Friday, 31 December 2010

Why I don't celebrate New Year's Eve

36 years ago today my mother died. It was only four months after my father's death and she had spent her first (only!) Christmas as a widow with us in North London. She went back to her home with my sister and a few days later I got the devastating phone call.

Seven years earlier one of her best frinds - the mother of my best friend in my girlhood - had died, so it was already a sad day in our calendar.

I can remember celebrating New Year's Eve on only a handful of occasions - all sad or disappointing in some way: the time my boyfriend went back to his secret fiancée, the one with gay friends when everyone wanted to kiss my husband, the Hogmanay on Princes Street in Edinburgh when we stood around in the cold waiting for something to happen, the Millennium Eve under Big Ben - actually that one was the best, with great fireworks.

Tonight we'll have a home-made Chinese meal with our youngest and her partner, drink some good wine by the log fire and maybe stay up till midnight, maybe not. But I'll think of my mother, who never met her grandchildren, and was such a loving woman and a great cook. To her I owe many Celtic qualities to do with hospitality and imagination.

Thank you, Ivegh Lassiter.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

What do you believe on the Internet?

Not long ago I saw someone on Twitter saying that they were looking forward to reading David, my latest historical novel. Naturally I was flattered but also a bit intrigued because the book won't be out till next year. I didn't know this person and I was pretty sure she hadn't been to the Troubadour launch party where I talked about it.

So I Tweeted back something along the lines of "that's lovely but you'll have to wait until next year" and she replied that she'd seen it advertised on Amazon. Intrigued, I looked it up myself and there it was. Nothing wrong with advertising well in advance but - and here's the killer - a dealer was advertising secondhand copies!

The book at that time, although written, had not yet been edited so it was a neat trick to have a published copy already "in good condition" though "used." I reported it to my publisher but it's still there on I advise you not to buy it even at the knock-down price of £1.98 plus postage!

Now that I have a couple of websites, I have regular contact with my readers and some of them say the darnedest things. Here is a recent selection:

"Why don't you have an Interesting Vegetables section on your website, like Robert Muchamore?"

"I think you should write a story about cheese on toast"

"Why your books dosen't arrive in my country (Chile)? "

"I felt that you book "Boundless Grace" sends the message that polygamy and absentee dads are acceptable occurences that children should be pruod or happy of." (I didn't answer this one!)

"Dear Mary Hoffman, this is my email:" (Um, yes. What should I do with it?)

Then I got told off on Twitter for revealing too much about the plot of Malorie Blackman's Boys Don't Cry in my recent Guardian review - this was described as a Critic's Crime.

I don't read my Amazon reviews and NEVER look at Amazon rankings - that way madness lies - but I do get Google Alerts into my name and also "Stravaganza", which I also tap into That way I have found lots of lovely positive reviews to send on to my publicists at my publishers.

But there is no sensitivity filter and I have also stumbled across some real stinkers!

If I were not so clued in and genned up, I wouldn't know about them but then I wouldn't know about the lovely ones too. Truly the Internet is a sword with two edges!

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Feeling like a writer

This has been one of those weeks when a lot of writerly things have happened without my having done much writing. Having sent off the edits for my latest historical novel, David, to Bloomsbury, I was preparing to roll up my sleeves to start writing The Great Big Book of Feelings for Frances Lincoln.

But then I was derailed by the arrival of the layouts for Grace at Christmas. So seasonal! But not available till next year. It was written in December last year and it felt suitably festive to check it all through in the same season: it makes it feel a genuinely Christmassy book.

Cornelius van Wright and his wife Ying-Hwa Hu have done a really lovely job on the interior illustrations. I'm sorry you'll have to wait a year to see those but  here is the cover. My Art Director at Frances Lincoln says it will be "a more Chrsitmassy green" which I'm glad to hear as the background looks a little cold in this image.

On Monday one of our dinner guests was Linda Aronson, who became a friend after I gave her hilarious Kelp a rave review in, I think, The Telegraph. It's always fun talking plot ideas with Linda, who is a Hollywood script doctor in her other life.

Then on Thursday I went to a book-signing at my local Waterstone's - twice actually, because they were having a late night opening. I have done this so often and in so many places that it no longer strikes me as odd. But it IS a bit strange - isn't it? - to do what children often call "scribbling in a book."

So there I was, "scribbling" in copies of my Stravaganza novels and Princess Grace and The Great Big Book of Families, knowing that I must start writing Stravaganza 6 next month, that the next Grace would be out in a year's time and that I must write the text for the next Great Big Book of ... before Christmas. So that's it - it's my job. Even after 90+ books, I still can't quite believe it.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

How are the might-y fallen?

There was a news story this week that the Leeds Building Society is employing a retired teacher to give their graduate staff remedial grammar lessons. Meanwhile Emma Thompson berated some schoolgirls for the over-use of "like" and "innit" saying it made them sound stupid.

I thought I'd save any other institutions from spending money by starting an occasional series of posts about some of the regular blunders found in newspapers and heard on the radio.

I'm currently reading a book published by a small academic press in which the author uses "infers" when she means "implies." Having those two words which mean something different is one of the many strengths and richnesses of English.

I'm implying that such distinctions are worth making and retaining - you might infer, correctly, that I'm a stickler, or pedant if you prefer. Of course language use changes over time: "whom" is rapidly becoming a fossil and most people don't use "nice" to mean "precise" though that meaning is retained in " a nice distinction."

I'm all in favour of nice distinctions. I think they're nice. 

Here's another: to "flaunt" means to show off, to display; to "flout" means to disregard or disobey something. And yet you see the one used instead of the other every day. A senior figure in the library service in the London borough I used to live in used to say "mitigate against" confusing "militate" (contend)  and "mitigate" (soften, make less harsh).

But one of the most annoying common usages (to me) is the global replacement of "might" by "may." Recently, I heard and read everywhere "Raoul Moat warned police that he may hurt his ex-girlfriend."

Well, his words might have been "I may hurt her" but when it's reported speech the "may" changes to "might." Except that these days it doesn't! (And yes, I do know that what happened to Moat and his victims is more important than the grammar used when telling us about it).

Steven Berkoff in the Guardian a week or so ago wrote about the relations "between my father and I" and even the last Prime Minister said in a speech "my mother brought my brother and I up" to do something or other. I don't remember what; I was probably screaming at the radio too loudly to hear.

So, these are a few examples in the fields of meaning and grammar, semantics and syntax. What the ones that really annoy you? Give examples in the comments.

Thursday, 16 September 2010


Well, this was nice! I haven't had such a close brush with fame since my kiss with Marty Wilde, aged 13 (me I mean, not him). Unless you count 15 minutes with George W Bush at Downing Street in 2003.* Which I don't. Marty and Jeff were both much nicer experiences.

What was really strange was when Jeff Goldblum offered to sign my programme for "Prisoner of Second Avenue" for me. Of course I said yes. But I had a tiny moment of hesitation and here's why:

You see, usually people ask me to sign things for them. Now, in case this sounds incredibly arrogant, I am speaking of book-signings at bookshops, festivals and schools etc. I have never had anyone stop me in the street and ask for an autograph. And I hope I never shall.

But because of my experience in this department, I have often mused on autographs and fame. I can understand someone liking to have their book signed by the author; I like that too and am lucky that many of my friends are also writers.

But the kids who come up with scraps of paper torn from exercise books - what does a signature do for them? Is it a brush with fame? Or perceived celebrity at least? If I saw one of my heroes or crushes in a public place I wouldn't dream of rushing up and asking for an autograph. The most I would do is wear a big soppy grin (see photo).

I would NEVER have bothered Jeff Goldblum for an autograph if I'd bumped into him in a restaurant, say. But since we had been introduced and he was asking ... Well, of course.

What do you all think about this? Writer friends who sign and non-writer friends and passers-by who collect autographs? And what do you do with them afterwards?

* I should like to make it quite clear no hugging or kissing took place on that occasion. Eww!

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Skype "visits" - the future?

Last week I was contacted, via my website, by a school in Texas at short notice, to see if I would agree to a Skype "visit" with the Grade Three class taught by my correspondent. I had said on my site that I was open to such suggestions.

So we managed to find a time that worked for us both - 5pm for me and 11am for them - and tackled the technology.

They wanted me to read Amazing Grace and answer a few questions, which didn't sound too hard. I have only the camera on my Apple Mac - no webcam as yet - so the image is not wonderful but of course the user can see only a tiny square in the left corner; it's much bigger for the viewers at the other end.

There were some introductions and then I read the story, without any problems. The children were all very quiet and attentive and gave me a big clap at the end. It was only when the first child got up to ask a question that our problems began. I could see and hear them but they could only see me.

We re-connected several times but always the same problem. So I started to Skype-text them. (I'm a very experienced Skype-texter because I do it with one of my daughters almost every day). The children asked their questions and I answered them by text. They could see it scrolling as I wrote and corrected, though it was a bit of a pain because I had to switch away from the main image while I was writing and couldn't see them.

This is what their nice teacher wrote: "Thank you so much! The kids LOVED their experience, even if we had technical difficulties.  It was probably on our end, except I'm not computer-savvy enough to know what caused it. So no apology needed.  I thought it was so neat for them to hear you read your own story. They loved your accent.
Again, the kids LOVED it, and I know they will be talking about it all year long.  :)

Thank you, thank you, thank you!  You have inspired our kids to love stories as much as you do!"

So  a high score on the warm glow front but the technical problems were frustrating. I did a test-call afterwards, which was fine on sound so I expect the problem developed at their end but this is something we need to be aware could happen.

The whole business calls into question what author visits of the future might be like.

On the plus side, a half hour visit without any travel fatigue or problems, no question that the school wouldn't know you were coming, good interaction with kids and teachers, enhanced librarian awareness of other titles and obviously distance no object.

On the minus, no book sales on the day (though maybe later) no possibility of signing books unless you possess Margaret Attwood's Long Pen, no close eye contact, no ability to stroll up and down when talking or to show pictures clearly as you read.

There are probably others I haven't thought of.

I didn't charge for this visit, as it was experimental, but was the first question I was asked by another author and we've been having a bit of a debate about it on my writers' forum. "Is this a way of getting cheap visits" and "won't it undercut other authors who don't (want to) Skype?" being considerations. I haven't been in touch with the Society of Authors about it yet but would be interested to hear others' experience of this new technology.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Another one

Well, I finished my novel about Michelangelo's David just in time for its deadline, in spite of a calamitous computer crash two weeks before. And so far the signs are good, in that my agent and editor love it.

I found that out in superquick time too, which was a huge relief, as authors go through agonies between submission and reaction/acceptance.

At the other end of the age range I've also been talking with the editor, illustrator and art director for The Great Big Book of Families, and we are planning at least two more Great Big Books of ... Watch this space for more.

And we launched the Troubadour paperback at Bloomsbury on Thursday - see my other blog for a photo

It's enough to make one feel like a writer. 

Friday, 2 July 2010

So good it should be a movie!

This is the sort of thing fans often write to me about Stravaganza, specifically City of Masks, thinking I'll be pleased.

The trouble is that there's a sneaking feeling that a book hasn't really made it till it has been made into a film! Of course it's good news for writers to sell film rights, which increase book sales. And good news for fans, who get to see their favourite stories translated into a new medium.

But how many films of books do you know that are as good as the books they are based on - let alone better? Women in Love? I'd argue for that. And I think I Capture the Castle was pretty close. With LOTR, there's a lot of controversy. I loved Peter Jackson's films but regard them as a separate thing from the books.

The first Harry Potter film was good but The Golden Compass lacked charm, in spite of a good performance by Dakota Blue and some great CGI.

Would I want to see the Stravaganza books of movies? You bet I would. But it might be a disappointment and what matters is the books and always will be.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

The importance of a timeline

I am going away tomorrow for two weeks in Italy, partly researching Lucca for Stravaganza: City of Swords, partly checking up on Carrara and Settignano for David. And on my list of "jobs to do before I go" was Answer Fanmail.

This I did but one email took much longer than all the others and I had been rather putting it off, because the sender had queried my timeline in Stravaganza from Flowers through to Ships (three books!)

So there was a lot of digging about to do in cupboards, files and filing cabinets and in the end, dag nammit, she was right!

I had made an error, albeit a small one, that can be corrected in the second printing of City of Ships. In my defence, neither editor, nor copy-editor (two of them) nor proofreader had noticed and they are usually pretty hot about these things. But the responsibility is mine.

And it's not as if I don't make a timeline. I have one for every book after the first one and for all the historicals. But it is easy to make a slip. And how anyone manages without one I can't begin to imagine. Anyway, well spotted, Elizabeth.

And I now feel up there with the creators of Doctor Who in having fans whose obsession is great enough to get things checked. Be back in July.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

This week's questions

The Contact Page of my website carries this very clear message:

If your question refers to the publication dates of Stravaganza novels in specific countries, please direct it to the publisher, as I don't have this information.

You can find more information on this and on other topics on my FAQs page. Please read it carefully before you write to me. The answer to your question may already be there.

It's in red and in a box. And yet, the most recent batch of emails from readers includes an enquiry from Sweden about when books four and five will be published there, another from Italy about how to find the further books there and one from France about when City of Ships will be translated.

It's perhaps not unreasonable for fans to think I would know this stuff. But actually, I don't! hence the box in red above. There is also one from a reader who wants me to notify her when auditions take place for a film of Stravaganza. Even if there were to be such a film, I could not possibly write to all the young women who have expressed an interest in playing Arianna!

What it seems to show is that there is a big gulf between what a writer's life is actually like and how readers think it is. I do get informed about sales to foreign publishers but have no schedule of publication. I put news up on the website as and when I get it - and I hope you are enjoying its new design and easier navigation.

Readers also often ask "Why did you change the covers?" of  the Stravaganza sequence, but i didn't; the publishers did! Really, writers don't have as much power as you imagine!

And now I must go and answer all those fanmails.

Friday, 23 April 2010


We all have our methods - and they may vary from book to book. I like a novel to be 21 chapters, for instance, though several of my 21 chapter novels have ended up with 24 or 25!

My writer friend Nicky Nrowne (N M Browne) draws a circle and divides it into ever smaller segments and works out where the climaxes need to come. I always make a timeline of events so that I don't have characters going to school on a Saturday or something and, in the case of the Stravaganza series I have to have a card index of characters because it's all got so complicated.

This time, now I'm writing a historical novel based on Michelangelo sculpting the statue of David, I thought I'd try plotting the chapters out on index cards too and see if I could match them - all 21 of them - to Nicky's exciting happenings circle.

I was doing this last weekend but felt there was something missing. Then Lonza, the chocolate Burmes car turned up and I realised what it was!

You see, I needed a familiar. Clearly chapter eight/nine is where it's all going to hot up, according to Lonza's tail. I'll let you know when I get there.

Friday, 16 April 2010

Getting started

This is my first Newsletter to go with my brand new website at:

I'm going to use it to update readers on my latest writing exploits and to answer reader/follower questions. plesae do feel free to comment.

But to get us started, I thought I'd talk about how I got started. I've read lots of blogs about how people first got published and there's a fascinating range of stories.

In my case, when I left university (for the 2nd time - slight blip in career plan then), I was much clearer about what I didn't want to do than what I did. Specifically, I did not want to be a teacher. No disrespect to the profession but I knew I wasn't suited to it - far too impatient.

So, in the absence of any other plan, I decided to write a children's book. Why children's and not adult, I don't now remember, but I got myself a wonderful place to live in Belsize Park, as a dog-walker and house-companion to the utterly wonderful Eva Reckitt, who started the Collett's bookshops.

She was already eighty, a communist, a member of the Wine Society and someone who knew how to continue making friends with people of all ages and how to enjoy herself. I had an almost self-contained flatlet at the top of her house in Lawn Road, where I gave one-to-one tuition to school students in English, Latin and once (memorably) to Artemis Cooper, Anglo-Saxon!

When not teaching, I walked the cavalier King Charles Spaniel Barty, made friends with the accidental patchwork cat Candy and wrote my first novel, White Magic.

I didn't really know what I was doing but bought several books like Alan Garner's Alderley Edge novels and decided I must write 80,000 to 90,000 words. I gave myself a year.

In fact it took eighteen months and then I had to pay someone to type it up for me. (I didn't even own a typewriter in those days). I didn't know about getting an agent so just started sending it out to publishers - who started sending it back.

I had started, almost accidentally, writing for the Times Educational Supplement by then (a story for another day, involving sex and the sunset). Someone from Curtis Brown wrote to me and said "I don't know who you are but you can certainly write. Are you thinking of a book?" or words to that effect. I wish I could say the rest was history but my first agent, Elizabeth Stephenson at Curtis Brown, had no more luck placing my novel than I had had. We both got very polite letters but no offers.

Then I met Richard Adams. Watership Down had just won the Carnegie Medal and the TES sent me to interview him. This I did in an Indian restaurant in Islington where I was rather embarrassed by his loud references to what he had said to his psychotherapist. Afterwards we went back to his house for coffee and he drove me back to Belsize Park.

In the course of the evening I had mentioned that I had written a novel for children (I even looked hungrily at his Medal) and when he dropped me off he sent me in to fetch the ms, which he offered to read for me. I'll give you a minute to let that sink in. HE OFFERED TO READ MY BOOK!

I had no idea just how kind this was then but I do now, so thank you Richard Adams. A few days later he rang and suggested I submit it to his publisher Rex Collings. Rex was in the habit of having books read by two young readers before accepting them for publication. Their reports were good and I got the acceptance letter - still the highlight of my career to date.

I should have asked Richard Adams for a cover quote, shouldn't I? (Though I doubt "perfectly publishable" would have sold many extra copies). The book came out, got 2 good reviews in the TES and the New Statesman, as I recall, and then sank without trace. Not a starry début. But by then it was too late; I was hooked for life. Page struck, as I sometimes describe it.

Ninety plus books later, I am still at it. I type my own novels now, straight on to the laptop, and I've had the same wonderful agent, Pat White, at Rogers, Coleridge and White, for over 25 years. But just think, if the TES had sent another freelance to do that interview, or if Richard Adams had been less kind or as inundated with requests to read unpublished WiPs as he doubtless later became, who knows what might have happened?