story.

You need to have a story. A really intriguing, interesting tale. You need to have great, memorable, fully-fleshed characters. If you are writing rom-com, you need to have some really hilariously funny scenes; some heart-meltingly tender scenes and you need a love story where something is always in the way of the happy couple.

Dig deeply into all your wide experience of life. How do your own relationships work? What makes you fall in love? What makes you angry? Sad? Confused? Despairing?

Should I do research?

ABSOLUTELY!! Go to the places you are writing about. Interview people who’ve done something like your heroine. You will get one million more great ideas doing this than you can ever dream of at your desk.

 Should I have a plan?

YOU’D BE MAD NOT TO!

Readers are viewers. They are used to more plot in a half an hour sit-com than they ever got in a full Dickens novel. You must plot your baby to death. You must keep your reader nailed to the chair. You will never manage this without a detailed plan. I work on my plans for weeks. I don’t write a word until I have every chapter outlined and the whole story completely outlined. Even then, it still changes, improves, gets messed around.

 Should I listen to criticism?

Only if it’s from someone you really trust. Writing something that makes your Mum beam with pride is not hard. Writing something that will move and engage perfect strangers is much more tricky. When you have a first draft you are really happy with, tell your story to a couple of friends who have been briefed to be firm but fair. Don’t make them read the whole thing. Try out the outline of your story on them. Does it excite them? Interest them? Do their eyes glaze over? Where are the problems?

Should I re-write?

Re-writing is the number one skill. It separates the amateurs from the professionals. About 50% of my time, maybe more is spent re-writing my work. I get to the end of my first draft in a hurry. I’m making sure the story works and I’m getting to know my characters. Then I start re-writing and the really hard work follows. But this is the sweat and tears that makes stories good.

How do I get an agent?

I have no idea!! You need an agent, because hardly any publishers look at manuscripts which don’t come from agents (check their websites to find out). But agents are like fairy dust.  Agents are very, very busy looking after those super important clients who earn them vast amounts of money.  With your unpublished manuscript, you are so far down the pecking order, your precious work will be handed to the work experience girl if you are lucky.  But remind yourself, big deals with brand new authors are made all the time. Agents and publishers continue to need new writers.

Do your research, find agents who represent your kind of work. Submit exactly as it says on the website. Send only your very polished, very best work. Write a covering letter of genius, brilliantly written about your brilliant story. Get them hooked. Make yours the manuscript at the top of the pile.

 I’ve been rejected, now what?

If you’ve sent your best work to many reputable agents or publishers and they’ve all said no thanks, you have to dust yourself down and think hard about what to do next. You could find more people to send it to… you could self-publish. You could put your work in a drawer and work on your next idea. You could stop and rest for a while… or go on a course, read books about writing, train your writing muscles to get better and stronger. No decision is right or wrong here. You have to decide what’s best for you. But I can promise the more you read, write and re-write, the better you will get.

 I’ve published one book, how do I keep going?

Your book is published, the world did not stop turning, Hollywood did not call, you are not as rich as Dan Brown. Welcome to the club. Look very hard at what worked; look even harder at what didn’t work. Don’t blame yourself for everything, but don’t accept no blame. Maybe you need to get much better. Think up a much stronger story. Do more research. Maybe you need to flex your PR muscles on your next time out.

Take your new career seriously. Find an amazing new story, fresh avenues for your work. Make lots more contacts in all sorts of connected fields.

All authors need these quotations pinned up above their desk:

‘Try again, fail again, fail better.’   Samuel Beckett.

‘Never, never, never, NEVER, give up.’   Sir Winston Churchill.

Do I self-publish on the internet?

Previously, I would always have said no, it’s a waste of time and money and you won’t make a penny. But the game has changed. Some writers are now fabulous e-book successes. In ten years time we may all be self-published on the internet. Do your research, don’t get ripped off and don’t put anything out there that isn’t your absolutely best work. Expect to do a lot of self-promoting. Success on the internet is just like success with a publisher, it’s all about talent and hard work. We are all only as good as the last thing we’ve written and the next big thing we’re writing.

 Will writing make me rich?

Let’s be realistic here. One in hundreds of thousands of writers will become rich: maybe through genius, epic hard work or sheer good luck. Just like one in hundreds of thousands of actors, painters and all kinds of creative people. The rest of us will range from making a great living to struggling on penniless. Love your work, devote yourself to your work and hope that the money will follow. If you have success, be like several wise old actors I know and save your money hard because success may not come around again immediately. Yachts and villas on the Med are for gas barons and internet billionaires not, usually, novelists.

Will writing make me happy?

I love to write. I love the hours when I am so in the flow, so in my made-up world that I forget about everything else. But I spend all day, most days, withimaginary people and many head-doctors would consider this a worrying condition!

Creative people often struggle with mental health issues – we get depressed, we fret, we drink or smoke, take drugs, or comfort eat or all of the above. Maybe we were like this when we began; maybe the nature of our work makes us more like this. I do believe that writing makes you vulnerable. Plus it can become obsessive. Writing can take up all the time you have, no manuscript is ever ‘finished’, and you can use writing as a way of opting out of everything else life has to offer.

You need balance!

You need to look after the other areas of life too: friends, family and your health. You need regular breaks from writing, reading other writing and thinking about writing – hard, I know! But there must be room for relaxation, laughter and holidays. If I am turning into a basket case, I shut everything down and hang out with my children. Sometimes you just have to go away and come back to the keyboard with fresh perspective.

 Should I give up my day job?

I have mixed feelings about this. Basically I did give up my day job and the terror got me writing like a dervish. Happily, I landed a two-book deal which gave me enough money to take another year off to write more. For several years I combined fiction writing with freelance journalism, now I write fiction full-time but I know I have journalism skills if I need to go back to them.

I’m not sure I would advise an 18 year old to study creative writing at college and nothing else. But sometimes, you have to walk the wire without the safety net because if you put your heart and soul into writing it might work much better than if you potter about at the weekends only.

Giving up the day job to write is scary and stressful. Please approach it very, very carefully, fully consulting your nearest and dearest and burn no bridges. Bear in mind that many, many well known writers combine writing with other jobs and careers which reliably pay the bills.

 Finally…

I really hope this has helped. Very, very best of luck out there. May your story be the next huge thing the world didn’t even know it was waiting for! And if it isn’t – please love the ride. Writing is fantastic – like dreaming with the lights on. Work hard, master the art, bring your dreams to life and WRITE ON!!

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

 

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

20 Tips For Surviving The Builders

And the builders are OUT… phew! I’m breathing a huge, dusty sigh of relief and allowing life as I know it to resume.

I’ve totally renovated four homes so far and although I don’t think this one will be the last, I have promised my family some peace and quiet… for a while.

I’ve learned (the hard way) a few useful things about having the builders in and thought I’d share my top 20 tips in case they’re useful to anyone else in this nerve-shreddingly stressful situation.

1.     Get as much done all at the one time as you possibly can. I’ve tried doing a bathroom here, a kitchen the next year, redecorating bit by bit and it’s not ideal. Plumbers and electricians come in and sigh: ‘Who did the kitchen like that? For the new bathroom, I’ll have to re-do all that piping/ wiring.’  Or worse, hauling their ladders and equipment into the kitchen, they scratch your new hall paintwork or eeek, your brand new floor. The more work you can get done at once, the better the price should be.

2.     Move out if at all possible. Even for the first few weeks. This allows you and your family to remain sane and be dressed without plaster dust on your clothes, in your hair, all over your beds and even in your food. It also lets the builders forge ahead without having to worry about water, gas and electrics having to be reconnected every evening.

3.      If you have to stay at home, tape polythene sheets over doors, buy a brush, dustpan, even a cheap vacuum cleaner just to deal with builder mess. Do not use your lovely Dyson to scoop up plaster dust and rubble. Do not let the builders use it either: it will die!

4.     If you work from home, you HAVE to find somewhere else to go. Trust me here. The library, a café with wifi, you have to get out. You cannot listen to Lesser Known Hits of the 80s, plus drilling and bumping and banging for weeks on end and get work done.

5.     Be VERY choosy about which builder you use. Do not rush this decision. Get recommendations from people you trust, or neighbours… even bathroom and kitchen suppliers. Go and see previous work the builder has done. Ask the owners if the work was quick and tidy, if the builders were polite, stuck to the agreed budget, turned up on time, stayed with the job right to the end. If a builder is available straight away, beware. Good builders have to be booked in advance. If you’re in an old house, you need a builder used to renovating old property.

6.     I don’t like tradesmen who only want to be paid in cash and I don’t like it if they want part of the money up front. Both of these things suggest they’re not running their business well and they won’t run your project well either. I totally wanted to sack a builder once, but had paid too much up front to be able to do it.

7.     Some money part way through is OK. But you need a week or two after the work is completed before you pay your final bill. So you can work out what the little problems are and ask for them to be fixed before you settle up.

8.     Plan, plan, plan. Make drawings of your rooms. Think about plugs, lights, tiling, cabinets, the way the door opens… Make as many decisions ahead of the work as possible. There will still be lots of decisions to make on the spot. Take some guidance from your builder – he might from experience know of a better way to do it…

9.     …But don’t do everything the builder way – sometimes they can go overboard with plastic trimming, beading, coving, laminate flooring and everything in beige and before you know it the heart and soul of your characterful old house has been ripped out and MDF-ed over.

10.   Consider using an architect. I asked an architect friend, who recommended the office junior, who made several visits and lots of plans. She had great ideas, oversaw getting the building warrant and all the relevant permits and charged us less than we expected for her time.

11. If your decorator umms and ahhs and says: ‘Are you sure? That’s quite a dark/ bright/ unusual colour?’ Just say YES. If you want a beautiful paint job with proper sanding down and many layers of paint, say so. Expect it to take longer and cost more than slapping the stuff on.

12.  Don’t freak out when standing in an empty newly painted room. By the time you’ve put in sofas, pictures, lamps, shelves, books – the colour will be lovely and just the way you imagined it.

13. Be business like with your builders. They’re not your new friends; they’re not your Dad/ uncle/ boss. You’re in charge. If things aren’t going the way you want, ask about it. Explain what you want. Listen. Sometimes you will have to compromise because what you want doesn’t work. But don’t accept something you really don’t want. The builder is going to move on and you’ll be left regretting this bit of work for the next five, ten years or longer.

14. When you first agree a price with the builder, try and get everything you can think of onto that estimate. There will always be a few extra jobs at the end, which will put the price up, but try not to make it a great long list of extras. Otherwise your bill might be a nasty shock.

15. Agree a timetable. Expect it to take a bit longer. But do not accept endless weeks of delay. If this is happening, you need to find out why and ask them to get back on track.

16. Keep all your estimates, bills and receipts in a dedicated folder. File all those guarantees. Unused paint tins, lightshades that didn’t match, bookcases that didn’t fit, unopened boxes of tiles – all can be returned if you have the receipt.

17. Get everything finished! Don’t leave wires dangling while you procrastinate on a bathroom cabinet, don’t leave plywood on the floor while you dither about tiles. After all the pain you’ve gone through, you NEED the big ‘tah dah’ when it all comes together and looks brilliant.

18. Accept that budget limitations can lead to creative and brilliant results. My £9 a metre bathroom tiles look amazing. Crown and Dulux have colours just as pretty as Farrow and Ball’s (use tester pots to find them). Two IKEA pendant lights can look even better than one designer one. A cheap bookcase properly assembled and fitted to the wall by a joiner looks almost as good as a bespoke one.

19. Realise that your wine/ chocolate/ biscuit consumption will rocket during this horribly stressful and expensive time.

20.  Remind yourself that it will be worth all the pain, expense and hassle. We’ve created a big family kitchen, renovated an old bathroom, plus put in a second bathroom and already, one week in, this has transformed home life.

 

World Book Day | My best advice to writers

Today is World Book Day. To mark the occasion I thought I’d repost this blog from my old site. I think there’s plenty here to think about for anyone who loves books, loves writing — and for anyone thinking of trying to write a novel. I’d love to hear your comments:

How do I get started writing?

I could write chapters and chapters, probably a whole book about writing. But I’m going to try and break it down into FAQs for you. If I haven’t answered your question, then please drop me a line. But these are my best answers to the questions I’m often asked. Also, I’m not just a published writer who ‘has it easy’ (‘What does she know about rejections?’) I’m also married to a trying-to-be-published writer. So I know about the process from many angles.

You sit down and you start. There we go. You don’t put it off until you ‘have the time’ or ‘feel in the mood’. You just apply your behind to the chair and get on with it. Because all that time you are wasting thinking about writing your amazing novel, I’m actually at my computer writing.

If we were runners, you would be thinking about taking up running and I would be training six days a week, so come the race – who has the best chance of finishing?!

Writing is a complex art. Expressing your ideas, characters and story in words is a skill which takes a lifetime to master. I’ve been writing fiction for 14 years now and I’m only beginning to get the hang of it. Just because you can read novels does not mean you can write them. Just because a book is easy to read does not mean it is easy to write.

Plus, it’s a very competitive business. There are so many fantastic writers already out there, if you want to join them, you’re going to have to get very, very good.

I feel it’s best to give you tough love. If you want to write novels – long, gripping novels people are going to give up hours and hours of their precious lives to read, you’re going to have to start training for the ultra-marathon!

What will help with my writing?

Reading will help enormously. Read all kinds of books. Find the kind of writing that you love; the kind of book you could pick up again and again. Is it horror? Is it rom com? Is it sci-fi? Is it historical fiction? What inspires you? What kind of book would you love to write?

Then write! Write and write some more. Write little chunks: blogs, diary entries, short pages. Hone your skills. Try a poem, then a short story. Try out chapter one. Try out the final chapter. Play with words. Describe the people you see on the train. Invent a background for them. Practise dialogue. Turn a news story into a short story. Write, write, write. Train your brain and your fingers to turn your thoughts into great sentences, then your sentences into stories.

Don’t expect to be a genius immediately. It takes time to get good. I was writing stories, essays and diaries all the time I was growing up. I spent my early 20s being a newspaper journalist. I must have written millions of words before I got started on chapter one. My first book attempt was in the bin by chapter four and I began again.

Think of JK Rowling, she’d been working on that first Harry Potter manuscript for YEARS before she showed it to anyone and even then all the big publishers turned her down! Her enormous success had nothing to do with luck: it was because she had a huge story to tell, sheer persistence and worked bloody hard.

 Are any books helpful?

I’m helped by reading and re-reading all the writers I love: Nancy Mitford, Anne Tyler, Agatha Christie, John Irving, JK Rowling, Roald Dahl, Candace Bushnell and many more.

I’ve also found these books very inspirational and packed with great advice: Robert McKee’s Story, Stephen King’s On Writing, Michelle Wallerstein’s Mind Your Business.

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan always get my romantic comedy juices flowing, along with every film written by Nora Ephron.

Should I join a writing group?

I’ve never joined a writing group. This is because I am such a loner and solitary animal. Also, I didn’t think I could bear the criticism! You have to be tough to write and keep on writing, but oh my goodness writing makes you vulnerable. As soon as you’ve written something, you’ve created a work that people can criticise. And believe me, everybody has an opinion. You just need to go onto Amazon to see that.

But writing groups can be hugely helpful. They help people to focus on what they want to write, they help people make contacts, plus they inspire you to get the work done. Only you can know if a group is a good idea for you. You could always try one and see. You could even advertise and set one up in your area.

 Where do I get ideas from?

EVERYWHERE!! As Paul Smith the fashion designer wrote: ’Inspiration is everywhere, if at first you don’t see it, look again!’ Open your mind to ideas. They really are everywhere. I used to worry about having enough things to write about, now I worry about finding the time to write about all my ideas. What sort of things have happened to you? What’s happened to your friend? Could it be re-worked? Could it be made much more exciting? What’s in the news? What’s in National Geographic? See reality as your springboard into the swimming pool of story.

You need to have a story. A really intriguing, interesting tale. You need to have great, memorable, fully-fleshed characters. If you are writing rom-com, you need to have some really hilariously funny scenes; some heart-meltingly tender scenes and you need a love story where something is always in the way of the happy couple.

Dig deeply into all your wide experience of life. How do your own relationships work? What makes you fall in love? What makes you angry? Sad? Confused? Despairing?

Should I do research?

ABSOLUTELY!! Go to the places you are writing about. Interview people who’ve done something like your heroine. You will get one million more great ideas doing this than you can ever dream of at your desk.

 Should I have a plan?

YOU’D BE MAD NOT TO!

Readers are viewers. They are used to more plot in a half an hour sit-com than they ever got in a full Dickens novel. You must plot your baby to death. You must keep your reader nailed to the chair. You will never manage this without a detailed plan. I work on my plans for weeks. I don’t write a word until I have every chapter outlined and the whole story completely outlined. Even then, it still changes, improves, gets messed around.

 Should I listen to criticism?

Only if it’s from someone you really trust. Writing something that makes your Mum beam with pride is not hard. Writing something that will move and engage perfect strangers is much more tricky. When you have a first draft you are really happy with, tell your story to a couple of friends who have been briefed to be firm but fair. Don’t make them read the whole thing. Try out the outline of your story on them. Does it excite them? Interest them? Do their eyes glaze over? Where are the problems?

Should I re-write?

Re-writing is the number one skill. It separates the amateurs from the professionals. About 50% of my time, maybe more is spent re-writing my work. I get to the end of my first draft in a hurry. I’m making sure the story works and I’m getting to know my characters. Then I start re-writing and the really hard work follows. But this is the sweat and tears that makes stories good.

How do I get an agent?

I have no idea!! You need an agent, because hardly any publishers look at manuscripts which don’t come from agents (check their websites to find out). But agents are like fairy dust.  Agents are very, very busy looking after those super important clients who earn them vast amounts of money.  With your unpublished manuscript, you are so far down the pecking order, your precious work will be handed to the work experience girl if you are lucky.  But remind yourself, big deals with brand new authors are made all the time. Agents and publishers continue to need new writers.

Do your research, find agents who represent your kind of work. Submit exactly as it says on the website. Send only your very polished, very best work. Write a covering letter of genius, brilliantly written about your brilliant story. Get them hooked. Make yours the manuscript at the top of the pile.

 I’ve been rejected, now what?

If you’ve sent your best work to many reputable agents or publishers and they’ve all said no thanks, you have to dust yourself down and think hard about what to do next. You could find more people to send it to… you could self-publish. You could put your work in a drawer and work on your next idea. You could stop and rest for a while… or go on a course, read books about writing, train your writing muscles to get better and stronger. No decision is right or wrong here. You have to decide what’s best for you. But I can promise the more you read, write and re-write, the better you will get.

 I’ve published one book, how do I keep going?

Your book is published, the world did not stop turning, Hollywood did not call, you are not as rich as Dan Brown. Welcome to the club. Look very hard at what worked; look even harder at what didn’t work. Don’t blame yourself for everything, but don’t accept no blame. Maybe you need to get much better. Think up a much stronger story. Do more research. Maybe you need to flex your PR muscles on your next time out.

Take your new career seriously. Find an amazing new story, fresh avenues for your work. Make lots more contacts in all sorts of connected fields.

All authors need these quotations pinned up above their desk:

‘Try again, fail again, fail better.’   Samuel Beckett.

‘Never, never, never, NEVER, give up.’   Sir Winston Churchill.

Do I self-publish on the internet?

Previously, I would always have said no, it’s a waste of time and money and you won’t make a penny. But the game has changed. Some writers are now fabulous e-book successes. In ten years time we may all be self-published on the internet. Do your research, don’t get ripped off and don’t put anything out there that isn’t your absolutely best work. Expect to do a lot of self-promoting. Success on the internet is just like success with a publisher, it’s all about talent and hard work. We are all only as good as the last thing we’ve written and the next big thing we’re writing.

 Will writing make me rich?

Let’s be realistic here. One in hundreds of thousands of writers will become rich: maybe through genius, epic hard work or sheer good luck. Just like one in hundreds of thousands of actors, painters and all kinds of creative people. The rest of us will range from making a great living to struggling on penniless. Love your work, devote yourself to your work and hope that the money will follow. If you have success, be like several wise old actors I know and save your money hard because success may not come around again immediately. Yachts and villas on the Med are for gas barons and internet billionaires not, usually, novelists.

Will writing make me happy?

I love to write. I love the hours when I am so in the flow, so in my made-up world that I forget about everything else. But I spend all day, most days, withimaginary people and many head-doctors would consider this a worrying condition!

Creative people often struggle with mental health issues – we get depressed, we fret, we drink or smoke, take drugs, or comfort eat or all of the above. Maybe we were like this when we began; maybe the nature of our work makes us more like this. I do believe that writing makes you vulnerable. Plus it can become obsessive. Writing can take up all the time you have, no manuscript is ever ‘finished’, and you can use writing as a way of opting out of everything else life has to offer.

You need balance!

You need to look after the other areas of life too: friends, family and your health. You need regular breaks from writing, reading other writing and thinking about writing – hard, I know! But there must be room for relaxation, laughter and holidays. If I am turning into a basket case, I shut everything down and hang out with my children. Sometimes you just have to go away and come back to the keyboard with fresh perspective.

 Should I give up my day job?

I have mixed feelings about this. Basically I did give up my day job and the terror got me writing like a dervish. Happily, I landed a two-book deal which gave me enough money to take another year off to write more. For several years I combined fiction writing with freelance journalism, now I write fiction full-time but I know I have journalism skills if I need to go back to them.

I’m not sure I would advise an 18 year old to study creative writing at college and nothing else. But sometimes, you have to walk the wire without the safety net because if you put your heart and soul into writing it might work much better than if you potter about at the weekends only.

Giving up the day job to write is scary and stressful. Please approach it very, very carefully, fully consulting your nearest and dearest and burn no bridges. Bear in mind that many, many well known writers combine writing with other jobs and careers which reliably pay the bills.

 Finally…

I really hope this has helped. Very, very best of luck out there. May your story be the next huge thing the world didn’t even know it was waiting for! And if it isn’t – please love the ride. Writing is fantastic – like dreaming with the lights on. Work hard, master the art, bring your dreams to life and WRITE ON!!

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

 

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

20 Tips For Surviving The Builders

And the builders are OUT… phew! I’m breathing a huge, dusty sigh of relief and allowing life as I know it to resume.

I’ve totally renovated four homes so far and although I don’t think this one will be the last, I have promised my family some peace and quiet… for a while.

I’ve learned (the hard way) a few useful things about having the builders in and thought I’d share my top 20 tips in case they’re useful to anyone else in this nerve-shreddingly stressful situation.

1.     Get as much done all at the one time as you possibly can. I’ve tried doing a bathroom here, a kitchen the next year, redecorating bit by bit and it’s not ideal. Plumbers and electricians come in and sigh: ‘Who did the kitchen like that? For the new bathroom, I’ll have to re-do all that piping/ wiring.’  Or worse, hauling their ladders and equipment into the kitchen, they scratch your new hall paintwork or eeek, your brand new floor. The more work you can get done at once, the better the price should be.

2.     Move out if at all possible. Even for the first few weeks. This allows you and your family to remain sane and be dressed without plaster dust on your clothes, in your hair, all over your beds and even in your food. It also lets the builders forge ahead without having to worry about water, gas and electrics having to be reconnected every evening.

3.      If you have to stay at home, tape polythene sheets over doors, buy a brush, dustpan, even a cheap vacuum cleaner just to deal with builder mess. Do not use your lovely Dyson to scoop up plaster dust and rubble. Do not let the builders use it either: it will die!

4.     If you work from home, you HAVE to find somewhere else to go. Trust me here. The library, a café with wifi, you have to get out. You cannot listen to Lesser Known Hits of the 80s, plus drilling and bumping and banging for weeks on end and get work done.

5.     Be VERY choosy about which builder you use. Do not rush this decision. Get recommendations from people you trust, or neighbours… even bathroom and kitchen suppliers. Go and see previous work the builder has done. Ask the owners if the work was quick and tidy, if the builders were polite, stuck to the agreed budget, turned up on time, stayed with the job right to the end. If a builder is available straight away, beware. Good builders have to be booked in advance. If you’re in an old house, you need a builder used to renovating old property.

6.     I don’t like tradesmen who only want to be paid in cash and I don’t like it if they want part of the money up front. Both of these things suggest they’re not running their business well and they won’t run your project well either. I totally wanted to sack a builder once, but had paid too much up front to be able to do it.

7.     Some money part way through is OK. But you need a week or two after the work is completed before you pay your final bill. So you can work out what the little problems are and ask for them to be fixed before you settle up.

8.     Plan, plan, plan. Make drawings of your rooms. Think about plugs, lights, tiling, cabinets, the way the door opens… Make as many decisions ahead of the work as possible. There will still be lots of decisions to make on the spot. Take some guidance from your builder – he might from experience know of a better way to do it…

9.     …But don’t do everything the builder way – sometimes they can go overboard with plastic trimming, beading, coving, laminate flooring and everything in beige and before you know it the heart and soul of your characterful old house has been ripped out and MDF-ed over.

10.   Consider using an architect. I asked an architect friend, who recommended the office junior, who made several visits and lots of plans. She had great ideas, oversaw getting the building warrant and all the relevant permits and charged us less than we expected for her time.

11. If your decorator umms and ahhs and says: ‘Are you sure? That’s quite a dark/ bright/ unusual colour?’ Just say YES. If you want a beautiful paint job with proper sanding down and many layers of paint, say so. Expect it to take longer and cost more than slapping the stuff on.

12.  Don’t freak out when standing in an empty newly painted room. By the time you’ve put in sofas, pictures, lamps, shelves, books – the colour will be lovely and just the way you imagined it.

13. Be business like with your builders. They’re not your new friends; they’re not your Dad/ uncle/ boss. You’re in charge. If things aren’t going the way you want, ask about it. Explain what you want. Listen. Sometimes you will have to compromise because what you want doesn’t work. But don’t accept something you really don’t want. The builder is going to move on and you’ll be left regretting this bit of work for the next five, ten years or longer.

14. When you first agree a price with the builder, try and get everything you can think of onto that estimate. There will always be a few extra jobs at the end, which will put the price up, but try not to make it a great long list of extras. Otherwise your bill might be a nasty shock.

15. Agree a timetable. Expect it to take a bit longer. But do not accept endless weeks of delay. If this is happening, you need to find out why and ask them to get back on track.

16. Keep all your estimates, bills and receipts in a dedicated folder. File all those guarantees. Unused paint tins, lightshades that didn’t match, bookcases that didn’t fit, unopened boxes of tiles – all can be returned if you have the receipt.

17. Get everything finished! Don’t leave wires dangling while you procrastinate on a bathroom cabinet, don’t leave plywood on the floor while you dither about tiles. After all the pain you’ve gone through, you NEED the big ‘tah dah’ when it all comes together and looks brilliant.

18. Accept that budget limitations can lead to creative and brilliant results. My £9 a metre bathroom tiles look amazing. Crown and Dulux have colours just as pretty as Farrow and Ball’s (use tester pots to find them). Two IKEA pendant lights can look even better than one designer one. A cheap bookcase properly assembled and fitted to the wall by a joiner looks almost as good as a bespoke one.

19. Realise that your wine/ chocolate/ biscuit consumption will rocket during this horribly stressful and expensive time.

20.  Remind yourself that it will be worth all the pain, expense and hassle. We’ve created a big family kitchen, renovated an old bathroom, plus put in a second bathroom and already, one week in, this has transformed home life.

 

World Book Day | My best advice to writers

Today is World Book Day. To mark the occasion I thought I’d repost this blog from my old site. I think there’s plenty here to think about for anyone who loves books, loves writing — and for anyone thinking of trying to write a novel. I’d love to hear your comments:

How do I get started writing?

I could write chapters and chapters, probably a whole book about writing. But I’m going to try and break it down into FAQs for you. If I haven’t answered your question, then please drop me a line. But these are my best answers to the questions I’m often asked. Also, I’m not just a published writer who ‘has it easy’ (‘What does she know about rejections?’) I’m also married to a trying-to-be-published writer. So I know about the process from many angles.

You sit down and you start. There we go. You don’t put it off until you ‘have the time’ or ‘feel in the mood’. You just apply your behind to the chair and get on with it. Because all that time you are wasting thinking about writing your amazing novel, I’m actually at my computer writing.

If we were runners, you would be thinking about taking up running and I would be training six days a week, so come the race – who has the best chance of finishing?!

Writing is a complex art. Expressing your ideas, characters and story in words is a skill which takes a lifetime to master. I’ve been writing fiction for 14 years now and I’m only beginning to get the hang of it. Just because you can read novels does not mean you can write them. Just because a book is easy to read does not mean it is easy to write.

Plus, it’s a very competitive business. There are so many fantastic writers already out there, if you want to join them, you’re going to have to get very, very good.

I feel it’s best to give you tough love. If you want to write novels – long, gripping novels people are going to give up hours and hours of their precious lives to read, you’re going to have to start training for the ultra-marathon!

What will help with my writing?

Reading will help enormously. Read all kinds of books. Find the kind of writing that you love; the kind of book you could pick up again and again. Is it horror? Is it rom com? Is it sci-fi? Is it historical fiction? What inspires you? What kind of book would you love to write?

Then write! Write and write some more. Write little chunks: blogs, diary entries, short pages. Hone your skills. Try a poem, then a short story. Try out chapter one. Try out the final chapter. Play with words. Describe the people you see on the train. Invent a background for them. Practise dialogue. Turn a news story into a short story. Write, write, write. Train your brain and your fingers to turn your thoughts into great sentences, then your sentences into stories.

Don’t expect to be a genius immediately. It takes time to get good. I was writing stories, essays and diaries all the time I was growing up. I spent my early 20s being a newspaper journalist. I must have written millions of words before I got started on chapter one. My first book attempt was in the bin by chapter four and I began again.

Think of JK Rowling, she’d been working on that first Harry Potter manuscript for YEARS before she showed it to anyone and even then all the big publishers turned her down! Her enormous success had nothing to do with luck: it was because she had a huge story to tell, sheer persistence and worked bloody hard.

 Are any books helpful?

I’m helped by reading and re-reading all the writers I love: Nancy Mitford, Anne Tyler, Agatha Christie, John Irving, JK Rowling, Roald Dahl, Candace Bushnell and many more.

I’ve also found these books very inspirational and packed with great advice: Robert McKee’s Story, Stephen King’s On Writing, Michelle Wallerstein’s Mind Your Business.

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan always get my romantic comedy juices flowing, along with every film written by Nora Ephron.

Should I join a writing group?

I’ve never joined a writing group. This is because I am such a loner and solitary animal. Also, I didn’t think I could bear the criticism! You have to be tough to write and keep on writing, but oh my goodness writing makes you vulnerable. As soon as you’ve written something, you’ve created a work that people can criticise. And believe me, everybody has an opinion. You just need to go onto Amazon to see that.

But writing groups can be hugely helpful. They help people to focus on what they want to write, they help people make contacts, plus they inspire you to get the work done. Only you can know if a group is a good idea for you. You could always try one and see. You could even advertise and set one up in your area.

 Where do I get ideas from?

EVERYWHERE!! As Paul Smith the fashion designer wrote: ’Inspiration is everywhere, if at first you don’t see it, look again!’ Open your mind to ideas. They really are everywhere. I used to worry about having enough things to write about, now I worry about finding the time to write about all my ideas. What sort of things have happened to you? What’s happened to your friend? Could it be re-worked? Could it be made much more exciting? What’s in the news? What’s in National Geographic? See reality as your springboard into the swimming pool of story.

You need to have a story. A really intriguing, interesting tale. You need to have great, memorable, fully-fleshed characters. If you are writing rom-com, you need to have some really hilariously funny scenes; some heart-meltingly tender scenes and you need a love story where something is always in the way of the happy couple.

Dig deeply into all your wide experience of life. How do your own relationships work? What makes you fall in love? What makes you angry? Sad? Confused? Despairing?

Should I do research?

ABSOLUTELY!! Go to the places you are writing about. Interview people who’ve done something like your heroine. You will get one million more great ideas doing this than you can ever dream of at your desk.

 Should I have a plan?

YOU’D BE MAD NOT TO!

Readers are viewers. They are used to more plot in a half an hour sit-com than they ever got in a full Dickens novel. You must plot your baby to death. You must keep your reader nailed to the chair. You will never manage this without a detailed plan. I work on my plans for weeks. I don’t write a word until I have every chapter outlined and the whole story completely outlined. Even then, it still changes, improves, gets messed around.

 Should I listen to criticism?

Only if it’s from someone you really trust. Writing something that makes your Mum beam with pride is not hard. Writing something that will move and engage perfect strangers is much more tricky. When you have a first draft you are really happy with, tell your story to a couple of friends who have been briefed to be firm but fair. Don’t make them read the whole thing. Try out the outline of your story on them. Does it excite them? Interest them? Do their eyes glaze over? Where are the problems?

Should I re-write?

Re-writing is the number one skill. It separates the amateurs from the professionals. About 50% of my time, maybe more is spent re-writing my work. I get to the end of my first draft in a hurry. I’m making sure the story works and I’m getting to know my characters. Then I start re-writing and the really hard work follows. But this is the sweat and tears that makes stories good.

How do I get an agent?

I have no idea!! You need an agent, because hardly any publishers look at manuscripts which don’t come from agents (check their websites to find out). But agents are like fairy dust.  Agents are very, very busy looking after those super important clients who earn them vast amounts of money.  With your unpublished manuscript, you are so far down the pecking order, your precious work will be handed to the work experience girl if you are lucky.  But remind yourself, big deals with brand new authors are made all the time. Agents and publishers continue to need new writers.

Do your research, find agents who represent your kind of work. Submit exactly as it says on the website. Send only your very polished, very best work. Write a covering letter of genius, brilliantly written about your brilliant story. Get them hooked. Make yours the manuscript at the top of the pile.

 I’ve been rejected, now what?

If you’ve sent your best work to many reputable agents or publishers and they’ve all said no thanks, you have to dust yourself down and think hard about what to do next. You could find more people to send it to… you could self-publish. You could put your work in a drawer and work on your next idea. You could stop and rest for a while… or go on a course, read books about writing, train your writing muscles to get better and stronger. No decision is right or wrong here. You have to decide what’s best for you. But I can promise the more you read, write and re-write, the better you will get.

 I’ve published one book, how do I keep going?

Your book is published, the world did not stop turning, Hollywood did not call, you are not as rich as Dan Brown. Welcome to the club. Look very hard at what worked; look even harder at what didn’t work. Don’t blame yourself for everything, but don’t accept no blame. Maybe you need to get much better. Think up a much stronger story. Do more research. Maybe you need to flex your PR muscles on your next time out.

Take your new career seriously. Find an amazing new story, fresh avenues for your work. Make lots more contacts in all sorts of connected fields.

All authors need these quotations pinned up above their desk:

‘Try again, fail again, fail better.’   Samuel Beckett.

‘Never, never, never, NEVER, give up.’   Sir Winston Churchill.

Do I self-publish on the internet?

Previously, I would always have said no, it’s a waste of time and money and you won’t make a penny. But the game has changed. Some writers are now fabulous e-book successes. In ten years time we may all be self-published on the internet. Do your research, don’t get ripped off and don’t put anything out there that isn’t your absolutely best work. Expect to do a lot of self-promoting. Success on the internet is just like success with a publisher, it’s all about talent and hard work. We are all only as good as the last thing we’ve written and the next big thing we’re writing.

 Will writing make me rich?

Let’s be realistic here. One in hundreds of thousands of writers will become rich: maybe through genius, epic hard work or sheer good luck. Just like one in hundreds of thousands of actors, painters and all kinds of creative people. The rest of us will range from making a great living to struggling on penniless. Love your work, devote yourself to your work and hope that the money will follow. If you have success, be like several wise old actors I know and save your money hard because success may not come around again immediately. Yachts and villas on the Med are for gas barons and internet billionaires not, usually, novelists.

Will writing make me happy?

I love to write. I love the hours when I am so in the flow, so in my made-up world that I forget about everything else. But I spend all day, most days, withimaginary people and many head-doctors would consider this a worrying condition!

Creative people often struggle with mental health issues – we get depressed, we fret, we drink or smoke, take drugs, or comfort eat or all of the above. Maybe we were like this when we began; maybe the nature of our work makes us more like this. I do believe that writing makes you vulnerable. Plus it can become obsessive. Writing can take up all the time you have, no manuscript is ever ‘finished’, and you can use writing as a way of opting out of everything else life has to offer.

You need balance!

You need to look after the other areas of life too: friends, family and your health. You need regular breaks from writing, reading other writing and thinking about writing – hard, I know! But there must be room for relaxation, laughter and holidays. If I am turning into a basket case, I shut everything down and hang out with my children. Sometimes you just have to go away and come back to the keyboard with fresh perspective.

 Should I give up my day job?

I have mixed feelings about this. Basically I did give up my day job and the terror got me writing like a dervish. Happily, I landed a two-book deal which gave me enough money to take another year off to write more. For several years I combined fiction writing with freelance journalism, now I write fiction full-time but I know I have journalism skills if I need to go back to them.

I’m not sure I would advise an 18 year old to study creative writing at college and nothing else. But sometimes, you have to walk the wire without the safety net because if you put your heart and soul into writing it might work much better than if you potter about at the weekends only.

Giving up the day job to write is scary and stressful. Please approach it very, very carefully, fully consulting your nearest and dearest and burn no bridges. Bear in mind that many, many well known writers combine writing with other jobs and careers which reliably pay the bills.

 Finally…

I really hope this has helped. Very, very best of luck out there. May your story be the next huge thing the world didn’t even know it was waiting for! And if it isn’t – please love the ride. Writing is fantastic – like dreaming with the lights on. Work hard, master the art, bring your dreams to life and WRITE ON!!

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

 

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

20 Tips For Surviving The Builders

And the builders are OUT… phew! I’m breathing a huge, dusty sigh of relief and allowing life as I know it to resume.

I’ve totally renovated four homes so far and although I don’t think this one will be the last, I have promised my family some peace and quiet… for a while.

I’ve learned (the hard way) a few useful things about having the builders in and thought I’d share my top 20 tips in case they’re useful to anyone else in this nerve-shreddingly stressful situation.

1.     Get as much done all at the one time as you possibly can. I’ve tried doing a bathroom here, a kitchen the next year, redecorating bit by bit and it’s not ideal. Plumbers and electricians come in and sigh: ‘Who did the kitchen like that? For the new bathroom, I’ll have to re-do all that piping/ wiring.’  Or worse, hauling their ladders and equipment into the kitchen, they scratch your new hall paintwork or eeek, your brand new floor. The more work you can get done at once, the better the price should be.

2.     Move out if at all possible. Even for the first few weeks. This allows you and your family to remain sane and be dressed without plaster dust on your clothes, in your hair, all over your beds and even in your food. It also lets the builders forge ahead without having to worry about water, gas and electrics having to be reconnected every evening.

3.      If you have to stay at home, tape polythene sheets over doors, buy a brush, dustpan, even a cheap vacuum cleaner just to deal with builder mess. Do not use your lovely Dyson to scoop up plaster dust and rubble. Do not let the builders use it either: it will die!

4.     If you work from home, you HAVE to find somewhere else to go. Trust me here. The library, a café with wifi, you have to get out. You cannot listen to Lesser Known Hits of the 80s, plus drilling and bumping and banging for weeks on end and get work done.

5.     Be VERY choosy about which builder you use. Do not rush this decision. Get recommendations from people you trust, or neighbours… even bathroom and kitchen suppliers. Go and see previous work the builder has done. Ask the owners if the work was quick and tidy, if the builders were polite, stuck to the agreed budget, turned up on time, stayed with the job right to the end. If a builder is available straight away, beware. Good builders have to be booked in advance. If you’re in an old house, you need a builder used to renovating old property.

6.     I don’t like tradesmen who only want to be paid in cash and I don’t like it if they want part of the money up front. Both of these things suggest they’re not running their business well and they won’t run your project well either. I totally wanted to sack a builder once, but had paid too much up front to be able to do it.

7.     Some money part way through is OK. But you need a week or two after the work is completed before you pay your final bill. So you can work out what the little problems are and ask for them to be fixed before you settle up.

8.     Plan, plan, plan. Make drawings of your rooms. Think about plugs, lights, tiling, cabinets, the way the door opens… Make as many decisions ahead of the work as possible. There will still be lots of decisions to make on the spot. Take some guidance from your builder – he might from experience know of a better way to do it…

9.     …But don’t do everything the builder way – sometimes they can go overboard with plastic trimming, beading, coving, laminate flooring and everything in beige and before you know it the heart and soul of your characterful old house has been ripped out and MDF-ed over.

10.   Consider using an architect. I asked an architect friend, who recommended the office junior, who made several visits and lots of plans. She had great ideas, oversaw getting the building warrant and all the relevant permits and charged us less than we expected for her time.

11. If your decorator umms and ahhs and says: ‘Are you sure? That’s quite a dark/ bright/ unusual colour?’ Just say YES. If you want a beautiful paint job with proper sanding down and many layers of paint, say so. Expect it to take longer and cost more than slapping the stuff on.

12.  Don’t freak out when standing in an empty newly painted room. By the time you’ve put in sofas, pictures, lamps, shelves, books – the colour will be lovely and just the way you imagined it.

13. Be business like with your builders. They’re not your new friends; they’re not your Dad/ uncle/ boss. You’re in charge. If things aren’t going the way you want, ask about it. Explain what you want. Listen. Sometimes you will have to compromise because what you want doesn’t work. But don’t accept something you really don’t want. The builder is going to move on and you’ll be left regretting this bit of work for the next five, ten years or longer.

14. When you first agree a price with the builder, try and get everything you can think of onto that estimate. There will always be a few extra jobs at the end, which will put the price up, but try not to make it a great long list of extras. Otherwise your bill might be a nasty shock.

15. Agree a timetable. Expect it to take a bit longer. But do not accept endless weeks of delay. If this is happening, you need to find out why and ask them to get back on track.

16. Keep all your estimates, bills and receipts in a dedicated folder. File all those guarantees. Unused paint tins, lightshades that didn’t match, bookcases that didn’t fit, unopened boxes of tiles – all can be returned if you have the receipt.

17. Get everything finished! Don’t leave wires dangling while you procrastinate on a bathroom cabinet, don’t leave plywood on the floor while you dither about tiles. After all the pain you’ve gone through, you NEED the big ‘tah dah’ when it all comes together and looks brilliant.

18. Accept that budget limitations can lead to creative and brilliant results. My £9 a metre bathroom tiles look amazing. Crown and Dulux have colours just as pretty as Farrow and Ball’s (use tester pots to find them). Two IKEA pendant lights can look even better than one designer one. A cheap bookcase properly assembled and fitted to the wall by a joiner looks almost as good as a bespoke one.

19. Realise that your wine/ chocolate/ biscuit consumption will rocket during this horribly stressful and expensive time.

20.  Remind yourself that it will be worth all the pain, expense and hassle. We’ve created a big family kitchen, renovated an old bathroom, plus put in a second bathroom and already, one week in, this has transformed home life.

 

World Book Day | My best advice to writers

Today is World Book Day. To mark the occasion I thought I’d repost this blog from my old site. I think there’s plenty here to think about for anyone who loves books, loves writing — and for anyone thinking of trying to write a novel. I’d love to hear your comments:

How do I get started writing?

I could write chapters and chapters, probably a whole book about writing. But I’m going to try and break it down into FAQs for you. If I haven’t answered your question, then please drop me a line. But these are my best answers to the questions I’m often asked. Also, I’m not just a published writer who ‘has it easy’ (‘What does she know about rejections?’) I’m also married to a trying-to-be-published writer. So I know about the process from many angles.

You sit down and you start. There we go. You don’t put it off until you ‘have the time’ or ‘feel in the mood’. You just apply your behind to the chair and get on with it. Because all that time you are wasting thinking about writing your amazing novel, I’m actually at my computer writing.

If we were runners, you would be thinking about taking up running and I would be training six days a week, so come the race – who has the best chance of finishing?!

Writing is a complex art. Expressing your ideas, characters and story in words is a skill which takes a lifetime to master. I’ve been writing fiction for 14 years now and I’m only beginning to get the hang of it. Just because you can read novels does not mean you can write them. Just because a book is easy to read does not mean it is easy to write.

Plus, it’s a very competitive business. There are so many fantastic writers already out there, if you want to join them, you’re going to have to get very, very good.

I feel it’s best to give you tough love. If you want to write novels – long, gripping novels people are going to give up hours and hours of their precious lives to read, you’re going to have to start training for the ultra-marathon!

What will help with my writing?

Reading will help enormously. Read all kinds of books. Find the kind of writing that you love; the kind of book you could pick up again and again. Is it horror? Is it rom com? Is it sci-fi? Is it historical fiction? What inspires you? What kind of book would you love to write?

Then write! Write and write some more. Write little chunks: blogs, diary entries, short pages. Hone your skills. Try a poem, then a short story. Try out chapter one. Try out the final chapter. Play with words. Describe the people you see on the train. Invent a background for them. Practise dialogue. Turn a news story into a short story. Write, write, write. Train your brain and your fingers to turn your thoughts into great sentences, then your sentences into stories.

Don’t expect to be a genius immediately. It takes time to get good. I was writing stories, essays and diaries all the time I was growing up. I spent my early 20s being a newspaper journalist. I must have written millions of words before I got started on chapter one. My first book attempt was in the bin by chapter four and I began again.

Think of JK Rowling, she’d been working on that first Harry Potter manuscript for YEARS before she showed it to anyone and even then all the big publishers turned her down! Her enormous success had nothing to do with luck: it was because she had a huge story to tell, sheer persistence and worked bloody hard.

 Are any books helpful?

I’m helped by reading and re-reading all the writers I love: Nancy Mitford, Anne Tyler, Agatha Christie, John Irving, JK Rowling, Roald Dahl, Candace Bushnell and many more.

I’ve also found these books very inspirational and packed with great advice: Robert McKee’s Story, Stephen King’s On Writing, Michelle Wallerstein’s Mind Your Business.

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan always get my romantic comedy juices flowing, along with every film written by Nora Ephron.

Should I join a writing group?

I’ve never joined a writing group. This is because I am such a loner and solitary animal. Also, I didn’t think I could bear the criticism! You have to be tough to write and keep on writing, but oh my goodness writing makes you vulnerable. As soon as you’ve written something, you’ve created a work that people can criticise. And believe me, everybody has an opinion. You just need to go onto Amazon to see that.

But writing groups can be hugely helpful. They help people to focus on what they want to write, they help people make contacts, plus they inspire you to get the work done. Only you can know if a group is a good idea for you. You could always try one and see. You could even advertise and set one up in your area.

 Where do I get ideas from?

EVERYWHERE!! As Paul Smith the fashion designer wrote: ’Inspiration is everywhere, if at first you don’t see it, look again!’ Open your mind to ideas. They really are everywhere. I used to worry about having enough things to write about, now I worry about finding the time to write about all my ideas. What sort of things have happened to you? What’s happened to your friend? Could it be re-worked? Could it be made much more exciting? What’s in the news? What’s in National Geographic? See reality as your springboard into the swimming pool of story.

You need to have a story. A really intriguing, interesting tale. You need to have great, memorable, fully-fleshed characters. If you are writing rom-com, you need to have some really hilariously funny scenes; some heart-meltingly tender scenes and you need a love story where something is always in the way of the happy couple.

Dig deeply into all your wide experience of life. How do your own relationships work? What makes you fall in love? What makes you angry? Sad? Confused? Despairing?

Should I do research?

ABSOLUTELY!! Go to the places you are writing about. Interview people who’ve done something like your heroine. You will get one million more great ideas doing this than you can ever dream of at your desk.

 Should I have a plan?

YOU’D BE MAD NOT TO!

Readers are viewers. They are used to more plot in a half an hour sit-com than they ever got in a full Dickens novel. You must plot your baby to death. You must keep your reader nailed to the chair. You will never manage this without a detailed plan. I work on my plans for weeks. I don’t write a word until I have every chapter outlined and the whole story completely outlined. Even then, it still changes, improves, gets messed around.

 Should I listen to criticism?

Only if it’s from someone you really trust. Writing something that makes your Mum beam with pride is not hard. Writing something that will move and engage perfect strangers is much more tricky. When you have a first draft you are really happy with, tell your story to a couple of friends who have been briefed to be firm but fair. Don’t make them read the whole thing. Try out the outline of your story on them. Does it excite them? Interest them? Do their eyes glaze over? Where are the problems?

Should I re-write?

Re-writing is the number one skill. It separates the amateurs from the professionals. About 50% of my time, maybe more is spent re-writing my work. I get to the end of my first draft in a hurry. I’m making sure the story works and I’m getting to know my characters. Then I start re-writing and the really hard work follows. But this is the sweat and tears that makes stories good.

How do I get an agent?

I have no idea!! You need an agent, because hardly any publishers look at manuscripts which don’t come from agents (check their websites to find out). But agents are like fairy dust.  Agents are very, very busy looking after those super important clients who earn them vast amounts of money.  With your unpublished manuscript, you are so far down the pecking order, your precious work will be handed to the work experience girl if you are lucky.  But remind yourself, big deals with brand new authors are made all the time. Agents and publishers continue to need new writers.

Do your research, find agents who represent your kind of work. Submit exactly as it says on the website. Send only your very polished, very best work. Write a covering letter of genius, brilliantly written about your brilliant story. Get them hooked. Make yours the manuscript at the top of the pile.

 I’ve been rejected, now what?

If you’ve sent your best work to many reputable agents or publishers and they’ve all said no thanks, you have to dust yourself down and think hard about what to do next. You could find more people to send it to… you could self-publish. You could put your work in a drawer and work on your next idea. You could stop and rest for a while… or go on a course, read books about writing, train your writing muscles to get better and stronger. No decision is right or wrong here. You have to decide what’s best for you. But I can promise the more you read, write and re-write, the better you will get.

 I’ve published one book, how do I keep going?

Your book is published, the world did not stop turning, Hollywood did not call, you are not as rich as Dan Brown. Welcome to the club. Look very hard at what worked; look even harder at what didn’t work. Don’t blame yourself for everything, but don’t accept no blame. Maybe you need to get much better. Think up a much stronger story. Do more research. Maybe you need to flex your PR muscles on your next time out.

Take your new career seriously. Find an amazing new story, fresh avenues for your work. Make lots more contacts in all sorts of connected fields.

All authors need these quotations pinned up above their desk:

‘Try again, fail again, fail better.’   Samuel Beckett.

‘Never, never, never, NEVER, give up.’   Sir Winston Churchill.

Do I self-publish on the internet?

Previously, I would always have said no, it’s a waste of time and money and you won’t make a penny. But the game has changed. Some writers are now fabulous e-book successes. In ten years time we may all be self-published on the internet. Do your research, don’t get ripped off and don’t put anything out there that isn’t your absolutely best work. Expect to do a lot of self-promoting. Success on the internet is just like success with a publisher, it’s all about talent and hard work. We are all only as good as the last thing we’ve written and the next big thing we’re writing.

 Will writing make me rich?

Let’s be realistic here. One in hundreds of thousands of writers will become rich: maybe through genius, epic hard work or sheer good luck. Just like one in hundreds of thousands of actors, painters and all kinds of creative people. The rest of us will range from making a great living to struggling on penniless. Love your work, devote yourself to your work and hope that the money will follow. If you have success, be like several wise old actors I know and save your money hard because success may not come around again immediately. Yachts and villas on the Med are for gas barons and internet billionaires not, usually, novelists.

Will writing make me happy?

I love to write. I love the hours when I am so in the flow, so in my made-up world that I forget about everything else. But I spend all day, most days, withimaginary people and many head-doctors would consider this a worrying condition!

Creative people often struggle with mental health issues – we get depressed, we fret, we drink or smoke, take drugs, or comfort eat or all of the above. Maybe we were like this when we began; maybe the nature of our work makes us more like this. I do believe that writing makes you vulnerable. Plus it can become obsessive. Writing can take up all the time you have, no manuscript is ever ‘finished’, and you can use writing as a way of opting out of everything else life has to offer.

You need balance!

You need to look after the other areas of life too: friends, family and your health. You need regular breaks from writing, reading other writing and thinking about writing – hard, I know! But there must be room for relaxation, laughter and holidays. If I am turning into a basket case, I shut everything down and hang out with my children. Sometimes you just have to go away and come back to the keyboard with fresh perspective.

 Should I give up my day job?

I have mixed feelings about this. Basically I did give up my day job and the terror got me writing like a dervish. Happily, I landed a two-book deal which gave me enough money to take another year off to write more. For several years I combined fiction writing with freelance journalism, now I write fiction full-time but I know I have journalism skills if I need to go back to them.

I’m not sure I would advise an 18 year old to study creative writing at college and nothing else. But sometimes, you have to walk the wire without the safety net because if you put your heart and soul into writing it might work much better than if you potter about at the weekends only.

Giving up the day job to write is scary and stressful. Please approach it very, very carefully, fully consulting your nearest and dearest and burn no bridges. Bear in mind that many, many well known writers combine writing with other jobs and careers which reliably pay the bills.

 Finally…

I really hope this has helped. Very, very best of luck out there. May your story be the next huge thing the world didn’t even know it was waiting for! And if it isn’t – please love the ride. Writing is fantastic – like dreaming with the lights on. Work hard, master the art, bring your dreams to life and WRITE ON!!

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

 

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

20 Tips For Surviving The Builders

And the builders are OUT… phew! I’m breathing a huge, dusty sigh of relief and allowing life as I know it to resume.

I’ve totally renovated four homes so far and although I don’t think this one will be the last, I have promised my family some peace and quiet… for a while.

I’ve learned (the hard way) a few useful things about having the builders in and thought I’d share my top 20 tips in case they’re useful to anyone else in this nerve-shreddingly stressful situation.

1.     Get as much done all at the one time as you possibly can. I’ve tried doing a bathroom here, a kitchen the next year, redecorating bit by bit and it’s not ideal. Plumbers and electricians come in and sigh: ‘Who did the kitchen like that? For the new bathroom, I’ll have to re-do all that piping/ wiring.’  Or worse, hauling their ladders and equipment into the kitchen, they scratch your new hall paintwork or eeek, your brand new floor. The more work you can get done at once, the better the price should be.

2.     Move out if at all possible. Even for the first few weeks. This allows you and your family to remain sane and be dressed without plaster dust on your clothes, in your hair, all over your beds and even in your food. It also lets the builders forge ahead without having to worry about water, gas and electrics having to be reconnected every evening.

3.      If you have to stay at home, tape polythene sheets over doors, buy a brush, dustpan, even a cheap vacuum cleaner just to deal with builder mess. Do not use your lovely Dyson to scoop up plaster dust and rubble. Do not let the builders use it either: it will die!

4.     If you work from home, you HAVE to find somewhere else to go. Trust me here. The library, a café with wifi, you have to get out. You cannot listen to Lesser Known Hits of the 80s, plus drilling and bumping and banging for weeks on end and get work done.

5.     Be VERY choosy about which builder you use. Do not rush this decision. Get recommendations from people you trust, or neighbours… even bathroom and kitchen suppliers. Go and see previous work the builder has done. Ask the owners if the work was quick and tidy, if the builders were polite, stuck to the agreed budget, turned up on time, stayed with the job right to the end. If a builder is available straight away, beware. Good builders have to be booked in advance. If you’re in an old house, you need a builder used to renovating old property.

6.     I don’t like tradesmen who only want to be paid in cash and I don’t like it if they want part of the money up front. Both of these things suggest they’re not running their business well and they won’t run your project well either. I totally wanted to sack a builder once, but had paid too much up front to be able to do it.

7.     Some money part way through is OK. But you need a week or two after the work is completed before you pay your final bill. So you can work out what the little problems are and ask for them to be fixed before you settle up.

8.     Plan, plan, plan. Make drawings of your rooms. Think about plugs, lights, tiling, cabinets, the way the door opens… Make as many decisions ahead of the work as possible. There will still be lots of decisions to make on the spot. Take some guidance from your builder – he might from experience know of a better way to do it…

9.     …But don’t do everything the builder way – sometimes they can go overboard with plastic trimming, beading, coving, laminate flooring and everything in beige and before you know it the heart and soul of your characterful old house has been ripped out and MDF-ed over.

10.   Consider using an architect. I asked an architect friend, who recommended the office junior, who made several visits and lots of plans. She had great ideas, oversaw getting the building warrant and all the relevant permits and charged us less than we expected for her time.

11. If your decorator umms and ahhs and says: ‘Are you sure? That’s quite a dark/ bright/ unusual colour?’ Just say YES. If you want a beautiful paint job with proper sanding down and many layers of paint, say so. Expect it to take longer and cost more than slapping the stuff on.

12.  Don’t freak out when standing in an empty newly painted room. By the time you’ve put in sofas, pictures, lamps, shelves, books – the colour will be lovely and just the way you imagined it.

13. Be business like with your builders. They’re not your new friends; they’re not your Dad/ uncle/ boss. You’re in charge. If things aren’t going the way you want, ask about it. Explain what you want. Listen. Sometimes you will have to compromise because what you want doesn’t work. But don’t accept something you really don’t want. The builder is going to move on and you’ll be left regretting this bit of work for the next five, ten years or longer.

14. When you first agree a price with the builder, try and get everything you can think of onto that estimate. There will always be a few extra jobs at the end, which will put the price up, but try not to make it a great long list of extras. Otherwise your bill might be a nasty shock.

15. Agree a timetable. Expect it to take a bit longer. But do not accept endless weeks of delay. If this is happening, you need to find out why and ask them to get back on track.

16. Keep all your estimates, bills and receipts in a dedicated folder. File all those guarantees. Unused paint tins, lightshades that didn’t match, bookcases that didn’t fit, unopened boxes of tiles – all can be returned if you have the receipt.

17. Get everything finished! Don’t leave wires dangling while you procrastinate on a bathroom cabinet, don’t leave plywood on the floor while you dither about tiles. After all the pain you’ve gone through, you NEED the big ‘tah dah’ when it all comes together and looks brilliant.

18. Accept that budget limitations can lead to creative and brilliant results. My £9 a metre bathroom tiles look amazing. Crown and Dulux have colours just as pretty as Farrow and Ball’s (use tester pots to find them). Two IKEA pendant lights can look even better than one designer one. A cheap bookcase properly assembled and fitted to the wall by a joiner looks almost as good as a bespoke one.

19. Realise that your wine/ chocolate/ biscuit consumption will rocket during this horribly stressful and expensive time.

20.  Remind yourself that it will be worth all the pain, expense and hassle. We’ve created a big family kitchen, renovated an old bathroom, plus put in a second bathroom and already, one week in, this has transformed home life.

 

World Book Day | My best advice to writers

Today is World Book Day. To mark the occasion I thought I’d repost this blog from my old site. I think there’s plenty here to think about for anyone who loves books, loves writing — and for anyone thinking of trying to write a novel. I’d love to hear your comments:

How do I get started writing?

I could write chapters and chapters, probably a whole book about writing. But I’m going to try and break it down into FAQs for you. If I haven’t answered your question, then please drop me a line. But these are my best answers to the questions I’m often asked. Also, I’m not just a published writer who ‘has it easy’ (‘What does she know about rejections?’) I’m also married to a trying-to-be-published writer. So I know about the process from many angles.

You sit down and you start. There we go. You don’t put it off until you ‘have the time’ or ‘feel in the mood’. You just apply your behind to the chair and get on with it. Because all that time you are wasting thinking about writing your amazing novel, I’m actually at my computer writing.

If we were runners, you would be thinking about taking up running and I would be training six days a week, so come the race – who has the best chance of finishing?!

Writing is a complex art. Expressing your ideas, characters and story in words is a skill which takes a lifetime to master. I’ve been writing fiction for 14 years now and I’m only beginning to get the hang of it. Just because you can read novels does not mean you can write them. Just because a book is easy to read does not mean it is easy to write.

Plus, it’s a very competitive business. There are so many fantastic writers already out there, if you want to join them, you’re going to have to get very, very good.

I feel it’s best to give you tough love. If you want to write novels – long, gripping novels people are going to give up hours and hours of their precious lives to read, you’re going to have to start training for the ultra-marathon!

What will help with my writing?

Reading will help enormously. Read all kinds of books. Find the kind of writing that you love; the kind of book you could pick up again and again. Is it horror? Is it rom com? Is it sci-fi? Is it historical fiction? What inspires you? What kind of book would you love to write?

Then write! Write and write some more. Write little chunks: blogs, diary entries, short pages. Hone your skills. Try a poem, then a short story. Try out chapter one. Try out the final chapter. Play with words. Describe the people you see on the train. Invent a background for them. Practise dialogue. Turn a news story into a short story. Write, write, write. Train your brain and your fingers to turn your thoughts into great sentences, then your sentences into stories.

Don’t expect to be a genius immediately. It takes time to get good. I was writing stories, essays and diaries all the time I was growing up. I spent my early 20s being a newspaper journalist. I must have written millions of words before I got started on chapter one. My first book attempt was in the bin by chapter four and I began again.

Think of JK Rowling, she’d been working on that first Harry Potter manuscript for YEARS before she showed it to anyone and even then all the big publishers turned her down! Her enormous success had nothing to do with luck: it was because she had a huge story to tell, sheer persistence and worked bloody hard.

 Are any books helpful?

I’m helped by reading and re-reading all the writers I love: Nancy Mitford, Anne Tyler, Agatha Christie, John Irving, JK Rowling, Roald Dahl, Candace Bushnell and many more.

I’ve also found these books very inspirational and packed with great advice: Robert McKee’s Story, Stephen King’s On Writing, Michelle Wallerstein’s Mind Your Business.

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan always get my romantic comedy juices flowing, along with every film written by Nora Ephron.

Should I join a writing group?

I’ve never joined a writing group. This is because I am such a loner and solitary animal. Also, I didn’t think I could bear the criticism! You have to be tough to write and keep on writing, but oh my goodness writing makes you vulnerable. As soon as you’ve written something, you’ve created a work that people can criticise. And believe me, everybody has an opinion. You just need to go onto Amazon to see that.

But writing groups can be hugely helpful. They help people to focus on what they want to write, they help people make contacts, plus they inspire you to get the work done. Only you can know if a group is a good idea for you. You could always try one and see. You could even advertise and set one up in your area.

 Where do I get ideas from?

EVERYWHERE!! As Paul Smith the fashion designer wrote: ’Inspiration is everywhere, if at first you don’t see it, look again!’ Open your mind to ideas. They really are everywhere. I used to worry about having enough things to write about, now I worry about finding the time to write about all my ideas. What sort of things have happened to you? What’s happened to your friend? Could it be re-worked? Could it be made much more exciting? What’s in the news? What’s in National Geographic? See reality as your springboard into the swimming pool of story.

You need to have a story. A really intriguing, interesting tale. You need to have great, memorable, fully-fleshed characters. If you are writing rom-com, you need to have some really hilariously funny scenes; some heart-meltingly tender scenes and you need a love story where something is always in the way of the happy couple.

Dig deeply into all your wide experience of life. How do your own relationships work? What makes you fall in love? What makes you angry? Sad? Confused? Despairing?

Should I do research?

ABSOLUTELY!! Go to the places you are writing about. Interview people who’ve done something like your heroine. You will get one million more great ideas doing this than you can ever dream of at your desk.

 Should I have a plan?

YOU’D BE MAD NOT TO!

Readers are viewers. They are used to more plot in a half an hour sit-com than they ever got in a full Dickens novel. You must plot your baby to death. You must keep your reader nailed to the chair. You will never manage this without a detailed plan. I work on my plans for weeks. I don’t write a word until I have every chapter outlined and the whole story completely outlined. Even then, it still changes, improves, gets messed around.

 Should I listen to criticism?

Only if it’s from someone you really trust. Writing something that makes your Mum beam with pride is not hard. Writing something that will move and engage perfect strangers is much more tricky. When you have a first draft you are really happy with, tell your story to a couple of friends who have been briefed to be firm but fair. Don’t make them read the whole thing. Try out the outline of your story on them. Does it excite them? Interest them? Do their eyes glaze over? Where are the problems?

Should I re-write?

Re-writing is the number one skill. It separates the amateurs from the professionals. About 50% of my time, maybe more is spent re-writing my work. I get to the end of my first draft in a hurry. I’m making sure the story works and I’m getting to know my characters. Then I start re-writing and the really hard work follows. But this is the sweat and tears that makes stories good.

How do I get an agent?

I have no idea!! You need an agent, because hardly any publishers look at manuscripts which don’t come from agents (check their websites to find out). But agents are like fairy dust.  Agents are very, very busy looking after those super important clients who earn them vast amounts of money.  With your unpublished manuscript, you are so far down the pecking order, your precious work will be handed to the work experience girl if you are lucky.  But remind yourself, big deals with brand new authors are made all the time. Agents and publishers continue to need new writers.

Do your research, find agents who represent your kind of work. Submit exactly as it says on the website. Send only your very polished, very best work. Write a covering letter of genius, brilliantly written about your brilliant story. Get them hooked. Make yours the manuscript at the top of the pile.

 I’ve been rejected, now what?

If you’ve sent your best work to many reputable agents or publishers and they’ve all said no thanks, you have to dust yourself down and think hard about what to do next. You could find more people to send it to… you could self-publish. You could put your work in a drawer and work on your next idea. You could stop and rest for a while… or go on a course, read books about writing, train your writing muscles to get better and stronger. No decision is right or wrong here. You have to decide what’s best for you. But I can promise the more you read, write and re-write, the better you will get.

 I’ve published one book, how do I keep going?

Your book is published, the world did not stop turning, Hollywood did not call, you are not as rich as Dan Brown. Welcome to the club. Look very hard at what worked; look even harder at what didn’t work. Don’t blame yourself for everything, but don’t accept no blame. Maybe you need to get much better. Think up a much stronger story. Do more research. Maybe you need to flex your PR muscles on your next time out.

Take your new career seriously. Find an amazing new story, fresh avenues for your work. Make lots more contacts in all sorts of connected fields.

All authors need these quotations pinned up above their desk:

‘Try again, fail again, fail better.’   Samuel Beckett.

‘Never, never, never, NEVER, give up.’   Sir Winston Churchill.

Do I self-publish on the internet?

Previously, I would always have said no, it’s a waste of time and money and you won’t make a penny. But the game has changed. Some writers are now fabulous e-book successes. In ten years time we may all be self-published on the internet. Do your research, don’t get ripped off and don’t put anything out there that isn’t your absolutely best work. Expect to do a lot of self-promoting. Success on the internet is just like success with a publisher, it’s all about talent and hard work. We are all only as good as the last thing we’ve written and the next big thing we’re writing.

 Will writing make me rich?

Let’s be realistic here. One in hundreds of thousands of writers will become rich: maybe through genius, epic hard work or sheer good luck. Just like one in hundreds of thousands of actors, painters and all kinds of creative people. The rest of us will range from making a great living to struggling on penniless. Love your work, devote yourself to your work and hope that the money will follow. If you have success, be like several wise old actors I know and save your money hard because success may not come around again immediately. Yachts and villas on the Med are for gas barons and internet billionaires not, usually, novelists.

Will writing make me happy?

I love to write. I love the hours when I am so in the flow, so in my made-up world that I forget about everything else. But I spend all day, most days, withimaginary people and many head-doctors would consider this a worrying condition!

Creative people often struggle with mental health issues – we get depressed, we fret, we drink or smoke, take drugs, or comfort eat or all of the above. Maybe we were like this when we began; maybe the nature of our work makes us more like this. I do believe that writing makes you vulnerable. Plus it can become obsessive. Writing can take up all the time you have, no manuscript is ever ‘finished’, and you can use writing as a way of opting out of everything else life has to offer.

You need balance!

You need to look after the other areas of life too: friends, family and your health. You need regular breaks from writing, reading other writing and thinking about writing – hard, I know! But there must be room for relaxation, laughter and holidays. If I am turning into a basket case, I shut everything down and hang out with my children. Sometimes you just have to go away and come back to the keyboard with fresh perspective.

 Should I give up my day job?

I have mixed feelings about this. Basically I did give up my day job and the terror got me writing like a dervish. Happily, I landed a two-book deal which gave me enough money to take another year off to write more. For several years I combined fiction writing with freelance journalism, now I write fiction full-time but I know I have journalism skills if I need to go back to them.

I’m not sure I would advise an 18 year old to study creative writing at college and nothing else. But sometimes, you have to walk the wire without the safety net because if you put your heart and soul into writing it might work much better than if you potter about at the weekends only.

Giving up the day job to write is scary and stressful. Please approach it very, very carefully, fully consulting your nearest and dearest and burn no bridges. Bear in mind that many, many well known writers combine writing with other jobs and careers which reliably pay the bills.

 Finally…

I really hope this has helped. Very, very best of luck out there. May your story be the next huge thing the world didn’t even know it was waiting for! And if it isn’t – please love the ride. Writing is fantastic – like dreaming with the lights on. Work hard, master the art, bring your dreams to life and WRITE ON!!

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

 

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

20 Tips For Surviving The Builders

And the builders are OUT… phew! I’m breathing a huge, dusty sigh of relief and allowing life as I know it to resume.

I’ve totally renovated four homes so far and although I don’t think this one will be the last, I have promised my family some peace and quiet… for a while.

I’ve learned (the hard way) a few useful things about having the builders in and thought I’d share my top 20 tips in case they’re useful to anyone else in this nerve-shreddingly stressful situation.

1.     Get as much done all at the one time as you possibly can. I’ve tried doing a bathroom here, a kitchen the next year, redecorating bit by bit and it’s not ideal. Plumbers and electricians come in and sigh: ‘Who did the kitchen like that? For the new bathroom, I’ll have to re-do all that piping/ wiring.’  Or worse, hauling their ladders and equipment into the kitchen, they scratch your new hall paintwork or eeek, your brand new floor. The more work you can get done at once, the better the price should be.

2.     Move out if at all possible. Even for the first few weeks. This allows you and your family to remain sane and be dressed without plaster dust on your clothes, in your hair, all over your beds and even in your food. It also lets the builders forge ahead without having to worry about water, gas and electrics having to be reconnected every evening.

3.      If you have to stay at home, tape polythene sheets over doors, buy a brush, dustpan, even a cheap vacuum cleaner just to deal with builder mess. Do not use your lovely Dyson to scoop up plaster dust and rubble. Do not let the builders use it either: it will die!

4.     If you work from home, you HAVE to find somewhere else to go. Trust me here. The library, a café with wifi, you have to get out. You cannot listen to Lesser Known Hits of the 80s, plus drilling and bumping and banging for weeks on end and get work done.

5.     Be VERY choosy about which builder you use. Do not rush this decision. Get recommendations from people you trust, or neighbours… even bathroom and kitchen suppliers. Go and see previous work the builder has done. Ask the owners if the work was quick and tidy, if the builders were polite, stuck to the agreed budget, turned up on time, stayed with the job right to the end. If a builder is available straight away, beware. Good builders have to be booked in advance. If you’re in an old house, you need a builder used to renovating old property.

6.     I don’t like tradesmen who only want to be paid in cash and I don’t like it if they want part of the money up front. Both of these things suggest they’re not running their business well and they won’t run your project well either. I totally wanted to sack a builder once, but had paid too much up front to be able to do it.

7.     Some money part way through is OK. But you need a week or two after the work is completed before you pay your final bill. So you can work out what the little problems are and ask for them to be fixed before you settle up.

8.     Plan, plan, plan. Make drawings of your rooms. Think about plugs, lights, tiling, cabinets, the way the door opens… Make as many decisions ahead of the work as possible. There will still be lots of decisions to make on the spot. Take some guidance from your builder – he might from experience know of a better way to do it…

9.     …But don’t do everything the builder way – sometimes they can go overboard with plastic trimming, beading, coving, laminate flooring and everything in beige and before you know it the heart and soul of your characterful old house has been ripped out and MDF-ed over.

10.   Consider using an architect. I asked an architect friend, who recommended the office junior, who made several visits and lots of plans. She had great ideas, oversaw getting the building warrant and all the relevant permits and charged us less than we expected for her time.

11. If your decorator umms and ahhs and says: ‘Are you sure? That’s quite a dark/ bright/ unusual colour?’ Just say YES. If you want a beautiful paint job with proper sanding down and many layers of paint, say so. Expect it to take longer and cost more than slapping the stuff on.

12.  Don’t freak out when standing in an empty newly painted room. By the time you’ve put in sofas, pictures, lamps, shelves, books – the colour will be lovely and just the way you imagined it.

13. Be business like with your builders. They’re not your new friends; they’re not your Dad/ uncle/ boss. You’re in charge. If things aren’t going the way you want, ask about it. Explain what you want. Listen. Sometimes you will have to compromise because what you want doesn’t work. But don’t accept something you really don’t want. The builder is going to move on and you’ll be left regretting this bit of work for the next five, ten years or longer.

14. When you first agree a price with the builder, try and get everything you can think of onto that estimate. There will always be a few extra jobs at the end, which will put the price up, but try not to make it a great long list of extras. Otherwise your bill might be a nasty shock.

15. Agree a timetable. Expect it to take a bit longer. But do not accept endless weeks of delay. If this is happening, you need to find out why and ask them to get back on track.

16. Keep all your estimates, bills and receipts in a dedicated folder. File all those guarantees. Unused paint tins, lightshades that didn’t match, bookcases that didn’t fit, unopened boxes of tiles – all can be returned if you have the receipt.

17. Get everything finished! Don’t leave wires dangling while you procrastinate on a bathroom cabinet, don’t leave plywood on the floor while you dither about tiles. After all the pain you’ve gone through, you NEED the big ‘tah dah’ when it all comes together and looks brilliant.

18. Accept that budget limitations can lead to creative and brilliant results. My £9 a metre bathroom tiles look amazing. Crown and Dulux have colours just as pretty as Farrow and Ball’s (use tester pots to find them). Two IKEA pendant lights can look even better than one designer one. A cheap bookcase properly assembled and fitted to the wall by a joiner looks almost as good as a bespoke one.

19. Realise that your wine/ chocolate/ biscuit consumption will rocket during this horribly stressful and expensive time.

20.  Remind yourself that it will be worth all the pain, expense and hassle. We’ve created a big family kitchen, renovated an old bathroom, plus put in a second bathroom and already, one week in, this has transformed home life.

 

World Book Day | My best advice to writers

Today is World Book Day. To mark the occasion I thought I’d repost this blog from my old site. I think there’s plenty here to think about for anyone who loves books, loves writing — and for anyone thinking of trying to write a novel. I’d love to hear your comments:

How do I get started writing?

I could write chapters and chapters, probably a whole book about writing. But I’m going to try and break it down into FAQs for you. If I haven’t answered your question, then please drop me a line. But these are my best answers to the questions I’m often asked. Also, I’m not just a published writer who ‘has it easy’ (‘What does she know about rejections?’) I’m also married to a trying-to-be-published writer. So I know about the process from many angles.

You sit down and you start. There we go. You don’t put it off until you ‘have the time’ or ‘feel in the mood’. You just apply your behind to the chair and get on with it. Because all that time you are wasting thinking about writing your amazing novel, I’m actually at my computer writing.

If we were runners, you would be thinking about taking up running and I would be training six days a week, so come the race – who has the best chance of finishing?!

Writing is a complex art. Expressing your ideas, characters and story in words is a skill which takes a lifetime to master. I’ve been writing fiction for 14 years now and I’m only beginning to get the hang of it. Just because you can read novels does not mean you can write them. Just because a book is easy to read does not mean it is easy to write.

Plus, it’s a very competitive business. There are so many fantastic writers already out there, if you want to join them, you’re going to have to get very, very good.

I feel it’s best to give you tough love. If you want to write novels – long, gripping novels people are going to give up hours and hours of their precious lives to read, you’re going to have to start training for the ultra-marathon!

What will help with my writing?

Reading will help enormously. Read all kinds of books. Find the kind of writing that you love; the kind of book you could pick up again and again. Is it horror? Is it rom com? Is it sci-fi? Is it historical fiction? What inspires you? What kind of book would you love to write?

Then write! Write and write some more. Write little chunks: blogs, diary entries, short pages. Hone your skills. Try a poem, then a short story. Try out chapter one. Try out the final chapter. Play with words. Describe the people you see on the train. Invent a background for them. Practise dialogue. Turn a news story into a short story. Write, write, write. Train your brain and your fingers to turn your thoughts into great sentences, then your sentences into stories.

Don’t expect to be a genius immediately. It takes time to get good. I was writing stories, essays and diaries all the time I was growing up. I spent my early 20s being a newspaper journalist. I must have written millions of words before I got started on chapter one. My first book attempt was in the bin by chapter four and I began again.

Think of JK Rowling, she’d been working on that first Harry Potter manuscript for YEARS before she showed it to anyone and even then all the big publishers turned her down! Her enormous success had nothing to do with luck: it was because she had a huge story to tell, sheer persistence and worked bloody hard.

 Are any books helpful?

I’m helped by reading and re-reading all the writers I love: Nancy Mitford, Anne Tyler, Agatha Christie, John Irving, JK Rowling, Roald Dahl, Candace Bushnell and many more.

I’ve also found these books very inspirational and packed with great advice: Robert McKee’s Story, Stephen King’s On Writing, Michelle Wallerstein’s Mind Your Business.

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan always get my romantic comedy juices flowing, along with every film written by Nora Ephron.

Should I join a writing group?

I’ve never joined a writing group. This is because I am such a loner and solitary animal. Also, I didn’t think I could bear the criticism! You have to be tough to write and keep on writing, but oh my goodness writing makes you vulnerable. As soon as you’ve written something, you’ve created a work that people can criticise. And believe me, everybody has an opinion. You just need to go onto Amazon to see that.

But writing groups can be hugely helpful. They help people to focus on what they want to write, they help people make contacts, plus they inspire you to get the work done. Only you can know if a group is a good idea for you. You could always try one and see. You could even advertise and set one up in your area.

 Where do I get ideas from?

EVERYWHERE!! As Paul Smith the fashion designer wrote: ’Inspiration is everywhere, if at first you don’t see it, look again!’ Open your mind to ideas. They really are everywhere. I used to worry about having enough things to write about, now I worry about finding the time to write about all my ideas. What sort of things have happened to you? What’s happened to your friend? Could it be re-worked? Could it be made much more exciting? What’s in the news? What’s in National Geographic? See reality as your springboard into the swimming pool of story.

You need to have a story. A really intriguing, interesting tale. You need to have great, memorable, fully-fleshed characters. If you are writing rom-com, you need to have some really hilariously funny scenes; some heart-meltingly tender scenes and you need a love story where something is always in the way of the happy couple.

Dig deeply into all your wide experience of life. How do your own relationships work? What makes you fall in love? What makes you angry? Sad? Confused? Despairing?

Should I do research?

ABSOLUTELY!! Go to the places you are writing about. Interview people who’ve done something like your heroine. You will get one million more great ideas doing this than you can ever dream of at your desk.

 Should I have a plan?

YOU’D BE MAD NOT TO!

Readers are viewers. They are used to more plot in a half an hour sit-com than they ever got in a full Dickens novel. You must plot your baby to death. You must keep your reader nailed to the chair. You will never manage this without a detailed plan. I work on my plans for weeks. I don’t write a word until I have every chapter outlined and the whole story completely outlined. Even then, it still changes, improves, gets messed around.

 Should I listen to criticism?

Only if it’s from someone you really trust. Writing something that makes your Mum beam with pride is not hard. Writing something that will move and engage perfect strangers is much more tricky. When you have a first draft you are really happy with, tell your story to a couple of friends who have been briefed to be firm but fair. Don’t make them read the whole thing. Try out the outline of your story on them. Does it excite them? Interest them? Do their eyes glaze over? Where are the problems?

Should I re-write?

Re-writing is the number one skill. It separates the amateurs from the professionals. About 50% of my time, maybe more is spent re-writing my work. I get to the end of my first draft in a hurry. I’m making sure the story works and I’m getting to know my characters. Then I start re-writing and the really hard work follows. But this is the sweat and tears that makes stories good.

How do I get an agent?

I have no idea!! You need an agent, because hardly any publishers look at manuscripts which don’t come from agents (check their websites to find out). But agents are like fairy dust.  Agents are very, very busy looking after those super important clients who earn them vast amounts of money.  With your unpublished manuscript, you are so far down the pecking order, your precious work will be handed to the work experience girl if you are lucky.  But remind yourself, big deals with brand new authors are made all the time. Agents and publishers continue to need new writers.

Do your research, find agents who represent your kind of work. Submit exactly as it says on the website. Send only your very polished, very best work. Write a covering letter of genius, brilliantly written about your brilliant story. Get them hooked. Make yours the manuscript at the top of the pile.

 I’ve been rejected, now what?

If you’ve sent your best work to many reputable agents or publishers and they’ve all said no thanks, you have to dust yourself down and think hard about what to do next. You could find more people to send it to… you could self-publish. You could put your work in a drawer and work on your next idea. You could stop and rest for a while… or go on a course, read books about writing, train your writing muscles to get better and stronger. No decision is right or wrong here. You have to decide what’s best for you. But I can promise the more you read, write and re-write, the better you will get.

 I’ve published one book, how do I keep going?

Your book is published, the world did not stop turning, Hollywood did not call, you are not as rich as Dan Brown. Welcome to the club. Look very hard at what worked; look even harder at what didn’t work. Don’t blame yourself for everything, but don’t accept no blame. Maybe you need to get much better. Think up a much stronger story. Do more research. Maybe you need to flex your PR muscles on your next time out.

Take your new career seriously. Find an amazing new story, fresh avenues for your work. Make lots more contacts in all sorts of connected fields.

All authors need these quotations pinned up above their desk:

‘Try again, fail again, fail better.’   Samuel Beckett.

‘Never, never, never, NEVER, give up.’   Sir Winston Churchill.

Do I self-publish on the internet?

Previously, I would always have said no, it’s a waste of time and money and you won’t make a penny. But the game has changed. Some writers are now fabulous e-book successes. In ten years time we may all be self-published on the internet. Do your research, don’t get ripped off and don’t put anything out there that isn’t your absolutely best work. Expect to do a lot of self-promoting. Success on the internet is just like success with a publisher, it’s all about talent and hard work. We are all only as good as the last thing we’ve written and the next big thing we’re writing.

 Will writing make me rich?

Let’s be realistic here. One in hundreds of thousands of writers will become rich: maybe through genius, epic hard work or sheer good luck. Just like one in hundreds of thousands of actors, painters and all kinds of creative people. The rest of us will range from making a great living to struggling on penniless. Love your work, devote yourself to your work and hope that the money will follow. If you have success, be like several wise old actors I know and save your money hard because success may not come around again immediately. Yachts and villas on the Med are for gas barons and internet billionaires not, usually, novelists.

Will writing make me happy?

I love to write. I love the hours when I am so in the flow, so in my made-up world that I forget about everything else. But I spend all day, most days, withimaginary people and many head-doctors would consider this a worrying condition!

Creative people often struggle with mental health issues – we get depressed, we fret, we drink or smoke, take drugs, or comfort eat or all of the above. Maybe we were like this when we began; maybe the nature of our work makes us more like this. I do believe that writing makes you vulnerable. Plus it can become obsessive. Writing can take up all the time you have, no manuscript is ever ‘finished’, and you can use writing as a way of opting out of everything else life has to offer.

You need balance!

You need to look after the other areas of life too: friends, family and your health. You need regular breaks from writing, reading other writing and thinking about writing – hard, I know! But there must be room for relaxation, laughter and holidays. If I am turning into a basket case, I shut everything down and hang out with my children. Sometimes you just have to go away and come back to the keyboard with fresh perspective.

 Should I give up my day job?

I have mixed feelings about this. Basically I did give up my day job and the terror got me writing like a dervish. Happily, I landed a two-book deal which gave me enough money to take another year off to write more. For several years I combined fiction writing with freelance journalism, now I write fiction full-time but I know I have journalism skills if I need to go back to them.

I’m not sure I would advise an 18 year old to study creative writing at college and nothing else. But sometimes, you have to walk the wire without the safety net because if you put your heart and soul into writing it might work much better than if you potter about at the weekends only.

Giving up the day job to write is scary and stressful. Please approach it very, very carefully, fully consulting your nearest and dearest and burn no bridges. Bear in mind that many, many well known writers combine writing with other jobs and careers which reliably pay the bills.

 Finally…

I really hope this has helped. Very, very best of luck out there. May your story be the next huge thing the world didn’t even know it was waiting for! And if it isn’t – please love the ride. Writing is fantastic – like dreaming with the lights on. Work hard, master the art, bring your dreams to life and WRITE ON!!

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

 

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

20 Tips For Surviving The Builders

And the builders are OUT… phew! I’m breathing a huge, dusty sigh of relief and allowing life as I know it to resume.

I’ve totally renovated four homes so far and although I don’t think this one will be the last, I have promised my family some peace and quiet… for a while.

I’ve learned (the hard way) a few useful things about having the builders in and thought I’d share my top 20 tips in case they’re useful to anyone else in this nerve-shreddingly stressful situation.

1.     Get as much done all at the one time as you possibly can. I’ve tried doing a bathroom here, a kitchen the next year, redecorating bit by bit and it’s not ideal. Plumbers and electricians come in and sigh: ‘Who did the kitchen like that? For the new bathroom, I’ll have to re-do all that piping/ wiring.’  Or worse, hauling their ladders and equipment into the kitchen, they scratch your new hall paintwork or eeek, your brand new floor. The more work you can get done at once, the better the price should be.

2.     Move out if at all possible. Even for the first few weeks. This allows you and your family to remain sane and be dressed without plaster dust on your clothes, in your hair, all over your beds and even in your food. It also lets the builders forge ahead without having to worry about water, gas and electrics having to be reconnected every evening.

3.      If you have to stay at home, tape polythene sheets over doors, buy a brush, dustpan, even a cheap vacuum cleaner just to deal with builder mess. Do not use your lovely Dyson to scoop up plaster dust and rubble. Do not let the builders use it either: it will die!

4.     If you work from home, you HAVE to find somewhere else to go. Trust me here. The library, a café with wifi, you have to get out. You cannot listen to Lesser Known Hits of the 80s, plus drilling and bumping and banging for weeks on end and get work done.

5.     Be VERY choosy about which builder you use. Do not rush this decision. Get recommendations from people you trust, or neighbours… even bathroom and kitchen suppliers. Go and see previous work the builder has done. Ask the owners if the work was quick and tidy, if the builders were polite, stuck to the agreed budget, turned up on time, stayed with the job right to the end. If a builder is available straight away, beware. Good builders have to be booked in advance. If you’re in an old house, you need a builder used to renovating old property.

6.     I don’t like tradesmen who only want to be paid in cash and I don’t like it if they want part of the money up front. Both of these things suggest they’re not running their business well and they won’t run your project well either. I totally wanted to sack a builder once, but had paid too much up front to be able to do it.

7.     Some money part way through is OK. But you need a week or two after the work is completed before you pay your final bill. So you can work out what the little problems are and ask for them to be fixed before you settle up.

8.     Plan, plan, plan. Make drawings of your rooms. Think about plugs, lights, tiling, cabinets, the way the door opens… Make as many decisions ahead of the work as possible. There will still be lots of decisions to make on the spot. Take some guidance from your builder – he might from experience know of a better way to do it…

9.     …But don’t do everything the builder way – sometimes they can go overboard with plastic trimming, beading, coving, laminate flooring and everything in beige and before you know it the heart and soul of your characterful old house has been ripped out and MDF-ed over.

10.   Consider using an architect. I asked an architect friend, who recommended the office junior, who made several visits and lots of plans. She had great ideas, oversaw getting the building warrant and all the relevant permits and charged us less than we expected for her time.

11. If your decorator umms and ahhs and says: ‘Are you sure? That’s quite a dark/ bright/ unusual colour?’ Just say YES. If you want a beautiful paint job with proper sanding down and many layers of paint, say so. Expect it to take longer and cost more than slapping the stuff on.

12.  Don’t freak out when standing in an empty newly painted room. By the time you’ve put in sofas, pictures, lamps, shelves, books – the colour will be lovely and just the way you imagined it.

13. Be business like with your builders. They’re not your new friends; they’re not your Dad/ uncle/ boss. You’re in charge. If things aren’t going the way you want, ask about it. Explain what you want. Listen. Sometimes you will have to compromise because what you want doesn’t work. But don’t accept something you really don’t want. The builder is going to move on and you’ll be left regretting this bit of work for the next five, ten years or longer.

14. When you first agree a price with the builder, try and get everything you can think of onto that estimate. There will always be a few extra jobs at the end, which will put the price up, but try not to make it a great long list of extras. Otherwise your bill might be a nasty shock.

15. Agree a timetable. Expect it to take a bit longer. But do not accept endless weeks of delay. If this is happening, you need to find out why and ask them to get back on track.

16. Keep all your estimates, bills and receipts in a dedicated folder. File all those guarantees. Unused paint tins, lightshades that didn’t match, bookcases that didn’t fit, unopened boxes of tiles – all can be returned if you have the receipt.

17. Get everything finished! Don’t leave wires dangling while you procrastinate on a bathroom cabinet, don’t leave plywood on the floor while you dither about tiles. After all the pain you’ve gone through, you NEED the big ‘tah dah’ when it all comes together and looks brilliant.

18. Accept that budget limitations can lead to creative and brilliant results. My £9 a metre bathroom tiles look amazing. Crown and Dulux have colours just as pretty as Farrow and Ball’s (use tester pots to find them). Two IKEA pendant lights can look even better than one designer one. A cheap bookcase properly assembled and fitted to the wall by a joiner looks almost as good as a bespoke one.

19. Realise that your wine/ chocolate/ biscuit consumption will rocket during this horribly stressful and expensive time.

20.  Remind yourself that it will be worth all the pain, expense and hassle. We’ve created a big family kitchen, renovated an old bathroom, plus put in a second bathroom and already, one week in, this has transformed home life.

 

World Book Day | My best advice to writers

Today is World Book Day. To mark the occasion I thought I’d repost this blog from my old site. I think there’s plenty here to think about for anyone who loves books, loves writing — and for anyone thinking of trying to write a novel. I’d love to hear your comments:

How do I get started writing?

I could write chapters and chapters, probably a whole book about writing. But I’m going to try and break it down into FAQs for you. If I haven’t answered your question, then please drop me a line. But these are my best answers to the questions I’m often asked. Also, I’m not just a published writer who ‘has it easy’ (‘What does she know about rejections?’) I’m also married to a trying-to-be-published writer. So I know about the process from many angles.

You sit down and you start. There we go. You don’t put it off until you ‘have the time’ or ‘feel in the mood’. You just apply your behind to the chair and get on with it. Because all that time you are wasting thinking about writing your amazing novel, I’m actually at my computer writing.

If we were runners, you would be thinking about taking up running and I would be training six days a week, so come the race – who has the best chance of finishing?!

Writing is a complex art. Expressing your ideas, characters and story in words is a skill which takes a lifetime to master. I’ve been writing fiction for 14 years now and I’m only beginning to get the hang of it. Just because you can read novels does not mean you can write them. Just because a book is easy to read does not mean it is easy to write.

Plus, it’s a very competitive business. There are so many fantastic writers already out there, if you want to join them, you’re going to have to get very, very good.

I feel it’s best to give you tough love. If you want to write novels – long, gripping novels people are going to give up hours and hours of their precious lives to read, you’re going to have to start training for the ultra-marathon!

What will help with my writing?

Reading will help enormously. Read all kinds of books. Find the kind of writing that you love; the kind of book you could pick up again and again. Is it horror? Is it rom com? Is it sci-fi? Is it historical fiction? What inspires you? What kind of book would you love to write?

Then write! Write and write some more. Write little chunks: blogs, diary entries, short pages. Hone your skills. Try a poem, then a short story. Try out chapter one. Try out the final chapter. Play with words. Describe the people you see on the train. Invent a background for them. Practise dialogue. Turn a news story into a short story. Write, write, write. Train your brain and your fingers to turn your thoughts into great sentences, then your sentences into stories.

Don’t expect to be a genius immediately. It takes time to get good. I was writing stories, essays and diaries all the time I was growing up. I spent my early 20s being a newspaper journalist. I must have written millions of words before I got started on chapter one. My first book attempt was in the bin by chapter four and I began again.

Think of JK Rowling, she’d been working on that first Harry Potter manuscript for YEARS before she showed it to anyone and even then all the big publishers turned her down! Her enormous success had nothing to do with luck: it was because she had a huge story to tell, sheer persistence and worked bloody hard.

 Are any books helpful?

I’m helped by reading and re-reading all the writers I love: Nancy Mitford, Anne Tyler, Agatha Christie, John Irving, JK Rowling, Roald Dahl, Candace Bushnell and many more.

I’ve also found these books very inspirational and packed with great advice: Robert McKee’s Story, Stephen King’s On Writing, Michelle Wallerstein’s Mind Your Business.

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan always get my romantic comedy juices flowing, along with every film written by Nora Ephron.

Should I join a writing group?

I’ve never joined a writing group. This is because I am such a loner and solitary animal. Also, I didn’t think I could bear the criticism! You have to be tough to write and keep on writing, but oh my goodness writing makes you vulnerable. As soon as you’ve written something, you’ve created a work that people can criticise. And believe me, everybody has an opinion. You just need to go onto Amazon to see that.

But writing groups can be hugely helpful. They help people to focus on what they want to write, they help people make contacts, plus they inspire you to get the work done. Only you can know if a group is a good idea for you. You could always try one and see. You could even advertise and set one up in your area.

 Where do I get ideas from?

EVERYWHERE!! As Paul Smith the fashion designer wrote: ’Inspiration is everywhere, if at first you don’t see it, look again!’ Open your mind to ideas. They really are everywhere. I used to worry about having enough things to write about, now I worry about finding the time to write about all my ideas. What sort of things have happened to you? What’s happened to your friend? Could it be re-worked? Could it be made much more exciting? What’s in the news? What’s in National Geographic? See reality as your springboard into the swimming pool of story.

You need to have a story. A really intriguing, interesting tale. You need to have great, memorable, fully-fleshed characters. If you are writing rom-com, you need to have some really hilariously funny scenes; some heart-meltingly tender scenes and you need a love story where something is always in the way of the happy couple.

Dig deeply into all your wide experience of life. How do your own relationships work? What makes you fall in love? What makes you angry? Sad? Confused? Despairing?

Should I do research?

ABSOLUTELY!! Go to the places you are writing about. Interview people who’ve done something like your heroine. You will get one million more great ideas doing this than you can ever dream of at your desk.

 Should I have a plan?

YOU’D BE MAD NOT TO!

Readers are viewers. They are used to more plot in a half an hour sit-com than they ever got in a full Dickens novel. You must plot your baby to death. You must keep your reader nailed to the chair. You will never manage this without a detailed plan. I work on my plans for weeks. I don’t write a word until I have every chapter outlined and the whole story completely outlined. Even then, it still changes, improves, gets messed around.

 Should I listen to criticism?

Only if it’s from someone you really trust. Writing something that makes your Mum beam with pride is not hard. Writing something that will move and engage perfect strangers is much more tricky. When you have a first draft you are really happy with, tell your story to a couple of friends who have been briefed to be firm but fair. Don’t make them read the whole thing. Try out the outline of your story on them. Does it excite them? Interest them? Do their eyes glaze over? Where are the problems?

Should I re-write?

Re-writing is the number one skill. It separates the amateurs from the professionals. About 50% of my time, maybe more is spent re-writing my work. I get to the end of my first draft in a hurry. I’m making sure the story works and I’m getting to know my characters. Then I start re-writing and the really hard work follows. But this is the sweat and tears that makes stories good.

How do I get an agent?

I have no idea!! You need an agent, because hardly any publishers look at manuscripts which don’t come from agents (check their websites to find out). But agents are like fairy dust.  Agents are very, very busy looking after those super important clients who earn them vast amounts of money.  With your unpublished manuscript, you are so far down the pecking order, your precious work will be handed to the work experience girl if you are lucky.  But remind yourself, big deals with brand new authors are made all the time. Agents and publishers continue to need new writers.

Do your research, find agents who represent your kind of work. Submit exactly as it says on the website. Send only your very polished, very best work. Write a covering letter of genius, brilliantly written about your brilliant story. Get them hooked. Make yours the manuscript at the top of the pile.

 I’ve been rejected, now what?

If you’ve sent your best work to many reputable agents or publishers and they’ve all said no thanks, you have to dust yourself down and think hard about what to do next. You could find more people to send it to… you could self-publish. You could put your work in a drawer and work on your next idea. You could stop and rest for a while… or go on a course, read books about writing, train your writing muscles to get better and stronger. No decision is right or wrong here. You have to decide what’s best for you. But I can promise the more you read, write and re-write, the better you will get.

 I’ve published one book, how do I keep going?

Your book is published, the world did not stop turning, Hollywood did not call, you are not as rich as Dan Brown. Welcome to the club. Look very hard at what worked; look even harder at what didn’t work. Don’t blame yourself for everything, but don’t accept no blame. Maybe you need to get much better. Think up a much stronger story. Do more research. Maybe you need to flex your PR muscles on your next time out.

Take your new career seriously. Find an amazing new story, fresh avenues for your work. Make lots more contacts in all sorts of connected fields.

All authors need these quotations pinned up above their desk:

‘Try again, fail again, fail better.’   Samuel Beckett.

‘Never, never, never, NEVER, give up.’   Sir Winston Churchill.

Do I self-publish on the internet?

Previously, I would always have said no, it’s a waste of time and money and you won’t make a penny. But the game has changed. Some writers are now fabulous e-book successes. In ten years time we may all be self-published on the internet. Do your research, don’t get ripped off and don’t put anything out there that isn’t your absolutely best work. Expect to do a lot of self-promoting. Success on the internet is just like success with a publisher, it’s all about talent and hard work. We are all only as good as the last thing we’ve written and the next big thing we’re writing.

 Will writing make me rich?

Let’s be realistic here. One in hundreds of thousands of writers will become rich: maybe through genius, epic hard work or sheer good luck. Just like one in hundreds of thousands of actors, painters and all kinds of creative people. The rest of us will range from making a great living to struggling on penniless. Love your work, devote yourself to your work and hope that the money will follow. If you have success, be like several wise old actors I know and save your money hard because success may not come around again immediately. Yachts and villas on the Med are for gas barons and internet billionaires not, usually, novelists.

Will writing make me happy?

I love to write. I love the hours when I am so in the flow, so in my made-up world that I forget about everything else. But I spend all day, most days, withimaginary people and many head-doctors would consider this a worrying condition!

Creative people often struggle with mental health issues – we get depressed, we fret, we drink or smoke, take drugs, or comfort eat or all of the above. Maybe we were like this when we began; maybe the nature of our work makes us more like this. I do believe that writing makes you vulnerable. Plus it can become obsessive. Writing can take up all the time you have, no manuscript is ever ‘finished’, and you can use writing as a way of opting out of everything else life has to offer.

You need balance!

You need to look after the other areas of life too: friends, family and your health. You need regular breaks from writing, reading other writing and thinking about writing – hard, I know! But there must be room for relaxation, laughter and holidays. If I am turning into a basket case, I shut everything down and hang out with my children. Sometimes you just have to go away and come back to the keyboard with fresh perspective.

 Should I give up my day job?

I have mixed feelings about this. Basically I did give up my day job and the terror got me writing like a dervish. Happily, I landed a two-book deal which gave me enough money to take another year off to write more. For several years I combined fiction writing with freelance journalism, now I write fiction full-time but I know I have journalism skills if I need to go back to them.

I’m not sure I would advise an 18 year old to study creative writing at college and nothing else. But sometimes, you have to walk the wire without the safety net because if you put your heart and soul into writing it might work much better than if you potter about at the weekends only.

Giving up the day job to write is scary and stressful. Please approach it very, very carefully, fully consulting your nearest and dearest and burn no bridges. Bear in mind that many, many well known writers combine writing with other jobs and careers which reliably pay the bills.

 Finally…

I really hope this has helped. Very, very best of luck out there. May your story be the next huge thing the world didn’t even know it was waiting for! And if it isn’t – please love the ride. Writing is fantastic – like dreaming with the lights on. Work hard, master the art, bring your dreams to life and WRITE ON!!

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

 

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

20 Tips For Surviving The Builders

And the builders are OUT… phew! I’m breathing a huge, dusty sigh of relief and allowing life as I know it to resume.

I’ve totally renovated four homes so far and although I don’t think this one will be the last, I have promised my family some peace and quiet… for a while.

I’ve learned (the hard way) a few useful things about having the builders in and thought I’d share my top 20 tips in case they’re useful to anyone else in this nerve-shreddingly stressful situation.

1.     Get as much done all at the one time as you possibly can. I’ve tried doing a bathroom here, a kitchen the next year, redecorating bit by bit and it’s not ideal. Plumbers and electricians come in and sigh: ‘Who did the kitchen like that? For the new bathroom, I’ll have to re-do all that piping/ wiring.’  Or worse, hauling their ladders and equipment into the kitchen, they scratch your new hall paintwork or eeek, your brand new floor. The more work you can get done at once, the better the price should be.

2.     Move out if at all possible. Even for the first few weeks. This allows you and your family to remain sane and be dressed without plaster dust on your clothes, in your hair, all over your beds and even in your food. It also lets the builders forge ahead without having to worry about water, gas and electrics having to be reconnected every evening.

3.      If you have to stay at home, tape polythene sheets over doors, buy a brush, dustpan, even a cheap vacuum cleaner just to deal with builder mess. Do not use your lovely Dyson to scoop up plaster dust and rubble. Do not let the builders use it either: it will die!

4.     If you work from home, you HAVE to find somewhere else to go. Trust me here. The library, a café with wifi, you have to get out. You cannot listen to Lesser Known Hits of the 80s, plus drilling and bumping and banging for weeks on end and get work done.

5.     Be VERY choosy about which builder you use. Do not rush this decision. Get recommendations from people you trust, or neighbours… even bathroom and kitchen suppliers. Go and see previous work the builder has done. Ask the owners if the work was quick and tidy, if the builders were polite, stuck to the agreed budget, turned up on time, stayed with the job right to the end. If a builder is available straight away, beware. Good builders have to be booked in advance. If you’re in an old house, you need a builder used to renovating old property.

6.     I don’t like tradesmen who only want to be paid in cash and I don’t like it if they want part of the money up front. Both of these things suggest they’re not running their business well and they won’t run your project well either. I totally wanted to sack a builder once, but had paid too much up front to be able to do it.

7.     Some money part way through is OK. But you need a week or two after the work is completed before you pay your final bill. So you can work out what the little problems are and ask for them to be fixed before you settle up.

8.     Plan, plan, plan. Make drawings of your rooms. Think about plugs, lights, tiling, cabinets, the way the door opens… Make as many decisions ahead of the work as possible. There will still be lots of decisions to make on the spot. Take some guidance from your builder – he might from experience know of a better way to do it…

9.     …But don’t do everything the builder way – sometimes they can go overboard with plastic trimming, beading, coving, laminate flooring and everything in beige and before you know it the heart and soul of your characterful old house has been ripped out and MDF-ed over.

10.   Consider using an architect. I asked an architect friend, who recommended the office junior, who made several visits and lots of plans. She had great ideas, oversaw getting the building warrant and all the relevant permits and charged us less than we expected for her time.

11. If your decorator umms and ahhs and says: ‘Are you sure? That’s quite a dark/ bright/ unusual colour?’ Just say YES. If you want a beautiful paint job with proper sanding down and many layers of paint, say so. Expect it to take longer and cost more than slapping the stuff on.

12.  Don’t freak out when standing in an empty newly painted room. By the time you’ve put in sofas, pictures, lamps, shelves, books – the colour will be lovely and just the way you imagined it.

13. Be business like with your builders. They’re not your new friends; they’re not your Dad/ uncle/ boss. You’re in charge. If things aren’t going the way you want, ask about it. Explain what you want. Listen. Sometimes you will have to compromise because what you want doesn’t work. But don’t accept something you really don’t want. The builder is going to move on and you’ll be left regretting this bit of work for the next five, ten years or longer.

14. When you first agree a price with the builder, try and get everything you can think of onto that estimate. There will always be a few extra jobs at the end, which will put the price up, but try not to make it a great long list of extras. Otherwise your bill might be a nasty shock.

15. Agree a timetable. Expect it to take a bit longer. But do not accept endless weeks of delay. If this is happening, you need to find out why and ask them to get back on track.

16. Keep all your estimates, bills and receipts in a dedicated folder. File all those guarantees. Unused paint tins, lightshades that didn’t match, bookcases that didn’t fit, unopened boxes of tiles – all can be returned if you have the receipt.

17. Get everything finished! Don’t leave wires dangling while you procrastinate on a bathroom cabinet, don’t leave plywood on the floor while you dither about tiles. After all the pain you’ve gone through, you NEED the big ‘tah dah’ when it all comes together and looks brilliant.

18. Accept that budget limitations can lead to creative and brilliant results. My £9 a metre bathroom tiles look amazing. Crown and Dulux have colours just as pretty as Farrow and Ball’s (use tester pots to find them). Two IKEA pendant lights can look even better than one designer one. A cheap bookcase properly assembled and fitted to the wall by a joiner looks almost as good as a bespoke one.

19. Realise that your wine/ chocolate/ biscuit consumption will rocket during this horribly stressful and expensive time.

20.  Remind yourself that it will be worth all the pain, expense and hassle. We’ve created a big family kitchen, renovated an old bathroom, plus put in a second bathroom and already, one week in, this has transformed home life.

 

World Book Day | My best advice to writers

Today is World Book Day. To mark the occasion I thought I’d repost this blog from my old site. I think there’s plenty here to think about for anyone who loves books, loves writing — and for anyone thinking of trying to write a novel. I’d love to hear your comments:

How do I get started writing?

I could write chapters and chapters, probably a whole book about writing. But I’m going to try and break it down into FAQs for you. If I haven’t answered your question, then please drop me a line. But these are my best answers to the questions I’m often asked. Also, I’m not just a published writer who ‘has it easy’ (‘What does she know about rejections?’) I’m also married to a trying-to-be-published writer. So I know about the process from many angles.

You sit down and you start. There we go. You don’t put it off until you ‘have the time’ or ‘feel in the mood’. You just apply your behind to the chair and get on with it. Because all that time you are wasting thinking about writing your amazing novel, I’m actually at my computer writing.

If we were runners, you would be thinking about taking up running and I would be training six days a week, so come the race – who has the best chance of finishing?!

Writing is a complex art. Expressing your ideas, characters and story in words is a skill which takes a lifetime to master. I’ve been writing fiction for 14 years now and I’m only beginning to get the hang of it. Just because you can read novels does not mean you can write them. Just because a book is easy to read does not mean it is easy to write.

Plus, it’s a very competitive business. There are so many fantastic writers already out there, if you want to join them, you’re going to have to get very, very good.

I feel it’s best to give you tough love. If you want to write novels – long, gripping novels people are going to give up hours and hours of their precious lives to read, you’re going to have to start training for the ultra-marathon!

What will help with my writing?

Reading will help enormously. Read all kinds of books. Find the kind of writing that you love; the kind of book you could pick up again and again. Is it horror? Is it rom com? Is it sci-fi? Is it historical fiction? What inspires you? What kind of book would you love to write?

Then write! Write and write some more. Write little chunks: blogs, diary entries, short pages. Hone your skills. Try a poem, then a short story. Try out chapter one. Try out the final chapter. Play with words. Describe the people you see on the train. Invent a background for them. Practise dialogue. Turn a news story into a short story. Write, write, write. Train your brain and your fingers to turn your thoughts into great sentences, then your sentences into stories.

Don’t expect to be a genius immediately. It takes time to get good. I was writing stories, essays and diaries all the time I was growing up. I spent my early 20s being a newspaper journalist. I must have written millions of words before I got started on chapter one. My first book attempt was in the bin by chapter four and I began again.

Think of JK Rowling, she’d been working on that first Harry Potter manuscript for YEARS before she showed it to anyone and even then all the big publishers turned her down! Her enormous success had nothing to do with luck: it was because she had a huge story to tell, sheer persistence and worked bloody hard.

 Are any books helpful?

I’m helped by reading and re-reading all the writers I love: Nancy Mitford, Anne Tyler, Agatha Christie, John Irving, JK Rowling, Roald Dahl, Candace Bushnell and many more.

I’ve also found these books very inspirational and packed with great advice: Robert McKee’s Story, Stephen King’s On Writing, Michelle Wallerstein’s Mind Your Business.

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan always get my romantic comedy juices flowing, along with every film written by Nora Ephron.

Should I join a writing group?

I’ve never joined a writing group. This is because I am such a loner and solitary animal. Also, I didn’t think I could bear the criticism! You have to be tough to write and keep on writing, but oh my goodness writing makes you vulnerable. As soon as you’ve written something, you’ve created a work that people can criticise. And believe me, everybody has an opinion. You just need to go onto Amazon to see that.

But writing groups can be hugely helpful. They help people to focus on what they want to write, they help people make contacts, plus they inspire you to get the work done. Only you can know if a group is a good idea for you. You could always try one and see. You could even advertise and set one up in your area.

 Where do I get ideas from?

EVERYWHERE!! As Paul Smith the fashion designer wrote: ’Inspiration is everywhere, if at first you don’t see it, look again!’ Open your mind to ideas. They really are everywhere. I used to worry about having enough things to write about, now I worry about finding the time to write about all my ideas. What sort of things have happened to you? What’s happened to your friend? Could it be re-worked? Could it be made much more exciting? What’s in the news? What’s in National Geographic? See reality as your springboard into the swimming pool of story.

You need to have a story. A really intriguing, interesting tale. You need to have great, memorable, fully-fleshed characters. If you are writing rom-com, you need to have some really hilariously funny scenes; some heart-meltingly tender scenes and you need a love story where something is always in the way of the happy couple.

Dig deeply into all your wide experience of life. How do your own relationships work? What makes you fall in love? What makes you angry? Sad? Confused? Despairing?

Should I do research?

ABSOLUTELY!! Go to the places you are writing about. Interview people who’ve done something like your heroine. You will get one million more great ideas doing this than you can ever dream of at your desk.

 Should I have a plan?

YOU’D BE MAD NOT TO!

Readers are viewers. They are used to more plot in a half an hour sit-com than they ever got in a full Dickens novel. You must plot your baby to death. You must keep your reader nailed to the chair. You will never manage this without a detailed plan. I work on my plans for weeks. I don’t write a word until I have every chapter outlined and the whole story completely outlined. Even then, it still changes, improves, gets messed around.

 Should I listen to criticism?

Only if it’s from someone you really trust. Writing something that makes your Mum beam with pride is not hard. Writing something that will move and engage perfect strangers is much more tricky. When you have a first draft you are really happy with, tell your story to a couple of friends who have been briefed to be firm but fair. Don’t make them read the whole thing. Try out the outline of your story on them. Does it excite them? Interest them? Do their eyes glaze over? Where are the problems?

Should I re-write?

Re-writing is the number one skill. It separates the amateurs from the professionals. About 50% of my time, maybe more is spent re-writing my work. I get to the end of my first draft in a hurry. I’m making sure the story works and I’m getting to know my characters. Then I start re-writing and the really hard work follows. But this is the sweat and tears that makes stories good.

How do I get an agent?

I have no idea!! You need an agent, because hardly any publishers look at manuscripts which don’t come from agents (check their websites to find out). But agents are like fairy dust.  Agents are very, very busy looking after those super important clients who earn them vast amounts of money.  With your unpublished manuscript, you are so far down the pecking order, your precious work will be handed to the work experience girl if you are lucky.  But remind yourself, big deals with brand new authors are made all the time. Agents and publishers continue to need new writers.

Do your research, find agents who represent your kind of work. Submit exactly as it says on the website. Send only your very polished, very best work. Write a covering letter of genius, brilliantly written about your brilliant story. Get them hooked. Make yours the manuscript at the top of the pile.

 I’ve been rejected, now what?

If you’ve sent your best work to many reputable agents or publishers and they’ve all said no thanks, you have to dust yourself down and think hard about what to do next. You could find more people to send it to… you could self-publish. You could put your work in a drawer and work on your next idea. You could stop and rest for a while… or go on a course, read books about writing, train your writing muscles to get better and stronger. No decision is right or wrong here. You have to decide what’s best for you. But I can promise the more you read, write and re-write, the better you will get.

 I’ve published one book, how do I keep going?

Your book is published, the world did not stop turning, Hollywood did not call, you are not as rich as Dan Brown. Welcome to the club. Look very hard at what worked; look even harder at what didn’t work. Don’t blame yourself for everything, but don’t accept no blame. Maybe you need to get much better. Think up a much stronger story. Do more research. Maybe you need to flex your PR muscles on your next time out.

Take your new career seriously. Find an amazing new story, fresh avenues for your work. Make lots more contacts in all sorts of connected fields.

All authors need these quotations pinned up above their desk:

‘Try again, fail again, fail better.’   Samuel Beckett.

‘Never, never, never, NEVER, give up.’   Sir Winston Churchill.

Do I self-publish on the internet?

Previously, I would always have said no, it’s a waste of time and money and you won’t make a penny. But the game has changed. Some writers are now fabulous e-book successes. In ten years time we may all be self-published on the internet. Do your research, don’t get ripped off and don’t put anything out there that isn’t your absolutely best work. Expect to do a lot of self-promoting. Success on the internet is just like success with a publisher, it’s all about talent and hard work. We are all only as good as the last thing we’ve written and the next big thing we’re writing.

 Will writing make me rich?

Let’s be realistic here. One in hundreds of thousands of writers will become rich: maybe through genius, epic hard work or sheer good luck. Just like one in hundreds of thousands of actors, painters and all kinds of creative people. The rest of us will range from making a great living to struggling on penniless. Love your work, devote yourself to your work and hope that the money will follow. If you have success, be like several wise old actors I know and save your money hard because success may not come around again immediately. Yachts and villas on the Med are for gas barons and internet billionaires not, usually, novelists.

Will writing make me happy?

I love to write. I love the hours when I am so in the flow, so in my made-up world that I forget about everything else. But I spend all day, most days, withimaginary people and many head-doctors would consider this a worrying condition!

Creative people often struggle with mental health issues – we get depressed, we fret, we drink or smoke, take drugs, or comfort eat or all of the above. Maybe we were like this when we began; maybe the nature of our work makes us more like this. I do believe that writing makes you vulnerable. Plus it can become obsessive. Writing can take up all the time you have, no manuscript is ever ‘finished’, and you can use writing as a way of opting out of everything else life has to offer.

You need balance!

You need to look after the other areas of life too: friends, family and your health. You need regular breaks from writing, reading other writing and thinking about writing – hard, I know! But there must be room for relaxation, laughter and holidays. If I am turning into a basket case, I shut everything down and hang out with my children. Sometimes you just have to go away and come back to the keyboard with fresh perspective.

 Should I give up my day job?

I have mixed feelings about this. Basically I did give up my day job and the terror got me writing like a dervish. Happily, I landed a two-book deal which gave me enough money to take another year off to write more. For several years I combined fiction writing with freelance journalism, now I write fiction full-time but I know I have journalism skills if I need to go back to them.

I’m not sure I would advise an 18 year old to study creative writing at college and nothing else. But sometimes, you have to walk the wire without the safety net because if you put your heart and soul into writing it might work much better than if you potter about at the weekends only.

Giving up the day job to write is scary and stressful. Please approach it very, very carefully, fully consulting your nearest and dearest and burn no bridges. Bear in mind that many, many well known writers combine writing with other jobs and careers which reliably pay the bills.

 Finally…

I really hope this has helped. Very, very best of luck out there. May your story be the next huge thing the world didn’t even know it was waiting for! And if it isn’t – please love the ride. Writing is fantastic – like dreaming with the lights on. Work hard, master the art, bring your dreams to life and WRITE ON!!

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

 

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

20 Tips For Surviving The Builders

And the builders are OUT… phew! I’m breathing a huge, dusty sigh of relief and allowing life as I know it to resume.

I’ve totally renovated four homes so far and although I don’t think this one will be the last, I have promised my family some peace and quiet… for a while.

I’ve learned (the hard way) a few useful things about having the builders in and thought I’d share my top 20 tips in case they’re useful to anyone else in this nerve-shreddingly stressful situation.

1.     Get as much done all at the one time as you possibly can. I’ve tried doing a bathroom here, a kitchen the next year, redecorating bit by bit and it’s not ideal. Plumbers and electricians come in and sigh: ‘Who did the kitchen like that? For the new bathroom, I’ll have to re-do all that piping/ wiring.’  Or worse, hauling their ladders and equipment into the kitchen, they scratch your new hall paintwork or eeek, your brand new floor. The more work you can get done at once, the better the price should be.

2.     Move out if at all possible. Even for the first few weeks. This allows you and your family to remain sane and be dressed without plaster dust on your clothes, in your hair, all over your beds and even in your food. It also lets the builders forge ahead without having to worry about water, gas and electrics having to be reconnected every evening.

3.      If you have to stay at home, tape polythene sheets over doors, buy a brush, dustpan, even a cheap vacuum cleaner just to deal with builder mess. Do not use your lovely Dyson to scoop up plaster dust and rubble. Do not let the builders use it either: it will die!

4.     If you work from home, you HAVE to find somewhere else to go. Trust me here. The library, a café with wifi, you have to get out. You cannot listen to Lesser Known Hits of the 80s, plus drilling and bumping and banging for weeks on end and get work done.

5.     Be VERY choosy about which builder you use. Do not rush this decision. Get recommendations from people you trust, or neighbours… even bathroom and kitchen suppliers. Go and see previous work the builder has done. Ask the owners if the work was quick and tidy, if the builders were polite, stuck to the agreed budget, turned up on time, stayed with the job right to the end. If a builder is available straight away, beware. Good builders have to be booked in advance. If you’re in an old house, you need a builder used to renovating old property.

6.     I don’t like tradesmen who only want to be paid in cash and I don’t like it if they want part of the money up front. Both of these things suggest they’re not running their business well and they won’t run your project well either. I totally wanted to sack a builder once, but had paid too much up front to be able to do it.

7.     Some money part way through is OK. But you need a week or two after the work is completed before you pay your final bill. So you can work out what the little problems are and ask for them to be fixed before you settle up.

8.     Plan, plan, plan. Make drawings of your rooms. Think about plugs, lights, tiling, cabinets, the way the door opens… Make as many decisions ahead of the work as possible. There will still be lots of decisions to make on the spot. Take some guidance from your builder – he might from experience know of a better way to do it…

9.     …But don’t do everything the builder way – sometimes they can go overboard with plastic trimming, beading, coving, laminate flooring and everything in beige and before you know it the heart and soul of your characterful old house has been ripped out and MDF-ed over.

10.   Consider using an architect. I asked an architect friend, who recommended the office junior, who made several visits and lots of plans. She had great ideas, oversaw getting the building warrant and all the relevant permits and charged us less than we expected for her time.

11. If your decorator umms and ahhs and says: ‘Are you sure? That’s quite a dark/ bright/ unusual colour?’ Just say YES. If you want a beautiful paint job with proper sanding down and many layers of paint, say so. Expect it to take longer and cost more than slapping the stuff on.

12.  Don’t freak out when standing in an empty newly painted room. By the time you’ve put in sofas, pictures, lamps, shelves, books – the colour will be lovely and just the way you imagined it.

13. Be business like with your builders. They’re not your new friends; they’re not your Dad/ uncle/ boss. You’re in charge. If things aren’t going the way you want, ask about it. Explain what you want. Listen. Sometimes you will have to compromise because what you want doesn’t work. But don’t accept something you really don’t want. The builder is going to move on and you’ll be left regretting this bit of work for the next five, ten years or longer.

14. When you first agree a price with the builder, try and get everything you can think of onto that estimate. There will always be a few extra jobs at the end, which will put the price up, but try not to make it a great long list of extras. Otherwise your bill might be a nasty shock.

15. Agree a timetable. Expect it to take a bit longer. But do not accept endless weeks of delay. If this is happening, you need to find out why and ask them to get back on track.

16. Keep all your estimates, bills and receipts in a dedicated folder. File all those guarantees. Unused paint tins, lightshades that didn’t match, bookcases that didn’t fit, unopened boxes of tiles – all can be returned if you have the receipt.

17. Get everything finished! Don’t leave wires dangling while you procrastinate on a bathroom cabinet, don’t leave plywood on the floor while you dither about tiles. After all the pain you’ve gone through, you NEED the big ‘tah dah’ when it all comes together and looks brilliant.

18. Accept that budget limitations can lead to creative and brilliant results. My £9 a metre bathroom tiles look amazing. Crown and Dulux have colours just as pretty as Farrow and Ball’s (use tester pots to find them). Two IKEA pendant lights can look even better than one designer one. A cheap bookcase properly assembled and fitted to the wall by a joiner looks almost as good as a bespoke one.

19. Realise that your wine/ chocolate/ biscuit consumption will rocket during this horribly stressful and expensive time.

20.  Remind yourself that it will be worth all the pain, expense and hassle. We’ve created a big family kitchen, renovated an old bathroom, plus put in a second bathroom and already, one week in, this has transformed home life.

 

World Book Day | My best advice to writers

Today is World Book Day. To mark the occasion I thought I’d repost this blog from my old site. I think there’s plenty here to think about for anyone who loves books, loves writing — and for anyone thinking of trying to write a novel. I’d love to hear your comments:

How do I get started writing?

I could write chapters and chapters, probably a whole book about writing. But I’m going to try and break it down into FAQs for you. If I haven’t answered your question, then please drop me a line. But these are my best answers to the questions I’m often asked. Also, I’m not just a published writer who ‘has it easy’ (‘What does she know about rejections?’) I’m also married to a trying-to-be-published writer. So I know about the process from many angles.

You sit down and you start. There we go. You don’t put it off until you ‘have the time’ or ‘feel in the mood’. You just apply your behind to the chair and get on with it. Because all that time you are wasting thinking about writing your amazing novel, I’m actually at my computer writing.

If we were runners, you would be thinking about taking up running and I would be training six days a week, so come the race – who has the best chance of finishing?!

Writing is a complex art. Expressing your ideas, characters and story in words is a skill which takes a lifetime to master. I’ve been writing fiction for 14 years now and I’m only beginning to get the hang of it. Just because you can read novels does not mean you can write them. Just because a book is easy to read does not mean it is easy to write.

Plus, it’s a very competitive business. There are so many fantastic writers already out there, if you want to join them, you’re going to have to get very, very good.

I feel it’s best to give you tough love. If you want to write novels – long, gripping novels people are going to give up hours and hours of their precious lives to read, you’re going to have to start training for the ultra-marathon!

What will help with my writing?

Reading will help enormously. Read all kinds of books. Find the kind of writing that you love; the kind of book you could pick up again and again. Is it horror? Is it rom com? Is it sci-fi? Is it historical fiction? What inspires you? What kind of book would you love to write?

Then write! Write and write some more. Write little chunks: blogs, diary entries, short pages. Hone your skills. Try a poem, then a short story. Try out chapter one. Try out the final chapter. Play with words. Describe the people you see on the train. Invent a background for them. Practise dialogue. Turn a news story into a short story. Write, write, write. Train your brain and your fingers to turn your thoughts into great sentences, then your sentences into stories.

Don’t expect to be a genius immediately. It takes time to get good. I was writing stories, essays and diaries all the time I was growing up. I spent my early 20s being a newspaper journalist. I must have written millions of words before I got started on chapter one. My first book attempt was in the bin by chapter four and I began again.

Think of JK Rowling, she’d been working on that first Harry Potter manuscript for YEARS before she showed it to anyone and even then all the big publishers turned her down! Her enormous success had nothing to do with luck: it was because she had a huge story to tell, sheer persistence and worked bloody hard.

 Are any books helpful?

I’m helped by reading and re-reading all the writers I love: Nancy Mitford, Anne Tyler, Agatha Christie, John Irving, JK Rowling, Roald Dahl, Candace Bushnell and many more.

I’ve also found these books very inspirational and packed with great advice: Robert McKee’s Story, Stephen King’s On Writing, Michelle Wallerstein’s Mind Your Business.

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan always get my romantic comedy juices flowing, along with every film written by Nora Ephron.

Should I join a writing group?

I’ve never joined a writing group. This is because I am such a loner and solitary animal. Also, I didn’t think I could bear the criticism! You have to be tough to write and keep on writing, but oh my goodness writing makes you vulnerable. As soon as you’ve written something, you’ve created a work that people can criticise. And believe me, everybody has an opinion. You just need to go onto Amazon to see that.

But writing groups can be hugely helpful. They help people to focus on what they want to write, they help people make contacts, plus they inspire you to get the work done. Only you can know if a group is a good idea for you. You could always try one and see. You could even advertise and set one up in your area.

 Where do I get ideas from?

EVERYWHERE!! As Paul Smith the fashion designer wrote: ’Inspiration is everywhere, if at first you don’t see it, look again!’ Open your mind to ideas. They really are everywhere. I used to worry about having enough things to write about, now I worry about finding the time to write about all my ideas. What sort of things have happened to you? What’s happened to your friend? Could it be re-worked? Could it be made much more exciting? What’s in the news? What’s in National Geographic? See reality as your springboard into the swimming pool of story.

You need to have a story. A really intriguing, interesting tale. You need to have great, memorable, fully-fleshed characters. If you are writing rom-com, you need to have some really hilariously funny scenes; some heart-meltingly tender scenes and you need a love story where something is always in the way of the happy couple.

Dig deeply into all your wide experience of life. How do your own relationships work? What makes you fall in love? What makes you angry? Sad? Confused? Despairing?

Should I do research?

ABSOLUTELY!! Go to the places you are writing about. Interview people who’ve done something like your heroine. You will get one million more great ideas doing this than you can ever dream of at your desk.

 Should I have a plan?

YOU’D BE MAD NOT TO!

Readers are viewers. They are used to more plot in a half an hour sit-com than they ever got in a full Dickens novel. You must plot your baby to death. You must keep your reader nailed to the chair. You will never manage this without a detailed plan. I work on my plans for weeks. I don’t write a word until I have every chapter outlined and the whole story completely outlined. Even then, it still changes, improves, gets messed around.

 Should I listen to criticism?

Only if it’s from someone you really trust. Writing something that makes your Mum beam with pride is not hard. Writing something that will move and engage perfect strangers is much more tricky. When you have a first draft you are really happy with, tell your story to a couple of friends who have been briefed to be firm but fair. Don’t make them read the whole thing. Try out the outline of your story on them. Does it excite them? Interest them? Do their eyes glaze over? Where are the problems?

Should I re-write?

Re-writing is the number one skill. It separates the amateurs from the professionals. About 50% of my time, maybe more is spent re-writing my work. I get to the end of my first draft in a hurry. I’m making sure the story works and I’m getting to know my characters. Then I start re-writing and the really hard work follows. But this is the sweat and tears that makes stories good.

How do I get an agent?

I have no idea!! You need an agent, because hardly any publishers look at manuscripts which don’t come from agents (check their websites to find out). But agents are like fairy dust.  Agents are very, very busy looking after those super important clients who earn them vast amounts of money.  With your unpublished manuscript, you are so far down the pecking order, your precious work will be handed to the work experience girl if you are lucky.  But remind yourself, big deals with brand new authors are made all the time. Agents and publishers continue to need new writers.

Do your research, find agents who represent your kind of work. Submit exactly as it says on the website. Send only your very polished, very best work. Write a covering letter of genius, brilliantly written about your brilliant story. Get them hooked. Make yours the manuscript at the top of the pile.

 I’ve been rejected, now what?

If you’ve sent your best work to many reputable agents or publishers and they’ve all said no thanks, you have to dust yourself down and think hard about what to do next. You could find more people to send it to… you could self-publish. You could put your work in a drawer and work on your next idea. You could stop and rest for a while… or go on a course, read books about writing, train your writing muscles to get better and stronger. No decision is right or wrong here. You have to decide what’s best for you. But I can promise the more you read, write and re-write, the better you will get.

 I’ve published one book, how do I keep going?

Your book is published, the world did not stop turning, Hollywood did not call, you are not as rich as Dan Brown. Welcome to the club. Look very hard at what worked; look even harder at what didn’t work. Don’t blame yourself for everything, but don’t accept no blame. Maybe you need to get much better. Think up a much stronger story. Do more research. Maybe you need to flex your PR muscles on your next time out.

Take your new career seriously. Find an amazing new story, fresh avenues for your work. Make lots more contacts in all sorts of connected fields.

All authors need these quotations pinned up above their desk:

‘Try again, fail again, fail better.’   Samuel Beckett.

‘Never, never, never, NEVER, give up.’   Sir Winston Churchill.

Do I self-publish on the internet?

Previously, I would always have said no, it’s a waste of time and money and you won’t make a penny. But the game has changed. Some writers are now fabulous e-book successes. In ten years time we may all be self-published on the internet. Do your research, don’t get ripped off and don’t put anything out there that isn’t your absolutely best work. Expect to do a lot of self-promoting. Success on the internet is just like success with a publisher, it’s all about talent and hard work. We are all only as good as the last thing we’ve written and the next big thing we’re writing.

 Will writing make me rich?

Let’s be realistic here. One in hundreds of thousands of writers will become rich: maybe through genius, epic hard work or sheer good luck. Just like one in hundreds of thousands of actors, painters and all kinds of creative people. The rest of us will range from making a great living to struggling on penniless. Love your work, devote yourself to your work and hope that the money will follow. If you have success, be like several wise old actors I know and save your money hard because success may not come around again immediately. Yachts and villas on the Med are for gas barons and internet billionaires not, usually, novelists.

Will writing make me happy?

I love to write. I love the hours when I am so in the flow, so in my made-up world that I forget about everything else. But I spend all day, most days, withimaginary people and many head-doctors would consider this a worrying condition!

Creative people often struggle with mental health issues – we get depressed, we fret, we drink or smoke, take drugs, or comfort eat or all of the above. Maybe we were like this when we began; maybe the nature of our work makes us more like this. I do believe that writing makes you vulnerable. Plus it can become obsessive. Writing can take up all the time you have, no manuscript is ever ‘finished’, and you can use writing as a way of opting out of everything else life has to offer.

You need balance!

You need to look after the other areas of life too: friends, family and your health. You need regular breaks from writing, reading other writing and thinking about writing – hard, I know! But there must be room for relaxation, laughter and holidays. If I am turning into a basket case, I shut everything down and hang out with my children. Sometimes you just have to go away and come back to the keyboard with fresh perspective.

 Should I give up my day job?

I have mixed feelings about this. Basically I did give up my day job and the terror got me writing like a dervish. Happily, I landed a two-book deal which gave me enough money to take another year off to write more. For several years I combined fiction writing with freelance journalism, now I write fiction full-time but I know I have journalism skills if I need to go back to them.

I’m not sure I would advise an 18 year old to study creative writing at college and nothing else. But sometimes, you have to walk the wire without the safety net because if you put your heart and soul into writing it might work much better than if you potter about at the weekends only.

Giving up the day job to write is scary and stressful. Please approach it very, very carefully, fully consulting your nearest and dearest and burn no bridges. Bear in mind that many, many well known writers combine writing with other jobs and careers which reliably pay the bills.

 Finally…

I really hope this has helped. Very, very best of luck out there. May your story be the next huge thing the world didn’t even know it was waiting for! And if it isn’t – please love the ride. Writing is fantastic – like dreaming with the lights on. Work hard, master the art, bring your dreams to life and WRITE ON!!

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

 

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

20 Tips For Surviving The Builders

And the builders are OUT… phew! I’m breathing a huge, dusty sigh of relief and allowing life as I know it to resume.

I’ve totally renovated four homes so far and although I don’t think this one will be the last, I have promised my family some peace and quiet… for a while.

I’ve learned (the hard way) a few useful things about having the builders in and thought I’d share my top 20 tips in case they’re useful to anyone else in this nerve-shreddingly stressful situation.

1.     Get as much done all at the one time as you possibly can. I’ve tried doing a bathroom here, a kitchen the next year, redecorating bit by bit and it’s not ideal. Plumbers and electricians come in and sigh: ‘Who did the kitchen like that? For the new bathroom, I’ll have to re-do all that piping/ wiring.’  Or worse, hauling their ladders and equipment into the kitchen, they scratch your new hall paintwork or eeek, your brand new floor. The more work you can get done at once, the better the price should be.

2.     Move out if at all possible. Even for the first few weeks. This allows you and your family to remain sane and be dressed without plaster dust on your clothes, in your hair, all over your beds and even in your food. It also lets the builders forge ahead without having to worry about water, gas and electrics having to be reconnected every evening.

3.      If you have to stay at home, tape polythene sheets over doors, buy a brush, dustpan, even a cheap vacuum cleaner just to deal with builder mess. Do not use your lovely Dyson to scoop up plaster dust and rubble. Do not let the builders use it either: it will die!

4.     If you work from home, you HAVE to find somewhere else to go. Trust me here. The library, a café with wifi, you have to get out. You cannot listen to Lesser Known Hits of the 80s, plus drilling and bumping and banging for weeks on end and get work done.

5.     Be VERY choosy about which builder you use. Do not rush this decision. Get recommendations from people you trust, or neighbours… even bathroom and kitchen suppliers. Go and see previous work the builder has done. Ask the owners if the work was quick and tidy, if the builders were polite, stuck to the agreed budget, turned up on time, stayed with the job right to the end. If a builder is available straight away, beware. Good builders have to be booked in advance. If you’re in an old house, you need a builder used to renovating old property.

6.     I don’t like tradesmen who only want to be paid in cash and I don’t like it if they want part of the money up front. Both of these things suggest they’re not running their business well and they won’t run your project well either. I totally wanted to sack a builder once, but had paid too much up front to be able to do it.

7.     Some money part way through is OK. But you need a week or two after the work is completed before you pay your final bill. So you can work out what the little problems are and ask for them to be fixed before you settle up.

8.     Plan, plan, plan. Make drawings of your rooms. Think about plugs, lights, tiling, cabinets, the way the door opens… Make as many decisions ahead of the work as possible. There will still be lots of decisions to make on the spot. Take some guidance from your builder – he might from experience know of a better way to do it…

9.     …But don’t do everything the builder way – sometimes they can go overboard with plastic trimming, beading, coving, laminate flooring and everything in beige and before you know it the heart and soul of your characterful old house has been ripped out and MDF-ed over.

10.   Consider using an architect. I asked an architect friend, who recommended the office junior, who made several visits and lots of plans. She had great ideas, oversaw getting the building warrant and all the relevant permits and charged us less than we expected for her time.

11. If your decorator umms and ahhs and says: ‘Are you sure? That’s quite a dark/ bright/ unusual colour?’ Just say YES. If you want a beautiful paint job with proper sanding down and many layers of paint, say so. Expect it to take longer and cost more than slapping the stuff on.

12.  Don’t freak out when standing in an empty newly painted room. By the time you’ve put in sofas, pictures, lamps, shelves, books – the colour will be lovely and just the way you imagined it.

13. Be business like with your builders. They’re not your new friends; they’re not your Dad/ uncle/ boss. You’re in charge. If things aren’t going the way you want, ask about it. Explain what you want. Listen. Sometimes you will have to compromise because what you want doesn’t work. But don’t accept something you really don’t want. The builder is going to move on and you’ll be left regretting this bit of work for the next five, ten years or longer.

14. When you first agree a price with the builder, try and get everything you can think of onto that estimate. There will always be a few extra jobs at the end, which will put the price up, but try not to make it a great long list of extras. Otherwise your bill might be a nasty shock.

15. Agree a timetable. Expect it to take a bit longer. But do not accept endless weeks of delay. If this is happening, you need to find out why and ask them to get back on track.

16. Keep all your estimates, bills and receipts in a dedicated folder. File all those guarantees. Unused paint tins, lightshades that didn’t match, bookcases that didn’t fit, unopened boxes of tiles – all can be returned if you have the receipt.

17. Get everything finished! Don’t leave wires dangling while you procrastinate on a bathroom cabinet, don’t leave plywood on the floor while you dither about tiles. After all the pain you’ve gone through, you NEED the big ‘tah dah’ when it all comes together and looks brilliant.

18. Accept that budget limitations can lead to creative and brilliant results. My £9 a metre bathroom tiles look amazing. Crown and Dulux have colours just as pretty as Farrow and Ball’s (use tester pots to find them). Two IKEA pendant lights can look even better than one designer one. A cheap bookcase properly assembled and fitted to the wall by a joiner looks almost as good as a bespoke one.

19. Realise that your wine/ chocolate/ biscuit consumption will rocket during this horribly stressful and expensive time.

20.  Remind yourself that it will be worth all the pain, expense and hassle. We’ve created a big family kitchen, renovated an old bathroom, plus put in a second bathroom and already, one week in, this has transformed home life.

 

World Book Day | My best advice to writers

Today is World Book Day. To mark the occasion I thought I’d repost this blog from my old site. I think there’s plenty here to think about for anyone who loves books, loves writing — and for anyone thinking of trying to write a novel. I’d love to hear your comments:

How do I get started writing?

I could write chapters and chapters, probably a whole book about writing. But I’m going to try and break it down into FAQs for you. If I haven’t answered your question, then please drop me a line. But these are my best answers to the questions I’m often asked. Also, I’m not just a published writer who ‘has it easy’ (‘What does she know about rejections?’) I’m also married to a trying-to-be-published writer. So I know about the process from many angles.

You sit down and you start. There we go. You don’t put it off until you ‘have the time’ or ‘feel in the mood’. You just apply your behind to the chair and get on with it. Because all that time you are wasting thinking about writing your amazing novel, I’m actually at my computer writing.

If we were runners, you would be thinking about taking up running and I would be training six days a week, so come the race – who has the best chance of finishing?!

Writing is a complex art. Expressing your ideas, characters and story in words is a skill which takes a lifetime to master. I’ve been writing fiction for 14 years now and I’m only beginning to get the hang of it. Just because you can read novels does not mean you can write them. Just because a book is easy to read does not mean it is easy to write.

Plus, it’s a very competitive business. There are so many fantastic writers already out there, if you want to join them, you’re going to have to get very, very good.

I feel it’s best to give you tough love. If you want to write novels – long, gripping novels people are going to give up hours and hours of their precious lives to read, you’re going to have to start training for the ultra-marathon!

What will help with my writing?

Reading will help enormously. Read all kinds of books. Find the kind of writing that you love; the kind of book you could pick up again and again. Is it horror? Is it rom com? Is it sci-fi? Is it historical fiction? What inspires you? What kind of book would you love to write?

Then write! Write and write some more. Write little chunks: blogs, diary entries, short pages. Hone your skills. Try a poem, then a short story. Try out chapter one. Try out the final chapter. Play with words. Describe the people you see on the train. Invent a background for them. Practise dialogue. Turn a news story into a short story. Write, write, write. Train your brain and your fingers to turn your thoughts into great sentences, then your sentences into stories.

Don’t expect to be a genius immediately. It takes time to get good. I was writing stories, essays and diaries all the time I was growing up. I spent my early 20s being a newspaper journalist. I must have written millions of words before I got started on chapter one. My first book attempt was in the bin by chapter four and I began again.

Think of JK Rowling, she’d been working on that first Harry Potter manuscript for YEARS before she showed it to anyone and even then all the big publishers turned her down! Her enormous success had nothing to do with luck: it was because she had a huge story to tell, sheer persistence and worked bloody hard.

 Are any books helpful?

I’m helped by reading and re-reading all the writers I love: Nancy Mitford, Anne Tyler, Agatha Christie, John Irving, JK Rowling, Roald Dahl, Candace Bushnell and many more.

I’ve also found these books very inspirational and packed with great advice: Robert McKee’s Story, Stephen King’s On Writing, Michelle Wallerstein’s Mind Your Business.

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan always get my romantic comedy juices flowing, along with every film written by Nora Ephron.

Should I join a writing group?

I’ve never joined a writing group. This is because I am such a loner and solitary animal. Also, I didn’t think I could bear the criticism! You have to be tough to write and keep on writing, but oh my goodness writing makes you vulnerable. As soon as you’ve written something, you’ve created a work that people can criticise. And believe me, everybody has an opinion. You just need to go onto Amazon to see that.

But writing groups can be hugely helpful. They help people to focus on what they want to write, they help people make contacts, plus they inspire you to get the work done. Only you can know if a group is a good idea for you. You could always try one and see. You could even advertise and set one up in your area.

 Where do I get ideas from?

EVERYWHERE!! As Paul Smith the fashion designer wrote: ’Inspiration is everywhere, if at first you don’t see it, look again!’ Open your mind to ideas. They really are everywhere. I used to worry about having enough things to write about, now I worry about finding the time to write about all my ideas. What sort of things have happened to you? What’s happened to your friend? Could it be re-worked? Could it be made much more exciting? What’s in the news? What’s in National Geographic? See reality as your springboard into the swimming pool of story.

You need to have a story. A really intriguing, interesting tale. You need to have great, memorable, fully-fleshed characters. If you are writing rom-com, you need to have some really hilariously funny scenes; some heart-meltingly tender scenes and you need a love story where something is always in the way of the happy couple.

Dig deeply into all your wide experience of life. How do your own relationships work? What makes you fall in love? What makes you angry? Sad? Confused? Despairing?

Should I do research?

ABSOLUTELY!! Go to the places you are writing about. Interview people who’ve done something like your heroine. You will get one million more great ideas doing this than you can ever dream of at your desk.

 Should I have a plan?

YOU’D BE MAD NOT TO!

Readers are viewers. They are used to more plot in a half an hour sit-com than they ever got in a full Dickens novel. You must plot your baby to death. You must keep your reader nailed to the chair. You will never manage this without a detailed plan. I work on my plans for weeks. I don’t write a word until I have every chapter outlined and the whole story completely outlined. Even then, it still changes, improves, gets messed around.

 Should I listen to criticism?

Only if it’s from someone you really trust. Writing something that makes your Mum beam with pride is not hard. Writing something that will move and engage perfect strangers is much more tricky. When you have a first draft you are really happy with, tell your story to a couple of friends who have been briefed to be firm but fair. Don’t make them read the whole thing. Try out the outline of your story on them. Does it excite them? Interest them? Do their eyes glaze over? Where are the problems?

Should I re-write?

Re-writing is the number one skill. It separates the amateurs from the professionals. About 50% of my time, maybe more is spent re-writing my work. I get to the end of my first draft in a hurry. I’m making sure the story works and I’m getting to know my characters. Then I start re-writing and the really hard work follows. But this is the sweat and tears that makes stories good.

How do I get an agent?

I have no idea!! You need an agent, because hardly any publishers look at manuscripts which don’t come from agents (check their websites to find out). But agents are like fairy dust.  Agents are very, very busy looking after those super important clients who earn them vast amounts of money.  With your unpublished manuscript, you are so far down the pecking order, your precious work will be handed to the work experience girl if you are lucky.  But remind yourself, big deals with brand new authors are made all the time. Agents and publishers continue to need new writers.

Do your research, find agents who represent your kind of work. Submit exactly as it says on the website. Send only your very polished, very best work. Write a covering letter of genius, brilliantly written about your brilliant story. Get them hooked. Make yours the manuscript at the top of the pile.

 I’ve been rejected, now what?

If you’ve sent your best work to many reputable agents or publishers and they’ve all said no thanks, you have to dust yourself down and think hard about what to do next. You could find more people to send it to… you could self-publish. You could put your work in a drawer and work on your next idea. You could stop and rest for a while… or go on a course, read books about writing, train your writing muscles to get better and stronger. No decision is right or wrong here. You have to decide what’s best for you. But I can promise the more you read, write and re-write, the better you will get.

 I’ve published one book, how do I keep going?

Your book is published, the world did not stop turning, Hollywood did not call, you are not as rich as Dan Brown. Welcome to the club. Look very hard at what worked; look even harder at what didn’t work. Don’t blame yourself for everything, but don’t accept no blame. Maybe you need to get much better. Think up a much stronger story. Do more research. Maybe you need to flex your PR muscles on your next time out.

Take your new career seriously. Find an amazing new story, fresh avenues for your work. Make lots more contacts in all sorts of connected fields.

All authors need these quotations pinned up above their desk:

‘Try again, fail again, fail better.’   Samuel Beckett.

‘Never, never, never, NEVER, give up.’   Sir Winston Churchill.

Do I self-publish on the internet?

Previously, I would always have said no, it’s a waste of time and money and you won’t make a penny. But the game has changed. Some writers are now fabulous e-book successes. In ten years time we may all be self-published on the internet. Do your research, don’t get ripped off and don’t put anything out there that isn’t your absolutely best work. Expect to do a lot of self-promoting. Success on the internet is just like success with a publisher, it’s all about talent and hard work. We are all only as good as the last thing we’ve written and the next big thing we’re writing.

 Will writing make me rich?

Let’s be realistic here. One in hundreds of thousands of writers will become rich: maybe through genius, epic hard work or sheer good luck. Just like one in hundreds of thousands of actors, painters and all kinds of creative people. The rest of us will range from making a great living to struggling on penniless. Love your work, devote yourself to your work and hope that the money will follow. If you have success, be like several wise old actors I know and save your money hard because success may not come around again immediately. Yachts and villas on the Med are for gas barons and internet billionaires not, usually, novelists.

Will writing make me happy?

I love to write. I love the hours when I am so in the flow, so in my made-up world that I forget about everything else. But I spend all day, most days, withimaginary people and many head-doctors would consider this a worrying condition!

Creative people often struggle with mental health issues – we get depressed, we fret, we drink or smoke, take drugs, or comfort eat or all of the above. Maybe we were like this when we began; maybe the nature of our work makes us more like this. I do believe that writing makes you vulnerable. Plus it can become obsessive. Writing can take up all the time you have, no manuscript is ever ‘finished’, and you can use writing as a way of opting out of everything else life has to offer.

You need balance!

You need to look after the other areas of life too: friends, family and your health. You need regular breaks from writing, reading other writing and thinking about writing – hard, I know! But there must be room for relaxation, laughter and holidays. If I am turning into a basket case, I shut everything down and hang out with my children. Sometimes you just have to go away and come back to the keyboard with fresh perspective.

 Should I give up my day job?

I have mixed feelings about this. Basically I did give up my day job and the terror got me writing like a dervish. Happily, I landed a two-book deal which gave me enough money to take another year off to write more. For several years I combined fiction writing with freelance journalism, now I write fiction full-time but I know I have journalism skills if I need to go back to them.

I’m not sure I would advise an 18 year old to study creative writing at college and nothing else. But sometimes, you have to walk the wire without the safety net because if you put your heart and soul into writing it might work much better than if you potter about at the weekends only.

Giving up the day job to write is scary and stressful. Please approach it very, very carefully, fully consulting your nearest and dearest and burn no bridges. Bear in mind that many, many well known writers combine writing with other jobs and careers which reliably pay the bills.

 Finally…

I really hope this has helped. Very, very best of luck out there. May your story be the next huge thing the world didn’t even know it was waiting for! And if it isn’t – please love the ride. Writing is fantastic – like dreaming with the lights on. Work hard, master the art, bring your dreams to life and WRITE ON!!

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

 

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

20 Tips For Surviving The Builders

And the builders are OUT… phew! I’m breathing a huge, dusty sigh of relief and allowing life as I know it to resume.

I’ve totally renovated four homes so far and although I don’t think this one will be the last, I have promised my family some peace and quiet… for a while.

I’ve learned (the hard way) a few useful things about having the builders in and thought I’d share my top 20 tips in case they’re useful to anyone else in this nerve-shreddingly stressful situation.

1.     Get as much done all at the one time as you possibly can. I’ve tried doing a bathroom here, a kitchen the next year, redecorating bit by bit and it’s not ideal. Plumbers and electricians come in and sigh: ‘Who did the kitchen like that? For the new bathroom, I’ll have to re-do all that piping/ wiring.’  Or worse, hauling their ladders and equipment into the kitchen, they scratch your new hall paintwork or eeek, your brand new floor. The more work you can get done at once, the better the price should be.

2.     Move out if at all possible. Even for the first few weeks. This allows you and your family to remain sane and be dressed without plaster dust on your clothes, in your hair, all over your beds and even in your food. It also lets the builders forge ahead without having to worry about water, gas and electrics having to be reconnected every evening.

3.      If you have to stay at home, tape polythene sheets over doors, buy a brush, dustpan, even a cheap vacuum cleaner just to deal with builder mess. Do not use your lovely Dyson to scoop up plaster dust and rubble. Do not let the builders use it either: it will die!

4.     If you work from home, you HAVE to find somewhere else to go. Trust me here. The library, a café with wifi, you have to get out. You cannot listen to Lesser Known Hits of the 80s, plus drilling and bumping and banging for weeks on end and get work done.

5.     Be VERY choosy about which builder you use. Do not rush this decision. Get recommendations from people you trust, or neighbours… even bathroom and kitchen suppliers. Go and see previous work the builder has done. Ask the owners if the work was quick and tidy, if the builders were polite, stuck to the agreed budget, turned up on time, stayed with the job right to the end. If a builder is available straight away, beware. Good builders have to be booked in advance. If you’re in an old house, you need a builder used to renovating old property.

6.     I don’t like tradesmen who only want to be paid in cash and I don’t like it if they want part of the money up front. Both of these things suggest they’re not running their business well and they won’t run your project well either. I totally wanted to sack a builder once, but had paid too much up front to be able to do it.

7.     Some money part way through is OK. But you need a week or two after the work is completed before you pay your final bill. So you can work out what the little problems are and ask for them to be fixed before you settle up.

8.     Plan, plan, plan. Make drawings of your rooms. Think about plugs, lights, tiling, cabinets, the way the door opens… Make as many decisions ahead of the work as possible. There will still be lots of decisions to make on the spot. Take some guidance from your builder – he might from experience know of a better way to do it…

9.     …But don’t do everything the builder way – sometimes they can go overboard with plastic trimming, beading, coving, laminate flooring and everything in beige and before you know it the heart and soul of your characterful old house has been ripped out and MDF-ed over.

10.   Consider using an architect. I asked an architect friend, who recommended the office junior, who made several visits and lots of plans. She had great ideas, oversaw getting the building warrant and all the relevant permits and charged us less than we expected for her time.

11. If your decorator umms and ahhs and says: ‘Are you sure? That’s quite a dark/ bright/ unusual colour?’ Just say YES. If you want a beautiful paint job with proper sanding down and many layers of paint, say so. Expect it to take longer and cost more than slapping the stuff on.

12.  Don’t freak out when standing in an empty newly painted room. By the time you’ve put in sofas, pictures, lamps, shelves, books – the colour will be lovely and just the way you imagined it.

13. Be business like with your builders. They’re not your new friends; they’re not your Dad/ uncle/ boss. You’re in charge. If things aren’t going the way you want, ask about it. Explain what you want. Listen. Sometimes you will have to compromise because what you want doesn’t work. But don’t accept something you really don’t want. The builder is going to move on and you’ll be left regretting this bit of work for the next five, ten years or longer.

14. When you first agree a price with the builder, try and get everything you can think of onto that estimate. There will always be a few extra jobs at the end, which will put the price up, but try not to make it a great long list of extras. Otherwise your bill might be a nasty shock.

15. Agree a timetable. Expect it to take a bit longer. But do not accept endless weeks of delay. If this is happening, you need to find out why and ask them to get back on track.

16. Keep all your estimates, bills and receipts in a dedicated folder. File all those guarantees. Unused paint tins, lightshades that didn’t match, bookcases that didn’t fit, unopened boxes of tiles – all can be returned if you have the receipt.

17. Get everything finished! Don’t leave wires dangling while you procrastinate on a bathroom cabinet, don’t leave plywood on the floor while you dither about tiles. After all the pain you’ve gone through, you NEED the big ‘tah dah’ when it all comes together and looks brilliant.

18. Accept that budget limitations can lead to creative and brilliant results. My £9 a metre bathroom tiles look amazing. Crown and Dulux have colours just as pretty as Farrow and Ball’s (use tester pots to find them). Two IKEA pendant lights can look even better than one designer one. A cheap bookcase properly assembled and fitted to the wall by a joiner looks almost as good as a bespoke one.

19. Realise that your wine/ chocolate/ biscuit consumption will rocket during this horribly stressful and expensive time.

20.  Remind yourself that it will be worth all the pain, expense and hassle. We’ve created a big family kitchen, renovated an old bathroom, plus put in a second bathroom and already, one week in, this has transformed home life.

 

World Book Day | My best advice to writers

Today is World Book Day. To mark the occasion I thought I’d repost this blog from my old site. I think there’s plenty here to think about for anyone who loves books, loves writing — and for anyone thinking of trying to write a novel. I’d love to hear your comments:

How do I get started writing?

I could write chapters and chapters, probably a whole book about writing. But I’m going to try and break it down into FAQs for you. If I haven’t answered your question, then please drop me a line. But these are my best answers to the questions I’m often asked. Also, I’m not just a published writer who ‘has it easy’ (‘What does she know about rejections?’) I’m also married to a trying-to-be-published writer. So I know about the process from many angles.

You sit down and you start. There we go. You don’t put it off until you ‘have the time’ or ‘feel in the mood’. You just apply your behind to the chair and get on with it. Because all that time you are wasting thinking about writing your amazing novel, I’m actually at my computer writing.

If we were runners, you would be thinking about taking up running and I would be training six days a week, so come the race – who has the best chance of finishing?!

Writing is a complex art. Expressing your ideas, characters and story in words is a skill which takes a lifetime to master. I’ve been writing fiction for 14 years now and I’m only beginning to get the hang of it. Just because you can read novels does not mean you can write them. Just because a book is easy to read does not mean it is easy to write.

Plus, it’s a very competitive business. There are so many fantastic writers already out there, if you want to join them, you’re going to have to get very, very good.

I feel it’s best to give you tough love. If you want to write novels – long, gripping novels people are going to give up hours and hours of their precious lives to read, you’re going to have to start training for the ultra-marathon!

What will help with my writing?

Reading will help enormously. Read all kinds of books. Find the kind of writing that you love; the kind of book you could pick up again and again. Is it horror? Is it rom com? Is it sci-fi? Is it historical fiction? What inspires you? What kind of book would you love to write?

Then write! Write and write some more. Write little chunks: blogs, diary entries, short pages. Hone your skills. Try a poem, then a short story. Try out chapter one. Try out the final chapter. Play with words. Describe the people you see on the train. Invent a background for them. Practise dialogue. Turn a news story into a short story. Write, write, write. Train your brain and your fingers to turn your thoughts into great sentences, then your sentences into stories.

Don’t expect to be a genius immediately. It takes time to get good. I was writing stories, essays and diaries all the time I was growing up. I spent my early 20s being a newspaper journalist. I must have written millions of words before I got started on chapter one. My first book attempt was in the bin by chapter four and I began again.

Think of JK Rowling, she’d been working on that first Harry Potter manuscript for YEARS before she showed it to anyone and even then all the big publishers turned her down! Her enormous success had nothing to do with luck: it was because she had a huge story to tell, sheer persistence and worked bloody hard.

 Are any books helpful?

I’m helped by reading and re-reading all the writers I love: Nancy Mitford, Anne Tyler, Agatha Christie, John Irving, JK Rowling, Roald Dahl, Candace Bushnell and many more.

I’ve also found these books very inspirational and packed with great advice: Robert McKee’s Story, Stephen King’s On Writing, Michelle Wallerstein’s Mind Your Business.

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan always get my romantic comedy juices flowing, along with every film written by Nora Ephron.

Should I join a writing group?

I’ve never joined a writing group. This is because I am such a loner and solitary animal. Also, I didn’t think I could bear the criticism! You have to be tough to write and keep on writing, but oh my goodness writing makes you vulnerable. As soon as you’ve written something, you’ve created a work that people can criticise. And believe me, everybody has an opinion. You just need to go onto Amazon to see that.

But writing groups can be hugely helpful. They help people to focus on what they want to write, they help people make contacts, plus they inspire you to get the work done. Only you can know if a group is a good idea for you. You could always try one and see. You could even advertise and set one up in your area.

 Where do I get ideas from?

EVERYWHERE!! As Paul Smith the fashion designer wrote: ’Inspiration is everywhere, if at first you don’t see it, look again!’ Open your mind to ideas. They really are everywhere. I used to worry about having enough things to write about, now I worry about finding the time to write about all my ideas. What sort of things have happened to you? What’s happened to your friend? Could it be re-worked? Could it be made much more exciting? What’s in the news? What’s in National Geographic? See reality as your springboard into the swimming pool of story.

You need to have a story. A really intriguing, interesting tale. You need to have great, memorable, fully-fleshed characters. If you are writing rom-com, you need to have some really hilariously funny scenes; some heart-meltingly tender scenes and you need a love story where something is always in the way of the happy couple.

Dig deeply into all your wide experience of life. How do your own relationships work? What makes you fall in love? What makes you angry? Sad? Confused? Despairing?

Should I do research?

ABSOLUTELY!! Go to the places you are writing about. Interview people who’ve done something like your heroine. You will get one million more great ideas doing this than you can ever dream of at your desk.

 Should I have a plan?

YOU’D BE MAD NOT TO!

Readers are viewers. They are used to more plot in a half an hour sit-com than they ever got in a full Dickens novel. You must plot your baby to death. You must keep your reader nailed to the chair. You will never manage this without a detailed plan. I work on my plans for weeks. I don’t write a word until I have every chapter outlined and the whole story completely outlined. Even then, it still changes, improves, gets messed around.

 Should I listen to criticism?

Only if it’s from someone you really trust. Writing something that makes your Mum beam with pride is not hard. Writing something that will move and engage perfect strangers is much more tricky. When you have a first draft you are really happy with, tell your story to a couple of friends who have been briefed to be firm but fair. Don’t make them read the whole thing. Try out the outline of your story on them. Does it excite them? Interest them? Do their eyes glaze over? Where are the problems?

Should I re-write?

Re-writing is the number one skill. It separates the amateurs from the professionals. About 50% of my time, maybe more is spent re-writing my work. I get to the end of my first draft in a hurry. I’m making sure the story works and I’m getting to know my characters. Then I start re-writing and the really hard work follows. But this is the sweat and tears that makes stories good.

How do I get an agent?

I have no idea!! You need an agent, because hardly any publishers look at manuscripts which don’t come from agents (check their websites to find out). But agents are like fairy dust.  Agents are very, very busy looking after those super important clients who earn them vast amounts of money.  With your unpublished manuscript, you are so far down the pecking order, your precious work will be handed to the work experience girl if you are lucky.  But remind yourself, big deals with brand new authors are made all the time. Agents and publishers continue to need new writers.

Do your research, find agents who represent your kind of work. Submit exactly as it says on the website. Send only your very polished, very best work. Write a covering letter of genius, brilliantly written about your brilliant story. Get them hooked. Make yours the manuscript at the top of the pile.

 I’ve been rejected, now what?

If you’ve sent your best work to many reputable agents or publishers and they’ve all said no thanks, you have to dust yourself down and think hard about what to do next. You could find more people to send it to… you could self-publish. You could put your work in a drawer and work on your next idea. You could stop and rest for a while… or go on a course, read books about writing, train your writing muscles to get better and stronger. No decision is right or wrong here. You have to decide what’s best for you. But I can promise the more you read, write and re-write, the better you will get.

 I’ve published one book, how do I keep going?

Your book is published, the world did not stop turning, Hollywood did not call, you are not as rich as Dan Brown. Welcome to the club. Look very hard at what worked; look even harder at what didn’t work. Don’t blame yourself for everything, but don’t accept no blame. Maybe you need to get much better. Think up a much stronger story. Do more research. Maybe you need to flex your PR muscles on your next time out.

Take your new career seriously. Find an amazing new story, fresh avenues for your work. Make lots more contacts in all sorts of connected fields.

All authors need these quotations pinned up above their desk:

‘Try again, fail again, fail better.’   Samuel Beckett.

‘Never, never, never, NEVER, give up.’   Sir Winston Churchill.

Do I self-publish on the internet?

Previously, I would always have said no, it’s a waste of time and money and you won’t make a penny. But the game has changed. Some writers are now fabulous e-book successes. In ten years time we may all be self-published on the internet. Do your research, don’t get ripped off and don’t put anything out there that isn’t your absolutely best work. Expect to do a lot of self-promoting. Success on the internet is just like success with a publisher, it’s all about talent and hard work. We are all only as good as the last thing we’ve written and the next big thing we’re writing.

 Will writing make me rich?

Let’s be realistic here. One in hundreds of thousands of writers will become rich: maybe through genius, epic hard work or sheer good luck. Just like one in hundreds of thousands of actors, painters and all kinds of creative people. The rest of us will range from making a great living to struggling on penniless. Love your work, devote yourself to your work and hope that the money will follow. If you have success, be like several wise old actors I know and save your money hard because success may not come around again immediately. Yachts and villas on the Med are for gas barons and internet billionaires not, usually, novelists.

Will writing make me happy?

I love to write. I love the hours when I am so in the flow, so in my made-up world that I forget about everything else. But I spend all day, most days, withimaginary people and many head-doctors would consider this a worrying condition!

Creative people often struggle with mental health issues – we get depressed, we fret, we drink or smoke, take drugs, or comfort eat or all of the above. Maybe we were like this when we began; maybe the nature of our work makes us more like this. I do believe that writing makes you vulnerable. Plus it can become obsessive. Writing can take up all the time you have, no manuscript is ever ‘finished’, and you can use writing as a way of opting out of everything else life has to offer.

You need balance!

You need to look after the other areas of life too: friends, family and your health. You need regular breaks from writing, reading other writing and thinking about writing – hard, I know! But there must be room for relaxation, laughter and holidays. If I am turning into a basket case, I shut everything down and hang out with my children. Sometimes you just have to go away and come back to the keyboard with fresh perspective.

 Should I give up my day job?

I have mixed feelings about this. Basically I did give up my day job and the terror got me writing like a dervish. Happily, I landed a two-book deal which gave me enough money to take another year off to write more. For several years I combined fiction writing with freelance journalism, now I write fiction full-time but I know I have journalism skills if I need to go back to them.

I’m not sure I would advise an 18 year old to study creative writing at college and nothing else. But sometimes, you have to walk the wire without the safety net because if you put your heart and soul into writing it might work much better than if you potter about at the weekends only.

Giving up the day job to write is scary and stressful. Please approach it very, very carefully, fully consulting your nearest and dearest and burn no bridges. Bear in mind that many, many well known writers combine writing with other jobs and careers which reliably pay the bills.

 Finally…

I really hope this has helped. Very, very best of luck out there. May your story be the next huge thing the world didn’t even know it was waiting for! And if it isn’t – please love the ride. Writing is fantastic – like dreaming with the lights on. Work hard, master the art, bring your dreams to life and WRITE ON!!

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

 

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

20 Tips For Surviving The Builders

And the builders are OUT… phew! I’m breathing a huge, dusty sigh of relief and allowing life as I know it to resume.

I’ve totally renovated four homes so far and although I don’t think this one will be the last, I have promised my family some peace and quiet… for a while.

I’ve learned (the hard way) a few useful things about having the builders in and thought I’d share my top 20 tips in case they’re useful to anyone else in this nerve-shreddingly stressful situation.

1.     Get as much done all at the one time as you possibly can. I’ve tried doing a bathroom here, a kitchen the next year, redecorating bit by bit and it’s not ideal. Plumbers and electricians come in and sigh: ‘Who did the kitchen like that? For the new bathroom, I’ll have to re-do all that piping/ wiring.’  Or worse, hauling their ladders and equipment into the kitchen, they scratch your new hall paintwork or eeek, your brand new floor. The more work you can get done at once, the better the price should be.

2.     Move out if at all possible. Even for the first few weeks. This allows you and your family to remain sane and be dressed without plaster dust on your clothes, in your hair, all over your beds and even in your food. It also lets the builders forge ahead without having to worry about water, gas and electrics having to be reconnected every evening.

3.      If you have to stay at home, tape polythene sheets over doors, buy a brush, dustpan, even a cheap vacuum cleaner just to deal with builder mess. Do not use your lovely Dyson to scoop up plaster dust and rubble. Do not let the builders use it either: it will die!

4.     If you work from home, you HAVE to find somewhere else to go. Trust me here. The library, a café with wifi, you have to get out. You cannot listen to Lesser Known Hits of the 80s, plus drilling and bumping and banging for weeks on end and get work done.

5.     Be VERY choosy about which builder you use. Do not rush this decision. Get recommendations from people you trust, or neighbours… even bathroom and kitchen suppliers. Go and see previous work the builder has done. Ask the owners if the work was quick and tidy, if the builders were polite, stuck to the agreed budget, turned up on time, stayed with the job right to the end. If a builder is available straight away, beware. Good builders have to be booked in advance. If you’re in an old house, you need a builder used to renovating old property.

6.     I don’t like tradesmen who only want to be paid in cash and I don’t like it if they want part of the money up front. Both of these things suggest they’re not running their business well and they won’t run your project well either. I totally wanted to sack a builder once, but had paid too much up front to be able to do it.

7.     Some money part way through is OK. But you need a week or two after the work is completed before you pay your final bill. So you can work out what the little problems are and ask for them to be fixed before you settle up.

8.     Plan, plan, plan. Make drawings of your rooms. Think about plugs, lights, tiling, cabinets, the way the door opens… Make as many decisions ahead of the work as possible. There will still be lots of decisions to make on the spot. Take some guidance from your builder – he might from experience know of a better way to do it…

9.     …But don’t do everything the builder way – sometimes they can go overboard with plastic trimming, beading, coving, laminate flooring and everything in beige and before you know it the heart and soul of your characterful old house has been ripped out and MDF-ed over.

10.   Consider using an architect. I asked an architect friend, who recommended the office junior, who made several visits and lots of plans. She had great ideas, oversaw getting the building warrant and all the relevant permits and charged us less than we expected for her time.

11. If your decorator umms and ahhs and says: ‘Are you sure? That’s quite a dark/ bright/ unusual colour?’ Just say YES. If you want a beautiful paint job with proper sanding down and many layers of paint, say so. Expect it to take longer and cost more than slapping the stuff on.

12.  Don’t freak out when standing in an empty newly painted room. By the time you’ve put in sofas, pictures, lamps, shelves, books – the colour will be lovely and just the way you imagined it.

13. Be business like with your builders. They’re not your new friends; they’re not your Dad/ uncle/ boss. You’re in charge. If things aren’t going the way you want, ask about it. Explain what you want. Listen. Sometimes you will have to compromise because what you want doesn’t work. But don’t accept something you really don’t want. The builder is going to move on and you’ll be left regretting this bit of work for the next five, ten years or longer.

14. When you first agree a price with the builder, try and get everything you can think of onto that estimate. There will always be a few extra jobs at the end, which will put the price up, but try not to make it a great long list of extras. Otherwise your bill might be a nasty shock.

15. Agree a timetable. Expect it to take a bit longer. But do not accept endless weeks of delay. If this is happening, you need to find out why and ask them to get back on track.

16. Keep all your estimates, bills and receipts in a dedicated folder. File all those guarantees. Unused paint tins, lightshades that didn’t match, bookcases that didn’t fit, unopened boxes of tiles – all can be returned if you have the receipt.

17. Get everything finished! Don’t leave wires dangling while you procrastinate on a bathroom cabinet, don’t leave plywood on the floor while you dither about tiles. After all the pain you’ve gone through, you NEED the big ‘tah dah’ when it all comes together and looks brilliant.

18. Accept that budget limitations can lead to creative and brilliant results. My £9 a metre bathroom tiles look amazing. Crown and Dulux have colours just as pretty as Farrow and Ball’s (use tester pots to find them). Two IKEA pendant lights can look even better than one designer one. A cheap bookcase properly assembled and fitted to the wall by a joiner looks almost as good as a bespoke one.

19. Realise that your wine/ chocolate/ biscuit consumption will rocket during this horribly stressful and expensive time.

20.  Remind yourself that it will be worth all the pain, expense and hassle. We’ve created a big family kitchen, renovated an old bathroom, plus put in a second bathroom and already, one week in, this has transformed home life.

 

World Book Day | My best advice to writers

Today is World Book Day. To mark the occasion I thought I’d repost this blog from my old site. I think there’s plenty here to think about for anyone who loves books, loves writing — and for anyone thinking of trying to write a novel. I’d love to hear your comments:

How do I get started writing?

I could write chapters and chapters, probably a whole book about writing. But I’m going to try and break it down into FAQs for you. If I haven’t answered your question, then please drop me a line. But these are my best answers to the questions I’m often asked. Also, I’m not just a published writer who ‘has it easy’ (‘What does she know about rejections?’) I’m also married to a trying-to-be-published writer. So I know about the process from many angles.

You sit down and you start. There we go. You don’t put it off until you ‘have the time’ or ‘feel in the mood’. You just apply your behind to the chair and get on with it. Because all that time you are wasting thinking about writing your amazing novel, I’m actually at my computer writing.

If we were runners, you would be thinking about taking up running and I would be training six days a week, so come the race – who has the best chance of finishing?!

Writing is a complex art. Expressing your ideas, characters and story in words is a skill which takes a lifetime to master. I’ve been writing fiction for 14 years now and I’m only beginning to get the hang of it. Just because you can read novels does not mean you can write them. Just because a book is easy to read does not mean it is easy to write.

Plus, it’s a very competitive business. There are so many fantastic writers already out there, if you want to join them, you’re going to have to get very, very good.

I feel it’s best to give you tough love. If you want to write novels – long, gripping novels people are going to give up hours and hours of their precious lives to read, you’re going to have to start training for the ultra-marathon!

What will help with my writing?

Reading will help enormously. Read all kinds of books. Find the kind of writing that you love; the kind of book you could pick up again and again. Is it horror? Is it rom com? Is it sci-fi? Is it historical fiction? What inspires you? What kind of book would you love to write?

Then write! Write and write some more. Write little chunks: blogs, diary entries, short pages. Hone your skills. Try a poem, then a short story. Try out chapter one. Try out the final chapter. Play with words. Describe the people you see on the train. Invent a background for them. Practise dialogue. Turn a news story into a short story. Write, write, write. Train your brain and your fingers to turn your thoughts into great sentences, then your sentences into stories.

Don’t expect to be a genius immediately. It takes time to get good. I was writing stories, essays and diaries all the time I was growing up. I spent my early 20s being a newspaper journalist. I must have written millions of words before I got started on chapter one. My first book attempt was in the bin by chapter four and I began again.

Think of JK Rowling, she’d been working on that first Harry Potter manuscript for YEARS before she showed it to anyone and even then all the big publishers turned her down! Her enormous success had nothing to do with luck: it was because she had a huge story to tell, sheer persistence and worked bloody hard.

 Are any books helpful?

I’m helped by reading and re-reading all the writers I love: Nancy Mitford, Anne Tyler, Agatha Christie, John Irving, JK Rowling, Roald Dahl, Candace Bushnell and many more.

I’ve also found these books very inspirational and packed with great advice: Robert McKee’s Story, Stephen King’s On Writing, Michelle Wallerstein’s Mind Your Business.

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan always get my romantic comedy juices flowing, along with every film written by Nora Ephron.

Should I join a writing group?

I’ve never joined a writing group. This is because I am such a loner and solitary animal. Also, I didn’t think I could bear the criticism! You have to be tough to write and keep on writing, but oh my goodness writing makes you vulnerable. As soon as you’ve written something, you’ve created a work that people can criticise. And believe me, everybody has an opinion. You just need to go onto Amazon to see that.

But writing groups can be hugely helpful. They help people to focus on what they want to write, they help people make contacts, plus they inspire you to get the work done. Only you can know if a group is a good idea for you. You could always try one and see. You could even advertise and set one up in your area.

 Where do I get ideas from?

EVERYWHERE!! As Paul Smith the fashion designer wrote: ’Inspiration is everywhere, if at first you don’t see it, look again!’ Open your mind to ideas. They really are everywhere. I used to worry about having enough things to write about, now I worry about finding the time to write about all my ideas. What sort of things have happened to you? What’s happened to your friend? Could it be re-worked? Could it be made much more exciting? What’s in the news? What’s in National Geographic? See reality as your springboard into the swimming pool of story.

You need to have a story. A really intriguing, interesting tale. You need to have great, memorable, fully-fleshed characters. If you are writing rom-com, you need to have some really hilariously funny scenes; some heart-meltingly tender scenes and you need a love story where something is always in the way of the happy couple.

Dig deeply into all your wide experience of life. How do your own relationships work? What makes you fall in love? What makes you angry? Sad? Confused? Despairing?

Should I do research?

ABSOLUTELY!! Go to the places you are writing about. Interview people who’ve done something like your heroine. You will get one million more great ideas doing this than you can ever dream of at your desk.

 Should I have a plan?

YOU’D BE MAD NOT TO!

Readers are viewers. They are used to more plot in a half an hour sit-com than they ever got in a full Dickens novel. You must plot your baby to death. You must keep your reader nailed to the chair. You will never manage this without a detailed plan. I work on my plans for weeks. I don’t write a word until I have every chapter outlined and the whole story completely outlined. Even then, it still changes, improves, gets messed around.

 Should I listen to criticism?

Only if it’s from someone you really trust. Writing something that makes your Mum beam with pride is not hard. Writing something that will move and engage perfect strangers is much more tricky. When you have a first draft you are really happy with, tell your story to a couple of friends who have been briefed to be firm but fair. Don’t make them read the whole thing. Try out the outline of your story on them. Does it excite them? Interest them? Do their eyes glaze over? Where are the problems?

Should I re-write?

Re-writing is the number one skill. It separates the amateurs from the professionals. About 50% of my time, maybe more is spent re-writing my work. I get to the end of my first draft in a hurry. I’m making sure the story works and I’m getting to know my characters. Then I start re-writing and the really hard work follows. But this is the sweat and tears that makes stories good.

How do I get an agent?

I have no idea!! You need an agent, because hardly any publishers look at manuscripts which don’t come from agents (check their websites to find out). But agents are like fairy dust.  Agents are very, very busy looking after those super important clients who earn them vast amounts of money.  With your unpublished manuscript, you are so far down the pecking order, your precious work will be handed to the work experience girl if you are lucky.  But remind yourself, big deals with brand new authors are made all the time. Agents and publishers continue to need new writers.

Do your research, find agents who represent your kind of work. Submit exactly as it says on the website. Send only your very polished, very best work. Write a covering letter of genius, brilliantly written about your brilliant story. Get them hooked. Make yours the manuscript at the top of the pile.

 I’ve been rejected, now what?

If you’ve sent your best work to many reputable agents or publishers and they’ve all said no thanks, you have to dust yourself down and think hard about what to do next. You could find more people to send it to… you could self-publish. You could put your work in a drawer and work on your next idea. You could stop and rest for a while… or go on a course, read books about writing, train your writing muscles to get better and stronger. No decision is right or wrong here. You have to decide what’s best for you. But I can promise the more you read, write and re-write, the better you will get.

 I’ve published one book, how do I keep going?

Your book is published, the world did not stop turning, Hollywood did not call, you are not as rich as Dan Brown. Welcome to the club. Look very hard at what worked; look even harder at what didn’t work. Don’t blame yourself for everything, but don’t accept no blame. Maybe you need to get much better. Think up a much stronger story. Do more research. Maybe you need to flex your PR muscles on your next time out.

Take your new career seriously. Find an amazing new story, fresh avenues for your work. Make lots more contacts in all sorts of connected fields.

All authors need these quotations pinned up above their desk:

‘Try again, fail again, fail better.’   Samuel Beckett.

‘Never, never, never, NEVER, give up.’   Sir Winston Churchill.

Do I self-publish on the internet?

Previously, I would always have said no, it’s a waste of time and money and you won’t make a penny. But the game has changed. Some writers are now fabulous e-book successes. In ten years time we may all be self-published on the internet. Do your research, don’t get ripped off and don’t put anything out there that isn’t your absolutely best work. Expect to do a lot of self-promoting. Success on the internet is just like success with a publisher, it’s all about talent and hard work. We are all only as good as the last thing we’ve written and the next big thing we’re writing.

 Will writing make me rich?

Let’s be realistic here. One in hundreds of thousands of writers will become rich: maybe through genius, epic hard work or sheer good luck. Just like one in hundreds of thousands of actors, painters and all kinds of creative people. The rest of us will range from making a great living to struggling on penniless. Love your work, devote yourself to your work and hope that the money will follow. If you have success, be like several wise old actors I know and save your money hard because success may not come around again immediately. Yachts and villas on the Med are for gas barons and internet billionaires not, usually, novelists.

Will writing make me happy?

I love to write. I love the hours when I am so in the flow, so in my made-up world that I forget about everything else. But I spend all day, most days, withimaginary people and many head-doctors would consider this a worrying condition!

Creative people often struggle with mental health issues – we get depressed, we fret, we drink or smoke, take drugs, or comfort eat or all of the above. Maybe we were like this when we began; maybe the nature of our work makes us more like this. I do believe that writing makes you vulnerable. Plus it can become obsessive. Writing can take up all the time you have, no manuscript is ever ‘finished’, and you can use writing as a way of opting out of everything else life has to offer.

You need balance!

You need to look after the other areas of life too: friends, family and your health. You need regular breaks from writing, reading other writing and thinking about writing – hard, I know! But there must be room for relaxation, laughter and holidays. If I am turning into a basket case, I shut everything down and hang out with my children. Sometimes you just have to go away and come back to the keyboard with fresh perspective.

 Should I give up my day job?

I have mixed feelings about this. Basically I did give up my day job and the terror got me writing like a dervish. Happily, I landed a two-book deal which gave me enough money to take another year off to write more. For several years I combined fiction writing with freelance journalism, now I write fiction full-time but I know I have journalism skills if I need to go back to them.

I’m not sure I would advise an 18 year old to study creative writing at college and nothing else. But sometimes, you have to walk the wire without the safety net because if you put your heart and soul into writing it might work much better than if you potter about at the weekends only.

Giving up the day job to write is scary and stressful. Please approach it very, very carefully, fully consulting your nearest and dearest and burn no bridges. Bear in mind that many, many well known writers combine writing with other jobs and careers which reliably pay the bills.

 Finally…

I really hope this has helped. Very, very best of luck out there. May your story be the next huge thing the world didn’t even know it was waiting for! And if it isn’t – please love the ride. Writing is fantastic – like dreaming with the lights on. Work hard, master the art, bring your dreams to life and WRITE ON!!

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

 

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

20 Tips For Surviving The Builders

And the builders are OUT… phew! I’m breathing a huge, dusty sigh of relief and allowing life as I know it to resume.

I’ve totally renovated four homes so far and although I don’t think this one will be the last, I have promised my family some peace and quiet… for a while.

I’ve learned (the hard way) a few useful things about having the builders in and thought I’d share my top 20 tips in case they’re useful to anyone else in this nerve-shreddingly stressful situation.

1.     Get as much done all at the one time as you possibly can. I’ve tried doing a bathroom here, a kitchen the next year, redecorating bit by bit and it’s not ideal. Plumbers and electricians come in and sigh: ‘Who did the kitchen like that? For the new bathroom, I’ll have to re-do all that piping/ wiring.’  Or worse, hauling their ladders and equipment into the kitchen, they scratch your new hall paintwork or eeek, your brand new floor. The more work you can get done at once, the better the price should be.

2.     Move out if at all possible. Even for the first few weeks. This allows you and your family to remain sane and be dressed without plaster dust on your clothes, in your hair, all over your beds and even in your food. It also lets the builders forge ahead without having to worry about water, gas and electrics having to be reconnected every evening.

3.      If you have to stay at home, tape polythene sheets over doors, buy a brush, dustpan, even a cheap vacuum cleaner just to deal with builder mess. Do not use your lovely Dyson to scoop up plaster dust and rubble. Do not let the builders use it either: it will die!

4.     If you work from home, you HAVE to find somewhere else to go. Trust me here. The library, a café with wifi, you have to get out. You cannot listen to Lesser Known Hits of the 80s, plus drilling and bumping and banging for weeks on end and get work done.

5.     Be VERY choosy about which builder you use. Do not rush this decision. Get recommendations from people you trust, or neighbours… even bathroom and kitchen suppliers. Go and see previous work the builder has done. Ask the owners if the work was quick and tidy, if the builders were polite, stuck to the agreed budget, turned up on time, stayed with the job right to the end. If a builder is available straight away, beware. Good builders have to be booked in advance. If you’re in an old house, you need a builder used to renovating old property.

6.     I don’t like tradesmen who only want to be paid in cash and I don’t like it if they want part of the money up front. Both of these things suggest they’re not running their business well and they won’t run your project well either. I totally wanted to sack a builder once, but had paid too much up front to be able to do it.

7.     Some money part way through is OK. But you need a week or two after the work is completed before you pay your final bill. So you can work out what the little problems are and ask for them to be fixed before you settle up.

8.     Plan, plan, plan. Make drawings of your rooms. Think about plugs, lights, tiling, cabinets, the way the door opens… Make as many decisions ahead of the work as possible. There will still be lots of decisions to make on the spot. Take some guidance from your builder – he might from experience know of a better way to do it…

9.     …But don’t do everything the builder way – sometimes they can go overboard with plastic trimming, beading, coving, laminate flooring and everything in beige and before you know it the heart and soul of your characterful old house has been ripped out and MDF-ed over.

10.   Consider using an architect. I asked an architect friend, who recommended the office junior, who made several visits and lots of plans. She had great ideas, oversaw getting the building warrant and all the relevant permits and charged us less than we expected for her time.

11. If your decorator umms and ahhs and says: ‘Are you sure? That’s quite a dark/ bright/ unusual colour?’ Just say YES. If you want a beautiful paint job with proper sanding down and many layers of paint, say so. Expect it to take longer and cost more than slapping the stuff on.

12.  Don’t freak out when standing in an empty newly painted room. By the time you’ve put in sofas, pictures, lamps, shelves, books – the colour will be lovely and just the way you imagined it.

13. Be business like with your builders. They’re not your new friends; they’re not your Dad/ uncle/ boss. You’re in charge. If things aren’t going the way you want, ask about it. Explain what you want. Listen. Sometimes you will have to compromise because what you want doesn’t work. But don’t accept something you really don’t want. The builder is going to move on and you’ll be left regretting this bit of work for the next five, ten years or longer.

14. When you first agree a price with the builder, try and get everything you can think of onto that estimate. There will always be a few extra jobs at the end, which will put the price up, but try not to make it a great long list of extras. Otherwise your bill might be a nasty shock.

15. Agree a timetable. Expect it to take a bit longer. But do not accept endless weeks of delay. If this is happening, you need to find out why and ask them to get back on track.

16. Keep all your estimates, bills and receipts in a dedicated folder. File all those guarantees. Unused paint tins, lightshades that didn’t match, bookcases that didn’t fit, unopened boxes of tiles – all can be returned if you have the receipt.

17. Get everything finished! Don’t leave wires dangling while you procrastinate on a bathroom cabinet, don’t leave plywood on the floor while you dither about tiles. After all the pain you’ve gone through, you NEED the big ‘tah dah’ when it all comes together and looks brilliant.

18. Accept that budget limitations can lead to creative and brilliant results. My £9 a metre bathroom tiles look amazing. Crown and Dulux have colours just as pretty as Farrow and Ball’s (use tester pots to find them). Two IKEA pendant lights can look even better than one designer one. A cheap bookcase properly assembled and fitted to the wall by a joiner looks almost as good as a bespoke one.

19. Realise that your wine/ chocolate/ biscuit consumption will rocket during this horribly stressful and expensive time.

20.  Remind yourself that it will be worth all the pain, expense and hassle. We’ve created a big family kitchen, renovated an old bathroom, plus put in a second bathroom and already, one week in, this has transformed home life.

 

World Book Day | My best advice to writers

Today is World Book Day. To mark the occasion I thought I’d repost this blog from my old site. I think there’s plenty here to think about for anyone who loves books, loves writing — and for anyone thinking of trying to write a novel. I’d love to hear your comments:

How do I get started writing?

I could write chapters and chapters, probably a whole book about writing. But I’m going to try and break it down into FAQs for you. If I haven’t answered your question, then please drop me a line. But these are my best answers to the questions I’m often asked. Also, I’m not just a published writer who ‘has it easy’ (‘What does she know about rejections?’) I’m also married to a trying-to-be-published writer. So I know about the process from many angles.

You sit down and you start. There we go. You don’t put it off until you ‘have the time’ or ‘feel in the mood’. You just apply your behind to the chair and get on with it. Because all that time you are wasting thinking about writing your amazing novel, I’m actually at my computer writing.

If we were runners, you would be thinking about taking up running and I would be training six days a week, so come the race – who has the best chance of finishing?!

Writing is a complex art. Expressing your ideas, characters and story in words is a skill which takes a lifetime to master. I’ve been writing fiction for 14 years now and I’m only beginning to get the hang of it. Just because you can read novels does not mean you can write them. Just because a book is easy to read does not mean it is easy to write.

Plus, it’s a very competitive business. There are so many fantastic writers already out there, if you want to join them, you’re going to have to get very, very good.

I feel it’s best to give you tough love. If you want to write novels – long, gripping novels people are going to give up hours and hours of their precious lives to read, you’re going to have to start training for the ultra-marathon!

What will help with my writing?

Reading will help enormously. Read all kinds of books. Find the kind of writing that you love; the kind of book you could pick up again and again. Is it horror? Is it rom com? Is it sci-fi? Is it historical fiction? What inspires you? What kind of book would you love to write?

Then write! Write and write some more. Write little chunks: blogs, diary entries, short pages. Hone your skills. Try a poem, then a short story. Try out chapter one. Try out the final chapter. Play with words. Describe the people you see on the train. Invent a background for them. Practise dialogue. Turn a news story into a short story. Write, write, write. Train your brain and your fingers to turn your thoughts into great sentences, then your sentences into stories.

Don’t expect to be a genius immediately. It takes time to get good. I was writing stories, essays and diaries all the time I was growing up. I spent my early 20s being a newspaper journalist. I must have written millions of words before I got started on chapter one. My first book attempt was in the bin by chapter four and I began again.

Think of JK Rowling, she’d been working on that first Harry Potter manuscript for YEARS before she showed it to anyone and even then all the big publishers turned her down! Her enormous success had nothing to do with luck: it was because she had a huge story to tell, sheer persistence and worked bloody hard.

 Are any books helpful?

I’m helped by reading and re-reading all the writers I love: Nancy Mitford, Anne Tyler, Agatha Christie, John Irving, JK Rowling, Roald Dahl, Candace Bushnell and many more.

I’ve also found these books very inspirational and packed with great advice: Robert McKee’s Story, Stephen King’s On Writing, Michelle Wallerstein’s Mind Your Business.

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan always get my romantic comedy juices flowing, along with every film written by Nora Ephron.

Should I join a writing group?

I’ve never joined a writing group. This is because I am such a loner and solitary animal. Also, I didn’t think I could bear the criticism! You have to be tough to write and keep on writing, but oh my goodness writing makes you vulnerable. As soon as you’ve written something, you’ve created a work that people can criticise. And believe me, everybody has an opinion. You just need to go onto Amazon to see that.

But writing groups can be hugely helpful. They help people to focus on what they want to write, they help people make contacts, plus they inspire you to get the work done. Only you can know if a group is a good idea for you. You could always try one and see. You could even advertise and set one up in your area.

 Where do I get ideas from?

EVERYWHERE!! As Paul Smith the fashion designer wrote: ’Inspiration is everywhere, if at first you don’t see it, look again!’ Open your mind to ideas. They really are everywhere. I used to worry about having enough things to write about, now I worry about finding the time to write about all my ideas. What sort of things have happened to you? What’s happened to your friend? Could it be re-worked? Could it be made much more exciting? What’s in the news? What’s in National Geographic? See reality as your springboard into the swimming pool of story.

You need to have a story. A really intriguing, interesting tale. You need to have great, memorable, fully-fleshed characters. If you are writing rom-com, you need to have some really hilariously funny scenes; some heart-meltingly tender scenes and you need a love story where something is always in the way of the happy couple.

Dig deeply into all your wide experience of life. How do your own relationships work? What makes you fall in love? What makes you angry? Sad? Confused? Despairing?

Should I do research?

ABSOLUTELY!! Go to the places you are writing about. Interview people who’ve done something like your heroine. You will get one million more great ideas doing this than you can ever dream of at your desk.

 Should I have a plan?

YOU’D BE MAD NOT TO!

Readers are viewers. They are used to more plot in a half an hour sit-com than they ever got in a full Dickens novel. You must plot your baby to death. You must keep your reader nailed to the chair. You will never manage this without a detailed plan. I work on my plans for weeks. I don’t write a word until I have every chapter outlined and the whole story completely outlined. Even then, it still changes, improves, gets messed around.

 Should I listen to criticism?

Only if it’s from someone you really trust. Writing something that makes your Mum beam with pride is not hard. Writing something that will move and engage perfect strangers is much more tricky. When you have a first draft you are really happy with, tell your story to a couple of friends who have been briefed to be firm but fair. Don’t make them read the whole thing. Try out the outline of your story on them. Does it excite them? Interest them? Do their eyes glaze over? Where are the problems?

Should I re-write?

Re-writing is the number one skill. It separates the amateurs from the professionals. About 50% of my time, maybe more is spent re-writing my work. I get to the end of my first draft in a hurry. I’m making sure the story works and I’m getting to know my characters. Then I start re-writing and the really hard work follows. But this is the sweat and tears that makes stories good.

How do I get an agent?

I have no idea!! You need an agent, because hardly any publishers look at manuscripts which don’t come from agents (check their websites to find out). But agents are like fairy dust.  Agents are very, very busy looking after those super important clients who earn them vast amounts of money.  With your unpublished manuscript, you are so far down the pecking order, your precious work will be handed to the work experience girl if you are lucky.  But remind yourself, big deals with brand new authors are made all the time. Agents and publishers continue to need new writers.

Do your research, find agents who represent your kind of work. Submit exactly as it says on the website. Send only your very polished, very best work. Write a covering letter of genius, brilliantly written about your brilliant story. Get them hooked. Make yours the manuscript at the top of the pile.

 I’ve been rejected, now what?

If you’ve sent your best work to many reputable agents or publishers and they’ve all said no thanks, you have to dust yourself down and think hard about what to do next. You could find more people to send it to… you could self-publish. You could put your work in a drawer and work on your next idea. You could stop and rest for a while… or go on a course, read books about writing, train your writing muscles to get better and stronger. No decision is right or wrong here. You have to decide what’s best for you. But I can promise the more you read, write and re-write, the better you will get.

 I’ve published one book, how do I keep going?

Your book is published, the world did not stop turning, Hollywood did not call, you are not as rich as Dan Brown. Welcome to the club. Look very hard at what worked; look even harder at what didn’t work. Don’t blame yourself for everything, but don’t accept no blame. Maybe you need to get much better. Think up a much stronger story. Do more research. Maybe you need to flex your PR muscles on your next time out.

Take your new career seriously. Find an amazing new story, fresh avenues for your work. Make lots more contacts in all sorts of connected fields.

All authors need these quotations pinned up above their desk:

‘Try again, fail again, fail better.’   Samuel Beckett.

‘Never, never, never, NEVER, give up.’   Sir Winston Churchill.

Do I self-publish on the internet?

Previously, I would always have said no, it’s a waste of time and money and you won’t make a penny. But the game has changed. Some writers are now fabulous e-book successes. In ten years time we may all be self-published on the internet. Do your research, don’t get ripped off and don’t put anything out there that isn’t your absolutely best work. Expect to do a lot of self-promoting. Success on the internet is just like success with a publisher, it’s all about talent and hard work. We are all only as good as the last thing we’ve written and the next big thing we’re writing.

 Will writing make me rich?

Let’s be realistic here. One in hundreds of thousands of writers will become rich: maybe through genius, epic hard work or sheer good luck. Just like one in hundreds of thousands of actors, painters and all kinds of creative people. The rest of us will range from making a great living to struggling on penniless. Love your work, devote yourself to your work and hope that the money will follow. If you have success, be like several wise old actors I know and save your money hard because success may not come around again immediately. Yachts and villas on the Med are for gas barons and internet billionaires not, usually, novelists.

Will writing make me happy?

I love to write. I love the hours when I am so in the flow, so in my made-up world that I forget about everything else. But I spend all day, most days, withimaginary people and many head-doctors would consider this a worrying condition!

Creative people often struggle with mental health issues – we get depressed, we fret, we drink or smoke, take drugs, or comfort eat or all of the above. Maybe we were like this when we began; maybe the nature of our work makes us more like this. I do believe that writing makes you vulnerable. Plus it can become obsessive. Writing can take up all the time you have, no manuscript is ever ‘finished’, and you can use writing as a way of opting out of everything else life has to offer.

You need balance!

You need to look after the other areas of life too: friends, family and your health. You need regular breaks from writing, reading other writing and thinking about writing – hard, I know! But there must be room for relaxation, laughter and holidays. If I am turning into a basket case, I shut everything down and hang out with my children. Sometimes you just have to go away and come back to the keyboard with fresh perspective.

 Should I give up my day job?

I have mixed feelings about this. Basically I did give up my day job and the terror got me writing like a dervish. Happily, I landed a two-book deal which gave me enough money to take another year off to write more. For several years I combined fiction writing with freelance journalism, now I write fiction full-time but I know I have journalism skills if I need to go back to them.

I’m not sure I would advise an 18 year old to study creative writing at college and nothing else. But sometimes, you have to walk the wire without the safety net because if you put your heart and soul into writing it might work much better than if you potter about at the weekends only.

Giving up the day job to write is scary and stressful. Please approach it very, very carefully, fully consulting your nearest and dearest and burn no bridges. Bear in mind that many, many well known writers combine writing with other jobs and careers which reliably pay the bills.

 Finally…

I really hope this has helped. Very, very best of luck out there. May your story be the next huge thing the world didn’t even know it was waiting for! And if it isn’t – please love the ride. Writing is fantastic – like dreaming with the lights on. Work hard, master the art, bring your dreams to life and WRITE ON!!

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

 

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

20 Tips For Surviving The Builders

And the builders are OUT… phew! I’m breathing a huge, dusty sigh of relief and allowing life as I know it to resume.

I’ve totally renovated four homes so far and although I don’t think this one will be the last, I have promised my family some peace and quiet… for a while.

I’ve learned (the hard way) a few useful things about having the builders in and thought I’d share my top 20 tips in case they’re useful to anyone else in this nerve-shreddingly stressful situation.

1.     Get as much done all at the one time as you possibly can. I’ve tried doing a bathroom here, a kitchen the next year, redecorating bit by bit and it’s not ideal. Plumbers and electricians come in and sigh: ‘Who did the kitchen like that? For the new bathroom, I’ll have to re-do all that piping/ wiring.’  Or worse, hauling their ladders and equipment into the kitchen, they scratch your new hall paintwork or eeek, your brand new floor. The more work you can get done at once, the better the price should be.

2.     Move out if at all possible. Even for the first few weeks. This allows you and your family to remain sane and be dressed without plaster dust on your clothes, in your hair, all over your beds and even in your food. It also lets the builders forge ahead without having to worry about water, gas and electrics having to be reconnected every evening.

3.      If you have to stay at home, tape polythene sheets over doors, buy a brush, dustpan, even a cheap vacuum cleaner just to deal with builder mess. Do not use your lovely Dyson to scoop up plaster dust and rubble. Do not let the builders use it either: it will die!

4.     If you work from home, you HAVE to find somewhere else to go. Trust me here. The library, a café with wifi, you have to get out. You cannot listen to Lesser Known Hits of the 80s, plus drilling and bumping and banging for weeks on end and get work done.

5.     Be VERY choosy about which builder you use. Do not rush this decision. Get recommendations from people you trust, or neighbours… even bathroom and kitchen suppliers. Go and see previous work the builder has done. Ask the owners if the work was quick and tidy, if the builders were polite, stuck to the agreed budget, turned up on time, stayed with the job right to the end. If a builder is available straight away, beware. Good builders have to be booked in advance. If you’re in an old house, you need a builder used to renovating old property.

6.     I don’t like tradesmen who only want to be paid in cash and I don’t like it if they want part of the money up front. Both of these things suggest they’re not running their business well and they won’t run your project well either. I totally wanted to sack a builder once, but had paid too much up front to be able to do it.

7.     Some money part way through is OK. But you need a week or two after the work is completed before you pay your final bill. So you can work out what the little problems are and ask for them to be fixed before you settle up.

8.     Plan, plan, plan. Make drawings of your rooms. Think about plugs, lights, tiling, cabinets, the way the door opens… Make as many decisions ahead of the work as possible. There will still be lots of decisions to make on the spot. Take some guidance from your builder – he might from experience know of a better way to do it…

9.     …But don’t do everything the builder way – sometimes they can go overboard with plastic trimming, beading, coving, laminate flooring and everything in beige and before you know it the heart and soul of your characterful old house has been ripped out and MDF-ed over.

10.   Consider using an architect. I asked an architect friend, who recommended the office junior, who made several visits and lots of plans. She had great ideas, oversaw getting the building warrant and all the relevant permits and charged us less than we expected for her time.

11. If your decorator umms and ahhs and says: ‘Are you sure? That’s quite a dark/ bright/ unusual colour?’ Just say YES. If you want a beautiful paint job with proper sanding down and many layers of paint, say so. Expect it to take longer and cost more than slapping the stuff on.

12.  Don’t freak out when standing in an empty newly painted room. By the time you’ve put in sofas, pictures, lamps, shelves, books – the colour will be lovely and just the way you imagined it.

13. Be business like with your builders. They’re not your new friends; they’re not your Dad/ uncle/ boss. You’re in charge. If things aren’t going the way you want, ask about it. Explain what you want. Listen. Sometimes you will have to compromise because what you want doesn’t work. But don’t accept something you really don’t want. The builder is going to move on and you’ll be left regretting this bit of work for the next five, ten years or longer.

14. When you first agree a price with the builder, try and get everything you can think of onto that estimate. There will always be a few extra jobs at the end, which will put the price up, but try not to make it a great long list of extras. Otherwise your bill might be a nasty shock.

15. Agree a timetable. Expect it to take a bit longer. But do not accept endless weeks of delay. If this is happening, you need to find out why and ask them to get back on track.

16. Keep all your estimates, bills and receipts in a dedicated folder. File all those guarantees. Unused paint tins, lightshades that didn’t match, bookcases that didn’t fit, unopened boxes of tiles – all can be returned if you have the receipt.

17. Get everything finished! Don’t leave wires dangling while you procrastinate on a bathroom cabinet, don’t leave plywood on the floor while you dither about tiles. After all the pain you’ve gone through, you NEED the big ‘tah dah’ when it all comes together and looks brilliant.

18. Accept that budget limitations can lead to creative and brilliant results. My £9 a metre bathroom tiles look amazing. Crown and Dulux have colours just as pretty as Farrow and Ball’s (use tester pots to find them). Two IKEA pendant lights can look even better than one designer one. A cheap bookcase properly assembled and fitted to the wall by a joiner looks almost as good as a bespoke one.

19. Realise that your wine/ chocolate/ biscuit consumption will rocket during this horribly stressful and expensive time.

20.  Remind yourself that it will be worth all the pain, expense and hassle. We’ve created a big family kitchen, renovated an old bathroom, plus put in a second bathroom and already, one week in, this has transformed home life.

 

World Book Day | My best advice to writers

Today is World Book Day. To mark the occasion I thought I’d repost this blog from my old site. I think there’s plenty here to think about for anyone who loves books, loves writing — and for anyone thinking of trying to write a novel. I’d love to hear your comments:

How do I get started writing?

I could write chapters and chapters, probably a whole book about writing. But I’m going to try and break it down into FAQs for you. If I haven’t answered your question, then please drop me a line. But these are my best answers to the questions I’m often asked. Also, I’m not just a published writer who ‘has it easy’ (‘What does she know about rejections?’) I’m also married to a trying-to-be-published writer. So I know about the process from many angles.

You sit down and you start. There we go. You don’t put it off until you ‘have the time’ or ‘feel in the mood’. You just apply your behind to the chair and get on with it. Because all that time you are wasting thinking about writing your amazing novel, I’m actually at my computer writing.

If we were runners, you would be thinking about taking up running and I would be training six days a week, so come the race – who has the best chance of finishing?!

Writing is a complex art. Expressing your ideas, characters and story in words is a skill which takes a lifetime to master. I’ve been writing fiction for 14 years now and I’m only beginning to get the hang of it. Just because you can read novels does not mean you can write them. Just because a book is easy to read does not mean it is easy to write.

Plus, it’s a very competitive business. There are so many fantastic writers already out there, if you want to join them, you’re going to have to get very, very good.

I feel it’s best to give you tough love. If you want to write novels – long, gripping novels people are going to give up hours and hours of their precious lives to read, you’re going to have to start training for the ultra-marathon!

What will help with my writing?

Reading will help enormously. Read all kinds of books. Find the kind of writing that you love; the kind of book you could pick up again and again. Is it horror? Is it rom com? Is it sci-fi? Is it historical fiction? What inspires you? What kind of book would you love to write?

Then write! Write and write some more. Write little chunks: blogs, diary entries, short pages. Hone your skills. Try a poem, then a short story. Try out chapter one. Try out the final chapter. Play with words. Describe the people you see on the train. Invent a background for them. Practise dialogue. Turn a news story into a short story. Write, write, write. Train your brain and your fingers to turn your thoughts into great sentences, then your sentences into stories.

Don’t expect to be a genius immediately. It takes time to get good. I was writing stories, essays and diaries all the time I was growing up. I spent my early 20s being a newspaper journalist. I must have written millions of words before I got started on chapter one. My first book attempt was in the bin by chapter four and I began again.

Think of JK Rowling, she’d been working on that first Harry Potter manuscript for YEARS before she showed it to anyone and even then all the big publishers turned her down! Her enormous success had nothing to do with luck: it was because she had a huge story to tell, sheer persistence and worked bloody hard.

 Are any books helpful?

I’m helped by reading and re-reading all the writers I love: Nancy Mitford, Anne Tyler, Agatha Christie, John Irving, JK Rowling, Roald Dahl, Candace Bushnell and many more.

I’ve also found these books very inspirational and packed with great advice: Robert McKee’s Story, Stephen King’s On Writing, Michelle Wallerstein’s Mind Your Business.

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan always get my romantic comedy juices flowing, along with every film written by Nora Ephron.

Should I join a writing group?

I’ve never joined a writing group. This is because I am such a loner and solitary animal. Also, I didn’t think I could bear the criticism! You have to be tough to write and keep on writing, but oh my goodness writing makes you vulnerable. As soon as you’ve written something, you’ve created a work that people can criticise. And believe me, everybody has an opinion. You just need to go onto Amazon to see that.

But writing groups can be hugely helpful. They help people to focus on what they want to write, they help people make contacts, plus they inspire you to get the work done. Only you can know if a group is a good idea for you. You could always try one and see. You could even advertise and set one up in your area.

 Where do I get ideas from?

EVERYWHERE!! As Paul Smith the fashion designer wrote: ’Inspiration is everywhere, if at first you don’t see it, look again!’ Open your mind to ideas. They really are everywhere. I used to worry about having enough things to write about, now I worry about finding the time to write about all my ideas. What sort of things have happened to you? What’s happened to your friend? Could it be re-worked? Could it be made much more exciting? What’s in the news? What’s in National Geographic? See reality as your springboard into the swimming pool of story.

You need to have a story. A really intriguing, interesting tale. You need to have great, memorable, fully-fleshed characters. If you are writing rom-com, you need to have some really hilariously funny scenes; some heart-meltingly tender scenes and you need a love story where something is always in the way of the happy couple.

Dig deeply into all your wide experience of life. How do your own relationships work? What makes you fall in love? What makes you angry? Sad? Confused? Despairing?

Should I do research?

ABSOLUTELY!! Go to the places you are writing about. Interview people who’ve done something like your heroine. You will get one million more great ideas doing this than you can ever dream of at your desk.

 Should I have a plan?

YOU’D BE MAD NOT TO!

Readers are viewers. They are used to more plot in a half an hour sit-com than they ever got in a full Dickens novel. You must plot your baby to death. You must keep your reader nailed to the chair. You will never manage this without a detailed plan. I work on my plans for weeks. I don’t write a word until I have every chapter outlined and the whole story completely outlined. Even then, it still changes, improves, gets messed around.

 Should I listen to criticism?

Only if it’s from someone you really trust. Writing something that makes your Mum beam with pride is not hard. Writing something that will move and engage perfect strangers is much more tricky. When you have a first draft you are really happy with, tell your story to a couple of friends who have been briefed to be firm but fair. Don’t make them read the whole thing. Try out the outline of your story on them. Does it excite them? Interest them? Do their eyes glaze over? Where are the problems?

Should I re-write?

Re-writing is the number one skill. It separates the amateurs from the professionals. About 50% of my time, maybe more is spent re-writing my work. I get to the end of my first draft in a hurry. I’m making sure the story works and I’m getting to know my characters. Then I start re-writing and the really hard work follows. But this is the sweat and tears that makes stories good.

How do I get an agent?

I have no idea!! You need an agent, because hardly any publishers look at manuscripts which don’t come from agents (check their websites to find out). But agents are like fairy dust.  Agents are very, very busy looking after those super important clients who earn them vast amounts of money.  With your unpublished manuscript, you are so far down the pecking order, your precious work will be handed to the work experience girl if you are lucky.  But remind yourself, big deals with brand new authors are made all the time. Agents and publishers continue to need new writers.

Do your research, find agents who represent your kind of work. Submit exactly as it says on the website. Send only your very polished, very best work. Write a covering letter of genius, brilliantly written about your brilliant story. Get them hooked. Make yours the manuscript at the top of the pile.

 I’ve been rejected, now what?

If you’ve sent your best work to many reputable agents or publishers and they’ve all said no thanks, you have to dust yourself down and think hard about what to do next. You could find more people to send it to… you could self-publish. You could put your work in a drawer and work on your next idea. You could stop and rest for a while… or go on a course, read books about writing, train your writing muscles to get better and stronger. No decision is right or wrong here. You have to decide what’s best for you. But I can promise the more you read, write and re-write, the better you will get.

 I’ve published one book, how do I keep going?

Your book is published, the world did not stop turning, Hollywood did not call, you are not as rich as Dan Brown. Welcome to the club. Look very hard at what worked; look even harder at what didn’t work. Don’t blame yourself for everything, but don’t accept no blame. Maybe you need to get much better. Think up a much stronger story. Do more research. Maybe you need to flex your PR muscles on your next time out.

Take your new career seriously. Find an amazing new story, fresh avenues for your work. Make lots more contacts in all sorts of connected fields.

All authors need these quotations pinned up above their desk:

‘Try again, fail again, fail better.’   Samuel Beckett.

‘Never, never, never, NEVER, give up.’   Sir Winston Churchill.

Do I self-publish on the internet?

Previously, I would always have said no, it’s a waste of time and money and you won’t make a penny. But the game has changed. Some writers are now fabulous e-book successes. In ten years time we may all be self-published on the internet. Do your research, don’t get ripped off and don’t put anything out there that isn’t your absolutely best work. Expect to do a lot of self-promoting. Success on the internet is just like success with a publisher, it’s all about talent and hard work. We are all only as good as the last thing we’ve written and the next big thing we’re writing.

 Will writing make me rich?

Let’s be realistic here. One in hundreds of thousands of writers will become rich: maybe through genius, epic hard work or sheer good luck. Just like one in hundreds of thousands of actors, painters and all kinds of creative people. The rest of us will range from making a great living to struggling on penniless. Love your work, devote yourself to your work and hope that the money will follow. If you have success, be like several wise old actors I know and save your money hard because success may not come around again immediately. Yachts and villas on the Med are for gas barons and internet billionaires not, usually, novelists.

Will writing make me happy?

I love to write. I love the hours when I am so in the flow, so in my made-up world that I forget about everything else. But I spend all day, most days, withimaginary people and many head-doctors would consider this a worrying condition!

Creative people often struggle with mental health issues – we get depressed, we fret, we drink or smoke, take drugs, or comfort eat or all of the above. Maybe we were like this when we began; maybe the nature of our work makes us more like this. I do believe that writing makes you vulnerable. Plus it can become obsessive. Writing can take up all the time you have, no manuscript is ever ‘finished’, and you can use writing as a way of opting out of everything else life has to offer.

You need balance!

You need to look after the other areas of life too: friends, family and your health. You need regular breaks from writing, reading other writing and thinking about writing – hard, I know! But there must be room for relaxation, laughter and holidays. If I am turning into a basket case, I shut everything down and hang out with my children. Sometimes you just have to go away and come back to the keyboard with fresh perspective.

 Should I give up my day job?

I have mixed feelings about this. Basically I did give up my day job and the terror got me writing like a dervish. Happily, I landed a two-book deal which gave me enough money to take another year off to write more. For several years I combined fiction writing with freelance journalism, now I write fiction full-time but I know I have journalism skills if I need to go back to them.

I’m not sure I would advise an 18 year old to study creative writing at college and nothing else. But sometimes, you have to walk the wire without the safety net because if you put your heart and soul into writing it might work much better than if you potter about at the weekends only.

Giving up the day job to write is scary and stressful. Please approach it very, very carefully, fully consulting your nearest and dearest and burn no bridges. Bear in mind that many, many well known writers combine writing with other jobs and careers which reliably pay the bills.

 Finally…

I really hope this has helped. Very, very best of luck out there. May your story be the next huge thing the world didn’t even know it was waiting for! And if it isn’t – please love the ride. Writing is fantastic – like dreaming with the lights on. Work hard, master the art, bring your dreams to life and WRITE ON!!

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

 

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

20 Tips For Surviving The Builders

And the builders are OUT… phew! I’m breathing a huge, dusty sigh of relief and allowing life as I know it to resume.

I’ve totally renovated four homes so far and although I don’t think this one will be the last, I have promised my family some peace and quiet… for a while.

I’ve learned (the hard way) a few useful things about having the builders in and thought I’d share my top 20 tips in case they’re useful to anyone else in this nerve-shreddingly stressful situation.

1.     Get as much done all at the one time as you possibly can. I’ve tried doing a bathroom here, a kitchen the next year, redecorating bit by bit and it’s not ideal. Plumbers and electricians come in and sigh: ‘Who did the kitchen like that? For the new bathroom, I’ll have to re-do all that piping/ wiring.’  Or worse, hauling their ladders and equipment into the kitchen, they scratch your new hall paintwork or eeek, your brand new floor. The more work you can get done at once, the better the price should be.

2.     Move out if at all possible. Even for the first few weeks. This allows you and your family to remain sane and be dressed without plaster dust on your clothes, in your hair, all over your beds and even in your food. It also lets the builders forge ahead without having to worry about water, gas and electrics having to be reconnected every evening.

3.      If you have to stay at home, tape polythene sheets over doors, buy a brush, dustpan, even a cheap vacuum cleaner just to deal with builder mess. Do not use your lovely Dyson to scoop up plaster dust and rubble. Do not let the builders use it either: it will die!

4.     If you work from home, you HAVE to find somewhere else to go. Trust me here. The library, a café with wifi, you have to get out. You cannot listen to Lesser Known Hits of the 80s, plus drilling and bumping and banging for weeks on end and get work done.

5.     Be VERY choosy about which builder you use. Do not rush this decision. Get recommendations from people you trust, or neighbours… even bathroom and kitchen suppliers. Go and see previous work the builder has done. Ask the owners if the work was quick and tidy, if the builders were polite, stuck to the agreed budget, turned up on time, stayed with the job right to the end. If a builder is available straight away, beware. Good builders have to be booked in advance. If you’re in an old house, you need a builder used to renovating old property.

6.     I don’t like tradesmen who only want to be paid in cash and I don’t like it if they want part of the money up front. Both of these things suggest they’re not running their business well and they won’t run your project well either. I totally wanted to sack a builder once, but had paid too much up front to be able to do it.

7.     Some money part way through is OK. But you need a week or two after the work is completed before you pay your final bill. So you can work out what the little problems are and ask for them to be fixed before you settle up.

8.     Plan, plan, plan. Make drawings of your rooms. Think about plugs, lights, tiling, cabinets, the way the door opens… Make as many decisions ahead of the work as possible. There will still be lots of decisions to make on the spot. Take some guidance from your builder – he might from experience know of a better way to do it…

9.     …But don’t do everything the builder way – sometimes they can go overboard with plastic trimming, beading, coving, laminate flooring and everything in beige and before you know it the heart and soul of your characterful old house has been ripped out and MDF-ed over.

10.   Consider using an architect. I asked an architect friend, who recommended the office junior, who made several visits and lots of plans. She had great ideas, oversaw getting the building warrant and all the relevant permits and charged us less than we expected for her time.

11. If your decorator umms and ahhs and says: ‘Are you sure? That’s quite a dark/ bright/ unusual colour?’ Just say YES. If you want a beautiful paint job with proper sanding down and many layers of paint, say so. Expect it to take longer and cost more than slapping the stuff on.

12.  Don’t freak out when standing in an empty newly painted room. By the time you’ve put in sofas, pictures, lamps, shelves, books – the colour will be lovely and just the way you imagined it.

13. Be business like with your builders. They’re not your new friends; they’re not your Dad/ uncle/ boss. You’re in charge. If things aren’t going the way you want, ask about it. Explain what you want. Listen. Sometimes you will have to compromise because what you want doesn’t work. But don’t accept something you really don’t want. The builder is going to move on and you’ll be left regretting this bit of work for the next five, ten years or longer.

14. When you first agree a price with the builder, try and get everything you can think of onto that estimate. There will always be a few extra jobs at the end, which will put the price up, but try not to make it a great long list of extras. Otherwise your bill might be a nasty shock.

15. Agree a timetable. Expect it to take a bit longer. But do not accept endless weeks of delay. If this is happening, you need to find out why and ask them to get back on track.

16. Keep all your estimates, bills and receipts in a dedicated folder. File all those guarantees. Unused paint tins, lightshades that didn’t match, bookcases that didn’t fit, unopened boxes of tiles – all can be returned if you have the receipt.

17. Get everything finished! Don’t leave wires dangling while you procrastinate on a bathroom cabinet, don’t leave plywood on the floor while you dither about tiles. After all the pain you’ve gone through, you NEED the big ‘tah dah’ when it all comes together and looks brilliant.

18. Accept that budget limitations can lead to creative and brilliant results. My £9 a metre bathroom tiles look amazing. Crown and Dulux have colours just as pretty as Farrow and Ball’s (use tester pots to find them). Two IKEA pendant lights can look even better than one designer one. A cheap bookcase properly assembled and fitted to the wall by a joiner looks almost as good as a bespoke one.

19. Realise that your wine/ chocolate/ biscuit consumption will rocket during this horribly stressful and expensive time.

20.  Remind yourself that it will be worth all the pain, expense and hassle. We’ve created a big family kitchen, renovated an old bathroom, plus put in a second bathroom and already, one week in, this has transformed home life.

 

World Book Day | My best advice to writers

Today is World Book Day. To mark the occasion I thought I’d repost this blog from my old site. I think there’s plenty here to think about for anyone who loves books, loves writing — and for anyone thinking of trying to write a novel. I’d love to hear your comments:

How do I get started writing?

I could write chapters and chapters, probably a whole book about writing. But I’m going to try and break it down into FAQs for you. If I haven’t answered your question, then please drop me a line. But these are my best answers to the questions I’m often asked. Also, I’m not just a published writer who ‘has it easy’ (‘What does she know about rejections?’) I’m also married to a trying-to-be-published writer. So I know about the process from many angles.

You sit down and you start. There we go. You don’t put it off until you ‘have the time’ or ‘feel in the mood’. You just apply your behind to the chair and get on with it. Because all that time you are wasting thinking about writing your amazing novel, I’m actually at my computer writing.

If we were runners, you would be thinking about taking up running and I would be training six days a week, so come the race – who has the best chance of finishing?!

Writing is a complex art. Expressing your ideas, characters and story in words is a skill which takes a lifetime to master. I’ve been writing fiction for 14 years now and I’m only beginning to get the hang of it. Just because you can read novels does not mean you can write them. Just because a book is easy to read does not mean it is easy to write.

Plus, it’s a very competitive business. There are so many fantastic writers already out there, if you want to join them, you’re going to have to get very, very good.

I feel it’s best to give you tough love. If you want to write novels – long, gripping novels people are going to give up hours and hours of their precious lives to read, you’re going to have to start training for the ultra-marathon!

What will help with my writing?

Reading will help enormously. Read all kinds of books. Find the kind of writing that you love; the kind of book you could pick up again and again. Is it horror? Is it rom com? Is it sci-fi? Is it historical fiction? What inspires you? What kind of book would you love to write?

Then write! Write and write some more. Write little chunks: blogs, diary entries, short pages. Hone your skills. Try a poem, then a short story. Try out chapter one. Try out the final chapter. Play with words. Describe the people you see on the train. Invent a background for them. Practise dialogue. Turn a news story into a short story. Write, write, write. Train your brain and your fingers to turn your thoughts into great sentences, then your sentences into stories.

Don’t expect to be a genius immediately. It takes time to get good. I was writing stories, essays and diaries all the time I was growing up. I spent my early 20s being a newspaper journalist. I must have written millions of words before I got started on chapter one. My first book attempt was in the bin by chapter four and I began again.

Think of JK Rowling, she’d been working on that first Harry Potter manuscript for YEARS before she showed it to anyone and even then all the big publishers turned her down! Her enormous success had nothing to do with luck: it was because she had a huge story to tell, sheer persistence and worked bloody hard.

 Are any books helpful?

I’m helped by reading and re-reading all the writers I love: Nancy Mitford, Anne Tyler, Agatha Christie, John Irving, JK Rowling, Roald Dahl, Candace Bushnell and many more.

I’ve also found these books very inspirational and packed with great advice: Robert McKee’s Story, Stephen King’s On Writing, Michelle Wallerstein’s Mind Your Business.

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan always get my romantic comedy juices flowing, along with every film written by Nora Ephron.

Should I join a writing group?

I’ve never joined a writing group. This is because I am such a loner and solitary animal. Also, I didn’t think I could bear the criticism! You have to be tough to write and keep on writing, but oh my goodness writing makes you vulnerable. As soon as you’ve written something, you’ve created a work that people can criticise. And believe me, everybody has an opinion. You just need to go onto Amazon to see that.

But writing groups can be hugely helpful. They help people to focus on what they want to write, they help people make contacts, plus they inspire you to get the work done. Only you can know if a group is a good idea for you. You could always try one and see. You could even advertise and set one up in your area.

 Where do I get ideas from?

EVERYWHERE!! As Paul Smith the fashion designer wrote: ’Inspiration is everywhere, if at first you don’t see it, look again!’ Open your mind to ideas. They really are everywhere. I used to worry about having enough things to write about, now I worry about finding the time to write about all my ideas. What sort of things have happened to you? What’s happened to your friend? Could it be re-worked? Could it be made much more exciting? What’s in the news? What’s in National Geographic? See reality as your springboard into the swimming pool of story.

You need to have a story. A really intriguing, interesting tale. You need to have great, memorable, fully-fleshed characters. If you are writing rom-com, you need to have some really hilariously funny scenes; some heart-meltingly tender scenes and you need a love story where something is always in the way of the happy couple.

Dig deeply into all your wide experience of life. How do your own relationships work? What makes you fall in love? What makes you angry? Sad? Confused? Despairing?

Should I do research?

ABSOLUTELY!! Go to the places you are writing about. Interview people who’ve done something like your heroine. You will get one million more great ideas doing this than you can ever dream of at your desk.

 Should I have a plan?

YOU’D BE MAD NOT TO!

Readers are viewers. They are used to more plot in a half an hour sit-com than they ever got in a full Dickens novel. You must plot your baby to death. You must keep your reader nailed to the chair. You will never manage this without a detailed plan. I work on my plans for weeks. I don’t write a word until I have every chapter outlined and the whole story completely outlined. Even then, it still changes, improves, gets messed around.

 Should I listen to criticism?

Only if it’s from someone you really trust. Writing something that makes your Mum beam with pride is not hard. Writing something that will move and engage perfect strangers is much more tricky. When you have a first draft you are really happy with, tell your story to a couple of friends who have been briefed to be firm but fair. Don’t make them read the whole thing. Try out the outline of your story on them. Does it excite them? Interest them? Do their eyes glaze over? Where are the problems?

Should I re-write?

Re-writing is the number one skill. It separates the amateurs from the professionals. About 50% of my time, maybe more is spent re-writing my work. I get to the end of my first draft in a hurry. I’m making sure the story works and I’m getting to know my characters. Then I start re-writing and the really hard work follows. But this is the sweat and tears that makes stories good.

How do I get an agent?

I have no idea!! You need an agent, because hardly any publishers look at manuscripts which don’t come from agents (check their websites to find out). But agents are like fairy dust.  Agents are very, very busy looking after those super important clients who earn them vast amounts of money.  With your unpublished manuscript, you are so far down the pecking order, your precious work will be handed to the work experience girl if you are lucky.  But remind yourself, big deals with brand new authors are made all the time. Agents and publishers continue to need new writers.

Do your research, find agents who represent your kind of work. Submit exactly as it says on the website. Send only your very polished, very best work. Write a covering letter of genius, brilliantly written about your brilliant story. Get them hooked. Make yours the manuscript at the top of the pile.

 I’ve been rejected, now what?

If you’ve sent your best work to many reputable agents or publishers and they’ve all said no thanks, you have to dust yourself down and think hard about what to do next. You could find more people to send it to… you could self-publish. You could put your work in a drawer and work on your next idea. You could stop and rest for a while… or go on a course, read books about writing, train your writing muscles to get better and stronger. No decision is right or wrong here. You have to decide what’s best for you. But I can promise the more you read, write and re-write, the better you will get.

 I’ve published one book, how do I keep going?

Your book is published, the world did not stop turning, Hollywood did not call, you are not as rich as Dan Brown. Welcome to the club. Look very hard at what worked; look even harder at what didn’t work. Don’t blame yourself for everything, but don’t accept no blame. Maybe you need to get much better. Think up a much stronger story. Do more research. Maybe you need to flex your PR muscles on your next time out.

Take your new career seriously. Find an amazing new story, fresh avenues for your work. Make lots more contacts in all sorts of connected fields.

All authors need these quotations pinned up above their desk:

‘Try again, fail again, fail better.’   Samuel Beckett.

‘Never, never, never, NEVER, give up.’   Sir Winston Churchill.

Do I self-publish on the internet?

Previously, I would always have said no, it’s a waste of time and money and you won’t make a penny. But the game has changed. Some writers are now fabulous e-book successes. In ten years time we may all be self-published on the internet. Do your research, don’t get ripped off and don’t put anything out there that isn’t your absolutely best work. Expect to do a lot of self-promoting. Success on the internet is just like success with a publisher, it’s all about talent and hard work. We are all only as good as the last thing we’ve written and the next big thing we’re writing.

 Will writing make me rich?

Let’s be realistic here. One in hundreds of thousands of writers will become rich: maybe through genius, epic hard work or sheer good luck. Just like one in hundreds of thousands of actors, painters and all kinds of creative people. The rest of us will range from making a great living to struggling on penniless. Love your work, devote yourself to your work and hope that the money will follow. If you have success, be like several wise old actors I know and save your money hard because success may not come around again immediately. Yachts and villas on the Med are for gas barons and internet billionaires not, usually, novelists.

Will writing make me happy?

I love to write. I love the hours when I am so in the flow, so in my made-up world that I forget about everything else. But I spend all day, most days, withimaginary people and many head-doctors would consider this a worrying condition!

Creative people often struggle with mental health issues – we get depressed, we fret, we drink or smoke, take drugs, or comfort eat or all of the above. Maybe we were like this when we began; maybe the nature of our work makes us more like this. I do believe that writing makes you vulnerable. Plus it can become obsessive. Writing can take up all the time you have, no manuscript is ever ‘finished’, and you can use writing as a way of opting out of everything else life has to offer.

You need balance!

You need to look after the other areas of life too: friends, family and your health. You need regular breaks from writing, reading other writing and thinking about writing – hard, I know! But there must be room for relaxation, laughter and holidays. If I am turning into a basket case, I shut everything down and hang out with my children. Sometimes you just have to go away and come back to the keyboard with fresh perspective.

 Should I give up my day job?

I have mixed feelings about this. Basically I did give up my day job and the terror got me writing like a dervish. Happily, I landed a two-book deal which gave me enough money to take another year off to write more. For several years I combined fiction writing with freelance journalism, now I write fiction full-time but I know I have journalism skills if I need to go back to them.

I’m not sure I would advise an 18 year old to study creative writing at college and nothing else. But sometimes, you have to walk the wire without the safety net because if you put your heart and soul into writing it might work much better than if you potter about at the weekends only.

Giving up the day job to write is scary and stressful. Please approach it very, very carefully, fully consulting your nearest and dearest and burn no bridges. Bear in mind that many, many well known writers combine writing with other jobs and careers which reliably pay the bills.

 Finally…

I really hope this has helped. Very, very best of luck out there. May your story be the next huge thing the world didn’t even know it was waiting for! And if it isn’t – please love the ride. Writing is fantastic – like dreaming with the lights on. Work hard, master the art, bring your dreams to life and WRITE ON!!

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

 

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

20 Tips For Surviving The Builders

And the builders are OUT… phew! I’m breathing a huge, dusty sigh of relief and allowing life as I know it to resume.

I’ve totally renovated four homes so far and although I don’t think this one will be the last, I have promised my family some peace and quiet… for a while.

I’ve learned (the hard way) a few useful things about having the builders in and thought I’d share my top 20 tips in case they’re useful to anyone else in this nerve-shreddingly stressful situation.

1.     Get as much done all at the one time as you possibly can. I’ve tried doing a bathroom here, a kitchen the next year, redecorating bit by bit and it’s not ideal. Plumbers and electricians come in and sigh: ‘Who did the kitchen like that? For the new bathroom, I’ll have to re-do all that piping/ wiring.’  Or worse, hauling their ladders and equipment into the kitchen, they scratch your new hall paintwork or eeek, your brand new floor. The more work you can get done at once, the better the price should be.

2.     Move out if at all possible. Even for the first few weeks. This allows you and your family to remain sane and be dressed without plaster dust on your clothes, in your hair, all over your beds and even in your food. It also lets the builders forge ahead without having to worry about water, gas and electrics having to be reconnected every evening.

3.      If you have to stay at home, tape polythene sheets over doors, buy a brush, dustpan, even a cheap vacuum cleaner just to deal with builder mess. Do not use your lovely Dyson to scoop up plaster dust and rubble. Do not let the builders use it either: it will die!

4.     If you work from home, you HAVE to find somewhere else to go. Trust me here. The library, a café with wifi, you have to get out. You cannot listen to Lesser Known Hits of the 80s, plus drilling and bumping and banging for weeks on end and get work done.

5.     Be VERY choosy about which builder you use. Do not rush this decision. Get recommendations from people you trust, or neighbours… even bathroom and kitchen suppliers. Go and see previous work the builder has done. Ask the owners if the work was quick and tidy, if the builders were polite, stuck to the agreed budget, turned up on time, stayed with the job right to the end. If a builder is available straight away, beware. Good builders have to be booked in advance. If you’re in an old house, you need a builder used to renovating old property.

6.     I don’t like tradesmen who only want to be paid in cash and I don’t like it if they want part of the money up front. Both of these things suggest they’re not running their business well and they won’t run your project well either. I totally wanted to sack a builder once, but had paid too much up front to be able to do it.

7.     Some money part way through is OK. But you need a week or two after the work is completed before you pay your final bill. So you can work out what the little problems are and ask for them to be fixed before you settle up.

8.     Plan, plan, plan. Make drawings of your rooms. Think about plugs, lights, tiling, cabinets, the way the door opens… Make as many decisions ahead of the work as possible. There will still be lots of decisions to make on the spot. Take some guidance from your builder – he might from experience know of a better way to do it…

9.     …But don’t do everything the builder way – sometimes they can go overboard with plastic trimming, beading, coving, laminate flooring and everything in beige and before you know it the heart and soul of your characterful old house has been ripped out and MDF-ed over.

10.   Consider using an architect. I asked an architect friend, who recommended the office junior, who made several visits and lots of plans. She had great ideas, oversaw getting the building warrant and all the relevant permits and charged us less than we expected for her time.

11. If your decorator umms and ahhs and says: ‘Are you sure? That’s quite a dark/ bright/ unusual colour?’ Just say YES. If you want a beautiful paint job with proper sanding down and many layers of paint, say so. Expect it to take longer and cost more than slapping the stuff on.

12.  Don’t freak out when standing in an empty newly painted room. By the time you’ve put in sofas, pictures, lamps, shelves, books – the colour will be lovely and just the way you imagined it.

13. Be business like with your builders. They’re not your new friends; they’re not your Dad/ uncle/ boss. You’re in charge. If things aren’t going the way you want, ask about it. Explain what you want. Listen. Sometimes you will have to compromise because what you want doesn’t work. But don’t accept something you really don’t want. The builder is going to move on and you’ll be left regretting this bit of work for the next five, ten years or longer.

14. When you first agree a price with the builder, try and get everything you can think of onto that estimate. There will always be a few extra jobs at the end, which will put the price up, but try not to make it a great long list of extras. Otherwise your bill might be a nasty shock.

15. Agree a timetable. Expect it to take a bit longer. But do not accept endless weeks of delay. If this is happening, you need to find out why and ask them to get back on track.

16. Keep all your estimates, bills and receipts in a dedicated folder. File all those guarantees. Unused paint tins, lightshades that didn’t match, bookcases that didn’t fit, unopened boxes of tiles – all can be returned if you have the receipt.

17. Get everything finished! Don’t leave wires dangling while you procrastinate on a bathroom cabinet, don’t leave plywood on the floor while you dither about tiles. After all the pain you’ve gone through, you NEED the big ‘tah dah’ when it all comes together and looks brilliant.

18. Accept that budget limitations can lead to creative and brilliant results. My £9 a metre bathroom tiles look amazing. Crown and Dulux have colours just as pretty as Farrow and Ball’s (use tester pots to find them). Two IKEA pendant lights can look even better than one designer one. A cheap bookcase properly assembled and fitted to the wall by a joiner looks almost as good as a bespoke one.

19. Realise that your wine/ chocolate/ biscuit consumption will rocket during this horribly stressful and expensive time.

20.  Remind yourself that it will be worth all the pain, expense and hassle. We’ve created a big family kitchen, renovated an old bathroom, plus put in a second bathroom and already, one week in, this has transformed home life.

 

World Book Day | My best advice to writers

Today is World Book Day. To mark the occasion I thought I’d repost this blog from my old site. I think there’s plenty here to think about for anyone who loves books, loves writing — and for anyone thinking of trying to write a novel. I’d love to hear your comments:

How do I get started writing?

I could write chapters and chapters, probably a whole book about writing. But I’m going to try and break it down into FAQs for you. If I haven’t answered your question, then please drop me a line. But these are my best answers to the questions I’m often asked. Also, I’m not just a published writer who ‘has it easy’ (‘What does she know about rejections?’) I’m also married to a trying-to-be-published writer. So I know about the process from many angles.

You sit down and you start. There we go. You don’t put it off until you ‘have the time’ or ‘feel in the mood’. You just apply your behind to the chair and get on with it. Because all that time you are wasting thinking about writing your amazing novel, I’m actually at my computer writing.

If we were runners, you would be thinking about taking up running and I would be training six days a week, so come the race – who has the best chance of finishing?!

Writing is a complex art. Expressing your ideas, characters and story in words is a skill which takes a lifetime to master. I’ve been writing fiction for 14 years now and I’m only beginning to get the hang of it. Just because you can read novels does not mean you can write them. Just because a book is easy to read does not mean it is easy to write.

Plus, it’s a very competitive business. There are so many fantastic writers already out there, if you want to join them, you’re going to have to get very, very good.

I feel it’s best to give you tough love. If you want to write novels – long, gripping novels people are going to give up hours and hours of their precious lives to read, you’re going to have to start training for the ultra-marathon!

What will help with my writing?

Reading will help enormously. Read all kinds of books. Find the kind of writing that you love; the kind of book you could pick up again and again. Is it horror? Is it rom com? Is it sci-fi? Is it historical fiction? What inspires you? What kind of book would you love to write?

Then write! Write and write some more. Write little chunks: blogs, diary entries, short pages. Hone your skills. Try a poem, then a short story. Try out chapter one. Try out the final chapter. Play with words. Describe the people you see on the train. Invent a background for them. Practise dialogue. Turn a news story into a short story. Write, write, write. Train your brain and your fingers to turn your thoughts into great sentences, then your sentences into stories.

Don’t expect to be a genius immediately. It takes time to get good. I was writing stories, essays and diaries all the time I was growing up. I spent my early 20s being a newspaper journalist. I must have written millions of words before I got started on chapter one. My first book attempt was in the bin by chapter four and I began again.

Think of JK Rowling, she’d been working on that first Harry Potter manuscript for YEARS before she showed it to anyone and even then all the big publishers turned her down! Her enormous success had nothing to do with luck: it was because she had a huge story to tell, sheer persistence and worked bloody hard.

 Are any books helpful?

I’m helped by reading and re-reading all the writers I love: Nancy Mitford, Anne Tyler, Agatha Christie, John Irving, JK Rowling, Roald Dahl, Candace Bushnell and many more.

I’ve also found these books very inspirational and packed with great advice: Robert McKee’s Story, Stephen King’s On Writing, Michelle Wallerstein’s Mind Your Business.

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan always get my romantic comedy juices flowing, along with every film written by Nora Ephron.

Should I join a writing group?

I’ve never joined a writing group. This is because I am such a loner and solitary animal. Also, I didn’t think I could bear the criticism! You have to be tough to write and keep on writing, but oh my goodness writing makes you vulnerable. As soon as you’ve written something, you’ve created a work that people can criticise. And believe me, everybody has an opinion. You just need to go onto Amazon to see that.

But writing groups can be hugely helpful. They help people to focus on what they want to write, they help people make contacts, plus they inspire you to get the work done. Only you can know if a group is a good idea for you. You could always try one and see. You could even advertise and set one up in your area.

 Where do I get ideas from?

EVERYWHERE!! As Paul Smith the fashion designer wrote: ’Inspiration is everywhere, if at first you don’t see it, look again!’ Open your mind to ideas. They really are everywhere. I used to worry about having enough things to write about, now I worry about finding the time to write about all my ideas. What sort of things have happened to you? What’s happened to your friend? Could it be re-worked? Could it be made much more exciting? What’s in the news? What’s in National Geographic? See reality as your springboard into the swimming pool of story.

You need to have a story. A really intriguing, interesting tale. You need to have great, memorable, fully-fleshed characters. If you are writing rom-com, you need to have some really hilariously funny scenes; some heart-meltingly tender scenes and you need a love story where something is always in the way of the happy couple.

Dig deeply into all your wide experience of life. How do your own relationships work? What makes you fall in love? What makes you angry? Sad? Confused? Despairing?

Should I do research?

ABSOLUTELY!! Go to the places you are writing about. Interview people who’ve done something like your heroine. You will get one million more great ideas doing this than you can ever dream of at your desk.

 Should I have a plan?

YOU’D BE MAD NOT TO!

Readers are viewers. They are used to more plot in a half an hour sit-com than they ever got in a full Dickens novel. You must plot your baby to death. You must keep your reader nailed to the chair. You will never manage this without a detailed plan. I work on my plans for weeks. I don’t write a word until I have every chapter outlined and the whole story completely outlined. Even then, it still changes, improves, gets messed around.

 Should I listen to criticism?

Only if it’s from someone you really trust. Writing something that makes your Mum beam with pride is not hard. Writing something that will move and engage perfect strangers is much more tricky. When you have a first draft you are really happy with, tell your story to a couple of friends who have been briefed to be firm but fair. Don’t make them read the whole thing. Try out the outline of your story on them. Does it excite them? Interest them? Do their eyes glaze over? Where are the problems?

Should I re-write?

Re-writing is the number one skill. It separates the amateurs from the professionals. About 50% of my time, maybe more is spent re-writing my work. I get to the end of my first draft in a hurry. I’m making sure the story works and I’m getting to know my characters. Then I start re-writing and the really hard work follows. But this is the sweat and tears that makes stories good.

How do I get an agent?

I have no idea!! You need an agent, because hardly any publishers look at manuscripts which don’t come from agents (check their websites to find out). But agents are like fairy dust.  Agents are very, very busy looking after those super important clients who earn them vast amounts of money.  With your unpublished manuscript, you are so far down the pecking order, your precious work will be handed to the work experience girl if you are lucky.  But remind yourself, big deals with brand new authors are made all the time. Agents and publishers continue to need new writers.

Do your research, find agents who represent your kind of work. Submit exactly as it says on the website. Send only your very polished, very best work. Write a covering letter of genius, brilliantly written about your brilliant story. Get them hooked. Make yours the manuscript at the top of the pile.

 I’ve been rejected, now what?

If you’ve sent your best work to many reputable agents or publishers and they’ve all said no thanks, you have to dust yourself down and think hard about what to do next. You could find more people to send it to… you could self-publish. You could put your work in a drawer and work on your next idea. You could stop and rest for a while… or go on a course, read books about writing, train your writing muscles to get better and stronger. No decision is right or wrong here. You have to decide what’s best for you. But I can promise the more you read, write and re-write, the better you will get.

 I’ve published one book, how do I keep going?

Your book is published, the world did not stop turning, Hollywood did not call, you are not as rich as Dan Brown. Welcome to the club. Look very hard at what worked; look even harder at what didn’t work. Don’t blame yourself for everything, but don’t accept no blame. Maybe you need to get much better. Think up a much stronger story. Do more research. Maybe you need to flex your PR muscles on your next time out.

Take your new career seriously. Find an amazing new story, fresh avenues for your work. Make lots more contacts in all sorts of connected fields.

All authors need these quotations pinned up above their desk:

‘Try again, fail again, fail better.’   Samuel Beckett.

‘Never, never, never, NEVER, give up.’   Sir Winston Churchill.

Do I self-publish on the internet?

Previously, I would always have said no, it’s a waste of time and money and you won’t make a penny. But the game has changed. Some writers are now fabulous e-book successes. In ten years time we may all be self-published on the internet. Do your research, don’t get ripped off and don’t put anything out there that isn’t your absolutely best work. Expect to do a lot of self-promoting. Success on the internet is just like success with a publisher, it’s all about talent and hard work. We are all only as good as the last thing we’ve written and the next big thing we’re writing.

 Will writing make me rich?

Let’s be realistic here. One in hundreds of thousands of writers will become rich: maybe through genius, epic hard work or sheer good luck. Just like one in hundreds of thousands of actors, painters and all kinds of creative people. The rest of us will range from making a great living to struggling on penniless. Love your work, devote yourself to your work and hope that the money will follow. If you have success, be like several wise old actors I know and save your money hard because success may not come around again immediately. Yachts and villas on the Med are for gas barons and internet billionaires not, usually, novelists.

Will writing make me happy?

I love to write. I love the hours when I am so in the flow, so in my made-up world that I forget about everything else. But I spend all day, most days, withimaginary people and many head-doctors would consider this a worrying condition!

Creative people often struggle with mental health issues – we get depressed, we fret, we drink or smoke, take drugs, or comfort eat or all of the above. Maybe we were like this when we began; maybe the nature of our work makes us more like this. I do believe that writing makes you vulnerable. Plus it can become obsessive. Writing can take up all the time you have, no manuscript is ever ‘finished’, and you can use writing as a way of opting out of everything else life has to offer.

You need balance!

You need to look after the other areas of life too: friends, family and your health. You need regular breaks from writing, reading other writing and thinking about writing – hard, I know! But there must be room for relaxation, laughter and holidays. If I am turning into a basket case, I shut everything down and hang out with my children. Sometimes you just have to go away and come back to the keyboard with fresh perspective.

 Should I give up my day job?

I have mixed feelings about this. Basically I did give up my day job and the terror got me writing like a dervish. Happily, I landed a two-book deal which gave me enough money to take another year off to write more. For several years I combined fiction writing with freelance journalism, now I write fiction full-time but I know I have journalism skills if I need to go back to them.

I’m not sure I would advise an 18 year old to study creative writing at college and nothing else. But sometimes, you have to walk the wire without the safety net because if you put your heart and soul into writing it might work much better than if you potter about at the weekends only.

Giving up the day job to write is scary and stressful. Please approach it very, very carefully, fully consulting your nearest and dearest and burn no bridges. Bear in mind that many, many well known writers combine writing with other jobs and careers which reliably pay the bills.

 Finally…

I really hope this has helped. Very, very best of luck out there. May your story be the next huge thing the world didn’t even know it was waiting for! And if it isn’t – please love the ride. Writing is fantastic – like dreaming with the lights on. Work hard, master the art, bring your dreams to life and WRITE ON!!

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

 

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

20 Tips For Surviving The Builders

And the builders are OUT… phew! I’m breathing a huge, dusty sigh of relief and allowing life as I know it to resume.

I’ve totally renovated four homes so far and although I don’t think this one will be the last, I have promised my family some peace and quiet… for a while.

I’ve learned (the hard way) a few useful things about having the builders in and thought I’d share my top 20 tips in case they’re useful to anyone else in this nerve-shreddingly stressful situation.

1.     Get as much done all at the one time as you possibly can. I’ve tried doing a bathroom here, a kitchen the next year, redecorating bit by bit and it’s not ideal. Plumbers and electricians come in and sigh: ‘Who did the kitchen like that? For the new bathroom, I’ll have to re-do all that piping/ wiring.’  Or worse, hauling their ladders and equipment into the kitchen, they scratch your new hall paintwork or eeek, your brand new floor. The more work you can get done at once, the better the price should be.

2.     Move out if at all possible. Even for the first few weeks. This allows you and your family to remain sane and be dressed without plaster dust on your clothes, in your hair, all over your beds and even in your food. It also lets the builders forge ahead without having to worry about water, gas and electrics having to be reconnected every evening.

3.      If you have to stay at home, tape polythene sheets over doors, buy a brush, dustpan, even a cheap vacuum cleaner just to deal with builder mess. Do not use your lovely Dyson to scoop up plaster dust and rubble. Do not let the builders use it either: it will die!

4.     If you work from home, you HAVE to find somewhere else to go. Trust me here. The library, a café with wifi, you have to get out. You cannot listen to Lesser Known Hits of the 80s, plus drilling and bumping and banging for weeks on end and get work done.

5.     Be VERY choosy about which builder you use. Do not rush this decision. Get recommendations from people you trust, or neighbours… even bathroom and kitchen suppliers. Go and see previous work the builder has done. Ask the owners if the work was quick and tidy, if the builders were polite, stuck to the agreed budget, turned up on time, stayed with the job right to the end. If a builder is available straight away, beware. Good builders have to be booked in advance. If you’re in an old house, you need a builder used to renovating old property.

6.     I don’t like tradesmen who only want to be paid in cash and I don’t like it if they want part of the money up front. Both of these things suggest they’re not running their business well and they won’t run your project well either. I totally wanted to sack a builder once, but had paid too much up front to be able to do it.

7.     Some money part way through is OK. But you need a week or two after the work is completed before you pay your final bill. So you can work out what the little problems are and ask for them to be fixed before you settle up.

8.     Plan, plan, plan. Make drawings of your rooms. Think about plugs, lights, tiling, cabinets, the way the door opens… Make as many decisions ahead of the work as possible. There will still be lots of decisions to make on the spot. Take some guidance from your builder – he might from experience know of a better way to do it…

9.     …But don’t do everything the builder way – sometimes they can go overboard with plastic trimming, beading, coving, laminate flooring and everything in beige and before you know it the heart and soul of your characterful old house has been ripped out and MDF-ed over.

10.   Consider using an architect. I asked an architect friend, who recommended the office junior, who made several visits and lots of plans. She had great ideas, oversaw getting the building warrant and all the relevant permits and charged us less than we expected for her time.

11. If your decorator umms and ahhs and says: ‘Are you sure? That’s quite a dark/ bright/ unusual colour?’ Just say YES. If you want a beautiful paint job with proper sanding down and many layers of paint, say so. Expect it to take longer and cost more than slapping the stuff on.

12.  Don’t freak out when standing in an empty newly painted room. By the time you’ve put in sofas, pictures, lamps, shelves, books – the colour will be lovely and just the way you imagined it.

13. Be business like with your builders. They’re not your new friends; they’re not your Dad/ uncle/ boss. You’re in charge. If things aren’t going the way you want, ask about it. Explain what you want. Listen. Sometimes you will have to compromise because what you want doesn’t work. But don’t accept something you really don’t want. The builder is going to move on and you’ll be left regretting this bit of work for the next five, ten years or longer.

14. When you first agree a price with the builder, try and get everything you can think of onto that estimate. There will always be a few extra jobs at the end, which will put the price up, but try not to make it a great long list of extras. Otherwise your bill might be a nasty shock.

15. Agree a timetable. Expect it to take a bit longer. But do not accept endless weeks of delay. If this is happening, you need to find out why and ask them to get back on track.

16. Keep all your estimates, bills and receipts in a dedicated folder. File all those guarantees. Unused paint tins, lightshades that didn’t match, bookcases that didn’t fit, unopened boxes of tiles – all can be returned if you have the receipt.

17. Get everything finished! Don’t leave wires dangling while you procrastinate on a bathroom cabinet, don’t leave plywood on the floor while you dither about tiles. After all the pain you’ve gone through, you NEED the big ‘tah dah’ when it all comes together and looks brilliant.

18. Accept that budget limitations can lead to creative and brilliant results. My £9 a metre bathroom tiles look amazing. Crown and Dulux have colours just as pretty as Farrow and Ball’s (use tester pots to find them). Two IKEA pendant lights can look even better than one designer one. A cheap bookcase properly assembled and fitted to the wall by a joiner looks almost as good as a bespoke one.

19. Realise that your wine/ chocolate/ biscuit consumption will rocket during this horribly stressful and expensive time.

20.  Remind yourself that it will be worth all the pain, expense and hassle. We’ve created a big family kitchen, renovated an old bathroom, plus put in a second bathroom and already, one week in, this has transformed home life.

 

World Book Day | My best advice to writers

Today is World Book Day. To mark the occasion I thought I’d repost this blog from my old site. I think there’s plenty here to think about for anyone who loves books, loves writing — and for anyone thinking of trying to write a novel. I’d love to hear your comments:

How do I get started writing?

I could write chapters and chapters, probably a whole book about writing. But I’m going to try and break it down into FAQs for you. If I haven’t answered your question, then please drop me a line. But these are my best answers to the questions I’m often asked. Also, I’m not just a published writer who ‘has it easy’ (‘What does she know about rejections?’) I’m also married to a trying-to-be-published writer. So I know about the process from many angles.

You sit down and you start. There we go. You don’t put it off until you ‘have the time’ or ‘feel in the mood’. You just apply your behind to the chair and get on with it. Because all that time you are wasting thinking about writing your amazing novel, I’m actually at my computer writing.

If we were runners, you would be thinking about taking up running and I would be training six days a week, so come the race – who has the best chance of finishing?!

Writing is a complex art. Expressing your ideas, characters and story in words is a skill which takes a lifetime to master. I’ve been writing fiction for 14 years now and I’m only beginning to get the hang of it. Just because you can read novels does not mean you can write them. Just because a book is easy to read does not mean it is easy to write.

Plus, it’s a very competitive business. There are so many fantastic writers already out there, if you want to join them, you’re going to have to get very, very good.

I feel it’s best to give you tough love. If you want to write novels – long, gripping novels people are going to give up hours and hours of their precious lives to read, you’re going to have to start training for the ultra-marathon!

What will help with my writing?

Reading will help enormously. Read all kinds of books. Find the kind of writing that you love; the kind of book you could pick up again and again. Is it horror? Is it rom com? Is it sci-fi? Is it historical fiction? What inspires you? What kind of book would you love to write?

Then write! Write and write some more. Write little chunks: blogs, diary entries, short pages. Hone your skills. Try a poem, then a short story. Try out chapter one. Try out the final chapter. Play with words. Describe the people you see on the train. Invent a background for them. Practise dialogue. Turn a news story into a short story. Write, write, write. Train your brain and your fingers to turn your thoughts into great sentences, then your sentences into stories.

Don’t expect to be a genius immediately. It takes time to get good. I was writing stories, essays and diaries all the time I was growing up. I spent my early 20s being a newspaper journalist. I must have written millions of words before I got started on chapter one. My first book attempt was in the bin by chapter four and I began again.

Think of JK Rowling, she’d been working on that first Harry Potter manuscript for YEARS before she showed it to anyone and even then all the big publishers turned her down! Her enormous success had nothing to do with luck: it was because she had a huge story to tell, sheer persistence and worked bloody hard.

 Are any books helpful?

I’m helped by reading and re-reading all the writers I love: Nancy Mitford, Anne Tyler, Agatha Christie, John Irving, JK Rowling, Roald Dahl, Candace Bushnell and many more.

I’ve also found these books very inspirational and packed with great advice: Robert McKee’s Story, Stephen King’s On Writing, Michelle Wallerstein’s Mind Your Business.

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan always get my romantic comedy juices flowing, along with every film written by Nora Ephron.

Should I join a writing group?

I’ve never joined a writing group. This is because I am such a loner and solitary animal. Also, I didn’t think I could bear the criticism! You have to be tough to write and keep on writing, but oh my goodness writing makes you vulnerable. As soon as you’ve written something, you’ve created a work that people can criticise. And believe me, everybody has an opinion. You just need to go onto Amazon to see that.

But writing groups can be hugely helpful. They help people to focus on what they want to write, they help people make contacts, plus they inspire you to get the work done. Only you can know if a group is a good idea for you. You could always try one and see. You could even advertise and set one up in your area.

 Where do I get ideas from?

EVERYWHERE!! As Paul Smith the fashion designer wrote: ’Inspiration is everywhere, if at first you don’t see it, look again!’ Open your mind to ideas. They really are everywhere. I used to worry about having enough things to write about, now I worry about finding the time to write about all my ideas. What sort of things have happened to you? What’s happened to your friend? Could it be re-worked? Could it be made much more exciting? What’s in the news? What’s in National Geographic? See reality as your springboard into the swimming pool of story.

You need to have a story. A really intriguing, interesting tale. You need to have great, memorable, fully-fleshed characters. If you are writing rom-com, you need to have some really hilariously funny scenes; some heart-meltingly tender scenes and you need a love story where something is always in the way of the happy couple.

Dig deeply into all your wide experience of life. How do your own relationships work? What makes you fall in love? What makes you angry? Sad? Confused? Despairing?

Should I do research?

ABSOLUTELY!! Go to the places you are writing about. Interview people who’ve done something like your heroine. You will get one million more great ideas doing this than you can ever dream of at your desk.

 Should I have a plan?

YOU’D BE MAD NOT TO!

Readers are viewers. They are used to more plot in a half an hour sit-com than they ever got in a full Dickens novel. You must plot your baby to death. You must keep your reader nailed to the chair. You will never manage this without a detailed plan. I work on my plans for weeks. I don’t write a word until I have every chapter outlined and the whole story completely outlined. Even then, it still changes, improves, gets messed around.

 Should I listen to criticism?

Only if it’s from someone you really trust. Writing something that makes your Mum beam with pride is not hard. Writing something that will move and engage perfect strangers is much more tricky. When you have a first draft you are really happy with, tell your story to a couple of friends who have been briefed to be firm but fair. Don’t make them read the whole thing. Try out the outline of your story on them. Does it excite them? Interest them? Do their eyes glaze over? Where are the problems?

Should I re-write?

Re-writing is the number one skill. It separates the amateurs from the professionals. About 50% of my time, maybe more is spent re-writing my work. I get to the end of my first draft in a hurry. I’m making sure the story works and I’m getting to know my characters. Then I start re-writing and the really hard work follows. But this is the sweat and tears that makes stories good.

How do I get an agent?

I have no idea!! You need an agent, because hardly any publishers look at manuscripts which don’t come from agents (check their websites to find out). But agents are like fairy dust.  Agents are very, very busy looking after those super important clients who earn them vast amounts of money.  With your unpublished manuscript, you are so far down the pecking order, your precious work will be handed to the work experience girl if you are lucky.  But remind yourself, big deals with brand new authors are made all the time. Agents and publishers continue to need new writers.

Do your research, find agents who represent your kind of work. Submit exactly as it says on the website. Send only your very polished, very best work. Write a covering letter of genius, brilliantly written about your brilliant story. Get them hooked. Make yours the manuscript at the top of the pile.

 I’ve been rejected, now what?

If you’ve sent your best work to many reputable agents or publishers and they’ve all said no thanks, you have to dust yourself down and think hard about what to do next. You could find more people to send it to… you could self-publish. You could put your work in a drawer and work on your next idea. You could stop and rest for a while… or go on a course, read books about writing, train your writing muscles to get better and stronger. No decision is right or wrong here. You have to decide what’s best for you. But I can promise the more you read, write and re-write, the better you will get.

 I’ve published one book, how do I keep going?

Your book is published, the world did not stop turning, Hollywood did not call, you are not as rich as Dan Brown. Welcome to the club. Look very hard at what worked; look even harder at what didn’t work. Don’t blame yourself for everything, but don’t accept no blame. Maybe you need to get much better. Think up a much stronger story. Do more research. Maybe you need to flex your PR muscles on your next time out.

Take your new career seriously. Find an amazing new story, fresh avenues for your work. Make lots more contacts in all sorts of connected fields.

All authors need these quotations pinned up above their desk:

‘Try again, fail again, fail better.’   Samuel Beckett.

‘Never, never, never, NEVER, give up.’   Sir Winston Churchill.

Do I self-publish on the internet?

Previously, I would always have said no, it’s a waste of time and money and you won’t make a penny. But the game has changed. Some writers are now fabulous e-book successes. In ten years time we may all be self-published on the internet. Do your research, don’t get ripped off and don’t put anything out there that isn’t your absolutely best work. Expect to do a lot of self-promoting. Success on the internet is just like success with a publisher, it’s all about talent and hard work. We are all only as good as the last thing we’ve written and the next big thing we’re writing.

 Will writing make me rich?

Let’s be realistic here. One in hundreds of thousands of writers will become rich: maybe through genius, epic hard work or sheer good luck. Just like one in hundreds of thousands of actors, painters and all kinds of creative people. The rest of us will range from making a great living to struggling on penniless. Love your work, devote yourself to your work and hope that the money will follow. If you have success, be like several wise old actors I know and save your money hard because success may not come around again immediately. Yachts and villas on the Med are for gas barons and internet billionaires not, usually, novelists.

Will writing make me happy?

I love to write. I love the hours when I am so in the flow, so in my made-up world that I forget about everything else. But I spend all day, most days, withimaginary people and many head-doctors would consider this a worrying condition!

Creative people often struggle with mental health issues – we get depressed, we fret, we drink or smoke, take drugs, or comfort eat or all of the above. Maybe we were like this when we began; maybe the nature of our work makes us more like this. I do believe that writing makes you vulnerable. Plus it can become obsessive. Writing can take up all the time you have, no manuscript is ever ‘finished’, and you can use writing as a way of opting out of everything else life has to offer.

You need balance!

You need to look after the other areas of life too: friends, family and your health. You need regular breaks from writing, reading other writing and thinking about writing – hard, I know! But there must be room for relaxation, laughter and holidays. If I am turning into a basket case, I shut everything down and hang out with my children. Sometimes you just have to go away and come back to the keyboard with fresh perspective.

 Should I give up my day job?

I have mixed feelings about this. Basically I did give up my day job and the terror got me writing like a dervish. Happily, I landed a two-book deal which gave me enough money to take another year off to write more. For several years I combined fiction writing with freelance journalism, now I write fiction full-time but I know I have journalism skills if I need to go back to them.

I’m not sure I would advise an 18 year old to study creative writing at college and nothing else. But sometimes, you have to walk the wire without the safety net because if you put your heart and soul into writing it might work much better than if you potter about at the weekends only.

Giving up the day job to write is scary and stressful. Please approach it very, very carefully, fully consulting your nearest and dearest and burn no bridges. Bear in mind that many, many well known writers combine writing with other jobs and careers which reliably pay the bills.

 Finally…

I really hope this has helped. Very, very best of luck out there. May your story be the next huge thing the world didn’t even know it was waiting for! And if it isn’t – please love the ride. Writing is fantastic – like dreaming with the lights on. Work hard, master the art, bring your dreams to life and WRITE ON!!

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

 

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

20 Tips For Surviving The Builders

And the builders are OUT… phew! I’m breathing a huge, dusty sigh of relief and allowing life as I know it to resume.

I’ve totally renovated four homes so far and although I don’t think this one will be the last, I have promised my family some peace and quiet… for a while.

I’ve learned (the hard way) a few useful things about having the builders in and thought I’d share my top 20 tips in case they’re useful to anyone else in this nerve-shreddingly stressful situation.

1.     Get as much done all at the one time as you possibly can. I’ve tried doing a bathroom here, a kitchen the next year, redecorating bit by bit and it’s not ideal. Plumbers and electricians come in and sigh: ‘Who did the kitchen like that? For the new bathroom, I’ll have to re-do all that piping/ wiring.’  Or worse, hauling their ladders and equipment into the kitchen, they scratch your new hall paintwork or eeek, your brand new floor. The more work you can get done at once, the better the price should be.

2.     Move out if at all possible. Even for the first few weeks. This allows you and your family to remain sane and be dressed without plaster dust on your clothes, in your hair, all over your beds and even in your food. It also lets the builders forge ahead without having to worry about water, gas and electrics having to be reconnected every evening.

3.      If you have to stay at home, tape polythene sheets over doors, buy a brush, dustpan, even a cheap vacuum cleaner just to deal with builder mess. Do not use your lovely Dyson to scoop up plaster dust and rubble. Do not let the builders use it either: it will die!

4.     If you work from home, you HAVE to find somewhere else to go. Trust me here. The library, a café with wifi, you have to get out. You cannot listen to Lesser Known Hits of the 80s, plus drilling and bumping and banging for weeks on end and get work done.

5.     Be VERY choosy about which builder you use. Do not rush this decision. Get recommendations from people you trust, or neighbours… even bathroom and kitchen suppliers. Go and see previous work the builder has done. Ask the owners if the work was quick and tidy, if the builders were polite, stuck to the agreed budget, turned up on time, stayed with the job right to the end. If a builder is available straight away, beware. Good builders have to be booked in advance. If you’re in an old house, you need a builder used to renovating old property.

6.     I don’t like tradesmen who only want to be paid in cash and I don’t like it if they want part of the money up front. Both of these things suggest they’re not running their business well and they won’t run your project well either. I totally wanted to sack a builder once, but had paid too much up front to be able to do it.

7.     Some money part way through is OK. But you need a week or two after the work is completed before you pay your final bill. So you can work out what the little problems are and ask for them to be fixed before you settle up.

8.     Plan, plan, plan. Make drawings of your rooms. Think about plugs, lights, tiling, cabinets, the way the door opens… Make as many decisions ahead of the work as possible. There will still be lots of decisions to make on the spot. Take some guidance from your builder – he might from experience know of a better way to do it…

9.     …But don’t do everything the builder way – sometimes they can go overboard with plastic trimming, beading, coving, laminate flooring and everything in beige and before you know it the heart and soul of your characterful old house has been ripped out and MDF-ed over.

10.   Consider using an architect. I asked an architect friend, who recommended the office junior, who made several visits and lots of plans. She had great ideas, oversaw getting the building warrant and all the relevant permits and charged us less than we expected for her time.

11. If your decorator umms and ahhs and says: ‘Are you sure? That’s quite a dark/ bright/ unusual colour?’ Just say YES. If you want a beautiful paint job with proper sanding down and many layers of paint, say so. Expect it to take longer and cost more than slapping the stuff on.

12.  Don’t freak out when standing in an empty newly painted room. By the time you’ve put in sofas, pictures, lamps, shelves, books – the colour will be lovely and just the way you imagined it.

13. Be business like with your builders. They’re not your new friends; they’re not your Dad/ uncle/ boss. You’re in charge. If things aren’t going the way you want, ask about it. Explain what you want. Listen. Sometimes you will have to compromise because what you want doesn’t work. But don’t accept something you really don’t want. The builder is going to move on and you’ll be left regretting this bit of work for the next five, ten years or longer.

14. When you first agree a price with the builder, try and get everything you can think of onto that estimate. There will always be a few extra jobs at the end, which will put the price up, but try not to make it a great long list of extras. Otherwise your bill might be a nasty shock.

15. Agree a timetable. Expect it to take a bit longer. But do not accept endless weeks of delay. If this is happening, you need to find out why and ask them to get back on track.

16. Keep all your estimates, bills and receipts in a dedicated folder. File all those guarantees. Unused paint tins, lightshades that didn’t match, bookcases that didn’t fit, unopened boxes of tiles – all can be returned if you have the receipt.

17. Get everything finished! Don’t leave wires dangling while you procrastinate on a bathroom cabinet, don’t leave plywood on the floor while you dither about tiles. After all the pain you’ve gone through, you NEED the big ‘tah dah’ when it all comes together and looks brilliant.

18. Accept that budget limitations can lead to creative and brilliant results. My £9 a metre bathroom tiles look amazing. Crown and Dulux have colours just as pretty as Farrow and Ball’s (use tester pots to find them). Two IKEA pendant lights can look even better than one designer one. A cheap bookcase properly assembled and fitted to the wall by a joiner looks almost as good as a bespoke one.

19. Realise that your wine/ chocolate/ biscuit consumption will rocket during this horribly stressful and expensive time.

20.  Remind yourself that it will be worth all the pain, expense and hassle. We’ve created a big family kitchen, renovated an old bathroom, plus put in a second bathroom and already, one week in, this has transformed home life.

 

World Book Day | My best advice to writers

Today is World Book Day. To mark the occasion I thought I’d repost this blog from my old site. I think there’s plenty here to think about for anyone who loves books, loves writing — and for anyone thinking of trying to write a novel. I’d love to hear your comments:

How do I get started writing?

I could write chapters and chapters, probably a whole book about writing. But I’m going to try and break it down into FAQs for you. If I haven’t answered your question, then please drop me a line. But these are my best answers to the questions I’m often asked. Also, I’m not just a published writer who ‘has it easy’ (‘What does she know about rejections?’) I’m also married to a trying-to-be-published writer. So I know about the process from many angles.

You sit down and you start. There we go. You don’t put it off until you ‘have the time’ or ‘feel in the mood’. You just apply your behind to the chair and get on with it. Because all that time you are wasting thinking about writing your amazing novel, I’m actually at my computer writing.

If we were runners, you would be thinking about taking up running and I would be training six days a week, so come the race – who has the best chance of finishing?!

Writing is a complex art. Expressing your ideas, characters and story in words is a skill which takes a lifetime to master. I’ve been writing fiction for 14 years now and I’m only beginning to get the hang of it. Just because you can read novels does not mean you can write them. Just because a book is easy to read does not mean it is easy to write.

Plus, it’s a very competitive business. There are so many fantastic writers already out there, if you want to join them, you’re going to have to get very, very good.

I feel it’s best to give you tough love. If you want to write novels – long, gripping novels people are going to give up hours and hours of their precious lives to read, you’re going to have to start training for the ultra-marathon!

What will help with my writing?

Reading will help enormously. Read all kinds of books. Find the kind of writing that you love; the kind of book you could pick up again and again. Is it horror? Is it rom com? Is it sci-fi? Is it historical fiction? What inspires you? What kind of book would you love to write?

Then write! Write and write some more. Write little chunks: blogs, diary entries, short pages. Hone your skills. Try a poem, then a short story. Try out chapter one. Try out the final chapter. Play with words. Describe the people you see on the train. Invent a background for them. Practise dialogue. Turn a news story into a short story. Write, write, write. Train your brain and your fingers to turn your thoughts into great sentences, then your sentences into stories.

Don’t expect to be a genius immediately. It takes time to get good. I was writing stories, essays and diaries all the time I was growing up. I spent my early 20s being a newspaper journalist. I must have written millions of words before I got started on chapter one. My first book attempt was in the bin by chapter four and I began again.

Think of JK Rowling, she’d been working on that first Harry Potter manuscript for YEARS before she showed it to anyone and even then all the big publishers turned her down! Her enormous success had nothing to do with luck: it was because she had a huge story to tell, sheer persistence and worked bloody hard.

 Are any books helpful?

I’m helped by reading and re-reading all the writers I love: Nancy Mitford, Anne Tyler, Agatha Christie, John Irving, JK Rowling, Roald Dahl, Candace Bushnell and many more.

I’ve also found these books very inspirational and packed with great advice: Robert McKee’s Story, Stephen King’s On Writing, Michelle Wallerstein’s Mind Your Business.

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan always get my romantic comedy juices flowing, along with every film written by Nora Ephron.

Should I join a writing group?

I’ve never joined a writing group. This is because I am such a loner and solitary animal. Also, I didn’t think I could bear the criticism! You have to be tough to write and keep on writing, but oh my goodness writing makes you vulnerable. As soon as you’ve written something, you’ve created a work that people can criticise. And believe me, everybody has an opinion. You just need to go onto Amazon to see that.

But writing groups can be hugely helpful. They help people to focus on what they want to write, they help people make contacts, plus they inspire you to get the work done. Only you can know if a group is a good idea for you. You could always try one and see. You could even advertise and set one up in your area.

 Where do I get ideas from?

EVERYWHERE!! As Paul Smith the fashion designer wrote: ’Inspiration is everywhere, if at first you don’t see it, look again!’ Open your mind to ideas. They really are everywhere. I used to worry about having enough things to write about, now I worry about finding the time to write about all my ideas. What sort of things have happened to you? What’s happened to your friend? Could it be re-worked? Could it be made much more exciting? What’s in the news? What’s in National Geographic? See reality as your springboard into the swimming pool of story.

You need to have a story. A really intriguing, interesting tale. You need to have great, memorable, fully-fleshed characters. If you are writing rom-com, you need to have some really hilariously funny scenes; some heart-meltingly tender scenes and you need a love story where something is always in the way of the happy couple.

Dig deeply into all your wide experience of life. How do your own relationships work? What makes you fall in love? What makes you angry? Sad? Confused? Despairing?

Should I do research?

ABSOLUTELY!! Go to the places you are writing about. Interview people who’ve done something like your heroine. You will get one million more great ideas doing this than you can ever dream of at your desk.

 Should I have a plan?

YOU’D BE MAD NOT TO!

Readers are viewers. They are used to more plot in a half an hour sit-com than they ever got in a full Dickens novel. You must plot your baby to death. You must keep your reader nailed to the chair. You will never manage this without a detailed plan. I work on my plans for weeks. I don’t write a word until I have every chapter outlined and the whole story completely outlined. Even then, it still changes, improves, gets messed around.

 Should I listen to criticism?

Only if it’s from someone you really trust. Writing something that makes your Mum beam with pride is not hard. Writing something that will move and engage perfect strangers is much more tricky. When you have a first draft you are really happy with, tell your story to a couple of friends who have been briefed to be firm but fair. Don’t make them read the whole thing. Try out the outline of your story on them. Does it excite them? Interest them? Do their eyes glaze over? Where are the problems?

Should I re-write?

Re-writing is the number one skill. It separates the amateurs from the professionals. About 50% of my time, maybe more is spent re-writing my work. I get to the end of my first draft in a hurry. I’m making sure the story works and I’m getting to know my characters. Then I start re-writing and the really hard work follows. But this is the sweat and tears that makes stories good.

How do I get an agent?

I have no idea!! You need an agent, because hardly any publishers look at manuscripts which don’t come from agents (check their websites to find out). But agents are like fairy dust.  Agents are very, very busy looking after those super important clients who earn them vast amounts of money.  With your unpublished manuscript, you are so far down the pecking order, your precious work will be handed to the work experience girl if you are lucky.  But remind yourself, big deals with brand new authors are made all the time. Agents and publishers continue to need new writers.

Do your research, find agents who represent your kind of work. Submit exactly as it says on the website. Send only your very polished, very best work. Write a covering letter of genius, brilliantly written about your brilliant story. Get them hooked. Make yours the manuscript at the top of the pile.

 I’ve been rejected, now what?

If you’ve sent your best work to many reputable agents or publishers and they’ve all said no thanks, you have to dust yourself down and think hard about what to do next. You could find more people to send it to… you could self-publish. You could put your work in a drawer and work on your next idea. You could stop and rest for a while… or go on a course, read books about writing, train your writing muscles to get better and stronger. No decision is right or wrong here. You have to decide what’s best for you. But I can promise the more you read, write and re-write, the better you will get.

 I’ve published one book, how do I keep going?

Your book is published, the world did not stop turning, Hollywood did not call, you are not as rich as Dan Brown. Welcome to the club. Look very hard at what worked; look even harder at what didn’t work. Don’t blame yourself for everything, but don’t accept no blame. Maybe you need to get much better. Think up a much stronger story. Do more research. Maybe you need to flex your PR muscles on your next time out.

Take your new career seriously. Find an amazing new story, fresh avenues for your work. Make lots more contacts in all sorts of connected fields.

All authors need these quotations pinned up above their desk:

‘Try again, fail again, fail better.’   Samuel Beckett.

‘Never, never, never, NEVER, give up.’   Sir Winston Churchill.

Do I self-publish on the internet?

Previously, I would always have said no, it’s a waste of time and money and you won’t make a penny. But the game has changed. Some writers are now fabulous e-book successes. In ten years time we may all be self-published on the internet. Do your research, don’t get ripped off and don’t put anything out there that isn’t your absolutely best work. Expect to do a lot of self-promoting. Success on the internet is just like success with a publisher, it’s all about talent and hard work. We are all only as good as the last thing we’ve written and the next big thing we’re writing.

 Will writing make me rich?

Let’s be realistic here. One in hundreds of thousands of writers will become rich: maybe through genius, epic hard work or sheer good luck. Just like one in hundreds of thousands of actors, painters and all kinds of creative people. The rest of us will range from making a great living to struggling on penniless. Love your work, devote yourself to your work and hope that the money will follow. If you have success, be like several wise old actors I know and save your money hard because success may not come around again immediately. Yachts and villas on the Med are for gas barons and internet billionaires not, usually, novelists.

Will writing make me happy?

I love to write. I love the hours when I am so in the flow, so in my made-up world that I forget about everything else. But I spend all day, most days, withimaginary people and many head-doctors would consider this a worrying condition!

Creative people often struggle with mental health issues – we get depressed, we fret, we drink or smoke, take drugs, or comfort eat or all of the above. Maybe we were like this when we began; maybe the nature of our work makes us more like this. I do believe that writing makes you vulnerable. Plus it can become obsessive. Writing can take up all the time you have, no manuscript is ever ‘finished’, and you can use writing as a way of opting out of everything else life has to offer.

You need balance!

You need to look after the other areas of life too: friends, family and your health. You need regular breaks from writing, reading other writing and thinking about writing – hard, I know! But there must be room for relaxation, laughter and holidays. If I am turning into a basket case, I shut everything down and hang out with my children. Sometimes you just have to go away and come back to the keyboard with fresh perspective.

 Should I give up my day job?

I have mixed feelings about this. Basically I did give up my day job and the terror got me writing like a dervish. Happily, I landed a two-book deal which gave me enough money to take another year off to write more. For several years I combined fiction writing with freelance journalism, now I write fiction full-time but I know I have journalism skills if I need to go back to them.

I’m not sure I would advise an 18 year old to study creative writing at college and nothing else. But sometimes, you have to walk the wire without the safety net because if you put your heart and soul into writing it might work much better than if you potter about at the weekends only.

Giving up the day job to write is scary and stressful. Please approach it very, very carefully, fully consulting your nearest and dearest and burn no bridges. Bear in mind that many, many well known writers combine writing with other jobs and careers which reliably pay the bills.

 Finally…

I really hope this has helped. Very, very best of luck out there. May your story be the next huge thing the world didn’t even know it was waiting for! And if it isn’t – please love the ride. Writing is fantastic – like dreaming with the lights on. Work hard, master the art, bring your dreams to life and WRITE ON!!

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

 

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

20 Tips For Surviving The Builders

And the builders are OUT… phew! I’m breathing a huge, dusty sigh of relief and allowing life as I know it to resume.

I’ve totally renovated four homes so far and although I don’t think this one will be the last, I have promised my family some peace and quiet… for a while.

I’ve learned (the hard way) a few useful things about having the builders in and thought I’d share my top 20 tips in case they’re useful to anyone else in this nerve-shreddingly stressful situation.

1.     Get as much done all at the one time as you possibly can. I’ve tried doing a bathroom here, a kitchen the next year, redecorating bit by bit and it’s not ideal. Plumbers and electricians come in and sigh: ‘Who did the kitchen like that? For the new bathroom, I’ll have to re-do all that piping/ wiring.’  Or worse, hauling their ladders and equipment into the kitchen, they scratch your new hall paintwork or eeek, your brand new floor. The more work you can get done at once, the better the price should be.

2.     Move out if at all possible. Even for the first few weeks. This allows you and your family to remain sane and be dressed without plaster dust on your clothes, in your hair, all over your beds and even in your food. It also lets the builders forge ahead without having to worry about water, gas and electrics having to be reconnected every evening.

3.      If you have to stay at home, tape polythene sheets over doors, buy a brush, dustpan, even a cheap vacuum cleaner just to deal with builder mess. Do not use your lovely Dyson to scoop up plaster dust and rubble. Do not let the builders use it either: it will die!

4.     If you work from home, you HAVE to find somewhere else to go. Trust me here. The library, a café with wifi, you have to get out. You cannot listen to Lesser Known Hits of the 80s, plus drilling and bumping and banging for weeks on end and get work done.

5.     Be VERY choosy about which builder you use. Do not rush this decision. Get recommendations from people you trust, or neighbours… even bathroom and kitchen suppliers. Go and see previous work the builder has done. Ask the owners if the work was quick and tidy, if the builders were polite, stuck to the agreed budget, turned up on time, stayed with the job right to the end. If a builder is available straight away, beware. Good builders have to be booked in advance. If you’re in an old house, you need a builder used to renovating old property.

6.     I don’t like tradesmen who only want to be paid in cash and I don’t like it if they want part of the money up front. Both of these things suggest they’re not running their business well and they won’t run your project well either. I totally wanted to sack a builder once, but had paid too much up front to be able to do it.

7.     Some money part way through is OK. But you need a week or two after the work is completed before you pay your final bill. So you can work out what the little problems are and ask for them to be fixed before you settle up.

8.     Plan, plan, plan. Make drawings of your rooms. Think about plugs, lights, tiling, cabinets, the way the door opens… Make as many decisions ahead of the work as possible. There will still be lots of decisions to make on the spot. Take some guidance from your builder – he might from experience know of a better way to do it…

9.     …But don’t do everything the builder way – sometimes they can go overboard with plastic trimming, beading, coving, laminate flooring and everything in beige and before you know it the heart and soul of your characterful old house has been ripped out and MDF-ed over.

10.   Consider using an architect. I asked an architect friend, who recommended the office junior, who made several visits and lots of plans. She had great ideas, oversaw getting the building warrant and all the relevant permits and charged us less than we expected for her time.

11. If your decorator umms and ahhs and says: ‘Are you sure? That’s quite a dark/ bright/ unusual colour?’ Just say YES. If you want a beautiful paint job with proper sanding down and many layers of paint, say so. Expect it to take longer and cost more than slapping the stuff on.

12.  Don’t freak out when standing in an empty newly painted room. By the time you’ve put in sofas, pictures, lamps, shelves, books – the colour will be lovely and just the way you imagined it.

13. Be business like with your builders. They’re not your new friends; they’re not your Dad/ uncle/ boss. You’re in charge. If things aren’t going the way you want, ask about it. Explain what you want. Listen. Sometimes you will have to compromise because what you want doesn’t work. But don’t accept something you really don’t want. The builder is going to move on and you’ll be left regretting this bit of work for the next five, ten years or longer.

14. When you first agree a price with the builder, try and get everything you can think of onto that estimate. There will always be a few extra jobs at the end, which will put the price up, but try not to make it a great long list of extras. Otherwise your bill might be a nasty shock.

15. Agree a timetable. Expect it to take a bit longer. But do not accept endless weeks of delay. If this is happening, you need to find out why and ask them to get back on track.

16. Keep all your estimates, bills and receipts in a dedicated folder. File all those guarantees. Unused paint tins, lightshades that didn’t match, bookcases that didn’t fit, unopened boxes of tiles – all can be returned if you have the receipt.

17. Get everything finished! Don’t leave wires dangling while you procrastinate on a bathroom cabinet, don’t leave plywood on the floor while you dither about tiles. After all the pain you’ve gone through, you NEED the big ‘tah dah’ when it all comes together and looks brilliant.

18. Accept that budget limitations can lead to creative and brilliant results. My £9 a metre bathroom tiles look amazing. Crown and Dulux have colours just as pretty as Farrow and Ball’s (use tester pots to find them). Two IKEA pendant lights can look even better than one designer one. A cheap bookcase properly assembled and fitted to the wall by a joiner looks almost as good as a bespoke one.

19. Realise that your wine/ chocolate/ biscuit consumption will rocket during this horribly stressful and expensive time.

20.  Remind yourself that it will be worth all the pain, expense and hassle. We’ve created a big family kitchen, renovated an old bathroom, plus put in a second bathroom and already, one week in, this has transformed home life.

 

World Book Day | My best advice to writers

Today is World Book Day. To mark the occasion I thought I’d repost this blog from my old site. I think there’s plenty here to think about for anyone who loves books, loves writing — and for anyone thinking of trying to write a novel. I’d love to hear your comments:

How do I get started writing?

I could write chapters and chapters, probably a whole book about writing. But I’m going to try and break it down into FAQs for you. If I haven’t answered your question, then please drop me a line. But these are my best answers to the questions I’m often asked. Also, I’m not just a published writer who ‘has it easy’ (‘What does she know about rejections?’) I’m also married to a trying-to-be-published writer. So I know about the process from many angles.

You sit down and you start. There we go. You don’t put it off until you ‘have the time’ or ‘feel in the mood’. You just apply your behind to the chair and get on with it. Because all that time you are wasting thinking about writing your amazing novel, I’m actually at my computer writing.

If we were runners, you would be thinking about taking up running and I would be training six days a week, so come the race – who has the best chance of finishing?!

Writing is a complex art. Expressing your ideas, characters and story in words is a skill which takes a lifetime to master. I’ve been writing fiction for 14 years now and I’m only beginning to get the hang of it. Just because you can read novels does not mean you can write them. Just because a book is easy to read does not mean it is easy to write.

Plus, it’s a very competitive business. There are so many fantastic writers already out there, if you want to join them, you’re going to have to get very, very good.

I feel it’s best to give you tough love. If you want to write novels – long, gripping novels people are going to give up hours and hours of their precious lives to read, you’re going to have to start training for the ultra-marathon!

What will help with my writing?

Reading will help enormously. Read all kinds of books. Find the kind of writing that you love; the kind of book you could pick up again and again. Is it horror? Is it rom com? Is it sci-fi? Is it historical fiction? What inspires you? What kind of book would you love to write?

Then write! Write and write some more. Write little chunks: blogs, diary entries, short pages. Hone your skills. Try a poem, then a short story. Try out chapter one. Try out the final chapter. Play with words. Describe the people you see on the train. Invent a background for them. Practise dialogue. Turn a news story into a short story. Write, write, write. Train your brain and your fingers to turn your thoughts into great sentences, then your sentences into stories.

Don’t expect to be a genius immediately. It takes time to get good. I was writing stories, essays and diaries all the time I was growing up. I spent my early 20s being a newspaper journalist. I must have written millions of words before I got started on chapter one. My first book attempt was in the bin by chapter four and I began again.

Think of JK Rowling, she’d been working on that first Harry Potter manuscript for YEARS before she showed it to anyone and even then all the big publishers turned her down! Her enormous success had nothing to do with luck: it was because she had a huge story to tell, sheer persistence and worked bloody hard.

 Are any books helpful?

I’m helped by reading and re-reading all the writers I love: Nancy Mitford, Anne Tyler, Agatha Christie, John Irving, JK Rowling, Roald Dahl, Candace Bushnell and many more.

I’ve also found these books very inspirational and packed with great advice: Robert McKee’s Story, Stephen King’s On Writing, Michelle Wallerstein’s Mind Your Business.

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan always get my romantic comedy juices flowing, along with every film written by Nora Ephron.

Should I join a writing group?

I’ve never joined a writing group. This is because I am such a loner and solitary animal. Also, I didn’t think I could bear the criticism! You have to be tough to write and keep on writing, but oh my goodness writing makes you vulnerable. As soon as you’ve written something, you’ve created a work that people can criticise. And believe me, everybody has an opinion. You just need to go onto Amazon to see that.

But writing groups can be hugely helpful. They help people to focus on what they want to write, they help people make contacts, plus they inspire you to get the work done. Only you can know if a group is a good idea for you. You could always try one and see. You could even advertise and set one up in your area.

 Where do I get ideas from?

EVERYWHERE!! As Paul Smith the fashion designer wrote: ’Inspiration is everywhere, if at first you don’t see it, look again!’ Open your mind to ideas. They really are everywhere. I used to worry about having enough things to write about, now I worry about finding the time to write about all my ideas. What sort of things have happened to you? What’s happened to your friend? Could it be re-worked? Could it be made much more exciting? What’s in the news? What’s in National Geographic? See reality as your springboard into the swimming pool of story.

You need to have a story. A really intriguing, interesting tale. You need to have great, memorable, fully-fleshed characters. If you are writing rom-com, you need to have some really hilariously funny scenes; some heart-meltingly tender scenes and you need a love story where something is always in the way of the happy couple.

Dig deeply into all your wide experience of life. How do your own relationships work? What makes you fall in love? What makes you angry? Sad? Confused? Despairing?

Should I do research?

ABSOLUTELY!! Go to the places you are writing about. Interview people who’ve done something like your heroine. You will get one million more great ideas doing this than you can ever dream of at your desk.

 Should I have a plan?

YOU’D BE MAD NOT TO!

Readers are viewers. They are used to more plot in a half an hour sit-com than they ever got in a full Dickens novel. You must plot your baby to death. You must keep your reader nailed to the chair. You will never manage this without a detailed plan. I work on my plans for weeks. I don’t write a word until I have every chapter outlined and the whole story completely outlined. Even then, it still changes, improves, gets messed around.

 Should I listen to criticism?

Only if it’s from someone you really trust. Writing something that makes your Mum beam with pride is not hard. Writing something that will move and engage perfect strangers is much more tricky. When you have a first draft you are really happy with, tell your story to a couple of friends who have been briefed to be firm but fair. Don’t make them read the whole thing. Try out the outline of your story on them. Does it excite them? Interest them? Do their eyes glaze over? Where are the problems?

Should I re-write?

Re-writing is the number one skill. It separates the amateurs from the professionals. About 50% of my time, maybe more is spent re-writing my work. I get to the end of my first draft in a hurry. I’m making sure the story works and I’m getting to know my characters. Then I start re-writing and the really hard work follows. But this is the sweat and tears that makes stories good.

How do I get an agent?

I have no idea!! You need an agent, because hardly any publishers look at manuscripts which don’t come from agents (check their websites to find out). But agents are like fairy dust.  Agents are very, very busy looking after those super important clients who earn them vast amounts of money.  With your unpublished manuscript, you are so far down the pecking order, your precious work will be handed to the work experience girl if you are lucky.  But remind yourself, big deals with brand new authors are made all the time. Agents and publishers continue to need new writers.

Do your research, find agents who represent your kind of work. Submit exactly as it says on the website. Send only your very polished, very best work. Write a covering letter of genius, brilliantly written about your brilliant story. Get them hooked. Make yours the manuscript at the top of the pile.

 I’ve been rejected, now what?

If you’ve sent your best work to many reputable agents or publishers and they’ve all said no thanks, you have to dust yourself down and think hard about what to do next. You could find more people to send it to… you could self-publish. You could put your work in a drawer and work on your next idea. You could stop and rest for a while… or go on a course, read books about writing, train your writing muscles to get better and stronger. No decision is right or wrong here. You have to decide what’s best for you. But I can promise the more you read, write and re-write, the better you will get.

 I’ve published one book, how do I keep going?

Your book is published, the world did not stop turning, Hollywood did not call, you are not as rich as Dan Brown. Welcome to the club. Look very hard at what worked; look even harder at what didn’t work. Don’t blame yourself for everything, but don’t accept no blame. Maybe you need to get much better. Think up a much stronger story. Do more research. Maybe you need to flex your PR muscles on your next time out.

Take your new career seriously. Find an amazing new story, fresh avenues for your work. Make lots more contacts in all sorts of connected fields.

All authors need these quotations pinned up above their desk:

‘Try again, fail again, fail better.’   Samuel Beckett.

‘Never, never, never, NEVER, give up.’   Sir Winston Churchill.

Do I self-publish on the internet?

Previously, I would always have said no, it’s a waste of time and money and you won’t make a penny. But the game has changed. Some writers are now fabulous e-book successes. In ten years time we may all be self-published on the internet. Do your research, don’t get ripped off and don’t put anything out there that isn’t your absolutely best work. Expect to do a lot of self-promoting. Success on the internet is just like success with a publisher, it’s all about talent and hard work. We are all only as good as the last thing we’ve written and the next big thing we’re writing.

 Will writing make me rich?

Let’s be realistic here. One in hundreds of thousands of writers will become rich: maybe through genius, epic hard work or sheer good luck. Just like one in hundreds of thousands of actors, painters and all kinds of creative people. The rest of us will range from making a great living to struggling on penniless. Love your work, devote yourself to your work and hope that the money will follow. If you have success, be like several wise old actors I know and save your money hard because success may not come around again immediately. Yachts and villas on the Med are for gas barons and internet billionaires not, usually, novelists.

Will writing make me happy?

I love to write. I love the hours when I am so in the flow, so in my made-up world that I forget about everything else. But I spend all day, most days, withimaginary people and many head-doctors would consider this a worrying condition!

Creative people often struggle with mental health issues – we get depressed, we fret, we drink or smoke, take drugs, or comfort eat or all of the above. Maybe we were like this when we began; maybe the nature of our work makes us more like this. I do believe that writing makes you vulnerable. Plus it can become obsessive. Writing can take up all the time you have, no manuscript is ever ‘finished’, and you can use writing as a way of opting out of everything else life has to offer.

You need balance!

You need to look after the other areas of life too: friends, family and your health. You need regular breaks from writing, reading other writing and thinking about writing – hard, I know! But there must be room for relaxation, laughter and holidays. If I am turning into a basket case, I shut everything down and hang out with my children. Sometimes you just have to go away and come back to the keyboard with fresh perspective.

 Should I give up my day job?

I have mixed feelings about this. Basically I did give up my day job and the terror got me writing like a dervish. Happily, I landed a two-book deal which gave me enough money to take another year off to write more. For several years I combined fiction writing with freelance journalism, now I write fiction full-time but I know I have journalism skills if I need to go back to them.

I’m not sure I would advise an 18 year old to study creative writing at college and nothing else. But sometimes, you have to walk the wire without the safety net because if you put your heart and soul into writing it might work much better than if you potter about at the weekends only.

Giving up the day job to write is scary and stressful. Please approach it very, very carefully, fully consulting your nearest and dearest and burn no bridges. Bear in mind that many, many well known writers combine writing with other jobs and careers which reliably pay the bills.

 Finally…

I really hope this has helped. Very, very best of luck out there. May your story be the next huge thing the world didn’t even know it was waiting for! And if it isn’t – please love the ride. Writing is fantastic – like dreaming with the lights on. Work hard, master the art, bring your dreams to life and WRITE ON!!

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

 

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

20 Tips For Surviving The Builders

And the builders are OUT… phew! I’m breathing a huge, dusty sigh of relief and allowing life as I know it to resume.

I’ve totally renovated four homes so far and although I don’t think this one will be the last, I have promised my family some peace and quiet… for a while.

I’ve learned (the hard way) a few useful things about having the builders in and thought I’d share my top 20 tips in case they’re useful to anyone else in this nerve-shreddingly stressful situation.

1.     Get as much done all at the one time as you possibly can. I’ve tried doing a bathroom here, a kitchen the next year, redecorating bit by bit and it’s not ideal. Plumbers and electricians come in and sigh: ‘Who did the kitchen like that? For the new bathroom, I’ll have to re-do all that piping/ wiring.’  Or worse, hauling their ladders and equipment into the kitchen, they scratch your new hall paintwork or eeek, your brand new floor. The more work you can get done at once, the better the price should be.

2.     Move out if at all possible. Even for the first few weeks. This allows you and your family to remain sane and be dressed without plaster dust on your clothes, in your hair, all over your beds and even in your food. It also lets the builders forge ahead without having to worry about water, gas and electrics having to be reconnected every evening.

3.      If you have to stay at home, tape polythene sheets over doors, buy a brush, dustpan, even a cheap vacuum cleaner just to deal with builder mess. Do not use your lovely Dyson to scoop up plaster dust and rubble. Do not let the builders use it either: it will die!

4.     If you work from home, you HAVE to find somewhere else to go. Trust me here. The library, a café with wifi, you have to get out. You cannot listen to Lesser Known Hits of the 80s, plus drilling and bumping and banging for weeks on end and get work done.

5.     Be VERY choosy about which builder you use. Do not rush this decision. Get recommendations from people you trust, or neighbours… even bathroom and kitchen suppliers. Go and see previous work the builder has done. Ask the owners if the work was quick and tidy, if the builders were polite, stuck to the agreed budget, turned up on time, stayed with the job right to the end. If a builder is available straight away, beware. Good builders have to be booked in advance. If you’re in an old house, you need a builder used to renovating old property.

6.     I don’t like tradesmen who only want to be paid in cash and I don’t like it if they want part of the money up front. Both of these things suggest they’re not running their business well and they won’t run your project well either. I totally wanted to sack a builder once, but had paid too much up front to be able to do it.

7.     Some money part way through is OK. But you need a week or two after the work is completed before you pay your final bill. So you can work out what the little problems are and ask for them to be fixed before you settle up.

8.     Plan, plan, plan. Make drawings of your rooms. Think about plugs, lights, tiling, cabinets, the way the door opens… Make as many decisions ahead of the work as possible. There will still be lots of decisions to make on the spot. Take some guidance from your builder – he might from experience know of a better way to do it…

9.     …But don’t do everything the builder way – sometimes they can go overboard with plastic trimming, beading, coving, laminate flooring and everything in beige and before you know it the heart and soul of your characterful old house has been ripped out and MDF-ed over.

10.   Consider using an architect. I asked an architect friend, who recommended the office junior, who made several visits and lots of plans. She had great ideas, oversaw getting the building warrant and all the relevant permits and charged us less than we expected for her time.

11. If your decorator umms and ahhs and says: ‘Are you sure? That’s quite a dark/ bright/ unusual colour?’ Just say YES. If you want a beautiful paint job with proper sanding down and many layers of paint, say so. Expect it to take longer and cost more than slapping the stuff on.

12.  Don’t freak out when standing in an empty newly painted room. By the time you’ve put in sofas, pictures, lamps, shelves, books – the colour will be lovely and just the way you imagined it.

13. Be business like with your builders. They’re not your new friends; they’re not your Dad/ uncle/ boss. You’re in charge. If things aren’t going the way you want, ask about it. Explain what you want. Listen. Sometimes you will have to compromise because what you want doesn’t work. But don’t accept something you really don’t want. The builder is going to move on and you’ll be left regretting this bit of work for the next five, ten years or longer.

14. When you first agree a price with the builder, try and get everything you can think of onto that estimate. There will always be a few extra jobs at the end, which will put the price up, but try not to make it a great long list of extras. Otherwise your bill might be a nasty shock.

15. Agree a timetable. Expect it to take a bit longer. But do not accept endless weeks of delay. If this is happening, you need to find out why and ask them to get back on track.

16. Keep all your estimates, bills and receipts in a dedicated folder. File all those guarantees. Unused paint tins, lightshades that didn’t match, bookcases that didn’t fit, unopened boxes of tiles – all can be returned if you have the receipt.

17. Get everything finished! Don’t leave wires dangling while you procrastinate on a bathroom cabinet, don’t leave plywood on the floor while you dither about tiles. After all the pain you’ve gone through, you NEED the big ‘tah dah’ when it all comes together and looks brilliant.

18. Accept that budget limitations can lead to creative and brilliant results. My £9 a metre bathroom tiles look amazing. Crown and Dulux have colours just as pretty as Farrow and Ball’s (use tester pots to find them). Two IKEA pendant lights can look even better than one designer one. A cheap bookcase properly assembled and fitted to the wall by a joiner looks almost as good as a bespoke one.

19. Realise that your wine/ chocolate/ biscuit consumption will rocket during this horribly stressful and expensive time.

20.  Remind yourself that it will be worth all the pain, expense and hassle. We’ve created a big family kitchen, renovated an old bathroom, plus put in a second bathroom and already, one week in, this has transformed home life.

 

World Book Day | My best advice to writers

Today is World Book Day. To mark the occasion I thought I’d repost this blog from my old site. I think there’s plenty here to think about for anyone who loves books, loves writing — and for anyone thinking of trying to write a novel. I’d love to hear your comments:

How do I get started writing?

I could write chapters and chapters, probably a whole book about writing. But I’m going to try and break it down into FAQs for you. If I haven’t answered your question, then please drop me a line. But these are my best answers to the questions I’m often asked. Also, I’m not just a published writer who ‘has it easy’ (‘What does she know about rejections?’) I’m also married to a trying-to-be-published writer. So I know about the process from many angles.

You sit down and you start. There we go. You don’t put it off until you ‘have the time’ or ‘feel in the mood’. You just apply your behind to the chair and get on with it. Because all that time you are wasting thinking about writing your amazing novel, I’m actually at my computer writing.

If we were runners, you would be thinking about taking up running and I would be training six days a week, so come the race – who has the best chance of finishing?!

Writing is a complex art. Expressing your ideas, characters and story in words is a skill which takes a lifetime to master. I’ve been writing fiction for 14 years now and I’m only beginning to get the hang of it. Just because you can read novels does not mean you can write them. Just because a book is easy to read does not mean it is easy to write.

Plus, it’s a very competitive business. There are so many fantastic writers already out there, if you want to join them, you’re going to have to get very, very good.

I feel it’s best to give you tough love. If you want to write novels – long, gripping novels people are going to give up hours and hours of their precious lives to read, you’re going to have to start training for the ultra-marathon!

What will help with my writing?

Reading will help enormously. Read all kinds of books. Find the kind of writing that you love; the kind of book you could pick up again and again. Is it horror? Is it rom com? Is it sci-fi? Is it historical fiction? What inspires you? What kind of book would you love to write?

Then write! Write and write some more. Write little chunks: blogs, diary entries, short pages. Hone your skills. Try a poem, then a short story. Try out chapter one. Try out the final chapter. Play with words. Describe the people you see on the train. Invent a background for them. Practise dialogue. Turn a news story into a short story. Write, write, write. Train your brain and your fingers to turn your thoughts into great sentences, then your sentences into stories.

Don’t expect to be a genius immediately. It takes time to get good. I was writing stories, essays and diaries all the time I was growing up. I spent my early 20s being a newspaper journalist. I must have written millions of words before I got started on chapter one. My first book attempt was in the bin by chapter four and I began again.

Think of JK Rowling, she’d been working on that first Harry Potter manuscript for YEARS before she showed it to anyone and even then all the big publishers turned her down! Her enormous success had nothing to do with luck: it was because she had a huge story to tell, sheer persistence and worked bloody hard.

 Are any books helpful?

I’m helped by reading and re-reading all the writers I love: Nancy Mitford, Anne Tyler, Agatha Christie, John Irving, JK Rowling, Roald Dahl, Candace Bushnell and many more.

I’ve also found these books very inspirational and packed with great advice: Robert McKee’s Story, Stephen King’s On Writing, Michelle Wallerstein’s Mind Your Business.

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan always get my romantic comedy juices flowing, along with every film written by Nora Ephron.

Should I join a writing group?

I’ve never joined a writing group. This is because I am such a loner and solitary animal. Also, I didn’t think I could bear the criticism! You have to be tough to write and keep on writing, but oh my goodness writing makes you vulnerable. As soon as you’ve written something, you’ve created a work that people can criticise. And believe me, everybody has an opinion. You just need to go onto Amazon to see that.

But writing groups can be hugely helpful. They help people to focus on what they want to write, they help people make contacts, plus they inspire you to get the work done. Only you can know if a group is a good idea for you. You could always try one and see. You could even advertise and set one up in your area.

 Where do I get ideas from?

EVERYWHERE!! As Paul Smith the fashion designer wrote: ’Inspiration is everywhere, if at first you don’t see it, look again!’ Open your mind to ideas. They really are everywhere. I used to worry about having enough things to write about, now I worry about finding the time to write about all my ideas. What sort of things have happened to you? What’s happened to your friend? Could it be re-worked? Could it be made much more exciting? What’s in the news? What’s in National Geographic? See reality as your springboard into the swimming pool of story.

You need to have a story. A really intriguing, interesting tale. You need to have great, memorable, fully-fleshed characters. If you are writing rom-com, you need to have some really hilariously funny scenes; some heart-meltingly tender scenes and you need a love story where something is always in the way of the happy couple.

Dig deeply into all your wide experience of life. How do your own relationships work? What makes you fall in love? What makes you angry? Sad? Confused? Despairing?

Should I do research?

ABSOLUTELY!! Go to the places you are writing about. Interview people who’ve done something like your heroine. You will get one million more great ideas doing this than you can ever dream of at your desk.

 Should I have a plan?

YOU’D BE MAD NOT TO!

Readers are viewers. They are used to more plot in a half an hour sit-com than they ever got in a full Dickens novel. You must plot your baby to death. You must keep your reader nailed to the chair. You will never manage this without a detailed plan. I work on my plans for weeks. I don’t write a word until I have every chapter outlined and the whole story completely outlined. Even then, it still changes, improves, gets messed around.

 Should I listen to criticism?

Only if it’s from someone you really trust. Writing something that makes your Mum beam with pride is not hard. Writing something that will move and engage perfect strangers is much more tricky. When you have a first draft you are really happy with, tell your story to a couple of friends who have been briefed to be firm but fair. Don’t make them read the whole thing. Try out the outline of your story on them. Does it excite them? Interest them? Do their eyes glaze over? Where are the problems?

Should I re-write?

Re-writing is the number one skill. It separates the amateurs from the professionals. About 50% of my time, maybe more is spent re-writing my work. I get to the end of my first draft in a hurry. I’m making sure the story works and I’m getting to know my characters. Then I start re-writing and the really hard work follows. But this is the sweat and tears that makes stories good.

How do I get an agent?

I have no idea!! You need an agent, because hardly any publishers look at manuscripts which don’t come from agents (check their websites to find out). But agents are like fairy dust.  Agents are very, very busy looking after those super important clients who earn them vast amounts of money.  With your unpublished manuscript, you are so far down the pecking order, your precious work will be handed to the work experience girl if you are lucky.  But remind yourself, big deals with brand new authors are made all the time. Agents and publishers continue to need new writers.

Do your research, find agents who represent your kind of work. Submit exactly as it says on the website. Send only your very polished, very best work. Write a covering letter of genius, brilliantly written about your brilliant story. Get them hooked. Make yours the manuscript at the top of the pile.

 I’ve been rejected, now what?

If you’ve sent your best work to many reputable agents or publishers and they’ve all said no thanks, you have to dust yourself down and think hard about what to do next. You could find more people to send it to… you could self-publish. You could put your work in a drawer and work on your next idea. You could stop and rest for a while… or go on a course, read books about writing, train your writing muscles to get better and stronger. No decision is right or wrong here. You have to decide what’s best for you. But I can promise the more you read, write and re-write, the better you will get.

 I’ve published one book, how do I keep going?

Your book is published, the world did not stop turning, Hollywood did not call, you are not as rich as Dan Brown. Welcome to the club. Look very hard at what worked; look even harder at what didn’t work. Don’t blame yourself for everything, but don’t accept no blame. Maybe you need to get much better. Think up a much stronger story. Do more research. Maybe you need to flex your PR muscles on your next time out.

Take your new career seriously. Find an amazing new story, fresh avenues for your work. Make lots more contacts in all sorts of connected fields.

All authors need these quotations pinned up above their desk:

‘Try again, fail again, fail better.’   Samuel Beckett.

‘Never, never, never, NEVER, give up.’   Sir Winston Churchill.

Do I self-publish on the internet?

Previously, I would always have said no, it’s a waste of time and money and you won’t make a penny. But the game has changed. Some writers are now fabulous e-book successes. In ten years time we may all be self-published on the internet. Do your research, don’t get ripped off and don’t put anything out there that isn’t your absolutely best work. Expect to do a lot of self-promoting. Success on the internet is just like success with a publisher, it’s all about talent and hard work. We are all only as good as the last thing we’ve written and the next big thing we’re writing.

 Will writing make me rich?

Let’s be realistic here. One in hundreds of thousands of writers will become rich: maybe through genius, epic hard work or sheer good luck. Just like one in hundreds of thousands of actors, painters and all kinds of creative people. The rest of us will range from making a great living to struggling on penniless. Love your work, devote yourself to your work and hope that the money will follow. If you have success, be like several wise old actors I know and save your money hard because success may not come around again immediately. Yachts and villas on the Med are for gas barons and internet billionaires not, usually, novelists.

Will writing make me happy?

I love to write. I love the hours when I am so in the flow, so in my made-up world that I forget about everything else. But I spend all day, most days, withimaginary people and many head-doctors would consider this a worrying condition!

Creative people often struggle with mental health issues – we get depressed, we fret, we drink or smoke, take drugs, or comfort eat or all of the above. Maybe we were like this when we began; maybe the nature of our work makes us more like this. I do believe that writing makes you vulnerable. Plus it can become obsessive. Writing can take up all the time you have, no manuscript is ever ‘finished’, and you can use writing as a way of opting out of everything else life has to offer.

You need balance!

You need to look after the other areas of life too: friends, family and your health. You need regular breaks from writing, reading other writing and thinking about writing – hard, I know! But there must be room for relaxation, laughter and holidays. If I am turning into a basket case, I shut everything down and hang out with my children. Sometimes you just have to go away and come back to the keyboard with fresh perspective.

 Should I give up my day job?

I have mixed feelings about this. Basically I did give up my day job and the terror got me writing like a dervish. Happily, I landed a two-book deal which gave me enough money to take another year off to write more. For several years I combined fiction writing with freelance journalism, now I write fiction full-time but I know I have journalism skills if I need to go back to them.

I’m not sure I would advise an 18 year old to study creative writing at college and nothing else. But sometimes, you have to walk the wire without the safety net because if you put your heart and soul into writing it might work much better than if you potter about at the weekends only.

Giving up the day job to write is scary and stressful. Please approach it very, very carefully, fully consulting your nearest and dearest and burn no bridges. Bear in mind that many, many well known writers combine writing with other jobs and careers which reliably pay the bills.

 Finally…

I really hope this has helped. Very, very best of luck out there. May your story be the next huge thing the world didn’t even know it was waiting for! And if it isn’t – please love the ride. Writing is fantastic – like dreaming with the lights on. Work hard, master the art, bring your dreams to life and WRITE ON!!

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

 

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

20 Tips For Surviving The Builders

And the builders are OUT… phew! I’m breathing a huge, dusty sigh of relief and allowing life as I know it to resume.

I’ve totally renovated four homes so far and although I don’t think this one will be the last, I have promised my family some peace and quiet… for a while.

I’ve learned (the hard way) a few useful things about having the builders in and thought I’d share my top 20 tips in case they’re useful to anyone else in this nerve-shreddingly stressful situation.

1.     Get as much done all at the one time as you possibly can. I’ve tried doing a bathroom here, a kitchen the next year, redecorating bit by bit and it’s not ideal. Plumbers and electricians come in and sigh: ‘Who did the kitchen like that? For the new bathroom, I’ll have to re-do all that piping/ wiring.’  Or worse, hauling their ladders and equipment into the kitchen, they scratch your new hall paintwork or eeek, your brand new floor. The more work you can get done at once, the better the price should be.

2.     Move out if at all possible. Even for the first few weeks. This allows you and your family to remain sane and be dressed without plaster dust on your clothes, in your hair, all over your beds and even in your food. It also lets the builders forge ahead without having to worry about water, gas and electrics having to be reconnected every evening.

3.      If you have to stay at home, tape polythene sheets over doors, buy a brush, dustpan, even a cheap vacuum cleaner just to deal with builder mess. Do not use your lovely Dyson to scoop up plaster dust and rubble. Do not let the builders use it either: it will die!

4.     If you work from home, you HAVE to find somewhere else to go. Trust me here. The library, a café with wifi, you have to get out. You cannot listen to Lesser Known Hits of the 80s, plus drilling and bumping and banging for weeks on end and get work done.

5.     Be VERY choosy about which builder you use. Do not rush this decision. Get recommendations from people you trust, or neighbours… even bathroom and kitchen suppliers. Go and see previous work the builder has done. Ask the owners if the work was quick and tidy, if the builders were polite, stuck to the agreed budget, turned up on time, stayed with the job right to the end. If a builder is available straight away, beware. Good builders have to be booked in advance. If you’re in an old house, you need a builder used to renovating old property.

6.     I don’t like tradesmen who only want to be paid in cash and I don’t like it if they want part of the money up front. Both of these things suggest they’re not running their business well and they won’t run your project well either. I totally wanted to sack a builder once, but had paid too much up front to be able to do it.

7.     Some money part way through is OK. But you need a week or two after the work is completed before you pay your final bill. So you can work out what the little problems are and ask for them to be fixed before you settle up.

8.     Plan, plan, plan. Make drawings of your rooms. Think about plugs, lights, tiling, cabinets, the way the door opens… Make as many decisions ahead of the work as possible. There will still be lots of decisions to make on the spot. Take some guidance from your builder – he might from experience know of a better way to do it…

9.     …But don’t do everything the builder way – sometimes they can go overboard with plastic trimming, beading, coving, laminate flooring and everything in beige and before you know it the heart and soul of your characterful old house has been ripped out and MDF-ed over.

10.   Consider using an architect. I asked an architect friend, who recommended the office junior, who made several visits and lots of plans. She had great ideas, oversaw getting the building warrant and all the relevant permits and charged us less than we expected for her time.

11. If your decorator umms and ahhs and says: ‘Are you sure? That’s quite a dark/ bright/ unusual colour?’ Just say YES. If you want a beautiful paint job with proper sanding down and many layers of paint, say so. Expect it to take longer and cost more than slapping the stuff on.

12.  Don’t freak out when standing in an empty newly painted room. By the time you’ve put in sofas, pictures, lamps, shelves, books – the colour will be lovely and just the way you imagined it.

13. Be business like with your builders. They’re not your new friends; they’re not your Dad/ uncle/ boss. You’re in charge. If things aren’t going the way you want, ask about it. Explain what you want. Listen. Sometimes you will have to compromise because what you want doesn’t work. But don’t accept something you really don’t want. The builder is going to move on and you’ll be left regretting this bit of work for the next five, ten years or longer.

14. When you first agree a price with the builder, try and get everything you can think of onto that estimate. There will always be a few extra jobs at the end, which will put the price up, but try not to make it a great long list of extras. Otherwise your bill might be a nasty shock.

15. Agree a timetable. Expect it to take a bit longer. But do not accept endless weeks of delay. If this is happening, you need to find out why and ask them to get back on track.

16. Keep all your estimates, bills and receipts in a dedicated folder. File all those guarantees. Unused paint tins, lightshades that didn’t match, bookcases that didn’t fit, unopened boxes of tiles – all can be returned if you have the receipt.

17. Get everything finished! Don’t leave wires dangling while you procrastinate on a bathroom cabinet, don’t leave plywood on the floor while you dither about tiles. After all the pain you’ve gone through, you NEED the big ‘tah dah’ when it all comes together and looks brilliant.

18. Accept that budget limitations can lead to creative and brilliant results. My £9 a metre bathroom tiles look amazing. Crown and Dulux have colours just as pretty as Farrow and Ball’s (use tester pots to find them). Two IKEA pendant lights can look even better than one designer one. A cheap bookcase properly assembled and fitted to the wall by a joiner looks almost as good as a bespoke one.

19. Realise that your wine/ chocolate/ biscuit consumption will rocket during this horribly stressful and expensive time.

20.  Remind yourself that it will be worth all the pain, expense and hassle. We’ve created a big family kitchen, renovated an old bathroom, plus put in a second bathroom and already, one week in, this has transformed home life.

 

World Book Day | My best advice to writers

Today is World Book Day. To mark the occasion I thought I’d repost this blog from my old site. I think there’s plenty here to think about for anyone who loves books, loves writing — and for anyone thinking of trying to write a novel. I’d love to hear your comments:

How do I get started writing?

I could write chapters and chapters, probably a whole book about writing. But I’m going to try and break it down into FAQs for you. If I haven’t answered your question, then please drop me a line. But these are my best answers to the questions I’m often asked. Also, I’m not just a published writer who ‘has it easy’ (‘What does she know about rejections?’) I’m also married to a trying-to-be-published writer. So I know about the process from many angles.

You sit down and you start. There we go. You don’t put it off until you ‘have the time’ or ‘feel in the mood’. You just apply your behind to the chair and get on with it. Because all that time you are wasting thinking about writing your amazing novel, I’m actually at my computer writing.

If we were runners, you would be thinking about taking up running and I would be training six days a week, so come the race – who has the best chance of finishing?!

Writing is a complex art. Expressing your ideas, characters and story in words is a skill which takes a lifetime to master. I’ve been writing fiction for 14 years now and I’m only beginning to get the hang of it. Just because you can read novels does not mean you can write them. Just because a book is easy to read does not mean it is easy to write.

Plus, it’s a very competitive business. There are so many fantastic writers already out there, if you want to join them, you’re going to have to get very, very good.

I feel it’s best to give you tough love. If you want to write novels – long, gripping novels people are going to give up hours and hours of their precious lives to read, you’re going to have to start training for the ultra-marathon!

What will help with my writing?

Reading will help enormously. Read all kinds of books. Find the kind of writing that you love; the kind of book you could pick up again and again. Is it horror? Is it rom com? Is it sci-fi? Is it historical fiction? What inspires you? What kind of book would you love to write?

Then write! Write and write some more. Write little chunks: blogs, diary entries, short pages. Hone your skills. Try a poem, then a short story. Try out chapter one. Try out the final chapter. Play with words. Describe the people you see on the train. Invent a background for them. Practise dialogue. Turn a news story into a short story. Write, write, write. Train your brain and your fingers to turn your thoughts into great sentences, then your sentences into stories.

Don’t expect to be a genius immediately. It takes time to get good. I was writing stories, essays and diaries all the time I was growing up. I spent my early 20s being a newspaper journalist. I must have written millions of words before I got started on chapter one. My first book attempt was in the bin by chapter four and I began again.

Think of JK Rowling, she’d been working on that first Harry Potter manuscript for YEARS before she showed it to anyone and even then all the big publishers turned her down! Her enormous success had nothing to do with luck: it was because she had a huge story to tell, sheer persistence and worked bloody hard.

 Are any books helpful?

I’m helped by reading and re-reading all the writers I love: Nancy Mitford, Anne Tyler, Agatha Christie, John Irving, JK Rowling, Roald Dahl, Candace Bushnell and many more.

I’ve also found these books very inspirational and packed with great advice: Robert McKee’s Story, Stephen King’s On Writing, Michelle Wallerstein’s Mind Your Business.

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan always get my romantic comedy juices flowing, along with every film written by Nora Ephron.

Should I join a writing group?

I’ve never joined a writing group. This is because I am such a loner and solitary animal. Also, I didn’t think I could bear the criticism! You have to be tough to write and keep on writing, but oh my goodness writing makes you vulnerable. As soon as you’ve written something, you’ve created a work that people can criticise. And believe me, everybody has an opinion. You just need to go onto Amazon to see that.

But writing groups can be hugely helpful. They help people to focus on what they want to write, they help people make contacts, plus they inspire you to get the work done. Only you can know if a group is a good idea for you. You could always try one and see. You could even advertise and set one up in your area.

 Where do I get ideas from?

EVERYWHERE!! As Paul Smith the fashion designer wrote: ’Inspiration is everywhere, if at first you don’t see it, look again!’ Open your mind to ideas. They really are everywhere. I used to worry about having enough things to write about, now I worry about finding the time to write about all my ideas. What sort of things have happened to you? What’s happened to your friend? Could it be re-worked? Could it be made much more exciting? What’s in the news? What’s in National Geographic? See reality as your springboard into the swimming pool of story.

You need to have a story. A really intriguing, interesting tale. You need to have great, memorable, fully-fleshed characters. If you are writing rom-com, you need to have some really hilariously funny scenes; some heart-meltingly tender scenes and you need a love story where something is always in the way of the happy couple.

Dig deeply into all your wide experience of life. How do your own relationships work? What makes you fall in love? What makes you angry? Sad? Confused? Despairing?

Should I do research?

ABSOLUTELY!! Go to the places you are writing about. Interview people who’ve done something like your heroine. You will get one million more great ideas doing this than you can ever dream of at your desk.

 Should I have a plan?

YOU’D BE MAD NOT TO!

Readers are viewers. They are used to more plot in a half an hour sit-com than they ever got in a full Dickens novel. You must plot your baby to death. You must keep your reader nailed to the chair. You will never manage this without a detailed plan. I work on my plans for weeks. I don’t write a word until I have every chapter outlined and the whole story completely outlined. Even then, it still changes, improves, gets messed around.

 Should I listen to criticism?

Only if it’s from someone you really trust. Writing something that makes your Mum beam with pride is not hard. Writing something that will move and engage perfect strangers is much more tricky. When you have a first draft you are really happy with, tell your story to a couple of friends who have been briefed to be firm but fair. Don’t make them read the whole thing. Try out the outline of your story on them. Does it excite them? Interest them? Do their eyes glaze over? Where are the problems?

Should I re-write?

Re-writing is the number one skill. It separates the amateurs from the professionals. About 50% of my time, maybe more is spent re-writing my work. I get to the end of my first draft in a hurry. I’m making sure the story works and I’m getting to know my characters. Then I start re-writing and the really hard work follows. But this is the sweat and tears that makes stories good.

How do I get an agent?

I have no idea!! You need an agent, because hardly any publishers look at manuscripts which don’t come from agents (check their websites to find out). But agents are like fairy dust.  Agents are very, very busy looking after those super important clients who earn them vast amounts of money.  With your unpublished manuscript, you are so far down the pecking order, your precious work will be handed to the work experience girl if you are lucky.  But remind yourself, big deals with brand new authors are made all the time. Agents and publishers continue to need new writers.

Do your research, find agents who represent your kind of work. Submit exactly as it says on the website. Send only your very polished, very best work. Write a covering letter of genius, brilliantly written about your brilliant story. Get them hooked. Make yours the manuscript at the top of the pile.

 I’ve been rejected, now what?

If you’ve sent your best work to many reputable agents or publishers and they’ve all said no thanks, you have to dust yourself down and think hard about what to do next. You could find more people to send it to… you could self-publish. You could put your work in a drawer and work on your next idea. You could stop and rest for a while… or go on a course, read books about writing, train your writing muscles to get better and stronger. No decision is right or wrong here. You have to decide what’s best for you. But I can promise the more you read, write and re-write, the better you will get.

 I’ve published one book, how do I keep going?

Your book is published, the world did not stop turning, Hollywood did not call, you are not as rich as Dan Brown. Welcome to the club. Look very hard at what worked; look even harder at what didn’t work. Don’t blame yourself for everything, but don’t accept no blame. Maybe you need to get much better. Think up a much stronger story. Do more research. Maybe you need to flex your PR muscles on your next time out.

Take your new career seriously. Find an amazing new story, fresh avenues for your work. Make lots more contacts in all sorts of connected fields.

All authors need these quotations pinned up above their desk:

‘Try again, fail again, fail better.’   Samuel Beckett.

‘Never, never, never, NEVER, give up.’   Sir Winston Churchill.

Do I self-publish on the internet?

Previously, I would always have said no, it’s a waste of time and money and you won’t make a penny. But the game has changed. Some writers are now fabulous e-book successes. In ten years time we may all be self-published on the internet. Do your research, don’t get ripped off and don’t put anything out there that isn’t your absolutely best work. Expect to do a lot of self-promoting. Success on the internet is just like success with a publisher, it’s all about talent and hard work. We are all only as good as the last thing we’ve written and the next big thing we’re writing.

 Will writing make me rich?

Let’s be realistic here. One in hundreds of thousands of writers will become rich: maybe through genius, epic hard work or sheer good luck. Just like one in hundreds of thousands of actors, painters and all kinds of creative people. The rest of us will range from making a great living to struggling on penniless. Love your work, devote yourself to your work and hope that the money will follow. If you have success, be like several wise old actors I know and save your money hard because success may not come around again immediately. Yachts and villas on the Med are for gas barons and internet billionaires not, usually, novelists.

Will writing make me happy?

I love to write. I love the hours when I am so in the flow, so in my made-up world that I forget about everything else. But I spend all day, most days, withimaginary people and many head-doctors would consider this a worrying condition!

Creative people often struggle with mental health issues – we get depressed, we fret, we drink or smoke, take drugs, or comfort eat or all of the above. Maybe we were like this when we began; maybe the nature of our work makes us more like this. I do believe that writing makes you vulnerable. Plus it can become obsessive. Writing can take up all the time you have, no manuscript is ever ‘finished’, and you can use writing as a way of opting out of everything else life has to offer.

You need balance!

You need to look after the other areas of life too: friends, family and your health. You need regular breaks from writing, reading other writing and thinking about writing – hard, I know! But there must be room for relaxation, laughter and holidays. If I am turning into a basket case, I shut everything down and hang out with my children. Sometimes you just have to go away and come back to the keyboard with fresh perspective.

 Should I give up my day job?

I have mixed feelings about this. Basically I did give up my day job and the terror got me writing like a dervish. Happily, I landed a two-book deal which gave me enough money to take another year off to write more. For several years I combined fiction writing with freelance journalism, now I write fiction full-time but I know I have journalism skills if I need to go back to them.

I’m not sure I would advise an 18 year old to study creative writing at college and nothing else. But sometimes, you have to walk the wire without the safety net because if you put your heart and soul into writing it might work much better than if you potter about at the weekends only.

Giving up the day job to write is scary and stressful. Please approach it very, very carefully, fully consulting your nearest and dearest and burn no bridges. Bear in mind that many, many well known writers combine writing with other jobs and careers which reliably pay the bills.

 Finally…

I really hope this has helped. Very, very best of luck out there. May your story be the next huge thing the world didn’t even know it was waiting for! And if it isn’t – please love the ride. Writing is fantastic – like dreaming with the lights on. Work hard, master the art, bring your dreams to life and WRITE ON!!

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

 

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

20 Tips For Surviving The Builders

And the builders are OUT… phew! I’m breathing a huge, dusty sigh of relief and allowing life as I know it to resume.

I’ve totally renovated four homes so far and although I don’t think this one will be the last, I have promised my family some peace and quiet… for a while.

I’ve learned (the hard way) a few useful things about having the builders in and thought I’d share my top 20 tips in case they’re useful to anyone else in this nerve-shreddingly stressful situation.

1.     Get as much done all at the one time as you possibly can. I’ve tried doing a bathroom here, a kitchen the next year, redecorating bit by bit and it’s not ideal. Plumbers and electricians come in and sigh: ‘Who did the kitchen like that? For the new bathroom, I’ll have to re-do all that piping/ wiring.’  Or worse, hauling their ladders and equipment into the kitchen, they scratch your new hall paintwork or eeek, your brand new floor. The more work you can get done at once, the better the price should be.

2.     Move out if at all possible. Even for the first few weeks. This allows you and your family to remain sane and be dressed without plaster dust on your clothes, in your hair, all over your beds and even in your food. It also lets the builders forge ahead without having to worry about water, gas and electrics having to be reconnected every evening.

3.      If you have to stay at home, tape polythene sheets over doors, buy a brush, dustpan, even a cheap vacuum cleaner just to deal with builder mess. Do not use your lovely Dyson to scoop up plaster dust and rubble. Do not let the builders use it either: it will die!

4.     If you work from home, you HAVE to find somewhere else to go. Trust me here. The library, a café with wifi, you have to get out. You cannot listen to Lesser Known Hits of the 80s, plus drilling and bumping and banging for weeks on end and get work done.

5.     Be VERY choosy about which builder you use. Do not rush this decision. Get recommendations from people you trust, or neighbours… even bathroom and kitchen suppliers. Go and see previous work the builder has done. Ask the owners if the work was quick and tidy, if the builders were polite, stuck to the agreed budget, turned up on time, stayed with the job right to the end. If a builder is available straight away, beware. Good builders have to be booked in advance. If you’re in an old house, you need a builder used to renovating old property.

6.     I don’t like tradesmen who only want to be paid in cash and I don’t like it if they want part of the money up front. Both of these things suggest they’re not running their business well and they won’t run your project well either. I totally wanted to sack a builder once, but had paid too much up front to be able to do it.

7.     Some money part way through is OK. But you need a week or two after the work is completed before you pay your final bill. So you can work out what the little problems are and ask for them to be fixed before you settle up.

8.     Plan, plan, plan. Make drawings of your rooms. Think about plugs, lights, tiling, cabinets, the way the door opens… Make as many decisions ahead of the work as possible. There will still be lots of decisions to make on the spot. Take some guidance from your builder – he might from experience know of a better way to do it…

9.     …But don’t do everything the builder way – sometimes they can go overboard with plastic trimming, beading, coving, laminate flooring and everything in beige and before you know it the heart and soul of your characterful old house has been ripped out and MDF-ed over.

10.   Consider using an architect. I asked an architect friend, who recommended the office junior, who made several visits and lots of plans. She had great ideas, oversaw getting the building warrant and all the relevant permits and charged us less than we expected for her time.

11. If your decorator umms and ahhs and says: ‘Are you sure? That’s quite a dark/ bright/ unusual colour?’ Just say YES. If you want a beautiful paint job with proper sanding down and many layers of paint, say so. Expect it to take longer and cost more than slapping the stuff on.

12.  Don’t freak out when standing in an empty newly painted room. By the time you’ve put in sofas, pictures, lamps, shelves, books – the colour will be lovely and just the way you imagined it.

13. Be business like with your builders. They’re not your new friends; they’re not your Dad/ uncle/ boss. You’re in charge. If things aren’t going the way you want, ask about it. Explain what you want. Listen. Sometimes you will have to compromise because what you want doesn’t work. But don’t accept something you really don’t want. The builder is going to move on and you’ll be left regretting this bit of work for the next five, ten years or longer.

14. When you first agree a price with the builder, try and get everything you can think of onto that estimate. There will always be a few extra jobs at the end, which will put the price up, but try not to make it a great long list of extras. Otherwise your bill might be a nasty shock.

15. Agree a timetable. Expect it to take a bit longer. But do not accept endless weeks of delay. If this is happening, you need to find out why and ask them to get back on track.

16. Keep all your estimates, bills and receipts in a dedicated folder. File all those guarantees. Unused paint tins, lightshades that didn’t match, bookcases that didn’t fit, unopened boxes of tiles – all can be returned if you have the receipt.

17. Get everything finished! Don’t leave wires dangling while you procrastinate on a bathroom cabinet, don’t leave plywood on the floor while you dither about tiles. After all the pain you’ve gone through, you NEED the big ‘tah dah’ when it all comes together and looks brilliant.

18. Accept that budget limitations can lead to creative and brilliant results. My £9 a metre bathroom tiles look amazing. Crown and Dulux have colours just as pretty as Farrow and Ball’s (use tester pots to find them). Two IKEA pendant lights can look even better than one designer one. A cheap bookcase properly assembled and fitted to the wall by a joiner looks almost as good as a bespoke one.

19. Realise that your wine/ chocolate/ biscuit consumption will rocket during this horribly stressful and expensive time.

20.  Remind yourself that it will be worth all the pain, expense and hassle. We’ve created a big family kitchen, renovated an old bathroom, plus put in a second bathroom and already, one week in, this has transformed home life.

 

World Book Day | My best advice to writers

Today is World Book Day. To mark the occasion I thought I’d repost this blog from my old site. I think there’s plenty here to think about for anyone who loves books, loves writing — and for anyone thinking of trying to write a novel. I’d love to hear your comments:

How do I get started writing?

I could write chapters and chapters, probably a whole book about writing. But I’m going to try and break it down into FAQs for you. If I haven’t answered your question, then please drop me a line. But these are my best answers to the questions I’m often asked. Also, I’m not just a published writer who ‘has it easy’ (‘What does she know about rejections?’) I’m also married to a trying-to-be-published writer. So I know about the process from many angles.

You sit down and you start. There we go. You don’t put it off until you ‘have the time’ or ‘feel in the mood’. You just apply your behind to the chair and get on with it. Because all that time you are wasting thinking about writing your amazing novel, I’m actually at my computer writing.

If we were runners, you would be thinking about taking up running and I would be training six days a week, so come the race – who has the best chance of finishing?!

Writing is a complex art. Expressing your ideas, characters and story in words is a skill which takes a lifetime to master. I’ve been writing fiction for 14 years now and I’m only beginning to get the hang of it. Just because you can read novels does not mean you can write them. Just because a book is easy to read does not mean it is easy to write.

Plus, it’s a very competitive business. There are so many fantastic writers already out there, if you want to join them, you’re going to have to get very, very good.

I feel it’s best to give you tough love. If you want to write novels – long, gripping novels people are going to give up hours and hours of their precious lives to read, you’re going to have to start training for the ultra-marathon!

What will help with my writing?

Reading will help enormously. Read all kinds of books. Find the kind of writing that you love; the kind of book you could pick up again and again. Is it horror? Is it rom com? Is it sci-fi? Is it historical fiction? What inspires you? What kind of book would you love to write?

Then write! Write and write some more. Write little chunks: blogs, diary entries, short pages. Hone your skills. Try a poem, then a short story. Try out chapter one. Try out the final chapter. Play with words. Describe the people you see on the train. Invent a background for them. Practise dialogue. Turn a news story into a short story. Write, write, write. Train your brain and your fingers to turn your thoughts into great sentences, then your sentences into stories.

Don’t expect to be a genius immediately. It takes time to get good. I was writing stories, essays and diaries all the time I was growing up. I spent my early 20s being a newspaper journalist. I must have written millions of words before I got started on chapter one. My first book attempt was in the bin by chapter four and I began again.

Think of JK Rowling, she’d been working on that first Harry Potter manuscript for YEARS before she showed it to anyone and even then all the big publishers turned her down! Her enormous success had nothing to do with luck: it was because she had a huge story to tell, sheer persistence and worked bloody hard.

 Are any books helpful?

I’m helped by reading and re-reading all the writers I love: Nancy Mitford, Anne Tyler, Agatha Christie, John Irving, JK Rowling, Roald Dahl, Candace Bushnell and many more.

I’ve also found these books very inspirational and packed with great advice: Robert McKee’s Story, Stephen King’s On Writing, Michelle Wallerstein’s Mind Your Business.

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan always get my romantic comedy juices flowing, along with every film written by Nora Ephron.

Should I join a writing group?

I’ve never joined a writing group. This is because I am such a loner and solitary animal. Also, I didn’t think I could bear the criticism! You have to be tough to write and keep on writing, but oh my goodness writing makes you vulnerable. As soon as you’ve written something, you’ve created a work that people can criticise. And believe me, everybody has an opinion. You just need to go onto Amazon to see that.

But writing groups can be hugely helpful. They help people to focus on what they want to write, they help people make contacts, plus they inspire you to get the work done. Only you can know if a group is a good idea for you. You could always try one and see. You could even advertise and set one up in your area.

 Where do I get ideas from?

EVERYWHERE!! As Paul Smith the fashion designer wrote: ’Inspiration is everywhere, if at first you don’t see it, look again!’ Open your mind to ideas. They really are everywhere. I used to worry about having enough things to write about, now I worry about finding the time to write about all my ideas. What sort of things have happened to you? What’s happened to your friend? Could it be re-worked? Could it be made much more exciting? What’s in the news? What’s in National Geographic? See reality as your springboard into the swimming pool of story.

You need to have a story. A really intriguing, interesting tale. You need to have great, memorable, fully-fleshed characters. If you are writing rom-com, you need to have some really hilariously funny scenes; some heart-meltingly tender scenes and you need a love story where something is always in the way of the happy couple.

Dig deeply into all your wide experience of life. How do your own relationships work? What makes you fall in love? What makes you angry? Sad? Confused? Despairing?

Should I do research?

ABSOLUTELY!! Go to the places you are writing about. Interview people who’ve done something like your heroine. You will get one million more great ideas doing this than you can ever dream of at your desk.

 Should I have a plan?

YOU’D BE MAD NOT TO!

Readers are viewers. They are used to more plot in a half an hour sit-com than they ever got in a full Dickens novel. You must plot your baby to death. You must keep your reader nailed to the chair. You will never manage this without a detailed plan. I work on my plans for weeks. I don’t write a word until I have every chapter outlined and the whole story completely outlined. Even then, it still changes, improves, gets messed around.

 Should I listen to criticism?

Only if it’s from someone you really trust. Writing something that makes your Mum beam with pride is not hard. Writing something that will move and engage perfect strangers is much more tricky. When you have a first draft you are really happy with, tell your story to a couple of friends who have been briefed to be firm but fair. Don’t make them read the whole thing. Try out the outline of your story on them. Does it excite them? Interest them? Do their eyes glaze over? Where are the problems?

Should I re-write?

Re-writing is the number one skill. It separates the amateurs from the professionals. About 50% of my time, maybe more is spent re-writing my work. I get to the end of my first draft in a hurry. I’m making sure the story works and I’m getting to know my characters. Then I start re-writing and the really hard work follows. But this is the sweat and tears that makes stories good.

How do I get an agent?

I have no idea!! You need an agent, because hardly any publishers look at manuscripts which don’t come from agents (check their websites to find out). But agents are like fairy dust.  Agents are very, very busy looking after those super important clients who earn them vast amounts of money.  With your unpublished manuscript, you are so far down the pecking order, your precious work will be handed to the work experience girl if you are lucky.  But remind yourself, big deals with brand new authors are made all the time. Agents and publishers continue to need new writers.

Do your research, find agents who represent your kind of work. Submit exactly as it says on the website. Send only your very polished, very best work. Write a covering letter of genius, brilliantly written about your brilliant story. Get them hooked. Make yours the manuscript at the top of the pile.

 I’ve been rejected, now what?

If you’ve sent your best work to many reputable agents or publishers and they’ve all said no thanks, you have to dust yourself down and think hard about what to do next. You could find more people to send it to… you could self-publish. You could put your work in a drawer and work on your next idea. You could stop and rest for a while… or go on a course, read books about writing, train your writing muscles to get better and stronger. No decision is right or wrong here. You have to decide what’s best for you. But I can promise the more you read, write and re-write, the better you will get.

 I’ve published one book, how do I keep going?

Your book is published, the world did not stop turning, Hollywood did not call, you are not as rich as Dan Brown. Welcome to the club. Look very hard at what worked; look even harder at what didn’t work. Don’t blame yourself for everything, but don’t accept no blame. Maybe you need to get much better. Think up a much stronger story. Do more research. Maybe you need to flex your PR muscles on your next time out.

Take your new career seriously. Find an amazing new story, fresh avenues for your work. Make lots more contacts in all sorts of connected fields.

All authors need these quotations pinned up above their desk:

‘Try again, fail again, fail better.’   Samuel Beckett.

‘Never, never, never, NEVER, give up.’   Sir Winston Churchill.

Do I self-publish on the internet?

Previously, I would always have said no, it’s a waste of time and money and you won’t make a penny. But the game has changed. Some writers are now fabulous e-book successes. In ten years time we may all be self-published on the internet. Do your research, don’t get ripped off and don’t put anything out there that isn’t your absolutely best work. Expect to do a lot of self-promoting. Success on the internet is just like success with a publisher, it’s all about talent and hard work. We are all only as good as the last thing we’ve written and the next big thing we’re writing.

 Will writing make me rich?

Let’s be realistic here. One in hundreds of thousands of writers will become rich: maybe through genius, epic hard work or sheer good luck. Just like one in hundreds of thousands of actors, painters and all kinds of creative people. The rest of us will range from making a great living to struggling on penniless. Love your work, devote yourself to your work and hope that the money will follow. If you have success, be like several wise old actors I know and save your money hard because success may not come around again immediately. Yachts and villas on the Med are for gas barons and internet billionaires not, usually, novelists.

Will writing make me happy?

I love to write. I love the hours when I am so in the flow, so in my made-up world that I forget about everything else. But I spend all day, most days, withimaginary people and many head-doctors would consider this a worrying condition!

Creative people often struggle with mental health issues – we get depressed, we fret, we drink or smoke, take drugs, or comfort eat or all of the above. Maybe we were like this when we began; maybe the nature of our work makes us more like this. I do believe that writing makes you vulnerable. Plus it can become obsessive. Writing can take up all the time you have, no manuscript is ever ‘finished’, and you can use writing as a way of opting out of everything else life has to offer.

You need balance!

You need to look after the other areas of life too: friends, family and your health. You need regular breaks from writing, reading other writing and thinking about writing – hard, I know! But there must be room for relaxation, laughter and holidays. If I am turning into a basket case, I shut everything down and hang out with my children. Sometimes you just have to go away and come back to the keyboard with fresh perspective.

 Should I give up my day job?

I have mixed feelings about this. Basically I did give up my day job and the terror got me writing like a dervish. Happily, I landed a two-book deal which gave me enough money to take another year off to write more. For several years I combined fiction writing with freelance journalism, now I write fiction full-time but I know I have journalism skills if I need to go back to them.

I’m not sure I would advise an 18 year old to study creative writing at college and nothing else. But sometimes, you have to walk the wire without the safety net because if you put your heart and soul into writing it might work much better than if you potter about at the weekends only.

Giving up the day job to write is scary and stressful. Please approach it very, very carefully, fully consulting your nearest and dearest and burn no bridges. Bear in mind that many, many well known writers combine writing with other jobs and careers which reliably pay the bills.

 Finally…

I really hope this has helped. Very, very best of luck out there. May your story be the next huge thing the world didn’t even know it was waiting for! And if it isn’t – please love the ride. Writing is fantastic – like dreaming with the lights on. Work hard, master the art, bring your dreams to life and WRITE ON!!

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

 

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

20 Tips For Surviving The Builders

And the builders are OUT… phew! I’m breathing a huge, dusty sigh of relief and allowing life as I know it to resume.

I’ve totally renovated four homes so far and although I don’t think this one will be the last, I have promised my family some peace and quiet… for a while.

I’ve learned (the hard way) a few useful things about having the builders in and thought I’d share my top 20 tips in case they’re useful to anyone else in this nerve-shreddingly stressful situation.

1.     Get as much done all at the one time as you possibly can. I’ve tried doing a bathroom here, a kitchen the next year, redecorating bit by bit and it’s not ideal. Plumbers and electricians come in and sigh: ‘Who did the kitchen like that? For the new bathroom, I’ll have to re-do all that piping/ wiring.’  Or worse, hauling their ladders and equipment into the kitchen, they scratch your new hall paintwork or eeek, your brand new floor. The more work you can get done at once, the better the price should be.

2.     Move out if at all possible. Even for the first few weeks. This allows you and your family to remain sane and be dressed without plaster dust on your clothes, in your hair, all over your beds and even in your food. It also lets the builders forge ahead without having to worry about water, gas and electrics having to be reconnected every evening.

3.      If you have to stay at home, tape polythene sheets over doors, buy a brush, dustpan, even a cheap vacuum cleaner just to deal with builder mess. Do not use your lovely Dyson to scoop up plaster dust and rubble. Do not let the builders use it either: it will die!

4.     If you work from home, you HAVE to find somewhere else to go. Trust me here. The library, a café with wifi, you have to get out. You cannot listen to Lesser Known Hits of the 80s, plus drilling and bumping and banging for weeks on end and get work done.

5.     Be VERY choosy about which builder you use. Do not rush this decision. Get recommendations from people you trust, or neighbours… even bathroom and kitchen suppliers. Go and see previous work the builder has done. Ask the owners if the work was quick and tidy, if the builders were polite, stuck to the agreed budget, turned up on time, stayed with the job right to the end. If a builder is available straight away, beware. Good builders have to be booked in advance. If you’re in an old house, you need a builder used to renovating old property.

6.     I don’t like tradesmen who only want to be paid in cash and I don’t like it if they want part of the money up front. Both of these things suggest they’re not running their business well and they won’t run your project well either. I totally wanted to sack a builder once, but had paid too much up front to be able to do it.

7.     Some money part way through is OK. But you need a week or two after the work is completed before you pay your final bill. So you can work out what the little problems are and ask for them to be fixed before you settle up.

8.     Plan, plan, plan. Make drawings of your rooms. Think about plugs, lights, tiling, cabinets, the way the door opens… Make as many decisions ahead of the work as possible. There will still be lots of decisions to make on the spot. Take some guidance from your builder – he might from experience know of a better way to do it…

9.     …But don’t do everything the builder way – sometimes they can go overboard with plastic trimming, beading, coving, laminate flooring and everything in beige and before you know it the heart and soul of your characterful old house has been ripped out and MDF-ed over.

10.   Consider using an architect. I asked an architect friend, who recommended the office junior, who made several visits and lots of plans. She had great ideas, oversaw getting the building warrant and all the relevant permits and charged us less than we expected for her time.

11. If your decorator umms and ahhs and says: ‘Are you sure? That’s quite a dark/ bright/ unusual colour?’ Just say YES. If you want a beautiful paint job with proper sanding down and many layers of paint, say so. Expect it to take longer and cost more than slapping the stuff on.

12.  Don’t freak out when standing in an empty newly painted room. By the time you’ve put in sofas, pictures, lamps, shelves, books – the colour will be lovely and just the way you imagined it.

13. Be business like with your builders. They’re not your new friends; they’re not your Dad/ uncle/ boss. You’re in charge. If things aren’t going the way you want, ask about it. Explain what you want. Listen. Sometimes you will have to compromise because what you want doesn’t work. But don’t accept something you really don’t want. The builder is going to move on and you’ll be left regretting this bit of work for the next five, ten years or longer.

14. When you first agree a price with the builder, try and get everything you can think of onto that estimate. There will always be a few extra jobs at the end, which will put the price up, but try not to make it a great long list of extras. Otherwise your bill might be a nasty shock.

15. Agree a timetable. Expect it to take a bit longer. But do not accept endless weeks of delay. If this is happening, you need to find out why and ask them to get back on track.

16. Keep all your estimates, bills and receipts in a dedicated folder. File all those guarantees. Unused paint tins, lightshades that didn’t match, bookcases that didn’t fit, unopened boxes of tiles – all can be returned if you have the receipt.

17. Get everything finished! Don’t leave wires dangling while you procrastinate on a bathroom cabinet, don’t leave plywood on the floor while you dither about tiles. After all the pain you’ve gone through, you NEED the big ‘tah dah’ when it all comes together and looks brilliant.

18. Accept that budget limitations can lead to creative and brilliant results. My £9 a metre bathroom tiles look amazing. Crown and Dulux have colours just as pretty as Farrow and Ball’s (use tester pots to find them). Two IKEA pendant lights can look even better than one designer one. A cheap bookcase properly assembled and fitted to the wall by a joiner looks almost as good as a bespoke one.

19. Realise that your wine/ chocolate/ biscuit consumption will rocket during this horribly stressful and expensive time.

20.  Remind yourself that it will be worth all the pain, expense and hassle. We’ve created a big family kitchen, renovated an old bathroom, plus put in a second bathroom and already, one week in, this has transformed home life.

 

World Book Day | My best advice to writers

Today is World Book Day. To mark the occasion I thought I’d repost this blog from my old site. I think there’s plenty here to think about for anyone who loves books, loves writing — and for anyone thinking of trying to write a novel. I’d love to hear your comments:

How do I get started writing?

I could write chapters and chapters, probably a whole book about writing. But I’m going to try and break it down into FAQs for you. If I haven’t answered your question, then please drop me a line. But these are my best answers to the questions I’m often asked. Also, I’m not just a published writer who ‘has it easy’ (‘What does she know about rejections?’) I’m also married to a trying-to-be-published writer. So I know about the process from many angles.

You sit down and you start. There we go. You don’t put it off until you ‘have the time’ or ‘feel in the mood’. You just apply your behind to the chair and get on with it. Because all that time you are wasting thinking about writing your amazing novel, I’m actually at my computer writing.

If we were runners, you would be thinking about taking up running and I would be training six days a week, so come the race – who has the best chance of finishing?!

Writing is a complex art. Expressing your ideas, characters and story in words is a skill which takes a lifetime to master. I’ve been writing fiction for 14 years now and I’m only beginning to get the hang of it. Just because you can read novels does not mean you can write them. Just because a book is easy to read does not mean it is easy to write.

Plus, it’s a very competitive business. There are so many fantastic writers already out there, if you want to join them, you’re going to have to get very, very good.

I feel it’s best to give you tough love. If you want to write novels – long, gripping novels people are going to give up hours and hours of their precious lives to read, you’re going to have to start training for the ultra-marathon!

What will help with my writing?

Reading will help enormously. Read all kinds of books. Find the kind of writing that you love; the kind of book you could pick up again and again. Is it horror? Is it rom com? Is it sci-fi? Is it historical fiction? What inspires you? What kind of book would you love to write?

Then write! Write and write some more. Write little chunks: blogs, diary entries, short pages. Hone your skills. Try a poem, then a short story. Try out chapter one. Try out the final chapter. Play with words. Describe the people you see on the train. Invent a background for them. Practise dialogue. Turn a news story into a short story. Write, write, write. Train your brain and your fingers to turn your thoughts into great sentences, then your sentences into stories.

Don’t expect to be a genius immediately. It takes time to get good. I was writing stories, essays and diaries all the time I was growing up. I spent my early 20s being a newspaper journalist. I must have written millions of words before I got started on chapter one. My first book attempt was in the bin by chapter four and I began again.

Think of JK Rowling, she’d been working on that first Harry Potter manuscript for YEARS before she showed it to anyone and even then all the big publishers turned her down! Her enormous success had nothing to do with luck: it was because she had a huge story to tell, sheer persistence and worked bloody hard.

 Are any books helpful?

I’m helped by reading and re-reading all the writers I love: Nancy Mitford, Anne Tyler, Agatha Christie, John Irving, JK Rowling, Roald Dahl, Candace Bushnell and many more.

I’ve also found these books very inspirational and packed with great advice: Robert McKee’s Story, Stephen King’s On Writing, Michelle Wallerstein’s Mind Your Business.

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan always get my romantic comedy juices flowing, along with every film written by Nora Ephron.

Should I join a writing group?

I’ve never joined a writing group. This is because I am such a loner and solitary animal. Also, I didn’t think I could bear the criticism! You have to be tough to write and keep on writing, but oh my goodness writing makes you vulnerable. As soon as you’ve written something, you’ve created a work that people can criticise. And believe me, everybody has an opinion. You just need to go onto Amazon to see that.

But writing groups can be hugely helpful. They help people to focus on what they want to write, they help people make contacts, plus they inspire you to get the work done. Only you can know if a group is a good idea for you. You could always try one and see. You could even advertise and set one up in your area.

 Where do I get ideas from?

EVERYWHERE!! As Paul Smith the fashion designer wrote: ’Inspiration is everywhere, if at first you don’t see it, look again!’ Open your mind to ideas. They really are everywhere. I used to worry about having enough things to write about, now I worry about finding the time to write about all my ideas. What sort of things have happened to you? What’s happened to your friend? Could it be re-worked? Could it be made much more exciting? What’s in the news? What’s in National Geographic? See reality as your springboard into the swimming pool of story.

You need to have a story. A really intriguing, interesting tale. You need to have great, memorable, fully-fleshed characters. If you are writing rom-com, you need to have some really hilariously funny scenes; some heart-meltingly tender scenes and you need a love story where something is always in the way of the happy couple.

Dig deeply into all your wide experience of life. How do your own relationships work? What makes you fall in love? What makes you angry? Sad? Confused? Despairing?

Should I do research?

ABSOLUTELY!! Go to the places you are writing about. Interview people who’ve done something like your heroine. You will get one million more great ideas doing this than you can ever dream of at your desk.

 Should I have a plan?

YOU’D BE MAD NOT TO!

Readers are viewers. They are used to more plot in a half an hour sit-com than they ever got in a full Dickens novel. You must plot your baby to death. You must keep your reader nailed to the chair. You will never manage this without a detailed plan. I work on my plans for weeks. I don’t write a word until I have every chapter outlined and the whole story completely outlined. Even then, it still changes, improves, gets messed around.

 Should I listen to criticism?

Only if it’s from someone you really trust. Writing something that makes your Mum beam with pride is not hard. Writing something that will move and engage perfect strangers is much more tricky. When you have a first draft you are really happy with, tell your story to a couple of friends who have been briefed to be firm but fair. Don’t make them read the whole thing. Try out the outline of your story on them. Does it excite them? Interest them? Do their eyes glaze over? Where are the problems?

Should I re-write?

Re-writing is the number one skill. It separates the amateurs from the professionals. About 50% of my time, maybe more is spent re-writing my work. I get to the end of my first draft in a hurry. I’m making sure the story works and I’m getting to know my characters. Then I start re-writing and the really hard work follows. But this is the sweat and tears that makes stories good.

How do I get an agent?

I have no idea!! You need an agent, because hardly any publishers look at manuscripts which don’t come from agents (check their websites to find out). But agents are like fairy dust.  Agents are very, very busy looking after those super important clients who earn them vast amounts of money.  With your unpublished manuscript, you are so far down the pecking order, your precious work will be handed to the work experience girl if you are lucky.  But remind yourself, big deals with brand new authors are made all the time. Agents and publishers continue to need new writers.

Do your research, find agents who represent your kind of work. Submit exactly as it says on the website. Send only your very polished, very best work. Write a covering letter of genius, brilliantly written about your brilliant story. Get them hooked. Make yours the manuscript at the top of the pile.

 I’ve been rejected, now what?

If you’ve sent your best work to many reputable agents or publishers and they’ve all said no thanks, you have to dust yourself down and think hard about what to do next. You could find more people to send it to… you could self-publish. You could put your work in a drawer and work on your next idea. You could stop and rest for a while… or go on a course, read books about writing, train your writing muscles to get better and stronger. No decision is right or wrong here. You have to decide what’s best for you. But I can promise the more you read, write and re-write, the better you will get.

 I’ve published one book, how do I keep going?

Your book is published, the world did not stop turning, Hollywood did not call, you are not as rich as Dan Brown. Welcome to the club. Look very hard at what worked; look even harder at what didn’t work. Don’t blame yourself for everything, but don’t accept no blame. Maybe you need to get much better. Think up a much stronger story. Do more research. Maybe you need to flex your PR muscles on your next time out.

Take your new career seriously. Find an amazing new story, fresh avenues for your work. Make lots more contacts in all sorts of connected fields.

All authors need these quotations pinned up above their desk:

‘Try again, fail again, fail better.’   Samuel Beckett.

‘Never, never, never, NEVER, give up.’   Sir Winston Churchill.

Do I self-publish on the internet?

Previously, I would always have said no, it’s a waste of time and money and you won’t make a penny. But the game has changed. Some writers are now fabulous e-book successes. In ten years time we may all be self-published on the internet. Do your research, don’t get ripped off and don’t put anything out there that isn’t your absolutely best work. Expect to do a lot of self-promoting. Success on the internet is just like success with a publisher, it’s all about talent and hard work. We are all only as good as the last thing we’ve written and the next big thing we’re writing.

 Will writing make me rich?

Let’s be realistic here. One in hundreds of thousands of writers will become rich: maybe through genius, epic hard work or sheer good luck. Just like one in hundreds of thousands of actors, painters and all kinds of creative people. The rest of us will range from making a great living to struggling on penniless. Love your work, devote yourself to your work and hope that the money will follow. If you have success, be like several wise old actors I know and save your money hard because success may not come around again immediately. Yachts and villas on the Med are for gas barons and internet billionaires not, usually, novelists.

Will writing make me happy?

I love to write. I love the hours when I am so in the flow, so in my made-up world that I forget about everything else. But I spend all day, most days, withimaginary people and many head-doctors would consider this a worrying condition!

Creative people often struggle with mental health issues – we get depressed, we fret, we drink or smoke, take drugs, or comfort eat or all of the above. Maybe we were like this when we began; maybe the nature of our work makes us more like this. I do believe that writing makes you vulnerable. Plus it can become obsessive. Writing can take up all the time you have, no manuscript is ever ‘finished’, and you can use writing as a way of opting out of everything else life has to offer.

You need balance!

You need to look after the other areas of life too: friends, family and your health. You need regular breaks from writing, reading other writing and thinking about writing – hard, I know! But there must be room for relaxation, laughter and holidays. If I am turning into a basket case, I shut everything down and hang out with my children. Sometimes you just have to go away and come back to the keyboard with fresh perspective.

 Should I give up my day job?

I have mixed feelings about this. Basically I did give up my day job and the terror got me writing like a dervish. Happily, I landed a two-book deal which gave me enough money to take another year off to write more. For several years I combined fiction writing with freelance journalism, now I write fiction full-time but I know I have journalism skills if I need to go back to them.

I’m not sure I would advise an 18 year old to study creative writing at college and nothing else. But sometimes, you have to walk the wire without the safety net because if you put your heart and soul into writing it might work much better than if you potter about at the weekends only.

Giving up the day job to write is scary and stressful. Please approach it very, very carefully, fully consulting your nearest and dearest and burn no bridges. Bear in mind that many, many well known writers combine writing with other jobs and careers which reliably pay the bills.

 Finally…

I really hope this has helped. Very, very best of luck out there. May your story be the next huge thing the world didn’t even know it was waiting for! And if it isn’t – please love the ride. Writing is fantastic – like dreaming with the lights on. Work hard, master the art, bring your dreams to life and WRITE ON!!

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

 

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

20 Tips For Surviving The Builders

And the builders are OUT… phew! I’m breathing a huge, dusty sigh of relief and allowing life as I know it to resume.

I’ve totally renovated four homes so far and although I don’t think this one will be the last, I have promised my family some peace and quiet… for a while.

I’ve learned (the hard way) a few useful things about having the builders in and thought I’d share my top 20 tips in case they’re useful to anyone else in this nerve-shreddingly stressful situation.

1.     Get as much done all at the one time as you possibly can. I’ve tried doing a bathroom here, a kitchen the next year, redecorating bit by bit and it’s not ideal. Plumbers and electricians come in and sigh: ‘Who did the kitchen like that? For the new bathroom, I’ll have to re-do all that piping/ wiring.’  Or worse, hauling their ladders and equipment into the kitchen, they scratch your new hall paintwork or eeek, your brand new floor. The more work you can get done at once, the better the price should be.

2.     Move out if at all possible. Even for the first few weeks. This allows you and your family to remain sane and be dressed without plaster dust on your clothes, in your hair, all over your beds and even in your food. It also lets the builders forge ahead without having to worry about water, gas and electrics having to be reconnected every evening.

3.      If you have to stay at home, tape polythene sheets over doors, buy a brush, dustpan, even a cheap vacuum cleaner just to deal with builder mess. Do not use your lovely Dyson to scoop up plaster dust and rubble. Do not let the builders use it either: it will die!

4.     If you work from home, you HAVE to find somewhere else to go. Trust me here. The library, a café with wifi, you have to get out. You cannot listen to Lesser Known Hits of the 80s, plus drilling and bumping and banging for weeks on end and get work done.

5.     Be VERY choosy about which builder you use. Do not rush this decision. Get recommendations from people you trust, or neighbours… even bathroom and kitchen suppliers. Go and see previous work the builder has done. Ask the owners if the work was quick and tidy, if the builders were polite, stuck to the agreed budget, turned up on time, stayed with the job right to the end. If a builder is available straight away, beware. Good builders have to be booked in advance. If you’re in an old house, you need a builder used to renovating old property.

6.     I don’t like tradesmen who only want to be paid in cash and I don’t like it if they want part of the money up front. Both of these things suggest they’re not running their business well and they won’t run your project well either. I totally wanted to sack a builder once, but had paid too much up front to be able to do it.

7.     Some money part way through is OK. But you need a week or two after the work is completed before you pay your final bill. So you can work out what the little problems are and ask for them to be fixed before you settle up.

8.     Plan, plan, plan. Make drawings of your rooms. Think about plugs, lights, tiling, cabinets, the way the door opens… Make as many decisions ahead of the work as possible. There will still be lots of decisions to make on the spot. Take some guidance from your builder – he might from experience know of a better way to do it…

9.     …But don’t do everything the builder way – sometimes they can go overboard with plastic trimming, beading, coving, laminate flooring and everything in beige and before you know it the heart and soul of your characterful old house has been ripped out and MDF-ed over.

10.   Consider using an architect. I asked an architect friend, who recommended the office junior, who made several visits and lots of plans. She had great ideas, oversaw getting the building warrant and all the relevant permits and charged us less than we expected for her time.

11. If your decorator umms and ahhs and says: ‘Are you sure? That’s quite a dark/ bright/ unusual colour?’ Just say YES. If you want a beautiful paint job with proper sanding down and many layers of paint, say so. Expect it to take longer and cost more than slapping the stuff on.

12.  Don’t freak out when standing in an empty newly painted room. By the time you’ve put in sofas, pictures, lamps, shelves, books – the colour will be lovely and just the way you imagined it.

13. Be business like with your builders. They’re not your new friends; they’re not your Dad/ uncle/ boss. You’re in charge. If things aren’t going the way you want, ask about it. Explain what you want. Listen. Sometimes you will have to compromise because what you want doesn’t work. But don’t accept something you really don’t want. The builder is going to move on and you’ll be left regretting this bit of work for the next five, ten years or longer.

14. When you first agree a price with the builder, try and get everything you can think of onto that estimate. There will always be a few extra jobs at the end, which will put the price up, but try not to make it a great long list of extras. Otherwise your bill might be a nasty shock.

15. Agree a timetable. Expect it to take a bit longer. But do not accept endless weeks of delay. If this is happening, you need to find out why and ask them to get back on track.

16. Keep all your estimates, bills and receipts in a dedicated folder. File all those guarantees. Unused paint tins, lightshades that didn’t match, bookcases that didn’t fit, unopened boxes of tiles – all can be returned if you have the receipt.

17. Get everything finished! Don’t leave wires dangling while you procrastinate on a bathroom cabinet, don’t leave plywood on the floor while you dither about tiles. After all the pain you’ve gone through, you NEED the big ‘tah dah’ when it all comes together and looks brilliant.

18. Accept that budget limitations can lead to creative and brilliant results. My £9 a metre bathroom tiles look amazing. Crown and Dulux have colours just as pretty as Farrow and Ball’s (use tester pots to find them). Two IKEA pendant lights can look even better than one designer one. A cheap bookcase properly assembled and fitted to the wall by a joiner looks almost as good as a bespoke one.

19. Realise that your wine/ chocolate/ biscuit consumption will rocket during this horribly stressful and expensive time.

20.  Remind yourself that it will be worth all the pain, expense and hassle. We’ve created a big family kitchen, renovated an old bathroom, plus put in a second bathroom and already, one week in, this has transformed home life.

 

World Book Day | My best advice to writers

Today is World Book Day. To mark the occasion I thought I’d repost this blog from my old site. I think there’s plenty here to think about for anyone who loves books, loves writing — and for anyone thinking of trying to write a novel. I’d love to hear your comments:

How do I get started writing?

I could write chapters and chapters, probably a whole book about writing. But I’m going to try and break it down into FAQs for you. If I haven’t answered your question, then please drop me a line. But these are my best answers to the questions I’m often asked. Also, I’m not just a published writer who ‘has it easy’ (‘What does she know about rejections?’) I’m also married to a trying-to-be-published writer. So I know about the process from many angles.

You sit down and you start. There we go. You don’t put it off until you ‘have the time’ or ‘feel in the mood’. You just apply your behind to the chair and get on with it. Because all that time you are wasting thinking about writing your amazing novel, I’m actually at my computer writing.

If we were runners, you would be thinking about taking up running and I would be training six days a week, so come the race – who has the best chance of finishing?!

Writing is a complex art. Expressing your ideas, characters and story in words is a skill which takes a lifetime to master. I’ve been writing fiction for 14 years now and I’m only beginning to get the hang of it. Just because you can read novels does not mean you can write them. Just because a book is easy to read does not mean it is easy to write.

Plus, it’s a very competitive business. There are so many fantastic writers already out there, if you want to join them, you’re going to have to get very, very good.

I feel it’s best to give you tough love. If you want to write novels – long, gripping novels people are going to give up hours and hours of their precious lives to read, you’re going to have to start training for the ultra-marathon!

What will help with my writing?

Reading will help enormously. Read all kinds of books. Find the kind of writing that you love; the kind of book you could pick up again and again. Is it horror? Is it rom com? Is it sci-fi? Is it historical fiction? What inspires you? What kind of book would you love to write?

Then write! Write and write some more. Write little chunks: blogs, diary entries, short pages. Hone your skills. Try a poem, then a short story. Try out chapter one. Try out the final chapter. Play with words. Describe the people you see on the train. Invent a background for them. Practise dialogue. Turn a news story into a short story. Write, write, write. Train your brain and your fingers to turn your thoughts into great sentences, then your sentences into stories.

Don’t expect to be a genius immediately. It takes time to get good. I was writing stories, essays and diaries all the time I was growing up. I spent my early 20s being a newspaper journalist. I must have written millions of words before I got started on chapter one. My first book attempt was in the bin by chapter four and I began again.

Think of JK Rowling, she’d been working on that first Harry Potter manuscript for YEARS before she showed it to anyone and even then all the big publishers turned her down! Her enormous success had nothing to do with luck: it was because she had a huge story to tell, sheer persistence and worked bloody hard.

 Are any books helpful?

I’m helped by reading and re-reading all the writers I love: Nancy Mitford, Anne Tyler, Agatha Christie, John Irving, JK Rowling, Roald Dahl, Candace Bushnell and many more.

I’ve also found these books very inspirational and packed with great advice: Robert McKee’s Story, Stephen King’s On Writing, Michelle Wallerstein’s Mind Your Business.

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan always get my romantic comedy juices flowing, along with every film written by Nora Ephron.

Should I join a writing group?

I’ve never joined a writing group. This is because I am such a loner and solitary animal. Also, I didn’t think I could bear the criticism! You have to be tough to write and keep on writing, but oh my goodness writing makes you vulnerable. As soon as you’ve written something, you’ve created a work that people can criticise. And believe me, everybody has an opinion. You just need to go onto Amazon to see that.

But writing groups can be hugely helpful. They help people to focus on what they want to write, they help people make contacts, plus they inspire you to get the work done. Only you can know if a group is a good idea for you. You could always try one and see. You could even advertise and set one up in your area.

 Where do I get ideas from?

EVERYWHERE!! As Paul Smith the fashion designer wrote: ’Inspiration is everywhere, if at first you don’t see it, look again!’ Open your mind to ideas. They really are everywhere. I used to worry about having enough things to write about, now I worry about finding the time to write about all my ideas. What sort of things have happened to you? What’s happened to your friend? Could it be re-worked? Could it be made much more exciting? What’s in the news? What’s in National Geographic? See reality as your springboard into the swimming pool of story.

You need to have a story. A really intriguing, interesting tale. You need to have great, memorable, fully-fleshed characters. If you are writing rom-com, you need to have some really hilariously funny scenes; some heart-meltingly tender scenes and you need a love story where something is always in the way of the happy couple.

Dig deeply into all your wide experience of life. How do your own relationships work? What makes you fall in love? What makes you angry? Sad? Confused? Despairing?

Should I do research?

ABSOLUTELY!! Go to the places you are writing about. Interview people who’ve done something like your heroine. You will get one million more great ideas doing this than you can ever dream of at your desk.

 Should I have a plan?

YOU’D BE MAD NOT TO!

Readers are viewers. They are used to more plot in a half an hour sit-com than they ever got in a full Dickens novel. You must plot your baby to death. You must keep your reader nailed to the chair. You will never manage this without a detailed plan. I work on my plans for weeks. I don’t write a word until I have every chapter outlined and the whole story completely outlined. Even then, it still changes, improves, gets messed around.

 Should I listen to criticism?

Only if it’s from someone you really trust. Writing something that makes your Mum beam with pride is not hard. Writing something that will move and engage perfect strangers is much more tricky. When you have a first draft you are really happy with, tell your story to a couple of friends who have been briefed to be firm but fair. Don’t make them read the whole thing. Try out the outline of your story on them. Does it excite them? Interest them? Do their eyes glaze over? Where are the problems?

Should I re-write?

Re-writing is the number one skill. It separates the amateurs from the professionals. About 50% of my time, maybe more is spent re-writing my work. I get to the end of my first draft in a hurry. I’m making sure the story works and I’m getting to know my characters. Then I start re-writing and the really hard work follows. But this is the sweat and tears that makes stories good.

How do I get an agent?

I have no idea!! You need an agent, because hardly any publishers look at manuscripts which don’t come from agents (check their websites to find out). But agents are like fairy dust.  Agents are very, very busy looking after those super important clients who earn them vast amounts of money.  With your unpublished manuscript, you are so far down the pecking order, your precious work will be handed to the work experience girl if you are lucky.  But remind yourself, big deals with brand new authors are made all the time. Agents and publishers continue to need new writers.

Do your research, find agents who represent your kind of work. Submit exactly as it says on the website. Send only your very polished, very best work. Write a covering letter of genius, brilliantly written about your brilliant story. Get them hooked. Make yours the manuscript at the top of the pile.

 I’ve been rejected, now what?

If you’ve sent your best work to many reputable agents or publishers and they’ve all said no thanks, you have to dust yourself down and think hard about what to do next. You could find more people to send it to… you could self-publish. You could put your work in a drawer and work on your next idea. You could stop and rest for a while… or go on a course, read books about writing, train your writing muscles to get better and stronger. No decision is right or wrong here. You have to decide what’s best for you. But I can promise the more you read, write and re-write, the better you will get.

 I’ve published one book, how do I keep going?

Your book is published, the world did not stop turning, Hollywood did not call, you are not as rich as Dan Brown. Welcome to the club. Look very hard at what worked; look even harder at what didn’t work. Don’t blame yourself for everything, but don’t accept no blame. Maybe you need to get much better. Think up a much stronger story. Do more research. Maybe you need to flex your PR muscles on your next time out.

Take your new career seriously. Find an amazing new story, fresh avenues for your work. Make lots more contacts in all sorts of connected fields.

All authors need these quotations pinned up above their desk:

‘Try again, fail again, fail better.’   Samuel Beckett.

‘Never, never, never, NEVER, give up.’   Sir Winston Churchill.

Do I self-publish on the internet?

Previously, I would always have said no, it’s a waste of time and money and you won’t make a penny. But the game has changed. Some writers are now fabulous e-book successes. In ten years time we may all be self-published on the internet. Do your research, don’t get ripped off and don’t put anything out there that isn’t your absolutely best work. Expect to do a lot of self-promoting. Success on the internet is just like success with a publisher, it’s all about talent and hard work. We are all only as good as the last thing we’ve written and the next big thing we’re writing.

 Will writing make me rich?

Let’s be realistic here. One in hundreds of thousands of writers will become rich: maybe through genius, epic hard work or sheer good luck. Just like one in hundreds of thousands of actors, painters and all kinds of creative people. The rest of us will range from making a great living to struggling on penniless. Love your work, devote yourself to your work and hope that the money will follow. If you have success, be like several wise old actors I know and save your money hard because success may not come around again immediately. Yachts and villas on the Med are for gas barons and internet billionaires not, usually, novelists.

Will writing make me happy?

I love to write. I love the hours when I am so in the flow, so in my made-up world that I forget about everything else. But I spend all day, most days, withimaginary people and many head-doctors would consider this a worrying condition!

Creative people often struggle with mental health issues – we get depressed, we fret, we drink or smoke, take drugs, or comfort eat or all of the above. Maybe we were like this when we began; maybe the nature of our work makes us more like this. I do believe that writing makes you vulnerable. Plus it can become obsessive. Writing can take up all the time you have, no manuscript is ever ‘finished’, and you can use writing as a way of opting out of everything else life has to offer.

You need balance!

You need to look after the other areas of life too: friends, family and your health. You need regular breaks from writing, reading other writing and thinking about writing – hard, I know! But there must be room for relaxation, laughter and holidays. If I am turning into a basket case, I shut everything down and hang out with my children. Sometimes you just have to go away and come back to the keyboard with fresh perspective.

 Should I give up my day job?

I have mixed feelings about this. Basically I did give up my day job and the terror got me writing like a dervish. Happily, I landed a two-book deal which gave me enough money to take another year off to write more. For several years I combined fiction writing with freelance journalism, now I write fiction full-time but I know I have journalism skills if I need to go back to them.

I’m not sure I would advise an 18 year old to study creative writing at college and nothing else. But sometimes, you have to walk the wire without the safety net because if you put your heart and soul into writing it might work much better than if you potter about at the weekends only.

Giving up the day job to write is scary and stressful. Please approach it very, very carefully, fully consulting your nearest and dearest and burn no bridges. Bear in mind that many, many well known writers combine writing with other jobs and careers which reliably pay the bills.

 Finally…

I really hope this has helped. Very, very best of luck out there. May your story be the next huge thing the world didn’t even know it was waiting for! And if it isn’t – please love the ride. Writing is fantastic – like dreaming with the lights on. Work hard, master the art, bring your dreams to life and WRITE ON!!

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

 

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

20 Tips For Surviving The Builders

And the builders are OUT… phew! I’m breathing a huge, dusty sigh of relief and allowing life as I know it to resume.

I’ve totally renovated four homes so far and although I don’t think this one will be the last, I have promised my family some peace and quiet… for a while.

I’ve learned (the hard way) a few useful things about having the builders in and thought I’d share my top 20 tips in case they’re useful to anyone else in this nerve-shreddingly stressful situation.

1.     Get as much done all at the one time as you possibly can. I’ve tried doing a bathroom here, a kitchen the next year, redecorating bit by bit and it’s not ideal. Plumbers and electricians come in and sigh: ‘Who did the kitchen like that? For the new bathroom, I’ll have to re-do all that piping/ wiring.’  Or worse, hauling their ladders and equipment into the kitchen, they scratch your new hall paintwork or eeek, your brand new floor. The more work you can get done at once, the better the price should be.

2.     Move out if at all possible. Even for the first few weeks. This allows you and your family to remain sane and be dressed without plaster dust on your clothes, in your hair, all over your beds and even in your food. It also lets the builders forge ahead without having to worry about water, gas and electrics having to be reconnected every evening.

3.      If you have to stay at home, tape polythene sheets over doors, buy a brush, dustpan, even a cheap vacuum cleaner just to deal with builder mess. Do not use your lovely Dyson to scoop up plaster dust and rubble. Do not let the builders use it either: it will die!

4.     If you work from home, you HAVE to find somewhere else to go. Trust me here. The library, a café with wifi, you have to get out. You cannot listen to Lesser Known Hits of the 80s, plus drilling and bumping and banging for weeks on end and get work done.

5.     Be VERY choosy about which builder you use. Do not rush this decision. Get recommendations from people you trust, or neighbours… even bathroom and kitchen suppliers. Go and see previous work the builder has done. Ask the owners if the work was quick and tidy, if the builders were polite, stuck to the agreed budget, turned up on time, stayed with the job right to the end. If a builder is available straight away, beware. Good builders have to be booked in advance. If you’re in an old house, you need a builder used to renovating old property.

6.     I don’t like tradesmen who only want to be paid in cash and I don’t like it if they want part of the money up front. Both of these things suggest they’re not running their business well and they won’t run your project well either. I totally wanted to sack a builder once, but had paid too much up front to be able to do it.

7.     Some money part way through is OK. But you need a week or two after the work is completed before you pay your final bill. So you can work out what the little problems are and ask for them to be fixed before you settle up.

8.     Plan, plan, plan. Make drawings of your rooms. Think about plugs, lights, tiling, cabinets, the way the door opens… Make as many decisions ahead of the work as possible. There will still be lots of decisions to make on the spot. Take some guidance from your builder – he might from experience know of a better way to do it…

9.     …But don’t do everything the builder way – sometimes they can go overboard with plastic trimming, beading, coving, laminate flooring and everything in beige and before you know it the heart and soul of your characterful old house has been ripped out and MDF-ed over.

10.   Consider using an architect. I asked an architect friend, who recommended the office junior, who made several visits and lots of plans. She had great ideas, oversaw getting the building warrant and all the relevant permits and charged us less than we expected for her time.

11. If your decorator umms and ahhs and says: ‘Are you sure? That’s quite a dark/ bright/ unusual colour?’ Just say YES. If you want a beautiful paint job with proper sanding down and many layers of paint, say so. Expect it to take longer and cost more than slapping the stuff on.

12.  Don’t freak out when standing in an empty newly painted room. By the time you’ve put in sofas, pictures, lamps, shelves, books – the colour will be lovely and just the way you imagined it.

13. Be business like with your builders. They’re not your new friends; they’re not your Dad/ uncle/ boss. You’re in charge. If things aren’t going the way you want, ask about it. Explain what you want. Listen. Sometimes you will have to compromise because what you want doesn’t work. But don’t accept something you really don’t want. The builder is going to move on and you’ll be left regretting this bit of work for the next five, ten years or longer.

14. When you first agree a price with the builder, try and get everything you can think of onto that estimate. There will always be a few extra jobs at the end, which will put the price up, but try not to make it a great long list of extras. Otherwise your bill might be a nasty shock.

15. Agree a timetable. Expect it to take a bit longer. But do not accept endless weeks of delay. If this is happening, you need to find out why and ask them to get back on track.

16. Keep all your estimates, bills and receipts in a dedicated folder. File all those guarantees. Unused paint tins, lightshades that didn’t match, bookcases that didn’t fit, unopened boxes of tiles – all can be returned if you have the receipt.

17. Get everything finished! Don’t leave wires dangling while you procrastinate on a bathroom cabinet, don’t leave plywood on the floor while you dither about tiles. After all the pain you’ve gone through, you NEED the big ‘tah dah’ when it all comes together and looks brilliant.

18. Accept that budget limitations can lead to creative and brilliant results. My £9 a metre bathroom tiles look amazing. Crown and Dulux have colours just as pretty as Farrow and Ball’s (use tester pots to find them). Two IKEA pendant lights can look even better than one designer one. A cheap bookcase properly assembled and fitted to the wall by a joiner looks almost as good as a bespoke one.

19. Realise that your wine/ chocolate/ biscuit consumption will rocket during this horribly stressful and expensive time.

20.  Remind yourself that it will be worth all the pain, expense and hassle. We’ve created a big family kitchen, renovated an old bathroom, plus put in a second bathroom and already, one week in, this has transformed home life.

 

World Book Day | My best advice to writers

Today is World Book Day. To mark the occasion I thought I’d repost this blog from my old site. I think there’s plenty here to think about for anyone who loves books, loves writing — and for anyone thinking of trying to write a novel. I’d love to hear your comments:

How do I get started writing?

I could write chapters and chapters, probably a whole book about writing. But I’m going to try and break it down into FAQs for you. If I haven’t answered your question, then please drop me a line. But these are my best answers to the questions I’m often asked. Also, I’m not just a published writer who ‘has it easy’ (‘What does she know about rejections?’) I’m also married to a trying-to-be-published writer. So I know about the process from many angles.

You sit down and you start. There we go. You don’t put it off until you ‘have the time’ or ‘feel in the mood’. You just apply your behind to the chair and get on with it. Because all that time you are wasting thinking about writing your amazing novel, I’m actually at my computer writing.

If we were runners, you would be thinking about taking up running and I would be training six days a week, so come the race – who has the best chance of finishing?!

Writing is a complex art. Expressing your ideas, characters and story in words is a skill which takes a lifetime to master. I’ve been writing fiction for 14 years now and I’m only beginning to get the hang of it. Just because you can read novels does not mean you can write them. Just because a book is easy to read does not mean it is easy to write.

Plus, it’s a very competitive business. There are so many fantastic writers already out there, if you want to join them, you’re going to have to get very, very good.

I feel it’s best to give you tough love. If you want to write novels – long, gripping novels people are going to give up hours and hours of their precious lives to read, you’re going to have to start training for the ultra-marathon!

What will help with my writing?

Reading will help enormously. Read all kinds of books. Find the kind of writing that you love; the kind of book you could pick up again and again. Is it horror? Is it rom com? Is it sci-fi? Is it historical fiction? What inspires you? What kind of book would you love to write?

Then write! Write and write some more. Write little chunks: blogs, diary entries, short pages. Hone your skills. Try a poem, then a short story. Try out chapter one. Try out the final chapter. Play with words. Describe the people you see on the train. Invent a background for them. Practise dialogue. Turn a news story into a short story. Write, write, write. Train your brain and your fingers to turn your thoughts into great sentences, then your sentences into stories.

Don’t expect to be a genius immediately. It takes time to get good. I was writing stories, essays and diaries all the time I was growing up. I spent my early 20s being a newspaper journalist. I must have written millions of words before I got started on chapter one. My first book attempt was in the bin by chapter four and I began again.

Think of JK Rowling, she’d been working on that first Harry Potter manuscript for YEARS before she showed it to anyone and even then all the big publishers turned her down! Her enormous success had nothing to do with luck: it was because she had a huge story to tell, sheer persistence and worked bloody hard.

 Are any books helpful?

I’m helped by reading and re-reading all the writers I love: Nancy Mitford, Anne Tyler, Agatha Christie, John Irving, JK Rowling, Roald Dahl, Candace Bushnell and many more.

I’ve also found these books very inspirational and packed with great advice: Robert McKee’s Story, Stephen King’s On Writing, Michelle Wallerstein’s Mind Your Business.

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan always get my romantic comedy juices flowing, along with every film written by Nora Ephron.

Should I join a writing group?

I’ve never joined a writing group. This is because I am such a loner and solitary animal. Also, I didn’t think I could bear the criticism! You have to be tough to write and keep on writing, but oh my goodness writing makes you vulnerable. As soon as you’ve written something, you’ve created a work that people can criticise. And believe me, everybody has an opinion. You just need to go onto Amazon to see that.

But writing groups can be hugely helpful. They help people to focus on what they want to write, they help people make contacts, plus they inspire you to get the work done. Only you can know if a group is a good idea for you. You could always try one and see. You could even advertise and set one up in your area.

 Where do I get ideas from?

EVERYWHERE!! As Paul Smith the fashion designer wrote: ’Inspiration is everywhere, if at first you don’t see it, look again!’ Open your mind to ideas. They really are everywhere. I used to worry about having enough things to write about, now I worry about finding the time to write about all my ideas. What sort of things have happened to you? What’s happened to your friend? Could it be re-worked? Could it be made much more exciting? What’s in the news? What’s in National Geographic? See reality as your springboard into the swimming pool of story.

You need to have a story. A really intriguing, interesting tale. You need to have great, memorable, fully-fleshed characters. If you are writing rom-com, you need to have some really hilariously funny scenes; some heart-meltingly tender scenes and you need a love story where something is always in the way of the happy couple.

Dig deeply into all your wide experience of life. How do your own relationships work? What makes you fall in love? What makes you angry? Sad? Confused? Despairing?

Should I do research?

ABSOLUTELY!! Go to the places you are writing about. Interview people who’ve done something like your heroine. You will get one million more great ideas doing this than you can ever dream of at your desk.

 Should I have a plan?

YOU’D BE MAD NOT TO!

Readers are viewers. They are used to more plot in a half an hour sit-com than they ever got in a full Dickens novel. You must plot your baby to death. You must keep your reader nailed to the chair. You will never manage this without a detailed plan. I work on my plans for weeks. I don’t write a word until I have every chapter outlined and the whole story completely outlined. Even then, it still changes, improves, gets messed around.

 Should I listen to criticism?

Only if it’s from someone you really trust. Writing something that makes your Mum beam with pride is not hard. Writing something that will move and engage perfect strangers is much more tricky. When you have a first draft you are really happy with, tell your story to a couple of friends who have been briefed to be firm but fair. Don’t make them read the whole thing. Try out the outline of your story on them. Does it excite them? Interest them? Do their eyes glaze over? Where are the problems?

Should I re-write?

Re-writing is the number one skill. It separates the amateurs from the professionals. About 50% of my time, maybe more is spent re-writing my work. I get to the end of my first draft in a hurry. I’m making sure the story works and I’m getting to know my characters. Then I start re-writing and the really hard work follows. But this is the sweat and tears that makes stories good.

How do I get an agent?

I have no idea!! You need an agent, because hardly any publishers look at manuscripts which don’t come from agents (check their websites to find out). But agents are like fairy dust.  Agents are very, very busy looking after those super important clients who earn them vast amounts of money.  With your unpublished manuscript, you are so far down the pecking order, your precious work will be handed to the work experience girl if you are lucky.  But remind yourself, big deals with brand new authors are made all the time. Agents and publishers continue to need new writers.

Do your research, find agents who represent your kind of work. Submit exactly as it says on the website. Send only your very polished, very best work. Write a covering letter of genius, brilliantly written about your brilliant story. Get them hooked. Make yours the manuscript at the top of the pile.

 I’ve been rejected, now what?

If you’ve sent your best work to many reputable agents or publishers and they’ve all said no thanks, you have to dust yourself down and think hard about what to do next. You could find more people to send it to… you could self-publish. You could put your work in a drawer and work on your next idea. You could stop and rest for a while… or go on a course, read books about writing, train your writing muscles to get better and stronger. No decision is right or wrong here. You have to decide what’s best for you. But I can promise the more you read, write and re-write, the better you will get.

 I’ve published one book, how do I keep going?

Your book is published, the world did not stop turning, Hollywood did not call, you are not as rich as Dan Brown. Welcome to the club. Look very hard at what worked; look even harder at what didn’t work. Don’t blame yourself for everything, but don’t accept no blame. Maybe you need to get much better. Think up a much stronger story. Do more research. Maybe you need to flex your PR muscles on your next time out.

Take your new career seriously. Find an amazing new story, fresh avenues for your work. Make lots more contacts in all sorts of connected fields.

All authors need these quotations pinned up above their desk:

‘Try again, fail again, fail better.’   Samuel Beckett.

‘Never, never, never, NEVER, give up.’   Sir Winston Churchill.

Do I self-publish on the internet?

Previously, I would always have said no, it’s a waste of time and money and you won’t make a penny. But the game has changed. Some writers are now fabulous e-book successes. In ten years time we may all be self-published on the internet. Do your research, don’t get ripped off and don’t put anything out there that isn’t your absolutely best work. Expect to do a lot of self-promoting. Success on the internet is just like success with a publisher, it’s all about talent and hard work. We are all only as good as the last thing we’ve written and the next big thing we’re writing.

 Will writing make me rich?

Let’s be realistic here. One in hundreds of thousands of writers will become rich: maybe through genius, epic hard work or sheer good luck. Just like one in hundreds of thousands of actors, painters and all kinds of creative people. The rest of us will range from making a great living to struggling on penniless. Love your work, devote yourself to your work and hope that the money will follow. If you have success, be like several wise old actors I know and save your money hard because success may not come around again immediately. Yachts and villas on the Med are for gas barons and internet billionaires not, usually, novelists.

Will writing make me happy?

I love to write. I love the hours when I am so in the flow, so in my made-up world that I forget about everything else. But I spend all day, most days, withimaginary people and many head-doctors would consider this a worrying condition!

Creative people often struggle with mental health issues – we get depressed, we fret, we drink or smoke, take drugs, or comfort eat or all of the above. Maybe we were like this when we began; maybe the nature of our work makes us more like this. I do believe that writing makes you vulnerable. Plus it can become obsessive. Writing can take up all the time you have, no manuscript is ever ‘finished’, and you can use writing as a way of opting out of everything else life has to offer.

You need balance!

You need to look after the other areas of life too: friends, family and your health. You need regular breaks from writing, reading other writing and thinking about writing – hard, I know! But there must be room for relaxation, laughter and holidays. If I am turning into a basket case, I shut everything down and hang out with my children. Sometimes you just have to go away and come back to the keyboard with fresh perspective.

 Should I give up my day job?

I have mixed feelings about this. Basically I did give up my day job and the terror got me writing like a dervish. Happily, I landed a two-book deal which gave me enough money to take another year off to write more. For several years I combined fiction writing with freelance journalism, now I write fiction full-time but I know I have journalism skills if I need to go back to them.

I’m not sure I would advise an 18 year old to study creative writing at college and nothing else. But sometimes, you have to walk the wire without the safety net because if you put your heart and soul into writing it might work much better than if you potter about at the weekends only.

Giving up the day job to write is scary and stressful. Please approach it very, very carefully, fully consulting your nearest and dearest and burn no bridges. Bear in mind that many, many well known writers combine writing with other jobs and careers which reliably pay the bills.

 Finally…

I really hope this has helped. Very, very best of luck out there. May your story be the next huge thing the world didn’t even know it was waiting for! And if it isn’t – please love the ride. Writing is fantastic – like dreaming with the lights on. Work hard, master the art, bring your dreams to life and WRITE ON!!

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

 

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

20 Tips For Surviving The Builders

And the builders are OUT… phew! I’m breathing a huge, dusty sigh of relief and allowing life as I know it to resume.

I’ve totally renovated four homes so far and although I don’t think this one will be the last, I have promised my family some peace and quiet… for a while.

I’ve learned (the hard way) a few useful things about having the builders in and thought I’d share my top 20 tips in case they’re useful to anyone else in this nerve-shreddingly stressful situation.

1.     Get as much done all at the one time as you possibly can. I’ve tried doing a bathroom here, a kitchen the next year, redecorating bit by bit and it’s not ideal. Plumbers and electricians come in and sigh: ‘Who did the kitchen like that? For the new bathroom, I’ll have to re-do all that piping/ wiring.’  Or worse, hauling their ladders and equipment into the kitchen, they scratch your new hall paintwork or eeek, your brand new floor. The more work you can get done at once, the better the price should be.

2.     Move out if at all possible. Even for the first few weeks. This allows you and your family to remain sane and be dressed without plaster dust on your clothes, in your hair, all over your beds and even in your food. It also lets the builders forge ahead without having to worry about water, gas and electrics having to be reconnected every evening.

3.      If you have to stay at home, tape polythene sheets over doors, buy a brush, dustpan, even a cheap vacuum cleaner just to deal with builder mess. Do not use your lovely Dyson to scoop up plaster dust and rubble. Do not let the builders use it either: it will die!

4.     If you work from home, you HAVE to find somewhere else to go. Trust me here. The library, a café with wifi, you have to get out. You cannot listen to Lesser Known Hits of the 80s, plus drilling and bumping and banging for weeks on end and get work done.

5.     Be VERY choosy about which builder you use. Do not rush this decision. Get recommendations from people you trust, or neighbours… even bathroom and kitchen suppliers. Go and see previous work the builder has done. Ask the owners if the work was quick and tidy, if the builders were polite, stuck to the agreed budget, turned up on time, stayed with the job right to the end. If a builder is available straight away, beware. Good builders have to be booked in advance. If you’re in an old house, you need a builder used to renovating old property.

6.     I don’t like tradesmen who only want to be paid in cash and I don’t like it if they want part of the money up front. Both of these things suggest they’re not running their business well and they won’t run your project well either. I totally wanted to sack a builder once, but had paid too much up front to be able to do it.

7.     Some money part way through is OK. But you need a week or two after the work is completed before you pay your final bill. So you can work out what the little problems are and ask for them to be fixed before you settle up.

8.     Plan, plan, plan. Make drawings of your rooms. Think about plugs, lights, tiling, cabinets, the way the door opens… Make as many decisions ahead of the work as possible. There will still be lots of decisions to make on the spot. Take some guidance from your builder – he might from experience know of a better way to do it…

9.     …But don’t do everything the builder way – sometimes they can go overboard with plastic trimming, beading, coving, laminate flooring and everything in beige and before you know it the heart and soul of your characterful old house has been ripped out and MDF-ed over.

10.   Consider using an architect. I asked an architect friend, who recommended the office junior, who made several visits and lots of plans. She had great ideas, oversaw getting the building warrant and all the relevant permits and charged us less than we expected for her time.

11. If your decorator umms and ahhs and says: ‘Are you sure? That’s quite a dark/ bright/ unusual colour?’ Just say YES. If you want a beautiful paint job with proper sanding down and many layers of paint, say so. Expect it to take longer and cost more than slapping the stuff on.

12.  Don’t freak out when standing in an empty newly painted room. By the time you’ve put in sofas, pictures, lamps, shelves, books – the colour will be lovely and just the way you imagined it.

13. Be business like with your builders. They’re not your new friends; they’re not your Dad/ uncle/ boss. You’re in charge. If things aren’t going the way you want, ask about it. Explain what you want. Listen. Sometimes you will have to compromise because what you want doesn’t work. But don’t accept something you really don’t want. The builder is going to move on and you’ll be left regretting this bit of work for the next five, ten years or longer.

14. When you first agree a price with the builder, try and get everything you can think of onto that estimate. There will always be a few extra jobs at the end, which will put the price up, but try not to make it a great long list of extras. Otherwise your bill might be a nasty shock.

15. Agree a timetable. Expect it to take a bit longer. But do not accept endless weeks of delay. If this is happening, you need to find out why and ask them to get back on track.

16. Keep all your estimates, bills and receipts in a dedicated folder. File all those guarantees. Unused paint tins, lightshades that didn’t match, bookcases that didn’t fit, unopened boxes of tiles – all can be returned if you have the receipt.

17. Get everything finished! Don’t leave wires dangling while you procrastinate on a bathroom cabinet, don’t leave plywood on the floor while you dither about tiles. After all the pain you’ve gone through, you NEED the big ‘tah dah’ when it all comes together and looks brilliant.

18. Accept that budget limitations can lead to creative and brilliant results. My £9 a metre bathroom tiles look amazing. Crown and Dulux have colours just as pretty as Farrow and Ball’s (use tester pots to find them). Two IKEA pendant lights can look even better than one designer one. A cheap bookcase properly assembled and fitted to the wall by a joiner looks almost as good as a bespoke one.

19. Realise that your wine/ chocolate/ biscuit consumption will rocket during this horribly stressful and expensive time.

20.  Remind yourself that it will be worth all the pain, expense and hassle. We’ve created a big family kitchen, renovated an old bathroom, plus put in a second bathroom and already, one week in, this has transformed home life.

 

World Book Day | My best advice to writers

Today is World Book Day. To mark the occasion I thought I’d repost this blog from my old site. I think there’s plenty here to think about for anyone who loves books, loves writing — and for anyone thinking of trying to write a novel. I’d love to hear your comments:

How do I get started writing?

I could write chapters and chapters, probably a whole book about writing. But I’m going to try and break it down into FAQs for you. If I haven’t answered your question, then please drop me a line. But these are my best answers to the questions I’m often asked. Also, I’m not just a published writer who ‘has it easy’ (‘What does she know about rejections?’) I’m also married to a trying-to-be-published writer. So I know about the process from many angles.

You sit down and you start. There we go. You don’t put it off until you ‘have the time’ or ‘feel in the mood’. You just apply your behind to the chair and get on with it. Because all that time you are wasting thinking about writing your amazing novel, I’m actually at my computer writing.

If we were runners, you would be thinking about taking up running and I would be training six days a week, so come the race – who has the best chance of finishing?!

Writing is a complex art. Expressing your ideas, characters and story in words is a skill which takes a lifetime to master. I’ve been writing fiction for 14 years now and I’m only beginning to get the hang of it. Just because you can read novels does not mean you can write them. Just because a book is easy to read does not mean it is easy to write.

Plus, it’s a very competitive business. There are so many fantastic writers already out there, if you want to join them, you’re going to have to get very, very good.

I feel it’s best to give you tough love. If you want to write novels – long, gripping novels people are going to give up hours and hours of their precious lives to read, you’re going to have to start training for the ultra-marathon!

What will help with my writing?

Reading will help enormously. Read all kinds of books. Find the kind of writing that you love; the kind of book you could pick up again and again. Is it horror? Is it rom com? Is it sci-fi? Is it historical fiction? What inspires you? What kind of book would you love to write?

Then write! Write and write some more. Write little chunks: blogs, diary entries, short pages. Hone your skills. Try a poem, then a short story. Try out chapter one. Try out the final chapter. Play with words. Describe the people you see on the train. Invent a background for them. Practise dialogue. Turn a news story into a short story. Write, write, write. Train your brain and your fingers to turn your thoughts into great sentences, then your sentences into stories.

Don’t expect to be a genius immediately. It takes time to get good. I was writing stories, essays and diaries all the time I was growing up. I spent my early 20s being a newspaper journalist. I must have written millions of words before I got started on chapter one. My first book attempt was in the bin by chapter four and I began again.

Think of JK Rowling, she’d been working on that first Harry Potter manuscript for YEARS before she showed it to anyone and even then all the big publishers turned her down! Her enormous success had nothing to do with luck: it was because she had a huge story to tell, sheer persistence and worked bloody hard.

 Are any books helpful?

I’m helped by reading and re-reading all the writers I love: Nancy Mitford, Anne Tyler, Agatha Christie, John Irving, JK Rowling, Roald Dahl, Candace Bushnell and many more.

I’ve also found these books very inspirational and packed with great advice: Robert McKee’s Story, Stephen King’s On Writing, Michelle Wallerstein’s Mind Your Business.

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan always get my romantic comedy juices flowing, along with every film written by Nora Ephron.

Should I join a writing group?

I’ve never joined a writing group. This is because I am such a loner and solitary animal. Also, I didn’t think I could bear the criticism! You have to be tough to write and keep on writing, but oh my goodness writing makes you vulnerable. As soon as you’ve written something, you’ve created a work that people can criticise. And believe me, everybody has an opinion. You just need to go onto Amazon to see that.

But writing groups can be hugely helpful. They help people to focus on what they want to write, they help people make contacts, plus they inspire you to get the work done. Only you can know if a group is a good idea for you. You could always try one and see. You could even advertise and set one up in your area.

 Where do I get ideas from?

EVERYWHERE!! As Paul Smith the fashion designer wrote: ’Inspiration is everywhere, if at first you don’t see it, look again!’ Open your mind to ideas. They really are everywhere. I used to worry about having enough things to write about, now I worry about finding the time to write about all my ideas. What sort of things have happened to you? What’s happened to your friend? Could it be re-worked? Could it be made much more exciting? What’s in the news? What’s in National Geographic? See reality as your springboard into the swimming pool of story.

You need to have a story. A really intriguing, interesting tale. You need to have great, memorable, fully-fleshed characters. If you are writing rom-com, you need to have some really hilariously funny scenes; some heart-meltingly tender scenes and you need a love story where something is always in the way of the happy couple.

Dig deeply into all your wide experience of life. How do your own relationships work? What makes you fall in love? What makes you angry? Sad? Confused? Despairing?

Should I do research?

ABSOLUTELY!! Go to the places you are writing about. Interview people who’ve done something like your heroine. You will get one million more great ideas doing this than you can ever dream of at your desk.

 Should I have a plan?

YOU’D BE MAD NOT TO!

Readers are viewers. They are used to more plot in a half an hour sit-com than they ever got in a full Dickens novel. You must plot your baby to death. You must keep your reader nailed to the chair. You will never manage this without a detailed plan. I work on my plans for weeks. I don’t write a word until I have every chapter outlined and the whole story completely outlined. Even then, it still changes, improves, gets messed around.

 Should I listen to criticism?

Only if it’s from someone you really trust. Writing something that makes your Mum beam with pride is not hard. Writing something that will move and engage perfect strangers is much more tricky. When you have a first draft you are really happy with, tell your story to a couple of friends who have been briefed to be firm but fair. Don’t make them read the whole thing. Try out the outline of your story on them. Does it excite them? Interest them? Do their eyes glaze over? Where are the problems?

Should I re-write?

Re-writing is the number one skill. It separates the amateurs from the professionals. About 50% of my time, maybe more is spent re-writing my work. I get to the end of my first draft in a hurry. I’m making sure the story works and I’m getting to know my characters. Then I start re-writing and the really hard work follows. But this is the sweat and tears that makes stories good.

How do I get an agent?

I have no idea!! You need an agent, because hardly any publishers look at manuscripts which don’t come from agents (check their websites to find out). But agents are like fairy dust.  Agents are very, very busy looking after those super important clients who earn them vast amounts of money.  With your unpublished manuscript, you are so far down the pecking order, your precious work will be handed to the work experience girl if you are lucky.  But remind yourself, big deals with brand new authors are made all the time. Agents and publishers continue to need new writers.

Do your research, find agents who represent your kind of work. Submit exactly as it says on the website. Send only your very polished, very best work. Write a covering letter of genius, brilliantly written about your brilliant story. Get them hooked. Make yours the manuscript at the top of the pile.

 I’ve been rejected, now what?

If you’ve sent your best work to many reputable agents or publishers and they’ve all said no thanks, you have to dust yourself down and think hard about what to do next. You could find more people to send it to… you could self-publish. You could put your work in a drawer and work on your next idea. You could stop and rest for a while… or go on a course, read books about writing, train your writing muscles to get better and stronger. No decision is right or wrong here. You have to decide what’s best for you. But I can promise the more you read, write and re-write, the better you will get.

 I’ve published one book, how do I keep going?

Your book is published, the world did not stop turning, Hollywood did not call, you are not as rich as Dan Brown. Welcome to the club. Look very hard at what worked; look even harder at what didn’t work. Don’t blame yourself for everything, but don’t accept no blame. Maybe you need to get much better. Think up a much stronger story. Do more research. Maybe you need to flex your PR muscles on your next time out.

Take your new career seriously. Find an amazing new story, fresh avenues for your work. Make lots more contacts in all sorts of connected fields.

All authors need these quotations pinned up above their desk:

‘Try again, fail again, fail better.’   Samuel Beckett.

‘Never, never, never, NEVER, give up.’   Sir Winston Churchill.

Do I self-publish on the internet?

Previously, I would always have said no, it’s a waste of time and money and you won’t make a penny. But the game has changed. Some writers are now fabulous e-book successes. In ten years time we may all be self-published on the internet. Do your research, don’t get ripped off and don’t put anything out there that isn’t your absolutely best work. Expect to do a lot of self-promoting. Success on the internet is just like success with a publisher, it’s all about talent and hard work. We are all only as good as the last thing we’ve written and the next big thing we’re writing.

 Will writing make me rich?

Let’s be realistic here. One in hundreds of thousands of writers will become rich: maybe through genius, epic hard work or sheer good luck. Just like one in hundreds of thousands of actors, painters and all kinds of creative people. The rest of us will range from making a great living to struggling on penniless. Love your work, devote yourself to your work and hope that the money will follow. If you have success, be like several wise old actors I know and save your money hard because success may not come around again immediately. Yachts and villas on the Med are for gas barons and internet billionaires not, usually, novelists.

Will writing make me happy?

I love to write. I love the hours when I am so in the flow, so in my made-up world that I forget about everything else. But I spend all day, most days, withimaginary people and many head-doctors would consider this a worrying condition!

Creative people often struggle with mental health issues – we get depressed, we fret, we drink or smoke, take drugs, or comfort eat or all of the above. Maybe we were like this when we began; maybe the nature of our work makes us more like this. I do believe that writing makes you vulnerable. Plus it can become obsessive. Writing can take up all the time you have, no manuscript is ever ‘finished’, and you can use writing as a way of opting out of everything else life has to offer.

You need balance!

You need to look after the other areas of life too: friends, family and your health. You need regular breaks from writing, reading other writing and thinking about writing – hard, I know! But there must be room for relaxation, laughter and holidays. If I am turning into a basket case, I shut everything down and hang out with my children. Sometimes you just have to go away and come back to the keyboard with fresh perspective.

 Should I give up my day job?

I have mixed feelings about this. Basically I did give up my day job and the terror got me writing like a dervish. Happily, I landed a two-book deal which gave me enough money to take another year off to write more. For several years I combined fiction writing with freelance journalism, now I write fiction full-time but I know I have journalism skills if I need to go back to them.

I’m not sure I would advise an 18 year old to study creative writing at college and nothing else. But sometimes, you have to walk the wire without the safety net because if you put your heart and soul into writing it might work much better than if you potter about at the weekends only.

Giving up the day job to write is scary and stressful. Please approach it very, very carefully, fully consulting your nearest and dearest and burn no bridges. Bear in mind that many, many well known writers combine writing with other jobs and careers which reliably pay the bills.

 Finally…

I really hope this has helped. Very, very best of luck out there. May your story be the next huge thing the world didn’t even know it was waiting for! And if it isn’t – please love the ride. Writing is fantastic – like dreaming with the lights on. Work hard, master the art, bring your dreams to life and WRITE ON!!

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

 

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

20 Tips For Surviving The Builders

And the builders are OUT… phew! I’m breathing a huge, dusty sigh of relief and allowing life as I know it to resume.

I’ve totally renovated four homes so far and although I don’t think this one will be the last, I have promised my family some peace and quiet… for a while.

I’ve learned (the hard way) a few useful things about having the builders in and thought I’d share my top 20 tips in case they’re useful to anyone else in this nerve-shreddingly stressful situation.

1.     Get as much done all at the one time as you possibly can. I’ve tried doing a bathroom here, a kitchen the next year, redecorating bit by bit and it’s not ideal. Plumbers and electricians come in and sigh: ‘Who did the kitchen like that? For the new bathroom, I’ll have to re-do all that piping/ wiring.’  Or worse, hauling their ladders and equipment into the kitchen, they scratch your new hall paintwork or eeek, your brand new floor. The more work you can get done at once, the better the price should be.

2.     Move out if at all possible. Even for the first few weeks. This allows you and your family to remain sane and be dressed without plaster dust on your clothes, in your hair, all over your beds and even in your food. It also lets the builders forge ahead without having to worry about water, gas and electrics having to be reconnected every evening.

3.      If you have to stay at home, tape polythene sheets over doors, buy a brush, dustpan, even a cheap vacuum cleaner just to deal with builder mess. Do not use your lovely Dyson to scoop up plaster dust and rubble. Do not let the builders use it either: it will die!

4.     If you work from home, you HAVE to find somewhere else to go. Trust me here. The library, a café with wifi, you have to get out. You cannot listen to Lesser Known Hits of the 80s, plus drilling and bumping and banging for weeks on end and get work done.

5.     Be VERY choosy about which builder you use. Do not rush this decision. Get recommendations from people you trust, or neighbours… even bathroom and kitchen suppliers. Go and see previous work the builder has done. Ask the owners if the work was quick and tidy, if the builders were polite, stuck to the agreed budget, turned up on time, stayed with the job right to the end. If a builder is available straight away, beware. Good builders have to be booked in advance. If you’re in an old house, you need a builder used to renovating old property.

6.     I don’t like tradesmen who only want to be paid in cash and I don’t like it if they want part of the money up front. Both of these things suggest they’re not running their business well and they won’t run your project well either. I totally wanted to sack a builder once, but had paid too much up front to be able to do it.

7.     Some money part way through is OK. But you need a week or two after the work is completed before you pay your final bill. So you can work out what the little problems are and ask for them to be fixed before you settle up.

8.     Plan, plan, plan. Make drawings of your rooms. Think about plugs, lights, tiling, cabinets, the way the door opens… Make as many decisions ahead of the work as possible. There will still be lots of decisions to make on the spot. Take some guidance from your builder – he might from experience know of a better way to do it…

9.     …But don’t do everything the builder way – sometimes they can go overboard with plastic trimming, beading, coving, laminate flooring and everything in beige and before you know it the heart and soul of your characterful old house has been ripped out and MDF-ed over.

10.   Consider using an architect. I asked an architect friend, who recommended the office junior, who made several visits and lots of plans. She had great ideas, oversaw getting the building warrant and all the relevant permits and charged us less than we expected for her time.

11. If your decorator umms and ahhs and says: ‘Are you sure? That’s quite a dark/ bright/ unusual colour?’ Just say YES. If you want a beautiful paint job with proper sanding down and many layers of paint, say so. Expect it to take longer and cost more than slapping the stuff on.

12.  Don’t freak out when standing in an empty newly painted room. By the time you’ve put in sofas, pictures, lamps, shelves, books – the colour will be lovely and just the way you imagined it.

13. Be business like with your builders. They’re not your new friends; they’re not your Dad/ uncle/ boss. You’re in charge. If things aren’t going the way you want, ask about it. Explain what you want. Listen. Sometimes you will have to compromise because what you want doesn’t work. But don’t accept something you really don’t want. The builder is going to move on and you’ll be left regretting this bit of work for the next five, ten years or longer.

14. When you first agree a price with the builder, try and get everything you can think of onto that estimate. There will always be a few extra jobs at the end, which will put the price up, but try not to make it a great long list of extras. Otherwise your bill might be a nasty shock.

15. Agree a timetable. Expect it to take a bit longer. But do not accept endless weeks of delay. If this is happening, you need to find out why and ask them to get back on track.

16. Keep all your estimates, bills and receipts in a dedicated folder. File all those guarantees. Unused paint tins, lightshades that didn’t match, bookcases that didn’t fit, unopened boxes of tiles – all can be returned if you have the receipt.

17. Get everything finished! Don’t leave wires dangling while you procrastinate on a bathroom cabinet, don’t leave plywood on the floor while you dither about tiles. After all the pain you’ve gone through, you NEED the big ‘tah dah’ when it all comes together and looks brilliant.

18. Accept that budget limitations can lead to creative and brilliant results. My £9 a metre bathroom tiles look amazing. Crown and Dulux have colours just as pretty as Farrow and Ball’s (use tester pots to find them). Two IKEA pendant lights can look even better than one designer one. A cheap bookcase properly assembled and fitted to the wall by a joiner looks almost as good as a bespoke one.

19. Realise that your wine/ chocolate/ biscuit consumption will rocket during this horribly stressful and expensive time.

20.  Remind yourself that it will be worth all the pain, expense and hassle. We’ve created a big family kitchen, renovated an old bathroom, plus put in a second bathroom and already, one week in, this has transformed home life.

 

World Book Day | My best advice to writers

Today is World Book Day. To mark the occasion I thought I’d repost this blog from my old site. I think there’s plenty here to think about for anyone who loves books, loves writing — and for anyone thinking of trying to write a novel. I’d love to hear your comments:

How do I get started writing?

I could write chapters and chapters, probably a whole book about writing. But I’m going to try and break it down into FAQs for you. If I haven’t answered your question, then please drop me a line. But these are my best answers to the questions I’m often asked. Also, I’m not just a published writer who ‘has it easy’ (‘What does she know about rejections?’) I’m also married to a trying-to-be-published writer. So I know about the process from many angles.

You sit down and you start. There we go. You don’t put it off until you ‘have the time’ or ‘feel in the mood’. You just apply your behind to the chair and get on with it. Because all that time you are wasting thinking about writing your amazing novel, I’m actually at my computer writing.

If we were runners, you would be thinking about taking up running and I would be training six days a week, so come the race – who has the best chance of finishing?!

Writing is a complex art. Expressing your ideas, characters and story in words is a skill which takes a lifetime to master. I’ve been writing fiction for 14 years now and I’m only beginning to get the hang of it. Just because you can read novels does not mean you can write them. Just because a book is easy to read does not mean it is easy to write.

Plus, it’s a very competitive business. There are so many fantastic writers already out there, if you want to join them, you’re going to have to get very, very good.

I feel it’s best to give you tough love. If you want to write novels – long, gripping novels people are going to give up hours and hours of their precious lives to read, you’re going to have to start training for the ultra-marathon!

What will help with my writing?

Reading will help enormously. Read all kinds of books. Find the kind of writing that you love; the kind of book you could pick up again and again. Is it horror? Is it rom com? Is it sci-fi? Is it historical fiction? What inspires you? What kind of book would you love to write?

Then write! Write and write some more. Write little chunks: blogs, diary entries, short pages. Hone your skills. Try a poem, then a short story. Try out chapter one. Try out the final chapter. Play with words. Describe the people you see on the train. Invent a background for them. Practise dialogue. Turn a news story into a short story. Write, write, write. Train your brain and your fingers to turn your thoughts into great sentences, then your sentences into stories.

Don’t expect to be a genius immediately. It takes time to get good. I was writing stories, essays and diaries all the time I was growing up. I spent my early 20s being a newspaper journalist. I must have written millions of words before I got started on chapter one. My first book attempt was in the bin by chapter four and I began again.

Think of JK Rowling, she’d been working on that first Harry Potter manuscript for YEARS before she showed it to anyone and even then all the big publishers turned her down! Her enormous success had nothing to do with luck: it was because she had a huge story to tell, sheer persistence and worked bloody hard.

 Are any books helpful?

I’m helped by reading and re-reading all the writers I love: Nancy Mitford, Anne Tyler, Agatha Christie, John Irving, JK Rowling, Roald Dahl, Candace Bushnell and many more.

I’ve also found these books very inspirational and packed with great advice: Robert McKee’s Story, Stephen King’s On Writing, Michelle Wallerstein’s Mind Your Business.

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan always get my romantic comedy juices flowing, along with every film written by Nora Ephron.

Should I join a writing group?

I’ve never joined a writing group. This is because I am such a loner and solitary animal. Also, I didn’t think I could bear the criticism! You have to be tough to write and keep on writing, but oh my goodness writing makes you vulnerable. As soon as you’ve written something, you’ve created a work that people can criticise. And believe me, everybody has an opinion. You just need to go onto Amazon to see that.

But writing groups can be hugely helpful. They help people to focus on what they want to write, they help people make contacts, plus they inspire you to get the work done. Only you can know if a group is a good idea for you. You could always try one and see. You could even advertise and set one up in your area.

 Where do I get ideas from?

EVERYWHERE!! As Paul Smith the fashion designer wrote: ’Inspiration is everywhere, if at first you don’t see it, look again!’ Open your mind to ideas. They really are everywhere. I used to worry about having enough things to write about, now I worry about finding the time to write about all my ideas. What sort of things have happened to you? What’s happened to your friend? Could it be re-worked? Could it be made much more exciting? What’s in the news? What’s in National Geographic? See reality as your springboard into the swimming pool of story.

You need to have a story. A really intriguing, interesting tale. You need to have great, memorable, fully-fleshed characters. If you are writing rom-com, you need to have some really hilariously funny scenes; some heart-meltingly tender scenes and you need a love story where something is always in the way of the happy couple.

Dig deeply into all your wide experience of life. How do your own relationships work? What makes you fall in love? What makes you angry? Sad? Confused? Despairing?

Should I do research?

ABSOLUTELY!! Go to the places you are writing about. Interview people who’ve done something like your heroine. You will get one million more great ideas doing this than you can ever dream of at your desk.

 Should I have a plan?

YOU’D BE MAD NOT TO!

Readers are viewers. They are used to more plot in a half an hour sit-com than they ever got in a full Dickens novel. You must plot your baby to death. You must keep your reader nailed to the chair. You will never manage this without a detailed plan. I work on my plans for weeks. I don’t write a word until I have every chapter outlined and the whole story completely outlined. Even then, it still changes, improves, gets messed around.

 Should I listen to criticism?

Only if it’s from someone you really trust. Writing something that makes your Mum beam with pride is not hard. Writing something that will move and engage perfect strangers is much more tricky. When you have a first draft you are really happy with, tell your story to a couple of friends who have been briefed to be firm but fair. Don’t make them read the whole thing. Try out the outline of your story on them. Does it excite them? Interest them? Do their eyes glaze over? Where are the problems?

Should I re-write?

Re-writing is the number one skill. It separates the amateurs from the professionals. About 50% of my time, maybe more is spent re-writing my work. I get to the end of my first draft in a hurry. I’m making sure the story works and I’m getting to know my characters. Then I start re-writing and the really hard work follows. But this is the sweat and tears that makes stories good.

How do I get an agent?

I have no idea!! You need an agent, because hardly any publishers look at manuscripts which don’t come from agents (check their websites to find out). But agents are like fairy dust.  Agents are very, very busy looking after those super important clients who earn them vast amounts of money.  With your unpublished manuscript, you are so far down the pecking order, your precious work will be handed to the work experience girl if you are lucky.  But remind yourself, big deals with brand new authors are made all the time. Agents and publishers continue to need new writers.

Do your research, find agents who represent your kind of work. Submit exactly as it says on the website. Send only your very polished, very best work. Write a covering letter of genius, brilliantly written about your brilliant story. Get them hooked. Make yours the manuscript at the top of the pile.

 I’ve been rejected, now what?

If you’ve sent your best work to many reputable agents or publishers and they’ve all said no thanks, you have to dust yourself down and think hard about what to do next. You could find more people to send it to… you could self-publish. You could put your work in a drawer and work on your next idea. You could stop and rest for a while… or go on a course, read books about writing, train your writing muscles to get better and stronger. No decision is right or wrong here. You have to decide what’s best for you. But I can promise the more you read, write and re-write, the better you will get.

 I’ve published one book, how do I keep going?

Your book is published, the world did not stop turning, Hollywood did not call, you are not as rich as Dan Brown. Welcome to the club. Look very hard at what worked; look even harder at what didn’t work. Don’t blame yourself for everything, but don’t accept no blame. Maybe you need to get much better. Think up a much stronger story. Do more research. Maybe you need to flex your PR muscles on your next time out.

Take your new career seriously. Find an amazing new story, fresh avenues for your work. Make lots more contacts in all sorts of connected fields.

All authors need these quotations pinned up above their desk:

‘Try again, fail again, fail better.’   Samuel Beckett.

‘Never, never, never, NEVER, give up.’   Sir Winston Churchill.

Do I self-publish on the internet?

Previously, I would always have said no, it’s a waste of time and money and you won’t make a penny. But the game has changed. Some writers are now fabulous e-book successes. In ten years time we may all be self-published on the internet. Do your research, don’t get ripped off and don’t put anything out there that isn’t your absolutely best work. Expect to do a lot of self-promoting. Success on the internet is just like success with a publisher, it’s all about talent and hard work. We are all only as good as the last thing we’ve written and the next big thing we’re writing.

 Will writing make me rich?

Let’s be realistic here. One in hundreds of thousands of writers will become rich: maybe through genius, epic hard work or sheer good luck. Just like one in hundreds of thousands of actors, painters and all kinds of creative people. The rest of us will range from making a great living to struggling on penniless. Love your work, devote yourself to your work and hope that the money will follow. If you have success, be like several wise old actors I know and save your money hard because success may not come around again immediately. Yachts and villas on the Med are for gas barons and internet billionaires not, usually, novelists.

Will writing make me happy?

I love to write. I love the hours when I am so in the flow, so in my made-up world that I forget about everything else. But I spend all day, most days, withimaginary people and many head-doctors would consider this a worrying condition!

Creative people often struggle with mental health issues – we get depressed, we fret, we drink or smoke, take drugs, or comfort eat or all of the above. Maybe we were like this when we began; maybe the nature of our work makes us more like this. I do believe that writing makes you vulnerable. Plus it can become obsessive. Writing can take up all the time you have, no manuscript is ever ‘finished’, and you can use writing as a way of opting out of everything else life has to offer.

You need balance!

You need to look after the other areas of life too: friends, family and your health. You need regular breaks from writing, reading other writing and thinking about writing – hard, I know! But there must be room for relaxation, laughter and holidays. If I am turning into a basket case, I shut everything down and hang out with my children. Sometimes you just have to go away and come back to the keyboard with fresh perspective.

 Should I give up my day job?

I have mixed feelings about this. Basically I did give up my day job and the terror got me writing like a dervish. Happily, I landed a two-book deal which gave me enough money to take another year off to write more. For several years I combined fiction writing with freelance journalism, now I write fiction full-time but I know I have journalism skills if I need to go back to them.

I’m not sure I would advise an 18 year old to study creative writing at college and nothing else. But sometimes, you have to walk the wire without the safety net because if you put your heart and soul into writing it might work much better than if you potter about at the weekends only.

Giving up the day job to write is scary and stressful. Please approach it very, very carefully, fully consulting your nearest and dearest and burn no bridges. Bear in mind that many, many well known writers combine writing with other jobs and careers which reliably pay the bills.

 Finally…

I really hope this has helped. Very, very best of luck out there. May your story be the next huge thing the world didn’t even know it was waiting for! And if it isn’t – please love the ride. Writing is fantastic – like dreaming with the lights on. Work hard, master the art, bring your dreams to life and WRITE ON!!

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

 

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

20 Tips For Surviving The Builders

And the builders are OUT… phew! I’m breathing a huge, dusty sigh of relief and allowing life as I know it to resume.

I’ve totally renovated four homes so far and although I don’t think this one will be the last, I have promised my family some peace and quiet… for a while.

I’ve learned (the hard way) a few useful things about having the builders in and thought I’d share my top 20 tips in case they’re useful to anyone else in this nerve-shreddingly stressful situation.

1.     Get as much done all at the one time as you possibly can. I’ve tried doing a bathroom here, a kitchen the next year, redecorating bit by bit and it’s not ideal. Plumbers and electricians come in and sigh: ‘Who did the kitchen like that? For the new bathroom, I’ll have to re-do all that piping/ wiring.’  Or worse, hauling their ladders and equipment into the kitchen, they scratch your new hall paintwork or eeek, your brand new floor. The more work you can get done at once, the better the price should be.

2.     Move out if at all possible. Even for the first few weeks. This allows you and your family to remain sane and be dressed without plaster dust on your clothes, in your hair, all over your beds and even in your food. It also lets the builders forge ahead without having to worry about water, gas and electrics having to be reconnected every evening.

3.      If you have to stay at home, tape polythene sheets over doors, buy a brush, dustpan, even a cheap vacuum cleaner just to deal with builder mess. Do not use your lovely Dyson to scoop up plaster dust and rubble. Do not let the builders use it either: it will die!

4.     If you work from home, you HAVE to find somewhere else to go. Trust me here. The library, a café with wifi, you have to get out. You cannot listen to Lesser Known Hits of the 80s, plus drilling and bumping and banging for weeks on end and get work done.

5.     Be VERY choosy about which builder you use. Do not rush this decision. Get recommendations from people you trust, or neighbours… even bathroom and kitchen suppliers. Go and see previous work the builder has done. Ask the owners if the work was quick and tidy, if the builders were polite, stuck to the agreed budget, turned up on time, stayed with the job right to the end. If a builder is available straight away, beware. Good builders have to be booked in advance. If you’re in an old house, you need a builder used to renovating old property.

6.     I don’t like tradesmen who only want to be paid in cash and I don’t like it if they want part of the money up front. Both of these things suggest they’re not running their business well and they won’t run your project well either. I totally wanted to sack a builder once, but had paid too much up front to be able to do it.

7.     Some money part way through is OK. But you need a week or two after the work is completed before you pay your final bill. So you can work out what the little problems are and ask for them to be fixed before you settle up.

8.     Plan, plan, plan. Make drawings of your rooms. Think about plugs, lights, tiling, cabinets, the way the door opens… Make as many decisions ahead of the work as possible. There will still be lots of decisions to make on the spot. Take some guidance from your builder – he might from experience know of a better way to do it…

9.     …But don’t do everything the builder way – sometimes they can go overboard with plastic trimming, beading, coving, laminate flooring and everything in beige and before you know it the heart and soul of your characterful old house has been ripped out and MDF-ed over.

10.   Consider using an architect. I asked an architect friend, who recommended the office junior, who made several visits and lots of plans. She had great ideas, oversaw getting the building warrant and all the relevant permits and charged us less than we expected for her time.

11. If your decorator umms and ahhs and says: ‘Are you sure? That’s quite a dark/ bright/ unusual colour?’ Just say YES. If you want a beautiful paint job with proper sanding down and many layers of paint, say so. Expect it to take longer and cost more than slapping the stuff on.

12.  Don’t freak out when standing in an empty newly painted room. By the time you’ve put in sofas, pictures, lamps, shelves, books – the colour will be lovely and just the way you imagined it.

13. Be business like with your builders. They’re not your new friends; they’re not your Dad/ uncle/ boss. You’re in charge. If things aren’t going the way you want, ask about it. Explain what you want. Listen. Sometimes you will have to compromise because what you want doesn’t work. But don’t accept something you really don’t want. The builder is going to move on and you’ll be left regretting this bit of work for the next five, ten years or longer.

14. When you first agree a price with the builder, try and get everything you can think of onto that estimate. There will always be a few extra jobs at the end, which will put the price up, but try not to make it a great long list of extras. Otherwise your bill might be a nasty shock.

15. Agree a timetable. Expect it to take a bit longer. But do not accept endless weeks of delay. If this is happening, you need to find out why and ask them to get back on track.

16. Keep all your estimates, bills and receipts in a dedicated folder. File all those guarantees. Unused paint tins, lightshades that didn’t match, bookcases that didn’t fit, unopened boxes of tiles – all can be returned if you have the receipt.

17. Get everything finished! Don’t leave wires dangling while you procrastinate on a bathroom cabinet, don’t leave plywood on the floor while you dither about tiles. After all the pain you’ve gone through, you NEED the big ‘tah dah’ when it all comes together and looks brilliant.

18. Accept that budget limitations can lead to creative and brilliant results. My £9 a metre bathroom tiles look amazing. Crown and Dulux have colours just as pretty as Farrow and Ball’s (use tester pots to find them). Two IKEA pendant lights can look even better than one designer one. A cheap bookcase properly assembled and fitted to the wall by a joiner looks almost as good as a bespoke one.

19. Realise that your wine/ chocolate/ biscuit consumption will rocket during this horribly stressful and expensive time.

20.  Remind yourself that it will be worth all the pain, expense and hassle. We’ve created a big family kitchen, renovated an old bathroom, plus put in a second bathroom and already, one week in, this has transformed home life.

 

World Book Day | My best advice to writers

Today is World Book Day. To mark the occasion I thought I’d repost this blog from my old site. I think there’s plenty here to think about for anyone who loves books, loves writing — and for anyone thinking of trying to write a novel. I’d love to hear your comments:

How do I get started writing?

I could write chapters and chapters, probably a whole book about writing. But I’m going to try and break it down into FAQs for you. If I haven’t answered your question, then please drop me a line. But these are my best answers to the questions I’m often asked. Also, I’m not just a published writer who ‘has it easy’ (‘What does she know about rejections?’) I’m also married to a trying-to-be-published writer. So I know about the process from many angles.

You sit down and you start. There we go. You don’t put it off until you ‘have the time’ or ‘feel in the mood’. You just apply your behind to the chair and get on with it. Because all that time you are wasting thinking about writing your amazing novel, I’m actually at my computer writing.

If we were runners, you would be thinking about taking up running and I would be training six days a week, so come the race – who has the best chance of finishing?!

Writing is a complex art. Expressing your ideas, characters and story in words is a skill which takes a lifetime to master. I’ve been writing fiction for 14 years now and I’m only beginning to get the hang of it. Just because you can read novels does not mean you can write them. Just because a book is easy to read does not mean it is easy to write.

Plus, it’s a very competitive business. There are so many fantastic writers already out there, if you want to join them, you’re going to have to get very, very good.

I feel it’s best to give you tough love. If you want to write novels – long, gripping novels people are going to give up hours and hours of their precious lives to read, you’re going to have to start training for the ultra-marathon!

What will help with my writing?

Reading will help enormously. Read all kinds of books. Find the kind of writing that you love; the kind of book you could pick up again and again. Is it horror? Is it rom com? Is it sci-fi? Is it historical fiction? What inspires you? What kind of book would you love to write?

Then write! Write and write some more. Write little chunks: blogs, diary entries, short pages. Hone your skills. Try a poem, then a short story. Try out chapter one. Try out the final chapter. Play with words. Describe the people you see on the train. Invent a background for them. Practise dialogue. Turn a news story into a short story. Write, write, write. Train your brain and your fingers to turn your thoughts into great sentences, then your sentences into stories.

Don’t expect to be a genius immediately. It takes time to get good. I was writing stories, essays and diaries all the time I was growing up. I spent my early 20s being a newspaper journalist. I must have written millions of words before I got started on chapter one. My first book attempt was in the bin by chapter four and I began again.

Think of JK Rowling, she’d been working on that first Harry Potter manuscript for YEARS before she showed it to anyone and even then all the big publishers turned her down! Her enormous success had nothing to do with luck: it was because she had a huge story to tell, sheer persistence and worked bloody hard.

 Are any books helpful?

I’m helped by reading and re-reading all the writers I love: Nancy Mitford, Anne Tyler, Agatha Christie, John Irving, JK Rowling, Roald Dahl, Candace Bushnell and many more.

I’ve also found these books very inspirational and packed with great advice: Robert McKee’s Story, Stephen King’s On Writing, Michelle Wallerstein’s Mind Your Business.

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan always get my romantic comedy juices flowing, along with every film written by Nora Ephron.

Should I join a writing group?

I’ve never joined a writing group. This is because I am such a loner and solitary animal. Also, I didn’t think I could bear the criticism! You have to be tough to write and keep on writing, but oh my goodness writing makes you vulnerable. As soon as you’ve written something, you’ve created a work that people can criticise. And believe me, everybody has an opinion. You just need to go onto Amazon to see that.

But writing groups can be hugely helpful. They help people to focus on what they want to write, they help people make contacts, plus they inspire you to get the work done. Only you can know if a group is a good idea for you. You could always try one and see. You could even advertise and set one up in your area.

 Where do I get ideas from?

EVERYWHERE!! As Paul Smith the fashion designer wrote: ’Inspiration is everywhere, if at first you don’t see it, look again!’ Open your mind to ideas. They really are everywhere. I used to worry about having enough things to write about, now I worry about finding the time to write about all my ideas. What sort of things have happened to you? What’s happened to your friend? Could it be re-worked? Could it be made much more exciting? What’s in the news? What’s in National Geographic? See reality as your springboard into the swimming pool of story.

You need to have a story. A really intriguing, interesting tale. You need to have great, memorable, fully-fleshed characters. If you are writing rom-com, you need to have some really hilariously funny scenes; some heart-meltingly tender scenes and you need a love story where something is always in the way of the happy couple.

Dig deeply into all your wide experience of life. How do your own relationships work? What makes you fall in love? What makes you angry? Sad? Confused? Despairing?

Should I do research?

ABSOLUTELY!! Go to the places you are writing about. Interview people who’ve done something like your heroine. You will get one million more great ideas doing this than you can ever dream of at your desk.

 Should I have a plan?

YOU’D BE MAD NOT TO!

Readers are viewers. They are used to more plot in a half an hour sit-com than they ever got in a full Dickens novel. You must plot your baby to death. You must keep your reader nailed to the chair. You will never manage this without a detailed plan. I work on my plans for weeks. I don’t write a word until I have every chapter outlined and the whole story completely outlined. Even then, it still changes, improves, gets messed around.

 Should I listen to criticism?

Only if it’s from someone you really trust. Writing something that makes your Mum beam with pride is not hard. Writing something that will move and engage perfect strangers is much more tricky. When you have a first draft you are really happy with, tell your story to a couple of friends who have been briefed to be firm but fair. Don’t make them read the whole thing. Try out the outline of your story on them. Does it excite them? Interest them? Do their eyes glaze over? Where are the problems?

Should I re-write?

Re-writing is the number one skill. It separates the amateurs from the professionals. About 50% of my time, maybe more is spent re-writing my work. I get to the end of my first draft in a hurry. I’m making sure the story works and I’m getting to know my characters. Then I start re-writing and the really hard work follows. But this is the sweat and tears that makes stories good.

How do I get an agent?

I have no idea!! You need an agent, because hardly any publishers look at manuscripts which don’t come from agents (check their websites to find out). But agents are like fairy dust.  Agents are very, very busy looking after those super important clients who earn them vast amounts of money.  With your unpublished manuscript, you are so far down the pecking order, your precious work will be handed to the work experience girl if you are lucky.  But remind yourself, big deals with brand new authors are made all the time. Agents and publishers continue to need new writers.

Do your research, find agents who represent your kind of work. Submit exactly as it says on the website. Send only your very polished, very best work. Write a covering letter of genius, brilliantly written about your brilliant story. Get them hooked. Make yours the manuscript at the top of the pile.

 I’ve been rejected, now what?

If you’ve sent your best work to many reputable agents or publishers and they’ve all said no thanks, you have to dust yourself down and think hard about what to do next. You could find more people to send it to… you could self-publish. You could put your work in a drawer and work on your next idea. You could stop and rest for a while… or go on a course, read books about writing, train your writing muscles to get better and stronger. No decision is right or wrong here. You have to decide what’s best for you. But I can promise the more you read, write and re-write, the better you will get.

 I’ve published one book, how do I keep going?

Your book is published, the world did not stop turning, Hollywood did not call, you are not as rich as Dan Brown. Welcome to the club. Look very hard at what worked; look even harder at what didn’t work. Don’t blame yourself for everything, but don’t accept no blame. Maybe you need to get much better. Think up a much stronger story. Do more research. Maybe you need to flex your PR muscles on your next time out.

Take your new career seriously. Find an amazing new story, fresh avenues for your work. Make lots more contacts in all sorts of connected fields.

All authors need these quotations pinned up above their desk:

‘Try again, fail again, fail better.’   Samuel Beckett.

‘Never, never, never, NEVER, give up.’   Sir Winston Churchill.

Do I self-publish on the internet?

Previously, I would always have said no, it’s a waste of time and money and you won’t make a penny. But the game has changed. Some writers are now fabulous e-book successes. In ten years time we may all be self-published on the internet. Do your research, don’t get ripped off and don’t put anything out there that isn’t your absolutely best work. Expect to do a lot of self-promoting. Success on the internet is just like success with a publisher, it’s all about talent and hard work. We are all only as good as the last thing we’ve written and the next big thing we’re writing.

 Will writing make me rich?

Let’s be realistic here. One in hundreds of thousands of writers will become rich: maybe through genius, epic hard work or sheer good luck. Just like one in hundreds of thousands of actors, painters and all kinds of creative people. The rest of us will range from making a great living to struggling on penniless. Love your work, devote yourself to your work and hope that the money will follow. If you have success, be like several wise old actors I know and save your money hard because success may not come around again immediately. Yachts and villas on the Med are for gas barons and internet billionaires not, usually, novelists.

Will writing make me happy?

I love to write. I love the hours when I am so in the flow, so in my made-up world that I forget about everything else. But I spend all day, most days, withimaginary people and many head-doctors would consider this a worrying condition!

Creative people often struggle with mental health issues – we get depressed, we fret, we drink or smoke, take drugs, or comfort eat or all of the above. Maybe we were like this when we began; maybe the nature of our work makes us more like this. I do believe that writing makes you vulnerable. Plus it can become obsessive. Writing can take up all the time you have, no manuscript is ever ‘finished’, and you can use writing as a way of opting out of everything else life has to offer.

You need balance!

You need to look after the other areas of life too: friends, family and your health. You need regular breaks from writing, reading other writing and thinking about writing – hard, I know! But there must be room for relaxation, laughter and holidays. If I am turning into a basket case, I shut everything down and hang out with my children. Sometimes you just have to go away and come back to the keyboard with fresh perspective.

 Should I give up my day job?

I have mixed feelings about this. Basically I did give up my day job and the terror got me writing like a dervish. Happily, I landed a two-book deal which gave me enough money to take another year off to write more. For several years I combined fiction writing with freelance journalism, now I write fiction full-time but I know I have journalism skills if I need to go back to them.

I’m not sure I would advise an 18 year old to study creative writing at college and nothing else. But sometimes, you have to walk the wire without the safety net because if you put your heart and soul into writing it might work much better than if you potter about at the weekends only.

Giving up the day job to write is scary and stressful. Please approach it very, very carefully, fully consulting your nearest and dearest and burn no bridges. Bear in mind that many, many well known writers combine writing with other jobs and careers which reliably pay the bills.

 Finally…

I really hope this has helped. Very, very best of luck out there. May your story be the next huge thing the world didn’t even know it was waiting for! And if it isn’t – please love the ride. Writing is fantastic – like dreaming with the lights on. Work hard, master the art, bring your dreams to life and WRITE ON!!

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

 

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

20 Tips For Surviving The Builders

And the builders are OUT… phew! I’m breathing a huge, dusty sigh of relief and allowing life as I know it to resume.

I’ve totally renovated four homes so far and although I don’t think this one will be the last, I have promised my family some peace and quiet… for a while.

I’ve learned (the hard way) a few useful things about having the builders in and thought I’d share my top 20 tips in case they’re useful to anyone else in this nerve-shreddingly stressful situation.

1.     Get as much done all at the one time as you possibly can. I’ve tried doing a bathroom here, a kitchen the next year, redecorating bit by bit and it’s not ideal. Plumbers and electricians come in and sigh: ‘Who did the kitchen like that? For the new bathroom, I’ll have to re-do all that piping/ wiring.’  Or worse, hauling their ladders and equipment into the kitchen, they scratch your new hall paintwork or eeek, your brand new floor. The more work you can get done at once, the better the price should be.

2.     Move out if at all possible. Even for the first few weeks. This allows you and your family to remain sane and be dressed without plaster dust on your clothes, in your hair, all over your beds and even in your food. It also lets the builders forge ahead without having to worry about water, gas and electrics having to be reconnected every evening.

3.      If you have to stay at home, tape polythene sheets over doors, buy a brush, dustpan, even a cheap vacuum cleaner just to deal with builder mess. Do not use your lovely Dyson to scoop up plaster dust and rubble. Do not let the builders use it either: it will die!

4.     If you work from home, you HAVE to find somewhere else to go. Trust me here. The library, a café with wifi, you have to get out. You cannot listen to Lesser Known Hits of the 80s, plus drilling and bumping and banging for weeks on end and get work done.

5.     Be VERY choosy about which builder you use. Do not rush this decision. Get recommendations from people you trust, or neighbours… even bathroom and kitchen suppliers. Go and see previous work the builder has done. Ask the owners if the work was quick and tidy, if the builders were polite, stuck to the agreed budget, turned up on time, stayed with the job right to the end. If a builder is available straight away, beware. Good builders have to be booked in advance. If you’re in an old house, you need a builder used to renovating old property.

6.     I don’t like tradesmen who only want to be paid in cash and I don’t like it if they want part of the money up front. Both of these things suggest they’re not running their business well and they won’t run your project well either. I totally wanted to sack a builder once, but had paid too much up front to be able to do it.

7.     Some money part way through is OK. But you need a week or two after the work is completed before you pay your final bill. So you can work out what the little problems are and ask for them to be fixed before you settle up.

8.     Plan, plan, plan. Make drawings of your rooms. Think about plugs, lights, tiling, cabinets, the way the door opens… Make as many decisions ahead of the work as possible. There will still be lots of decisions to make on the spot. Take some guidance from your builder – he might from experience know of a better way to do it…

9.     …But don’t do everything the builder way – sometimes they can go overboard with plastic trimming, beading, coving, laminate flooring and everything in beige and before you know it the heart and soul of your characterful old house has been ripped out and MDF-ed over.

10.   Consider using an architect. I asked an architect friend, who recommended the office junior, who made several visits and lots of plans. She had great ideas, oversaw getting the building warrant and all the relevant permits and charged us less than we expected for her time.

11. If your decorator umms and ahhs and says: ‘Are you sure? That’s quite a dark/ bright/ unusual colour?’ Just say YES. If you want a beautiful paint job with proper sanding down and many layers of paint, say so. Expect it to take longer and cost more than slapping the stuff on.

12.  Don’t freak out when standing in an empty newly painted room. By the time you’ve put in sofas, pictures, lamps, shelves, books – the colour will be lovely and just the way you imagined it.

13. Be business like with your builders. They’re not your new friends; they’re not your Dad/ uncle/ boss. You’re in charge. If things aren’t going the way you want, ask about it. Explain what you want. Listen. Sometimes you will have to compromise because what you want doesn’t work. But don’t accept something you really don’t want. The builder is going to move on and you’ll be left regretting this bit of work for the next five, ten years or longer.

14. When you first agree a price with the builder, try and get everything you can think of onto that estimate. There will always be a few extra jobs at the end, which will put the price up, but try not to make it a great long list of extras. Otherwise your bill might be a nasty shock.

15. Agree a timetable. Expect it to take a bit longer. But do not accept endless weeks of delay. If this is happening, you need to find out why and ask them to get back on track.

16. Keep all your estimates, bills and receipts in a dedicated folder. File all those guarantees. Unused paint tins, lightshades that didn’t match, bookcases that didn’t fit, unopened boxes of tiles – all can be returned if you have the receipt.

17. Get everything finished! Don’t leave wires dangling while you procrastinate on a bathroom cabinet, don’t leave plywood on the floor while you dither about tiles. After all the pain you’ve gone through, you NEED the big ‘tah dah’ when it all comes together and looks brilliant.

18. Accept that budget limitations can lead to creative and brilliant results. My £9 a metre bathroom tiles look amazing. Crown and Dulux have colours just as pretty as Farrow and Ball’s (use tester pots to find them). Two IKEA pendant lights can look even better than one designer one. A cheap bookcase properly assembled and fitted to the wall by a joiner looks almost as good as a bespoke one.

19. Realise that your wine/ chocolate/ biscuit consumption will rocket during this horribly stressful and expensive time.

20.  Remind yourself that it will be worth all the pain, expense and hassle. We’ve created a big family kitchen, renovated an old bathroom, plus put in a second bathroom and already, one week in, this has transformed home life.

 

World Book Day | My best advice to writers

Today is World Book Day. To mark the occasion I thought I’d repost this blog from my old site. I think there’s plenty here to think about for anyone who loves books, loves writing — and for anyone thinking of trying to write a novel. I’d love to hear your comments:

How do I get started writing?

I could write chapters and chapters, probably a whole book about writing. But I’m going to try and break it down into FAQs for you. If I haven’t answered your question, then please drop me a line. But these are my best answers to the questions I’m often asked. Also, I’m not just a published writer who ‘has it easy’ (‘What does she know about rejections?’) I’m also married to a trying-to-be-published writer. So I know about the process from many angles.

You sit down and you start. There we go. You don’t put it off until you ‘have the time’ or ‘feel in the mood’. You just apply your behind to the chair and get on with it. Because all that time you are wasting thinking about writing your amaz