Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

A few months ago I read an interview with Sebastian Faulks in which he discussed his “pre-publishing nerves” prior to the launch of A Week in December. I couldn’t understand how someone with his body of work and track record of success could be apprehensive about a new book coming out.

Now I am less than five weeks away from The Mango Orchard’s appearance in the bookshops, I understand what Sebastian (if I can presume to be on first name terms – we have the same publisher after all) meant, and I don’t have his reputation to fall back on.

Last week I received my first review. Having spent every other week for a couple of years being exposed to the rigorous assessment of my writing group, and then by my agent and publisher, I felt that I was inured to criticism. But with the arrival of the review in my in-box, I realised that while the incisive Jo-Jo, eagle-eyed grammar queen Caroline, Scrabble-session Charlotte and “that’s bollocks” Justin of my writing group might offer some unwelcome truths about my draft chapters, nothing would be as wounding as a mauling by a renowned reviewer of the finished book.

The review was written by the noted biographer and journalist, Andrew Lycett, and it was generous. I scanned the screen, bracing myself for a harsh assessment. Instead of rubbishing the book, he offered phrases such as “very exciting” and “cleverly constructed”.

Apart from the reviews, more of which are expected soon, there’s the launch party to plan.

I love going to parties but I’ve never enjoyed any of my own. The first I ever had was for my third birthday. It didn’t go well. My friend Patrick Edwards lost a tooth in a toffee apple incident and I was sent to my room for sneaking away from a game of pass-the-parcel to eat my entire birthday cake.

I must look up Sebastian’s interview again and see if he offered any crumbs of comfort.

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Last night I went to my writing group. We meet every other week in a bookshop in Kings Cross, one of the few that doesn’t display warnings about the “Adult-themed material” behind their frosted glass doors. Our bookshop, despite not being a porn emporium is hardly a warm and cosy place. It has brown carpet tiles, speckled with flattened chewing gum, its few chairs are moulded plastic and even in the height of summer, it is always freezing cold.

And you’re unlikely to find many books here that you’ll want to curl up with in front of the fire. A random selection: “The House that Crack Built”, “Marshmallows I have Loved” and “Amputee Sex”.

It was here, about three years ago, I first read aloud a section of The Mango Orchard, or Casa Familiar, as I think it was called then. It was in a workshop run by Anne Aylor. Apart from Anne and myself, there were fifteen or twenty other writers. I was terrified. Not only was it the first time that I had read anything from the book to anyone else, it was the first time that I had read anything in public since I was dragooned into reading a poem about an octopus called Henry at school assembly when I was eleven.

I’m not a very good reader. Being dyslexic doesn’t help. I know what the words are, and what they mean, I just tend to read them in the wrong order. So when I began the passage I had brought along to Anne’s group, all I saw was a mass of ink. I noticed the girl next to me yawn, and then again. When I finished, a few people shifted uneasily in their chairs as they tried to think of something nice to say. I think someone said they liked my shoes.

Anyway, back to last night. I was reading not for people to comment on the text – it’s a bit too late for that, the book’s already at the printers – but to practice for the book readings I have coming up, including the one at the Royal Geographical Society . I was about to begin when a girl in a red woollen hat opened the door and marched towards us, “Hello, I’m Jessica!” she announced, full of enthusiasm. We all looked at each other. We had no idea who she was, but it seemed cruel to ask when she so obviously thought she was expected.
A second later, another couple came in carrying a cloth bags with leaflets sticking out of the top. “Climate change meeting?”

Someone remembered that there was a meeting downstairs. Jessica looked relieved. The climate change people continued to traipse in, leaving the door ajar, oblivious to the irony of how they were changing our own personal climate. A few of them stopped for a while to listen to me read. They were distracting, but at least it suggests that my reading is improving.

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I have often thought that having obscure quotes on the opening pages of a book was the height of pretentiousness. Quotes in French, quotes in Latin, quotes from Chinese proverbs about how pebbles are really bigger than mountains or quotes attributed to mythical figures from the twelfth century about the wisdom of hairy-arsed shepherds. If you haven’t managed to communicate all you wanted to in the 90,000 words of the book, will an oracular pronouncement by someone long deceased really make up for it?

But then I wrote a book myself. To be honest, before I even wrote a word of The Mango Orchard, I already knew the quote I wanted on the opening page of the book:

We shall not cease from exploration
And in the end of our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

It’s from Little Gidding by T S Eliot. I showed it to Trevor, my publisher. He loved it, we just need to get it cleared, he said. The TS Eliot estate, perhaps in an attempt to reduce pretentious quotes at the beginning of books, said no.

We asked again, nicely. They didn’t answer. Then they said no. Buggers.

So I don’t have this quote at the beginning of The Mango Orchard, but I have another. It’s unpretentious and apt. You’ll have to read the book to see what it is.

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I get a call from Trevor, my publisher, this morning. He invites me into the office so I can pick up the proof copies and discuss to whom we should send them.

I’d imagined the proofs to be ring-bound A4 folders, like the ones I used to use in my past corporate life when I wanted to divert attention from the fact that there was no substance to a presentation I was making.

As Trevor guides me to a leather sofa in Preface’s schmoozing room, he hands me a paperback book, only this one has a familiar cover: The Mango Orchard. It’s not quite the finished article, a point conceded by the disclaimer at the bottom of the front cover: “Uncorrected proof. Not for resale.” The opening pages are blank, they have lines of text that say “Maps to come” and “dedication to come”. But that, and a few typographical errors aside, here it is. My book.

The purpose of having these proof copies is to ‘create a buzz’. We want to send them to notable people – writers, broadcasters and journalists – in the hope that they will read it and say how life-changingly brilliant the book is. Trevor already has a Who’s Who type list of people who I can’t help thinking will be far too busy to look at my book. I rack my brain for any famous people I could add to the list. I once met Paul McCartney at a party and asked for his autograph. Probably not. I used to live next door-but-three to Sebastian Coe (me and my friend Patrick Edwards used to spit in his drive – not because we didn’t like him, we had just learned how to spit and that’s kind of important when you’re three). No, not Seb either. Then I remember my neighbour Ian had given me the address of a friend of his, both a famous actress and author. Trevor claps his hands together “Perfect!” he says.

I arrive home and write her a letter. Because of the postal strikes, and because it is a nice day, I decide to deliver the proof copy to her house myself. I cycle across North London and manage to track down her house. I am disappointed. This beautiful, classy woman who has worked with the Hollywood elite lives in what looks like a squat. The house number is written on the gate post in magic marker, there are no curtains and the only furniture I can see is a guitar. The paint is peeling off the house walls and the garden fence has been completely covered by car hubcaps. I check the address I had written on the envelope. It’s right: No. 25. I force the envelope through the letter box and cycle home.

Back at my desk, I begin to write this blog. I look at the post-it note with the address of the famous actress and author written on it and I wonder how I’m going to tell my neighbour that his friend lives in a house that looks like the set for Withnail and I. No.23. No. 23??

I had delivered the proof to the famous actress and author’s neighbour. Funnily enough, as a cycled away, I remember thinking what a nice house No.23 was.

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It’s the crack of morning, barely gone ten, when the intercom buzzer sounds. I walk the four yards from my bedroom to answer it, but whoever it was has gone. I forget about it until later that day when I find a card from the Post Office on my doormat. “Sorry you weren’t in!” it says cheerily. It should of course read, “We couldn’t be arsed to wait five seconds for you to answer your door and so we have taken your package away again. Just to annoy you.”

I wander down to the sorting office. It has scribbled notes pinned to the wall, warning customers that threatening behaviour to staff will not be tolerated. After I have been waiting for half an hour, and begun to wonder if the sorting office had considered why customers got so aggrieved that they felt the need to make threats, I reach the front of the queue.

I slide my ID across the counter and, without undue haste, am handed a thick, brown envelope. I recognise the handwriting as my publisher, Trevor’s and realise what the envelope contains.

I rush home to open it: the manuscript proof of The Mango Orchard, all 273 pages of it. I feel like a father, handed his newly born child for the first time. I flick through the pages, checking its fingers and toes are all there. They are. It’s beautiful.

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Editing, I discovered a long time ago, is, as the cliché goes, a bit like painting the Forth Bridge. It’s a process that is never done. One of the chapters in the book went through over 50 drafts. And even after I have been through all of Trevor’s comments, there are still several more to go.

I receive a mail from Trevor telling me that the copy editor will get in touch. The copy editor is the person who checks for inconsistencies, and poor sentence construction. A friend in my writing group has always referred to copy editors as ‘Grammar Nazis’. I again brace myself for trench warfare, fighting to keep the book as it is, paragraph by paragraph.

The Grammar Nazi turns out to be a charming chap called Hugh. He asks me some very reasonable questions and makes very few changes. He even tells me how much he enjoyed the book.

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It’s been over five years since I’ve had a proper full time job and have had to get up in the morning, make myself look passably presentable and travel to an office full of busy-looking people. Thankfully, Trevor, my publisher, is accustomed to working with morning-shy writers and doesn’t ask me to get up too early. Our meeting, at Random House’s swanky Art Deco offices in Pimlico, is arranged for 12.45.

Before Trevor arrives, I am invited on to the executive floor and introduced to the CEO of Random House, the Veuve Clicquot Business Woman of the Year and recently ennobled Gail Rebuck. When she sees me Dame Rebuck throws her arms around me, plants a kiss on each cheek, tells me that The Mango Orchard is the best book she has ever read, and is the most important signing in Random House’s history. Okay, not really. She greets me politely, asks some intelligent questions about the book and gets on with her day.

Trevor bowls up with a cloth Preface Publishing bag in which he carries my manuscript, covered in yellow Post-it notes, poking out of the top. My heart sinks. I know from having talked to other writers that the edit can be a painful process. It’s a truly gruesome thought to have to rewrite chapters that it took me years to write in the first place, chapters which now feel like my own children: I raised them, made them grow, made them what they are. We suffered and survived the writing process together. I’m aware of the advice given to writers about learning to murder your darlings. It’s not a prospect I relish.

Trevor obviously senses my concern and lays a hand on my shoulder. “It’s not as bad as it looks,” he says. “Lunch?”

He takes me down to the Random House canteen in the basement. It’s unlike any staff canteen I have ever seen. There are sandwiches – everything from pre-packed tuna and sweet corn to oven fresh ciabattas with goats’ cheese and an olive drizzle – salads, roasts and a mouth-watering selection of cakes and puddings. Book editing is obviously hungry-making work. At the entrance are book displays of the latest releases. Staff can help themselves. Trevor picks up a copy of A Case of Exploding Mangoes and passes it to me. “It’s a good book,” he says, “And besides, it’s got mango in the title.”

After lunch, having introduced me to the marketing and publicity people, we find a meeting room, opposite an office decked out like a stately home study – a giant oak desk by the window and an antique French dresser leaning against the far wall.

Trevor pulls out the manuscript and we go through his comments. Annoyingly, I agree with nearly all of them.

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