Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Unspeakable: Why Don't Women Write About Birth?

Image courtesy of The Birth Project Paintings

When it came to writing the birth scene in Unspeakable Things, it struck me how very rarely this is portrayed in literature. There’s the modern-day scene at the end of Birdsong and the birth in Tristram Shandy. (Please leave a comment if you can think of others!) Both my examples were written by men.

Why do so few women write a mother’s experience of birth?

We write unflinchingly about sex, violence and death, so why do we steer away from such an extraordinary process? (This article ponders the question).

Birth is a dramatic and pivotal experience, it changes everything forever – much more so than marriage, which is the focus of so many novels.

Even if you read widely and go to classes, the first time you give birth, much of it is unexpected. It is a rite of passage: you start as someone who doesn’t know the secret and end up someone who knows.

The birth of my first child astonished me. Afterwards, I went through every mother I knew in my head, and thought, My God, you did that! I never knew!

Is birth indescribable then? Surely not, with all the mothers in the world, and all the words?

Before writing Sarah’s experience in the novel, I searched for my diary entry about my first son’s birth. I found an account in Ben’s ‘Baby Diary’, but this is about having a new baby, rather than the birth itself:

He was bluish and covered in white stuff and I said, ‘Come to Mummy,’ and put my arms around him.

What I had been through was so overwhelmingly physical that I couldn’t feel anything emotional except relief.

Scribbled on the back of some bills, I found a fuller account of the birth. I have just read it again, shed a few sentimental tears and decided there are parts I am not going to share.

Ironically, I am self-censoring just as, all those years ago, I put a sanitised version in the Baby Diary.

Is it squeamishness that makes us withhold the truth, or a fear of revolting our audience? Many women, as well as men, are disgusted by the details. Is birth more intimate than sex, and more unmentionable?

For a time, women are obsessed with birth stories. I went into labour during an antenatal class, and was still in hospital when the next class was held there. I took my baby to show the expectant mothers, and as they gathered round, the midwife said, ‘Tell us your story.’

I had gone through the rite of passage and spoke to them from across the divide, but I couldn’t bring myself to tell them the whole truth about the pain, which they would all face in the weeks to come.

My diary describes it though:

The pain went on getting stronger and I gulped the gas and moaned with every out breath... I don’t know how long this went on… Since the pain got worse, time had slowed right down. I was beginning to dread the next contraction. Suddenly the quality of the contractions changed and I began to feel a great downwards pressure. It was an astonishing feeling and quite frightening… I cried out, ‘I can’t do this! I want someone else to do it for me!’ and Lily said to Jon, ‘Don’t worry, they get like this towards the second stage’.

When it came to writing Sarah’s birth story, I called upon two of my memories. One was of the extraordinary sensation, during transition, of labour changing direction – the body switching, turning and reforming in a different shape, like a Transformer becoming a robot. Another was the feeling of an unstoppable force, which I told people afterwards was ‘like a freight train bearing down inside.’

Most of the details of Sarah’s birth are dictated by her story: she wakes from a near-death experience to find herself in labour:

Her insides were heaving in chaos. Contractions! There were things she had to do. Now a freight train was bearing down inside her. It was nothing like the pains before; her insides were rotating and switching positions, like a transformation in a horror film, skin and muscle pushed beyond endurance. Pain was an unstoppable pressure, building towards a crescendo. Then Sarah knew where it was going and she opened her eyes and saw Jim’s face. She cried out to him, but all she heard was a guttural noise:


‘What?’ He turned to someone beside him, ‘What’s she saying?’ The force inside her was at bursting point but still powering downwards. She was an animal with only one impulse.

‘I gotta push!’

It’s Sarah’s story, the climax of her plot, but it owes something to my son’s unforgettable arrival – eight hours that changed my life. I hope it does something to make up for a mysterious absence in literature.

Have you read, written or in any way portrayed the experience of birth? Why do you think birth is so rare in books? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

Monday, 27 November 2017

Editor, Edit Thyself – Why I Can’t Make Mistakes

Courtesy of Writerful Books

I have been a book editor for thirty odd years – pointing out the shortcomings of other people’s writing and insisting that I know best.

The scary part for any editor is the day a book appears in print. It’s too late then to do anything about any errors you have missed. In the publisher’s office, we would gather round when a book came in. The designer would obsess about how the title sat on the spine; the production manager would fuss over the resolution. As the editor, responsible for every aspect of the book’s accuracy, I could hardly bear to look.

Imagine my anxiety recently when my own novel Unspeakable Things came back from the typesetter. I sweated with shame over every typo that had got past me (and the proofreader). I fussed over fonts and italics, paragraphs full out or indented.

Courtesy of The Book Butchers

There is a Sod’s Law in editing that the further you go into a book’s production, the easier it is to spot mistakes. This means they only become visible when it costs a fortune to put them right. An error in a set of ozalids is glaringly obvious, and the buck stops with the editor. A gaffe in a finished book is impossible to ignore – even though it has got past you a dozen times before.

Nervously checking my typeset novel, I realised that the first two chapters didn’t read as well as the others. This suspicion may have whispered at me before, but I had brushed past it, determined that the novel was ready AT LAST. I could not bear to tinker with it any longer.

Now the problem was obvious. I had rewritten the first two chapters last, and had not trimmed them back as thoroughly as the rest. The reading mind tripped over the phrasing, halting the flow of the text. Superfluous words muddied the stream and prevented the prose from sparkling.

How could I send the novel back to the typesetter with such last-minute changes? How annoyed would I be if an author did this to me?

But how could I, know-all editor, punctuation police and grammar fascist, publish anything less than my very best work?

I couldn’t. I made the changes. The typesetter didn’t mind – she is more tolerant than I am.

My last struggle was over widows – those leftover single words that take up a whole line and make the text look untidy. Editors can’t stand them, and they are removed from most types of book. I flipped through a handful of paperbacks at home and found that novels do sometimes contain them. But could I tolerate them in mine?

I tried to. But then I went back and made suggestions to get rid of the worst ones. Then the fairly bad ones. Then nearly all of them. I made myself leave a few in case the typesetter blacklisted me as a nit-picking nightmare.

I am happy with the result now. Unspeakable Things looks like a proper book! The first chapters are as good as the others (how good that is, you can judge in January).

But I still have horrible fantasies about other editors, authors I have worked with and people who have seen my facebook punctuation rants opening those pages. What if  I'm not perfect after all!? What if I get found out?

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Family Secrets: The Terrible and the Wonderful

Family secrets fascinate me – they are at the heart of my writing. So I was a captive audience for the BBC’s drama The Boy With the Topknot, based on the memoir by Sathnam Sanghera.

Sathnam is a rather arrogant, westernized journalist, who goes home to Wolverhampton to tell his family that he wants to marry an English girl. In the bosom of his Punjabi Sikh family, he can’t face breaking the news.

He then discovers that his father has for years been a paranoid schizophrenic and only his mother’s management of his medication has kept him out of a psychiatric ward. His older siblings have always known, and dismiss his shocked reaction. Torn between the new life he wants and the explosion of the old life he thought he knew, Sathnam unravels. He asks strangers questions for a living, but he has never investigated his own family.

How could he not have known?

This might seem bizarre, but it rang utterly true to me. Families conceal things, or don’t mention them; things that peek out from the heart of often-told stories, but are never asked about, never questioned. I know this because I hoard such things, gathered from people I know or from the media. People discover that a parent was a spy, or a Nazi. I know someone who was in her thirties when she found out at a family gathering that her Dad, now dead, was not her real father. It came out through a casual comment from an in-law; the whole family knew except the woman in question.

In Unspeakable Things my heroine, Sarah, knows nothing about her mother, who died when she was four. Pregnant and newly inquisitive, she visits the abandoned family home with her husband, who asks why her father moved them away.

 ‘I don’t know. He didn’t say.’ Dad had not talked about any of it. She didn’t even remember looking at old photographs with him, and wondered now why they had never pestered him about their dead mother, their abandoned first home. But during his life it had seemed unthinkable. Did they hesitate to test that resolute strength of his, in case it crumpled?

Families are different from other groups. They’re home to our most profound relationships, our dearest loves and deepest resentments – and yet they need to operate on an everyday level. Everyone needs to get fed, clothed and off to school or work; to rest, mooch around together and sleep. We are not our outward-facing selves in our families, the way we are with our colleagues and friends. They see us grumpy or distracted, picking our noses, grunting responses: the real people who emerge when we’ve shut the door on the outside world.

Things go unsaid in families, both good and bad. I read an article by a man who decided not to save a eulogy for his father’s funeral, but to tell him his feelings for him while he was alive. He did so. It was awkward. He wasn’t sure if he regretted it or not.

There is a reason we don’t do these things. Huge feelings and shocking revelations might tear apart the everyday functioning that makes up family life. If someone at a family gathering says something profound, we are just as likely to shrug or squirm with discomfort.

Older siblings, like Sathnam’s, sometimes patronise younger ones and pull the wool over their eyes. It becomes a habit in childhood and they can’t shake it off later. At fifty-three, I sometimes still get a whiff of it: that sense of being the youngest who can’t be taken seriously. When she protests or tries to make her mark, she’s just showing off.

There are terrible things in families, and as a writer of dark fiction, I dig them out. Secrets concealed and secrets discovered form the darkness behind the suspense.

Sathnam’s mother won't  talk about her husband’s illness, which came to light when she was a young bride in an arranged marriage. Family friends fill Sathnam in, and then ask him about his sister. Suddenly, Sathnam knows that she is a schizophrenic too – and that the day she was sectioned as a teenager was the day he turned his back on his family, cutting off his Sikh topknot and throwing in his lot with the western world.

Back in the present day, Sathnam’s mother’s insistence on arranging a marriage for him threatens his chance of happiness, and her obstructiveness when he questions her is maddening.

But the story’s conclusion is touching. Sathnam realises that his family’s secretiveness has made him what he is. He has made it in life because of them, not despite them as he thought. ‘I always thought you were happy,’ he tells his Mum. Her strength in concealing the painful truth has given him the happiness and confidence to succeed.

My second novel The Year of the Ghost confronts all the family failings that infuriate us: the things they won’t talk about, the awful things they conceal. The stress, pain and anguish this causes come to a head during the annual holiday – when there’s a ghost in the holiday home and nobody knows who it is.

But I hope I have touched on something Sathnam discovered. There are wonderful things in families, – things we don’t talk about either. The Year of the Ghost delves into secrets and lies, but it’s a love song to family as well.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Can your creativity survive motherhood?

It was winter Saturday and Jon was taking Ben and Sam to the park so that I could do some writing. They were at that age when they don’t see the connection between removed gloves and cold hands, and preparations were not going well. By the time one boy was gloved up, the other would be taking his off – and there were still hats and wellies to be wrestled with.

I had been buried in sleep-deprived, all-consuming motherhood all week. I was still writing the screenplay I had started when I was pregnant. I JUST WANTED TO GET ON WITH SOME WRITING.

I looked at my sweet-faced little ones, bundled up in their woollies, and at Jon, doing a nice thing with infinite patience. There were still four of us in the hallway.

‘Oh just bugger off, all of you!’ said Mummy.

I had wanted to be a writer since I was five. My Mum pictured me as an adult, writing at the kitchen table while my children ran around me. Wrong. I was never able to work with my boys in the building. I just didn’t have the headspace. I certainly lacked that talent men have for reading the paper (or their phone screen) while an entire coffee shop is driven mad by their offspring saying ‘Daddy?’

I had written a novel after university, but life, travel and career had got in the way, and now most of the time I was so mired in motherhood that I could barely construct a sentence in reality, never mind fiction.

Yet the seismic life event of becoming a mother had sharpened my creative hunger. The experience was central to my screenplay, in with a pregnant woman discovers that her mother tried to kill her as a four-year-old, and that her mental disturbance might be hereditary.

I carried on writing when I could. The screenplay crawled along to completion. I did a course, and wrote others. I researched producers and contacted agents. I entered competitions and got positive comments.

But who was I kidding? Ben didn’t sleep through the night until he was three and a half. Sam cried for much of his first year. I was often so tired that I spent whole days on the verge of tears. Was I seriously expecting to write a blockbuster to take the film world by storm?

I worked part time until Sam went to school, and then got back into publishing. The next fifteen years passed in absorbing work, helping others to fulfil their writing dreams.

My boys grew up, learned to put their own gloves on, and ultimately moved away. Did I say that I always loved being their mother? I mean, just look at their pictures. Nothing in life will ever be lovelier, or more important.

I thought of all this recently when a mother on facebook wondered if she’ll ever manage to write while her children are little. I told her what a woman artist said to me when I asked how she had kept the drive going through the years of heavy mothering. 

‘I built up a great creative head of steam,’ she said. ‘It paid off when I had time again.’

My creative ambition survived the wilderness years. I rewrote that first screenplay as a novel. I wrote it again, and showed it to a literary consultant. Again, I rewrote it, honed it and refined it. A second literary consultant read it and her comments were my masterclass. The task seemed never-ending, but characters wouldn’t leave my head. Like a sculptor chipping away anything extraneous, I cut back to the essence of their story. I was learning my craft.

I left full-time work to freelance and write, and in January, my novel Unspeakable Things will be published. I’m relishing writing my second, The Year of the Ghost, in which the joys, anguish and secrets of family life play a central role.

To all you mothers who are struggling to feed your creative urge: keep at it whenever you can. Make notes and stuff them in a folder. Write short pieces: poems, exercises and sketches that might one day make it into a longer form. Record moments from your days – you think you'll never forget these times, but you will. Most of all, note down your ideas: they may well be brilliant.

The era of motherhood is a primaeval swamp of creativity. It sucks at your energy and keeps you wallowing in the mire, but it’s fertile ground for the artist. The creative things that emerge from it might not look like much when they first flop onto the land. But who knows how they’ll evolve?

Keep going, keep the faith. I salute you!

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Which childhood books did you love enough to keep?

Last week a local plea went out online for a copy of Nina Bawden’s Carrie’s War. I immediately pictured my Puffin version from 1974 with the cover photo from the BBC teatime series, and sure enough, there it was in the little collection of books I have treasured since childhood.

I sank into a reverie of book lover’s nostalgia. There was no need to ponder a list of my favourites –here were twenty-seven browned paperbacks that I had loved enough to keep. Fascinated, I searched through them...


Perhaps keen to discover that I was a precocious intellectual, I preened myself over these: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Remember relishing a book so much that you didn’t want to be out of it? I continued on to The Silver Chair and The Magician’s Nephew, searching for – but not finding – a repeat of that first high. Then there was Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s enchantingly sad The Little Prince, and E.B. White’s heart-rending Charlotte’s Web.

Books Off the Telly

I was surprised to find that this was such a large category – but then I come from a telly-devoted generation, brought up in front of an array of brilliant 1970s children’s series – and clearly they encouraged my reading. Carrie’s War was one of these – I have fond memories of the TV version from when I was nine

I also found A Pair of Jesus-Boots, a 1974 Puffin that I bought after seeing the series Rocky O’Rourke, about a slum-dwelling Liverpool lad. Already I liked my fiction on the gritty side. I discovered The Secret Garden through a teatime adaptation, and Ethel Turner’s Seven Little Australians, written in 1894, was brought to life for me by the BBC in 1973. 

In 1979 I found the TV version of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy funny, if a bit irritating, but I enjoyed Douglas Adams’ book much more.

A haunting BBC series of Tom’s Midnight Garden was the taster that led me to the book. A few years later, Philippa Pearce did a talk at our school. She said that being a writer was like having English homework every night of the week. ‘Don’t do it if you don’t have to,’ she said. ‘But if you have to – good luck.’ I already knew that I had to. I never forgot.

Nina Bawden

At around the time of Carrie’s War, our teacher, Mrs Skett, read The White Horse Gang aloud to us, and I became hooked on Nina Bawden. She was the kind of writer I wanted to be: her child characters were vivid and believable, their adventures rooted in the real world. My collection includes The Peppermint Pig, The Runaway Summer, On the Run, The Secret Passage, Squib and The White Horse Gang. I read others from the library.

Children’s Favourites

Stig of the Dump appealed to my fascination with the idea of the primitive within us, and of a life ‘in the wild’. I must have overcome my fear of dogs to love The Incredible Journey – though there was also the cat character to draw me in.


I had forgotten Barbara Sleigh’s Carbonel and The Kingdom of Carbonel, but memories rushed back of these wonderful tales of a night-time world of cats on the rooftops. There was a potion that allowed a little girl to understand the cats’ language, found in those oversized bottles that used to advertise chemist’s shops. I remember peering at the one in Boots... The Winter of Enchantment by Victoria Walker had a similar theme of a child escaping an unpleasant reality to discover a world of magic.

A Mixed Bag

The final four show how my taste was varied, then as now – there’s I am David, about a Jewish boy who escapes from a concentration camp. I am still willing to be challenged and disturbed by what I read. But there’s also Flicka, the story of a Wyoming ranch boy and his beloved horse – I remember relishing the horsey sentimentality and scenes of Mom making doughnuts. There’s early teen fare: Freaky Friday, about a thirteen-year-old who swaps places with her mother, but also Eleanor Atkinson’s Greyfriars Bobby which was hard work, but worth it, with a lot of pages spent in a graveyard and a Scottish dialect to grapple with, which may have prepared me for A Clockwork Orange.

But now we’re getting onto teenage reading, which is a whole other subject…

I’d love to hear from you if you remember any of these books or series, or if you have a treasured collection of your own? What books were landmarks in your childhood reading journey?

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Fear in the Woods

Courtesy of WallpaperSafari
In Unspeakable Things, Sarah moves into her abandoned childhood home, in the middle of deep, dark woods. The woods seem creepy from her first walk on moving in day:

‘A sudden crackling sound made her whip her head round. What’s that? Just trees and fraught stillness in the greenish light. She turned back to the bush and began to force her way through, pushing branches aside. They whipped into place again behind her.’

When her uncle turns up on her doorstep, woodland debris gusts in with him, and she quickly shuts the door on the hectic darkness.

When he reveals a dreadful secret to her, they are in the middle of the woods. His revelation is punctuated by the nasty chattering of squirrels.

Later, eight-year-old Mary is left alone in the pitch-black woods. Her brother has told her that demons live there.

‘She called, “Daddy! Daddy!” in case he was hiding behind a tree. But there was no answer. Which way was home in all this blackness? Something swooped at her and flapped in her hair and she screamed and hit out, remembering demons…’

You’d think I hate woods, wouldn’t you? And yet I love them! I was brought up on walks in the Kentish countryside, from the time my little legs could carry me. Perhaps because of these happy memories, I walk into a wooded place and my heart finds peace. I walk alone in our local woods and have never felt safer.

Jon is doing Forest School training and goes off once a week to make fires, paint mud faces on trees, coppice and whittle things and generally revel in this fabulous environment. I picture him on these days as a forest sprite with a hat made from an acorn cup. This past weekend he took me to one of the sites – a wonderful, unspoilt stretch of heath and ancient woodland that no one seems to know about – on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, we had it to ourselves.

It was idyllic. The chestnuts are so abundant this year that with every sigh of the wind, they thumped to the ground around us and bounced, fat and glossy, from their spiky shells. We spent a wonderful afternoon walking under a canopy of autumn colours and narrowly avoiding chestnut-related head injuries.

I love woods. So why do they haunt my novel, the heart of darkness into which Sarah unwittingly wanders?

Of course, sudden inexplicable fear in woods is the origin of the word ‘panic’, because the ancients believed it was caused by the god Pan. From the dawn of culture to the Blair Witch Project, woods have been used as a sinister setting, alive with unseen threats and evil forces.

In Unspeakable Things, Sarah must explore and confront the unknown – and maybe that’s what the woods are there for. Enticing at first, they close in around her, fraught with danger. Will she find her way out? Or will demons get her?

Unspeakable Things will be published in January. 

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

A Magician's Sleight of Hand - Julie Myerson's The Quickening

I read this Hammer horror novella on holiday and found it a compelling page-turner. Picking it up again to review it, I read the entire book again and realised how very clever it is.

In this haunted honeymoon story, Myerson uses a magician’s masterly sleight of hand in order to distract us from what’s really going on. Newly pregnant, Rachel has been bulldozed into a quick wedding and a honeymoon in Antigua. On the way from the airport, the driver bizarrely says that her husband is on the island. ‘Not now. Always. He cannot leave.’

This echo from The Shining (You’ve always been the caretaker. I should know. I’ve always been here) sets the tone, and when they arrive at the resort, even the words, ‘Rachel held the towel to her wrists, her throat,’ made me see her stemming blood, rather than enjoying scented towels.

Myerson’s staccato style, without inverted commas, makes the writing feel tense and fast-moving. Rachel’s point of view is edgy from the start – the empty suitcases look ‘depressing’; she sees a figure on the beach and shivers. Every tiny observation is used to ramp up the tension.

The real horror of the piece, however, is Rachel and Dan’s marriage. We’ve all known a Dan – he’s the partner of a friend of yours and none of your women friends can stand him. He’s a foul-mouthed, irritable loser, a liar and a bully. When Rachel is first upset by a horrible ghostly encounter, he is drunk and bad-tempered. ‘What now?’ he says, and then drags her into his lap. His lack of sensitivity and sudden, selfish advances make us see him as a sexual predator rather than an amorous newly-wed. When she wants him to feel the baby moving, he can’t drag his eyes off the cricket. Most food nauseates Rachel and Myserson brilliantly uses descriptions of Dan gobbling with gusto to make us feel revolted on her account.

The depiction of the haunting and the way it overwhelms Rachel is skilfully observed, but what is truly masterful is the way Myerson uses our suspicion of the odious Dan to distract us from other possibilities in the story. Reading the book a second time, I realised that I had taken in details that screamed of someone else’s guilt, but brushed past them when Myerson, with expert timing, threw in another despicable facet of Dan’s character. And I’m not giving away the ending here, because Dan is also a guilty man.

I write psychological suspense stories myself, and I can only admire Myserson’s clever ruse. Rachel is pregnant and has been rushed into marriage. She is partially in denial about the nature of her relationship and later reveals that she suffers from anxiety. This all makes her vulnerable and unstable in our eyes. The ghostly events and real murders on the island destabilise her further so that we accept gaps and inconsistencies in her point of view, which only serve to make us more fearful for her and her unborn child.

The only downside to this is revealed in other reviews – many readers are irritated by Rachel as a  hapless victim, always spoiling the holiday fun with her fainting fits. It is true that this could detract from our identification with her, but it is part of the book’s masterplan, which certainly worked on me.

Read it twice – once to be taken in and a second time to admire how brilliantly Myerson achieved this.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

The Child in Time – the Power of the Lost Child Story

Courtesy of BBC
I loved Ian McEwan’s haunting novel and enjoyed the BBC’s adaptation with Benedict Cumberbatch and Kelly Macdonald.

My Dad said he couldn’t face an hour and a half in a story in which (spoiler alert!!!) a lost child is not found. I agree, that is a harrowing prospect. But The Child in Time is not about the search for the child in the way that the first series of The Missing was. It is a quite different exploration of loss with its magical suggestion that time might not the be linear thing we think it is.

In this story, the man who has lost his daughter looks through a pub window in a place he has never visited, and see his mother as a young woman. He later learns that she was in that pub years ago, anxious about telling his father that she was pregnant with him. She looked out of the pub window and saw the baby inside her as a little boy, looking in. This mysterious double time-slip gives the man a strange kind of hope: that his daughter, although lost to him in a very real sense, is still ‘out there’ somewhere in time, and his connection to her will never be lost.

Why do these stories resonate so much with us? Of course the cases of Madeleine McCann and Ben Needham are etched on our consciousness – they are every parent’s nightmare.

Most of us have never gone through the agony of losing a child, and our sympathy for those who have is endless. What we experience CANNOT be compared to this. But lost child stories tug at our hearts for a different reason. If our children have grown up, or even just grown bigger, we have lost the little ones they were.

If your child is now 6 foot tall – and even if he is sitting beside you on the sofa – you have lost the child that he was. That creates an ache that we try hard to ignore. It’s irrational – the child hasn’t gone, he has grown up. You have an adult to love in his place.

But the ache won’t be denied, and Facebook has a way of socking us in the heart with it. My son was 22 this week, and up popped one of those old posts from yesteryear: a picture of him as toddler. A friend posted another picture of her child and both of mine, all tiny and gorgeous in her garden. Nostalgia is a sweet pain, but it hurts nonetheless. I have two adult sons who mean more to me than anything, but those little boys have gone forever…

Unless time slips, as in The Child in Time. And time does slip, doesn’t it? We get those Rip Van Winkle moments, like when we drop our children off at university, and can’t believe it’s not us going.
And as in the novel, the child you remember hasn’t gone completely. He lives on like a Russian doll inside the adult you love now. And the curly-haired toddler I was lives on, buried inside my middle-aged self. At times perhaps you can glimpse her.

And inside my Dad... the little boy on the right...

Maybe this is why these stories haunt us. 

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Home alone parents: the empty nest

Boys you are men
And I know that
But when I get back
From dropping you off at university
You are standing up in your cot
Still needing me.

It’s that weekend again. The one when cars are loaded up, pets are petted one final time and young people are driven to cheaply built student halls to start a life without you.

It’s what you want for them, but how did it come round so fast?

When we dropped our older son off, I was bright and cheery, in brittle denial. Then I saw a Dad hugging his daughter and I was suddenly, inexplicably, in pieces.

‘Are you going?’ he said as we got up to leave. And we did, knowing his new life wouldn’t start until we had gone.

The next morning, a text arrived. He’d gone to find his new flatmates. They were brilliant. He loved it there. They’d all been up till 3am.

It’s a whole new challenge when the last one leaves. After we dropped off our younger son, I had troubling dreams. Time had slipped from its moorings: he was adolescent one moment, then morphed into an infant before my eyes.

I didn’t know what he was any more – or what was expected of me.

Eventually I recognised the feeling for what it was: a struggle to adjust – with a side-order of grief. We had been a family together for twenty years. What were the home-alone parents meant to do now?

I wrote an article about the experience for Juno magazine, and with it the poem above. I dug them out today and  they both still make me cry. That’s terrible isn’t it, like laughing at your own jokes?

If it’s you packing the car up this weekend, the poem is for you, as are these snippets that I hope will be helpful.

The way through it, I found, was to ditch the denial and let myself feel whatever I was feeling – the waves of sadness, but also the sense that, despite a full life and fulfilling job, I didn't know what I was for any more. 

If you can, avoid dumping your emotion on the ones who have departed – they need to spread their wings. This doesn’t mean pretending you’re not sad they’ve gone – but it does mean not expecting them to fix you.

On the plus side, the moment of upheaval can motivate you to make positive changes. Years of catering for the needs of others can prevent you from wondering what you want for yourselves.

Your child is embarking on a time of adventure and opportunity. You might find this makes you wistful. You have come out of the cocoon you formed with your family – and the world is still out there waiting.

I hope you’ll find a new and rewarding place in it, once you’ve got over the trauma of the university run.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Jane Austen beats me at Twitter

All authors these days must be beacons of self-promotion – but on the day that Jane Austen’s appeared on the £10 note, I made a haunting discovery. The original creaky door writer, who was famously loathe to admit to her writing habit, is more active on Twitter than I am!

And not only was she a reluctant self-publicist – she also died 200 years ago.

On Radio Five Live Breakfast this morning, Rachel Burden said that Austen would have been excellent at Twitter. George Riley, who doubted it, tried fitting her most famous quotes into 140 characters and found them wonderfully tweetable.

This spoke to me, as an editor, of the joys of brevity – there are very few raw creative sentences that wouldn’t work better shorter.

I Googled ‘Jane Austen, Twitter’ and was impressed by how much the author tweets from beyond the grave – this is just one of her many accounts.

If even dead authors are this active on social media, I am going to have to up my game in the run-up to publication of Unspeakable Things which (did I mention?) is coming soon.

Please tweet all your followers, living and dead. Please have them retweet, reblog, share and generally e-disseminate this humble post.

And a huge hurrah to all those who campaigned to have Jane Austen on a banknote. Let’s not forget that for championing the cause, MP Stella Creasey became the target of misogynist social media trolls and was threatened with rape (see Guardian article)

Austen probably never dreamed she would end up on a banknote, but she did dare to suggest that women should be educated in more than pretty accomplishments designed to attract husbands. Go, Jane! Go viral.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Brain tumour? Stroke? Or stress??

As we drove home from Wales one Saturday a few weeks ago, a stiffness crept up my neck and settled into a sick ache at the back of my head, which held me in its grip for days.

Courtesy of Shutterstock

When I got up on Monday morning, great swirls of black floated across my field of vision, like globules of ink dropped into water. They were totally unlike the vague ‘floaters’ we all see and ignore. They moved slowly from left to right, as thick, black and undeniable as hieroglyphics spelling out a message of alarm.

When professionals asked later whether they were in one or both eyes, I could only answer, ‘It looked as though they were actually there.’

A few moments later, as I stared into the mirror, they faded to nothing. They appeared again later in the morning, much fainter this time.

I do not worry about my health or imagine that every symptom is something deadly. I was worried about this.

The receptionist at our surgery asked what the problem was.

‘An alarming visual disturbance,’ I said.

I have never had a migraine and don’t suffer from headaches, so for me, the word ‘alarming’ was key. She didn’t seem to hear it. She booked me in to see a nurse practitioner.

By the time I reached the surgery, I had reassured myself that this was probably a virus, or a late onset migraine. The nurse practitioner did not agree. She wanted to send me for an MRI scan and I needed to get a full sight test first. The occipital headache and the visual disturbance could be signs of ‘something neurological’ causing pressure at the back of my head.

‘But I’m going on holiday on Thursday. Am I OK to fly?’ I asked.

She looked uncertain, but then urged me to book a sight test for my return. ‘Relax and enjoy your holiday,’ she said.

This seemed a vain hope when she recommended going straight to the nearest hospital if my symptoms returned.

Later my mind was swamped with questions I hadn’t asked and advice I hadn’t taken in. I rang and asked to speak to a doctor.

I went to a friend’s house but couldn’t focus on anything. At last the doctor rang. After taking all the details, he said it sounded like an ‘anomalous neurological event’. I rather liked the word, ‘anomalous’, which I interpreted as ‘random, benign, irrelevant and never-to-return.’ He advised getting a full sight test that day, to rule out a serious eye condition or anything causing pressure behind my eyes.

As I say, I don’t jump to dire conclusions when it comes to my health, but I asked him to spell out what we were hoping to rule out. I had correctly guessed ‘brain tumour’, though I hadn’t suspected ‘minor stroke’ because my blood pressure is the envy of anyone who tests it. There was no space in my head to worry about the awful eye conditions that were also candidates.

Specsavers Tunbridge Wells were reassuring, kind and thorough. They fitted me in that afternoon, despite being swamped, and over an anxious three hours, every test was done. There was nothing wrong with my eyes.

We flew of the Montenegro and the recurrences of floating swirls faded into the usual kind that I could happily ignore. The sick headache was eased away by sunshine, sea swims, sightseeing and relaxation.

Relaxation, Montenegro style

Stressed? Me?

The doctor’s latest pronouncement is that this was most likely an anomalous neurological event caused by stress. I am, of course, massively grateful to be pronounced healthy. But like everyone accused of suffering from stress, I was initially reluctant to accept this. I immediately thought of many people who have much more right to be stressed than me.

Jon and I pondered the possible causes.

  • The partial collapse of my parents’ house.
  • My sister’s husband going through a major operation.
  • All my freelance work arriving at once, just as I was going on holiday, and festering, undone, at the back of my head.
  • The decision to self-publish Unspeakable Things, and the first steps towards making it happen.

I have to admit, the final cause is the most likely. The ‘To Do’ list for the self-publisher is long and troubling – with items such as, ‘Become a social media sensation’ to contend with.

Two Titans are battling it out in my head: the lifelong drive to be a published writer and the temptation to give up as usual and have a quiet life in obscurity. The ambition and the self-saboteur are both fierce and terrifying.

So the battle is on. The Titans are roaring. It’s no wonder I’ve been having headaches. But you never get the success you dream of if you don’t risk the failure you fear. I won’t let black swirly things stand in my way.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Brits Abroad

Montenegro. Beautiful, but occasionally troubling if you are British.

It’s tough being a Brit abroad. Rules we hold dear are flouted in every other part of the world. Our British upbringing makes society function at home, but leaves us floundering and furious abroad.

And we can’t SAY anything, because we’re too polite. We hold onto our rage and vent it later in a strongly worded whinge.

Don’t mention the smell

I used to work in a dog-friendly office. One day a terrible smell engulfed our desks. We endured it for half an hour, afraid to mention it in case it exposed someone’s secret shame. We did this right up until someone discovered a dog turd on the carpet.

‘Oh thank God!’ we all said. ‘I was starting to feel ill, but I didn’t like to say…’

Inflatable anxiety

It quite clearly says..!

Day one at our resort in Montenegro and a grandma arrived at the pool with small children and an inflatable pizza slice. I stiffened. A notice quite clearly stated that inflatables were not allowed. No one said anything for a while. Then a shocked British child whispered to his Dad.

‘I know!’ he said. ‘Inflatables are not allowed!’

I knew that, like me, he wouldn’t be able to relax until the rule-breaking floater had been removed. It should not have mattered to me. I was not using the pool. It’s just a British obsession with fairness that torments me. If others are refraining from floating pizza fun, how can this be allowed?

Queue decency outraged

It got worse. We went on a boat trip to a blue cave, and then a gorgeous beach. As the time approached for the boat to pick us up, my family formed the front of an orderly queue on the quayside. I twitched with nerves as others ambled in front of us, and fought down horror as the boat arrived and they all surged to the gangway ahead of us.

The scene of the outrage.

As I reached the front, a boatman’s arm came down across the entrance. The boat was full.

I stared at the people already on the boat. Did they know they were terrible people, that civilization itself was in danger of collapse?

‘Mate?!’ said my older son. He was born abroad but brought up by Brits.

The boatman shrugged. ‘Another boat is coming.’

‘Oh yeah,’ said my younger son, who is familiar with this part of the world. ‘Queuing is literally not a thing. You’ve got to go for it.’

Right, I thought. At least I’m at the head of the queue this time. I mean, the boatman’s arm came down in front of me. That makes me first, right?

But as the second boat approached, the queue turned into a human swarm in which numerical order –  moral order! – was abandoned. I did my best to push with the best of them this time, but somehow my British DNA would not allow it. I stepped on board last.

Perhaps driven by shame, someone shunted up to let me sit down. Only my sunglasses saved the rabble from a glare that told of the depths of degradation to which these people had sunk.

At least I had retained the moral high ground. Either that, or I was really rubbish at this. I hope I am never involved in the scrabble for a lifeboat.

As we sailed back in a golden sunset, I realised that there was no aggression or malice in my fellow passengers’ behaviour. I had seen civilization give way to savagery. They had just got on a boat.

British babies, playing together, are taught to take turns. If they don’t, they are met with outrage, as if they had thrown the contents of their nappy in someone’s face. That’s why it is so hard to abandon this rule in later life.

Brit’s revenge

A small comfort to us Brits abroad is the chance for a good moan. I have always loved discovering other cultures, but I am not above snottiness when it comes to tea. As I sipped yet another inadequate brew in Montenegro, I burst out,

‘I know now why foreigners don’t put milk in their tea. It’s because their milk’s disgusting.’

Best tantrum ever

We have a British family to thank for one of most entertaining tantrums I have ever seen.

One evening a small boy trailed along a beachside strip of restaurants, fairground rides, bars and entertainments. He was wailing,

‘LET me! You’ve got to LET me! Not tomorrow! Now! You’ve got to let me NOW!’

His bafflement and grief hung on the balmy air. His parents walked ahead in stoical silence – perhaps defeated, perhaps just too polite to say anything.

The moment led to a holiday catchphrase. ‘You’ve got to LET me!’ we moaned at each other whenever the need arose.

Friday, 21 July 2017

We Are Not Alone

For a long time, I thought I was a sad lonely freak.

Surely no one else had such a burning ambition to be a writer, yet had achieved a gaping zero in terms of publication? Throughout my life, whenever the urge to be a novelist has resurfaced, I’ve felt a crushing panic that I still don’t have a paperback with my name on it.

I left full-time work and set about writing with new commitment. I had a few articles published and wrote a commissioned book on the history of a school. My novel, Unspeakable Things, went to an excellent literary consultant. I could tell it was getting better and better. I was growing as a writer.

From agents, though, a deafening silence (cue tumbleweed shot) or ‘I am not sufficiently excited about the work…’

Then I met my neighbour, Sylvia. We discovered we are both editors, and both working on novels. I told her I was sending off to agents and not hearing back.

 ‘No, you won’t,’ she said, sagely.

I was intrigued. My experience wasn’t unique, then?

Syliva knows a lot of writers. She began a Writing Group, and I joined – something I had spent many years avoiding, through fear of… I’m not sure now. Crushing criticism? Pretentiousness?

The small group of writers who met for a convivial meal all seemed to have good projects underway. They clearly knew what they were talking about. I assumed they had all had work published.

They hadn’t. There are more of us. I may be sad and a freak, but I’m definitely not alone.

I have worked in publishing for over 30 years. I know that some works don’t reach a standard suitable for publication. I was convinced that if I didn’t find an agent, it meant my novel wasn’t good enough.

Gradually, I have changed my mind. I began to hear about self-publishers who write well, sell well and enjoy the experience.

I was not enjoying the wilderness where agents fear to tread. 

Traditional publishing is increasingly risk-averse. You have to be a dead cert for a number of sales for them to take the risk. That’s what ‘not sufficiently excited’ means.

Sad lonely freaks unite and fight!

Sylvia and I have started an imprint, Holden Park Books. We review one another’s work, having consulted the professionals earlier in the process. Sylvia is very dynamic and has published a Kindle version of her novel, The Jacaranda Letters. I have read it, and it’s excellent. The paperback will be out soon.

With Unspeakable Things in the self-publishing pipeline, I am writing a second novel, The Year of the Ghost, about a boy who is being haunted on the annual family holiday to Wales.

My dream of clasping that paperback is still very much alive, but as the dance teacher said to the students in leg-warmers and leotards, ‘Fame costs, and right here is where you start paying!’

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Advice for Agent Hunters

If you're looking for a literary agent, vague, poorly targeted submissions can waste you precious time and lead to soul-destroying rejections. You can of course trawl through the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, but these days we are all more geared up for online searches, so the AgentHunter website ( is the perfect solution.

They list every agent and agency in the UK for fiction, non-fiction and children’s writing and give quick, well-informed overviews. They also feature useful biographies of agents and specify their all-important literary preferences. For many, you get a further insight from a detailed interview.
You begin your search by specifying genre (e.g. women’s, crime, literary fiction, thriller etc.), and then further refine it, for instance by typing in key words that characterise your work, such as family drama, suspense mystery, dark psychological thriller. You can filter agents according to the size of the agency, how open they are to taking on new clients, how long they have been in the business and how active they are on the festival scene and social media.

You then get a list of suitable agents that you can save – and off you go on your round of submissions. You can later start new searches by changing some of the criteria.

The site was perfect for me, especially when I showed the submission material I had been sending to agents for my psychological thriller Unspeakable Things to my writing group. To my great surprise, the group were unanimous in the view that the novel isn’t a psychological thriller at all. We settled on the descriptions ‘dark family suspense mystery’ instead. With AgentHunter, I was able to remove the description ‘psychological thriller’ and type in the new key words. This led to a shorter but hopefully more relevant list of potentially interested agents.

AgentHunter have a variety of subscription options: £5 gets you access to the site for a month, £18 gets you 12 months and for £27 you also get a free cover letter and synopsis review (which can be expensive if you go to a literary consultancy). The platinum subscription, for £195, gives you 12 months plus a free query letter and synopsis review and a professional editor’s review of your opening 5,000 words, with detailed, constructive advice.

Anything that helps us writers to refine our work or access professional help can cost a fortune, but AgentHunter seems to be the exception, and is therefore well worth a go if you are ready to send your work out and want to go down the agent route. Good luck!