Leather on willow at last

Late last year, along with every other cricket fan in the country, I made the attempt to secure tickets for the Ashes this summer. Sadly, this turned into a series of Epic Fails involving missed deadlines, forgotten passwords, and the address I lived at five house moves ago. At the end of it, despite my own supreme idiocy, I had somehow managed to secure a pair of tickets for the very last day of the series, at the Oval in London. I then spent most of the summer assuming that the match would either not go to 5 days, or would be completely washed out. The downpour the day before was hardly encouraging, and nor was the rainstorm we drove into on our way down the M1 on Sunday morning. So it wasn’t until we were inside the ground, in our seats, drinks in hand, watching Peter Siddle bowling at Matt Prior, that I started to believe we would actually witness some Ashes action. Even then, given the state of the scorecard, I was pretty much convinced we were doomed to watch a tedious grind to a draw.

Well, it only goes to show that the secret of assuring a good time is to keep your expectations low. Thanks to a very aggressive declaration from Aussie captain Michael Clarke, we were treated to 447 runs, 17 wickets, and some of the tensest cricket I’ve ever seen. We saw all the members of the England team bat, plus most of the Aussies, and some very fine bowling from the likes of Graeme Swann and Jimmy Anderson. We jeered Mitchell Starc, cheered Kevin Pietersen, and went nuts at every single run as the scoreboard ticked down towards a nailbiting finish. At 36 runs to go, with 36 balls remaining, I started to seriously think that we (ie England, not me and my husband) could actually do this, and that I was about to witness one of the most sensational victories in the whole history of the game.

Well, it only goes to show that the secret of assuring a good time is to keep your expectations low. At 7.35pm, with 20 runs needed from the last 24 balls, just as Ian Bell was run out, the umpires decided to poop the party and call everyone off for bad light. The baying crowd, us among them, made it quite clear what we thought of that decision. But as dusk closed in, there was no going back, floodlights or no floodlights. As Aggers pointed out on Test Match Special*, the new regulations on bad light are ridiculous, taking no account of common sense or the situation of the game, and so the thrilling day was brought to a frustrating end. It was like being on a roller coaster which abruptly broke down before the final loop.

But… when I consider how I’d been feeling 24 hours before, I can hardly complain. We had great seats on a beautiful late summer’s day. We saw more cricket crammed into a single afternoon than some Test matches manage in almost a week. And I also maintained my proud record of uncannily managing to be present for days of cricketing controversy: first Pakistan’s refusal to take the field at the Oval in 2006, then the run-out incident at Trent Bridge in 2011, and now bad-light-gate. Anyone who claims cricket is a dull game hasn’t been to see it with me.

 

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And here’s another three good reasons to watch cricket. L-R: Jimmy Anderson, Stuart Broad, captain Alastair Cook.

*yes, I was listening to TMS at the same time as watching the live game, what of it?

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I’ve just come back home from my second stint at the Writers’ Summer School at Swanwick. While many things were similar to last year – the inspiring courses, the entertaining speakers, the stodgy food – the overall experience was very different. For starters, I managed to pace myself a lot better: instead of greedily hoovering everything up until my brain burst, I was more choosy in what I attended, and made sure to take time out to relax and recover. Instead of meeting dozens and dozens of new people, I caught up with the friends I made last year, checking on progress and celebrating success. And I did find the time to make some new friends too.

Highlights of the week included: Alexa Radcliffe-Hart’s course on literary fiction, which enabled me to develop an interesting idea throughout the week and gave me some very useful exercises; Alex Davis’ course on horror, which helped me outline a scary tale; and of course, the evening speakers, especially Deborah Moggach, Syd Moore, and Curtis Jobling. Sadly this year the ‘TopWrite’ scheme, which offers subsidised places to younger writers, did not run, but a generous donation from an old Swanwicker means it will resume next year.

In addition to the outlines for a literary novel and a horror story, I was also able to make a plan for a new novel, Forever 27. This started life as my NaNoWriMo project in 2011 and has languished on my hard drive for nearly two years while I finished The Heartland of the Winter. This week I dusted it off and worked out how to extract a strong story from the mass of infodumps, continuity errors and unedited verbiage. It’s a complete departure from my previous work, a magic realist novel inspired by the ‘27 Club’ of musicians who have died before their time. I’ve drawn up a detailed plan, and I’m feeling sufficiently inspired to create a playlist of songs to go with it. My intention is to write it whilst waiting for a response on Heartland, and get it ready as a ‘Plan B’ in case the response is negative. Of course, if a publisher calls and says they want to give me a three-book deal for a fantasy trilogy, I’ll have to drop it and start work on the sequel to The Heartland of the Winter instead, but hey, I think that’s known as a problem I’d love to have, and I can always come back to it later.

All in all, an excellent week – the only problem is, it has to come to an end, and drop me back into mundane reality for another year. I’ll just have to try to keep the buzz going as long I can.

 

Websites of the tutors and speakers I mention:

Alexa Radcliffe-Hart: http://servicestoliterature.co.uk/

Alex Davis: http://www.alexdavisevents.co.uk/

Deborah Moggach: http://www.deborahmoggach.com/

Curtis Jobling: http://www.curtisjobling.com/

Syd Moore: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Syd-Moore/118216464935269

The school: http://swanwickwritersschool.co.uk/

Baking the loaf of success in 500 words

I’ve been thinking a bit lately about success in life, and how to achieve it. I’ve even done some reading. Now, there are a lot of self-help guides out there, most of which seem to fall into one of two categories: common sense dressed up with psychobabble, or utter bullshit.* And I have come to the conclusion that, with my admittedly non-stratospheric level of success so far, I could do a better job inside 500 words than many of them could in 100,000. So, for your edification and entertainment, here’s my FREE guide to the Five Key Ingredients of Success:

1) Dedication

It’s a simple fact of life that you don’t get anything worth having without putting in the hard yakka. Deny it if you like and go back to your positive thinking. Let me know how that works out.

2) Perseverance

If at first you don’t succeed… give it another try. Go on.

3) Flexibility

Yes, you need both 1) and 2), but if you persevere in bashing your head against a wall, you’ll just get a headache. So you need to be prepared to learn from your mistakes, try different things, change your tactics, and not get so fixated on achieving one thing in one way that you fail to notice other opportunities. Of course, there’s a bit of creative tension between flexibility and perseverance: such things make life interesting.

4) Talent

When baking the loaf of success, hard work is the flour, but talent is the yeast. The relative quantity might be tiny, but without it, you’ve not got much. Well, okay, you’ve got a chapati. Anyway, dubious metaphors aside, in order to do well at something, you do actually need to be good at doing it.

Maybe you’re not sure if you have any talent. Nonsense – of course you do. Everyone’s good at something. Okay, so what you want to be good at and what you’re actually good at might be two different things, but that’s where 3) comes in. If you try out enough things, sooner or later you’ll discover where your talents lie, and then you can make the most of them.†

5) Luck

Maybe it feels like other people get all the breaks. Maybe they do. Moaning about it won’t achieve anything, and nor will moping around waiting for someone to recognise your hidden genius. But a bit of 1) through 4), plus keeping your eyes open, just might. Then, when your lucky break arrives, you’ll be ready for it.

*An honorable exception: 59 Seconds by Richard Wiseman.

†What if your talent turns out to be killing people? Well, that’s a valuable skill in its own way. I would suggest that joining the army might be a better career move / contribution to society than either becoming a serial killer or playing Call of Duty all weekend, but hey, you’ve got to make the decision that feels right for you.

Historical fiction: a light on the darkness of the past

Well, I’ve had another crazy fortnight, featuring five cities, two countries, friends, family, customers, my agent and two babies who were supposed to make me broody but actually just made me wonder how anyone finds the time. My novel ‘The Heartland of the Winter’ has been sent to an actual publisher for consideration, but I’m trying not to dwell on that too much, as it’s now out of my hands and in the lap of the editors. I’m still on my break from writing, but I have done some reading – those plane and train journeys were good for something. In fact, freed from the need to produce my own words, I’ve been devouring books at faster rate than I’ve managed for years. My latest reads include intelligent high fantasy (Robin Hobb’s Tawny Man trilogy), hilarious feminist polemic (yes it does exist, and she’s called Caitlin Moran), and magic realism (’The Tiger’s Wife’ by Téa Obreht). But it’s the historical fiction I’ve found the most inspiring, in particular ‘Bring Up The Bodies’ by Hilary Mantel, and ‘The Kingmaker’s Daughter’ by Philippa Gregory. Two books very different in style, but alike in lighting up rich strange worlds.

Mantel’s previous book about Thomas Cromwell, ‘Wolf Hall’, I found interesting but a little frustrating – why can’t she use pronouns properly? Whether she has become a more assured writer, or I’ve just got more used to her, ‘Bring Up The Bodies’ gave me no such problems – it was nothing but a pleasure from the first page to the last. Her prose has a precisely beautiful luminosity, like pale winter sunlight filtering through diamond-leaded windows. She portrays her real-life people with great sympathy and understanding – even when they’re not behaving very sympathetically – and unfolds the intricacies of court intrigue with consummate skill.

In an attempt to fill the Game of Thrones-shaped hole in my life, I’ve been watching The White Queen on the BBC (incidentally, it’s totally okay to think Richard III is kind of sexy, isn’t it? Asking for a friend), based on The Cousins’ War series by Philippa Gregory. I’ve read the previous three books, and decided to catch up on the latest instalment, which tells the story of Anne Neville, daughter of Warwick the Kingmaker and queen of Richard III.

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Richard III totally looked like this. Fact.

Gregory shares Mantel’s love of the present tense, although there the resemblance ends: her prose can be clunky, her dialogue stilted, her characterisation basic, and she constantly tells rather than shows. If Mantel is winter sunlight, Gregory is fluorescent strip lighting. But there’s no doubt that she keeps you turning the pages to find out what happens next – even if you already know from history class.

This is, of course, the thing about historical fiction – it’s a genre with spoilers built in from the start. It also inevitably violates the one-Steve limit: as Mantel comments, half the world is called Thomas, while Gregory includes a scene in which her characters discuss the fact that their menfolk are all named Richard and Edward. Despite these inherent limitations, both authors manage the essential trick of historical fiction: to illuminate the familiar strangeness of human experience, the things we share with people from the past, even as their lives seem unimaginably different from our own.

I’ve always loved history, and often been tempted to try my hand at historical fiction; but, since finishing my degrees, I’ve not had the time to do the necessary research. And so I’ve turned to fantasy, a genre with the great benefit that you can just make up whatever you feel like. Will I turn to historical fiction in the future? Maybe. But for now, I’m just enjoying the fact that, with my first novel done, I’ve now got the chance to read some more and remind myself why I love books.