Monday, 28 March 2011

B is for Baby ...or is it Book?

Developing a major obsession with Channel 4 drama/documentary One Born Every Minute, closely followed by Teen Mom and 16 and Pregnant; the subject of babies is one that is very much on the pop cultural forefront at the moment. Acting as pseudo-councilor to one of my best friends who is starting her journey towards having IVF and needs lots of support and reassurance, I can’t help but wonder about the amazingly strong pull of the natural female vocation. Motherhood.

With half the female staff in my office at varying stages of impending or actual motherhood, spring 2011 is certainly living up to its flowering reputation! Perusing the baby-wear in Marks & Spencer this lunchtime to look for a gift I shared gleeful smiles with my fellow female shoppers also rifling among the teeny puff ball dresses, cotton cardi’s and lace-trimmed socks. There’s something about the notion of having a baby that fills people with hope and joy. The idea of a new life coming into the world, untouched by all the rubbish that already exists offering a clean slate, fills us with the thought that this might just provide a chance for something new and good. Adding a new member to the family to promote those values of togetherness, loyalty and community; it all makes us feel incredibly positive. In the same token, the generation of creativity and ideas to be transformed into works of literature is also something that makes us writers feel über-positive and excited. It is also that something new, made with love and filled with characteristics pertaining to us as the writer. Can two things as equally important as babies and books co-exist successfully in a writer’s life? This may sound strange but it really is something that clouds my mind every so often when I allow it to reside there.

When someone has a baby, people want to associate themselves with that new life in any way that they can, either by buying gifts or looking at pictures or inquiring after a pregnant friend’s health. My boss gave birth on New Year’s Day and barely a month ago, my other boss announced she’s four months gone, while our senior designer made the same announcement shortly after. Meanwhile two ‘maternity-leave new mothers’ are due back this year, one in the next two months and the other towards the end of the summer. It got me thinking about that all-important work-life balance we all try so hard to achieve. It’s so difficult to make that choice to start a family, particularly when your career aspirations are equally as great. As a writer close to completing the first draft of my debut novel, I feel like I may be doing my writer-self a disservice by having a baby before I’ve even launched my literary career properly. But then for the increasingly broody feelings that have been churning up inside me there is also the maternal-self to think of as well. And I know many of my writer friends who are successfully balancing the two. It may not be easy, but then nothing worth having ever is.

So here I am, caught between two strong desires: the desire to procreate with my wonderful husband and the desire to procreate with my equally wonderful laptop… I am determined to do both because, well why shouldn’t I? Surely a woman is allowed more than one great love in her life and after all, who said we shouldn’t have it all. We’re the only ones standing in our own way with rules of professional and personal life each meeting our individual lists of criteria and demands. Well I am giving myself permission to throw the list out and rewrite the rules because it’s doing and having the things we love that makes life worth living. My destiny is in my hands and I choose to type and nappy-change my way to a blissfully happy ending…

Monday, 14 March 2011

Going, Going, Wrong...

I despise eBay. Truthfully, I hate them, loathe them, despair of them. A large online conglomerate making decisions about the little people who deign to buy and sell within their worldwide empire of stuff.

Okay, I’ll tell you why I hate them.

I recently sold a bag under the auspices of eBay; a satchel bag from Zara to be more specific, attaching a high resolution image from the store’s website and stating my ‘NO RETURNS’ policy. Tagging various additional elements that I perceived also accurately described the bag, I also added a blurb extolling its values. So eBay Bitch (a.k.a. “The Buyer”) sidles up – metaphorically speaking – to request further information on height, width and depth of the bag. I duly responded and once the sale ended the transaction was complete and I posted out the bag to the buyer – at added cost to myself to ensure it arrived in pristine condition but I only charged standard posting costs out of courtesy.

Less than a week later, she requested a refund based on the fact the bag was not as described. She claimed it to be green not tan as tagged in my description, though later relented to khaki after I came back to her and reminded her that I have a ‘no returns’ policy. She asked that I make an exception in this instance… I’m sorry, but have any of you been into a store with a clear ‘No Returns’ policy and been successful in asking them to make an exception just for you because you don’t quite like the product you’ve bought for whatever reason? Besides which, colour is objective, and I tagged ‘tan’ because I thought it an accurate shade – after all, khaki (and pale khaki at that) is a fine line between light brown and light green… and eBay don’t have the option of ‘khaki’ in their tagging anyway.

After numerous emails back and forth, aggressive from her, polite from me, she lodged a dispute with eBay demanding I pay her a full refund and when I reiterated my stance on the ‘No Returns’ policy she escalated the case enabling eBay themselves to make the final call. She lodged it Friday night at around 9.30pm, eBay had settled it by 9.30am on Saturday morning. And with no weekend number seemingly in operation all I could do was wait until this morning to challenge them via phone. I had been unable to file my own case against her for harassment and speaking with an eBay representative this morning my concerns that the seller is left with little or no protection were confirmed. They said their decision had been made based purely on the fact that the case had not been resolved; my guess is they didn’t even examine the evidence. So much for innocent until proven otherwise…

I explained the situation to the rep and stated clearly that on account of the aforementioned reasons I would not be issuing a refund regardless if eBay Bitch returned the bag to me. They refused to reconsider their decision while the case was open and said once the bag was returned – and only IF it was in poor condition – that I could then appeal the case. I think this is a travesty and on hearing a friend of mine incurring an even worse debacle involving an iPad that eventually called for the involvement of the police; I am hereby affecting a personal boycott of eBay in a bid to protect myself from further harassment, foul play and disgusting conduct by both eBay and the individual who bought my bag.

In an age where the majority of activity – financial, leisure and social – is carried out online, one would expect a greater degree of protection and democracy extended in this arena. Until that happens, eBay, the only bid I’ll be making is for more stringent online parameters.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Good on Paper

I’ve read and heard a lot recently about tricks and techniques to generate creativity in writing. In a copy meeting the other day my editor suggested getting up early and writing 3 pages of absolutely anything every morning just to release that writing genie for the rest of the day. This works if you are a morning person, otherwise perhaps you could give the following a try…

Some tips:

1) Treat your writing like you would an exercise regime. I have a personal trainer with whom I have a session every Saturday and each week I have to provide him with diaries of what I’ve eaten since he last saw me. Try this with your writing – find someone to who you can be accountable because as soon as you start having to answer to someone you’ll find your motivation increase tendfold.

2) Mentor somebody. Speaking to a colleague of mine recently he expressed a hidden love of writing and asked if I’d read something he’d written and critique it. So over lattes and hot chocolates in Costa one evening after work I read over a piece of his work. He clearly has a talent but it is in those early stages of development, and through brainstorming ideas with him for how to turn what was a description into a story I found myself generating ideas I didn’t even know were in my head!

3) Join a Writing Group: These are excellent for providing you a safe platform to have your work critiqued by like-minded individuals and learn from other’s feedback on their own work. Plus, the more writers you know the more likely you will be to hear about worthwhile events, conferences and website links to helpful information to help you improve your writing and expose you to invaluable workshops and opportunities to meet agents and editors face to face.

4) Join a Book Group: Reading and discussing books in and out of your genre will increase your market awareness as well as inspire you in your own writing. Understanding what works and what doesn’t; what people like and dislike; and how things sound in other writers’ words will help you to pinpoint your own areas of weakness, and of course strength!

5) Make a date with yourself to write. I have found that by writing into my diary times when I have to go take out the laptop and type away and by setting myself realistic word goals; I have actually accomplished a great deal in a short space of time. That little bit of forward planning, seeing it earmarked there in black and white means you will be far more inclined to turn on that laptop/take out that notepad and just write. Either fulfilling your preassigned word goal or in some cases exceeding it.

6) This is a bit of a silly one but it works all the same. Go to Rymans/WH Smiths/Paperchase (or another stationary alternative) and treat yourself to a gorgeous new notepad and pen for all your chapter planning and inspiration notes. I even go one step further and stop in at Accessorize to buy cute little stickers to earmark various stages of my writing. Just the idea of opening up something that inspires you (in my case a white notepad with glittery cupcakes all over it!!) can really boost your creativity.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Where will your love take you...

Review of Jill Mansell's 'To the Moon and Back'...

If there’s one thing Jill Mansell does well, it is to write romantic fiction. Creating loveable, compelling heroines who find themselves dealing with any number of relationship dilemmas but eventually get the guy; Jill has a perfected the art of suspense keeping her readers hooked until that climactic moment.

My love for Jill’s storytelling began with The One You Really Want and from that moment on I was hooked. When I had to spend two months away from my then-fiancé working in South Africa there was only one thing I knew that would stop me from being completely miserable, and so at WH Smith’s in Heathrow I stocked up on a few more of Jill’s titles and kept adding to my collection in Cape Town as I got through each one at a voracious pace.

Her latest novel, To the Moon and Back, deals with issues of love and loss in different ways; from the death of a beloved husband, to divorce and the cruel reality of Alzheimer’s disease. Handling each with the utmost care and thought, Jill draws us in to the urban yet idyllic setting of Primrose Hill to share in the emotions that these issues draw out within the narrative. The story of Ellie Kendall made me cry (in public places) and laugh out loud (also in public places) as I watched her journey from grieving widow to “whole again” woman with the aide of larger-than-life Roo, more than a father figure Tony and of course the delicious hero of this tale, Zack McLaren.

Jill creates quite the cast of characters, from “Vile Niall”, as I’ve nicknamed him to Zack’s loyal pooch Elmo, who always seems to bound in at just the wrong moments. Each one is imbued with their own distinctive personality to either make you fall in love with them or in some cases yearn for their head on a platter! If “unputdownable” was a word, it would be the one I would use to sum up this literary treat which will keep you enthralled from start to finish.

Continuing in the tradition of Jill’s remarkable romantic prose, To the Moon and Back will reaffirm that there is life and love after heartbreak, whichever form it comes in. And when that day comes you’ll find yourself on top of the world!

For more information on the author and when and where you can buy the book visit

In conversation with the fabulous woman herself…

1) Are you a plotter and planner or a make-it-up-as-you-go-along kinda gal?
I make most of it up as I go along, after getting my original story-starting inspiration. It's difficult to plan ahead, and far more interesting to keep the plotting as a surprise!

2) Where do you tend to find the inspiration for your characters, and most importantly your female leads?
I honestly don't know where the inspiration comes from; the characters just appear in my head, fully formed. The moment I create them, I know everything about them. I suppose there are aspects of me in the female characters - my daughter used to find it weird reading my books because they all sounded just like me!

3) Can you tell us a little about your average writing day?
I write during school hours while the house is empty, always have the TV on, keep up to date with emails and twitter and aim to produce 1000 words on an average day. The first and last chapters of each book are the easiest to write. I also have to eat a lot of snacks to keep me going...

4) How long on average does it take you to complete each book from idea to finished manuscript? Do you set yourself a goal per day/week to ensure you get a certain amount done each sitting?
Oh, just half-answered that! It takes a year to write a book. Six hundred handwritten pages of actual writing, plus a lot of thinking time to keep the story interesting. The amount I get done varies from day to day, but it all pans out in the end - thank goodness!

5) Did you ever experience that moment of doubt? How did/would you combat it?
Almost every moment is a moment of doubt while I'm writing - I always think my work is unpublishable and expect it to be rejected when I send it off to my editor. Most authors are the same. It never seems good enough until it appears in physical book form - then I can view it as an outsider and realise it's not so bad after all!

6) Your latest novel, 'To the Moon and Back', deals with loss and coming to terms with it; what led you to choose this theme for the story?
To be honest, after 23 books I'm just trying to come up with a theme I haven't used before! But I was drawn to the idea of using the dead person as an actual character in the book. Kind of like Patrick Swayze in Ghost, but without my own character being a ghost!

7) What do you make of the new digital age of publishing as books go from shelf to screen? Are you a fan of the Kindle and e-books?
It's all moving so fast - I'm interested to see what will happen. Signs are that people are reading more, which is great news. I do read via my iPad but also love physical books, especially when the covers are as beautiful as the one for To the Moon and Back.

8) You mention the website Popbitch in your latest book; what are your main sources for keeping up to date with news, trends and gossip?
Same as everyone, I imagine - newspapers, blogs, magazines, TV. I love it all!

9) List your top three all time favourite novels.
Riders by Jilly Cooper.
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell.
One Day by David Nicholls

10) If you could bestow just one nugget of advice to aspiring novelists - what would it be?
Enjoy and empathise with your characters. If you don't like spending time with them, your readers probably won't either. And eat lots of crisps - they're very helpful in the creative process!
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