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 d├ębut. 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?