Monday, 5 November 2018

Stuck in a Book

I'm not really here. 
I'm really here... 

...and much as I lament the distinct lack of blogging over the past few weeks, my stiff word with myself has been somewhat successful. The latest draft of the novel had an enormously out of shape middle and only two hours of strict writing a day - that isn't all I do, by the way, although, imagine, she says, drifting away for a few moments to the top of a fluffy cloud, the number nine fluffy cloud, with pen, paper, and tea on tap and not even a hint of a spreadsheet or PowerPoint and especially no slightly grimy bathroom as distraction - has managed to shrink and tighten it to a more acceptable shape for its first appearance in public. But there's still work to be done. We're not talking six-pack yet, more of a slight bulge where you could imagine there might be a six-pack lurking underneath. Meanwhile, my ever patient first beta readers await their copy of This Remarkable of Days and I feel the least I can do is get it to them before the first Christmas cards are dolefully staring upwards, expecting to be written.

And thus, I'm even more grateful to be appearing on the Greenacres Writers' 'A Conversation ...' this week. This fabulously successful and busy reader and writers' site was set up in 2009 by a group of writers based in Finchley and features book reviews and interviews with a whole host of fabulous writers, a whole heap more interesting than me. The questions were intriguing, thought-provoking and made me smile and I just hope I've done them justice. You can read the interview here.

Meanwhile, any ideas of what you'd take up to your Cloud Nine? I'd love to know! 

Saturday, 8 September 2018

The Day Job

I haven’t written about cancer for a while. There are many reasons for this, none more so than the fact that I don’t have a lot to say, because I am *Stable Mable. I am a, ‘Strange Phenomenon’. I am an ‘Unusual Body,’ which, in this instance, is a good thing. I am, in short, insanely lucky.

And yet no one needs me to tell them that cancer is a heinous, unpredictable disease and there are many people who aren’t so lucky. Never have I been more acutely aware of this than this week, with the news that Radio Five Live journalist, Rachael Bland, has died of her cancer. Co-creator of the chart topping, hilarious, thoughtful, poignant, fantastically direct and gutsy podcast, You, Me and the Big C, Rachael, and her equally fabulous colleagues, Lauren Mahon and Deborah James, encouraged everybody to be upbeat and positive about her death.

But although I recognise that she has left behind the most powerful of legacies, I admit, the news has rocked me.

It's a reminder that we are so fallible, that cancer, in fact many diseases, are random and indiscriminate and that a treatment that's worked for one person, can be totally ineffectual for another. Cancer is not a 'battle' that can be won simply if we have the right ammunition. However, I do believe that there is nothing wrong with keeping that ammunition in a clean and nurtured environment, shined and polished so that if cancer comes calling or a rogue cell gets cocky, it's ready for it, ready to give its best shot at kicking it into touch.

We might miss, but I'd like to feel we tried. The ammunition I am most likely to pack in a corner, not pay it its due attention, is my immune system. Or rather, I'm forever tempted to deprive my immune system of sleep.

I’d been beavering away, life returning so very definitely back to a cracking paced normality after the knee buckling curve ball of April 2017, which I wrote about here

So cracking has been the pace that I admit to having taken my eye off the sleep monitor just a little.

Don’t misunderstand me, I am still a whole stratosphere away from my pre-December 2013 delinquency. Back then I prided myself - oh yes - on my ability to stay awake when all around were slumbering. It meant I could crack on in my study: just me the pc screen and a flood of ticks on the to-do list.  I’d finish with an indulgent hour of writing stories, followed by a languorous soak in the bath and the current book in favour, before dragging myself into a fulfilled and light-headed, 3am bedtime.

I felt lucky then, as well. My life was the next best thing to having magical 27 hour days and it meant I could have a lot of every bit of what I fancied because I had that extra tail end of the day that was denied to so many.

Post my primary cancer diagnosis on that fateful day at the end of 2013, my 27 hours had been concertinaed back into 24 and the extra hours of inertia the body's essential rehabilitation, came at a price.

I struggle to fit my own writing around the little cracks of time in the day that are left. Indeed, I struggle to fit the day job (oh, the irony)  into the cracks, and I do wonder if the added stress of never quite managing to achieve as much as I need to do to keep on top of everything, negates the benefit of the extra sleep.

Ridiculous, scoffs the hubbie. But he is a lark, a well-meaning, nothing is more important than keeping me alive, lark. Of course he doesn’t understand. Physically, he couldn’t do it. He is genetically programmed to stop work at 8pm at the latest and to fall into a deep and impenetrable sleep not long afterwards. To-do list or otherwise, larks sleep at night. That’s just how it is. If you want the lark in your family to catch a wild boar, you'll have to ask them to do it in the morning.

Ridiculous of course, but it’s not that easy is it? And it really isn't easy if you know you physically could stay up and answer the emails glowering from the inbox. None of us operate in a vacuum. One man’s, Sod It I’m Tired I’m Going To Bed, is someone else drumming their fingers, waiting for their reply, cursing the lack of response whilst muttering, 'Did they get it?' and 'Don’t they care?'. Or at least, that’s what I suppose.  

But Rachael Bland has given me a wake-up call, a kick up the bum, a reminder of my resolve. And so I have vowed that I will cover my ears and ignore the chimes to 'catch up'. I will shake away the image of steam puffing from people's ears as they spit and curse at my lack of response, and I will switch off, snuggle up, and get my sleep. After all, I owe it to those who aren't so lucky, to at least try my best.

Rest in peace, Rachael Bland, another brilliant person taken too soon.

*I stole that term from another fabulous Rachel, Rachel Ferry, currently NED, and she won't mind me saying, against all odds. 

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

You Called It!

The results are in. A winner has been chosen and my next novel, until submission at least, has a title.

Thank you! I never envisaged I’d receive so many entries to my What Would You Call It? competition, nor that it would be so illuminating. Those little asides you sent explaining why you chose one title and not another? They were gold dust.

One title won by a fair few votes, one was 'Marmite', my original working title was more popular than I’d have thought it might be and none of the titles heralded no votes at all.

I suspect that, Her Place, which gained the fewest votes, was a little too vague, even obscure. Note to self: intriguing, perhaps; nebulous, no. I had a titter about my wild card: Meatballs. You certainly felt strongly for, or against, that one. I agree that it could be misleading, dangerously so, because no, this story isn’t a farce and I wouldn't want people thinking it was. Whilst there may be some farcical elements, laugh a minute it isn’t - I’m not that clever.

So, who won?

All the votes for the most popular title were put into a hat. Actually, strictly speaking, it isn’t a hat, it’s a laundry basket. It’s one of my household’s not infrequent, ‘internet fails’. We have a fair few of these. Next time I’ll post a pic of the ‘minute yellow trug’ and there’s also the doll’s house sized – it seemed such a bargain – bottle of Shiraz.  

So, the winner! My hubbie, to ensure absolute transparency, pulled out one name from the hat/laundry basket, and that name was: Liz Carr. Congratulations, Liz! If you could email me your contact details and choice of either Glass Houses or Tea and Chemo, I’ll get a signed copy to you forthwith. And please don’t forget to let me know to whom I should sign the book.

The winning title? This Remarkable of Days and I am absolutely thrilled with it. 

Although, as with many titles in my experience, it does have a question mark hanging over it: it’s knowingly grammatically incorrect. I would hope that people would assume this was deliberate (surely a mistake wouldn’t get all the way through to the title of a novel? But then, stranger things have happened...) and there is certainly a strong reason for this wording. However, some potential readers might be put off right there and then by the suspect grammar. Can I risk this? If not, I’d have to consider changing it to: This Most Remarkable of Days and whilst I’ve been spinning this around in my head, the more I think about it, the more I like the quirkiness of the winning title of this competition. For now, it stays and I’ll keep you posted on that. By the way, if you have a view on this dilemma, please do share!

Meanwhile, here’s to a version of This Remarkable of Days making it to a book shop near you some time before too very long and that, aided by a stellar cover, not only will you feel compelled to read the blurb and later the book, you’ll stick with it (almost) to the end, when you’ll see where I was coming from when I slipped Meatballs into the list 😊

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

What Would You Call It?

This happened today. Two days ahead of schedule (oh yes) I scribbled the last note on the last page of the hard copy print out of the first draft of ‘In The Taxi’. This is the working title of my second novel but more on that in a moment. The fact that the pile of 260+ pages of typed copy has doubled in size under the weight of all those scribbled notes and tea cup stains, is an indication of how much work there still is to do – not least copying up this little lot. But that’s ok, because I can’t wait. I love every minute I get to spend on my own writing and I’m all-consumed with it at the moment. Ahem. Hence the reason I’ve been a little quiet of late...

But there’s a problem. My novel has a story now, but it doesn’t have a title.

I read of other writers’ euphoria at finding their title, and know of some who can’t write a word of the novel until they know what it will be called. And I understand that, because I can’t get going until I have an idea of my beginning and end. A title for some, the beginning and end for me, helps to guide the story in the right direction, to give it a focus, a string, to join up the words as they tumble from mind to paper. But the title is another thing altogether for me. I think I’ve got it, retitle every document, every note, every draft, with the new title amidst much excitement, announce it to the family, muse about it as I stuff washing frantically into the machine (so I can get back to writing) only to find that it doesn’t feel quite so perfect next time I switch on my pc.

So, can I tempt you *with a prize* to help me choose? I’ve listed, below, every title which has flown to mind over the past six months. They’re in alphabetical order so that I don’t subconsciously show a bias. I need you to choose a title which jumps out at you, which intrigues perhaps, and certainly would have you grabbing the book from the shelf, turning it over to read the blurb.

Because the title needs to stand on its own, I’m going to be really tight with the clues. I’ll simply say that I hope the story fits squarely in contemporary fiction with a ripple of humour and a smattering of tears. Four strangers, plus Paresh, the long-suffering driver who must be wondering if he’s ever going to see his home again, find themselves thrown together in a taxi only for the journey to take on a significance none of them ever envisaged. I’d better stop there.

A few provisos here. All the titles listed are ones I’d entertain so I will happily snap up the one the majority choose. However, I thought my original working title for Tea & Chemo of, ‘It Wasn’t All Bad’ was stellar: curiously inviting, not to mention doing exactly what it said on the tin. And oh, what a genius! I’d thought of it within five minutes of deciding I was going to try to write this book. Then my publisher saw it. And he laughed, very politely, and in a hugely empathetic fashion, but nonetheless telling me point blank that my book was not going to be called, ‘It Wasn’t All Bad’. Imagine googling it, he said. Ahhh. And I used to work in PR. Shame on Me! So, I’m afraid I can’t guarantee this will be the final title and, alas, I can’t even guarantee it will be accepted for publication, but here’s hoping. What I can promise is that I will log the most popular title, pick a name out of the hat from those people who chose it and one of them will get their choice of a signed copy of Glass Houses or Tea & Chemo for themselves or as a gift. To ensure no conferring, no cheating or influencing, and also because I know people have trouble commenting on here, I’m going to ask you to email me your choice via this link. The deadline is midnight on Bank Holiday Monday, 7th May.

Good luck! And thank you 😊

  • Her Place
  • In The Taxi
  • Marriage of Inconvenience
  • Meatballs
  • No Such Lonely Place
  • This Remarkable of Days

Friday, 2 March 2018

Almost as Difficult as Football

I was checking my blog stats – AKA engaging in a most unbecoming form of Google Navel Gazing – and noticed that some kind soul had fallen upon a blog post from March 2015: Number One Career. I couldn’t remember anything about it so had a click myself. It's about being a writer and as I come across so many tweets and posts about competition wins, near misses and 'good' (loads of promise but I just don’t love it enough) and 'not so good' (please don't be disheartened, we receive three billion submissions a week and only take on two to three new writers a year) rejections, I thought I'd post this again here

It was written just before I announced my
two book deal
with Urbane Publications and hope it might serve as motivation to hang on in there if you're in that stage of high emotional swings, spending your days between clicking send/receive and trying not to. 

Or indeed, you're stuck in a gargantuan plot hole.

Keep going! If it was easy, they'd call it football πŸ˜‰*

*This is my daughter's quote from when she was ten. It always amused me because having played hockey and netball for my whole childhood and beyond, I played football once at school when I inadvertently broke my friend, captain, and absolute star of our hockey team's leg and a second time in the Women's Puma Four, when our team of four were forced to add football to three other disciplines we knew better and let's just say, our friend's husband, dragged in to give us a crash course of training, found it rather amusing that after five minutes, I mean, really, five minutes, of sprinting after a ball and generally not connecting with our feet - side of our feet, I learnt that bit - we were exhausted, I was reminded that football is actually, really extremely hard. But I hope you know what I mean…

Monday, 19 February 2018

The Enormous Hearing Aid Dome

To understand my tale of unbridled joy achieved in the surgery of an ENT consultant, you should know that my hearing, or lack of it, is the bane of my life, and I suspect of the lives of many of those close to me, even though they're too nice to admit it. There's more about this in A Deaf Character.

It was January 2014 and a week after I'd been diagnosed with cancer, a week after that day on 27th December when I'd done a pretty comprehensive job of persuading myself I wasn't going to be told that news. No, I was going to be told that it was nothing more than a scare.

Yep, would you believe it? I heard it clear as a bell. Never for a moment did I think they'd said, 'You're a grade three dancer'. My second question – and every body's second question I suspect (after every body's first question: is it terminal?)  –  Do you know if it's spread? was met with one of the most difficult answers that those brilliant medical people have to give:

We Don't Know.

There was nothing to say that it had spread, but nobody could be sure at this stage. And then came the biggy: had I had any persistent pain anywhere else? We talked about my neck. Like every second person, it seems, I never learnt to sleep correctly as I have an ongoing, but pretty bearable, sore neck. But I'd had that forever, it couldn’t be related to cancer, surely?

He asked if it had been around for over a few months and I responded with a whoosh of relief that it been there for, oh, probably my entire adult life.

'But what about your earache?' Hubbie said.

You know, for the first time in three months, I hadn't noticed my earache. It took a cancer diagnosis to trump it, but for those glorious few moments, it had subsided.

Thankfully, very quickly, the consultant assured me as best he could that it would be extremely unusual for breast cancer to have travelled to my ear. 'However,' he said, as we hung in the air, waiting for the 'but', 'I really think we need to get to the bottom of this.' 

You see, I'd already had three separate lots of antibiotics as whenever anyone looked down my ear, they winced and said that there was a horrible infection in there. He didn’t want me fighting an infection when I was about to undergo an operation and then onto chemo. Thus I was referred to ENT.
I took solace in the breast cancer surgeon's optimism but the earache was unsolved and not reacting to antibiotics and it's hard when you're in bed at night, with only your tinnitus and the darkness, for your thoughts not to fly to secondary cancer in the brain.

The ENT specialist was lovely. I specifically remember him saying to me that he was going to do everything in his power to ensure I left his surgery with an answer because I had enough to worry about. I am a sucker for anybody taking responsibility away from me. I am the archetypal non-control freak. I like nothing better than somebody telling me I'm going to be alright. If they say that, I believe them.
He looked down my ear with a much more technical piece of apparatus than found at the GP surgery.

'Right,' he said. 'This might hurt.'

No problem. As far as I was concerned, nothing could hurt more than the current pain in my ears. Bring it on!

I can only describe the next few minutes as playing my own special role in the Enormous Turnip. The instrument inserted into my ear produced a sort of 'sucking' feeling. But as quickly as it started, this not entirely unpleasant sensation stopped.

'I'm changing to a smaller instrument,' he said. 'Are you aware you have very narrow ear canals?' I laughed. If I had a pound for every time anyone in the medical profession has told me about the diminutive nature of my ear canals, well, I wouldn't be an impoverished writer any more.

By the time we'd moved to the third reduced sized implement, the consultant had his foot wedged on my chair as the small but oh, so powerful instrument pulled and sucked at the inside of my very narrow ear canal. My head swayed. This was no longer pleasant. I thought I was going to be sick but every time he asked if I needed a break, I told him to carry on. There was clearly something in my ear and we needed to get it out. I started counting to ten and got to 73.

Just like the Enormous Turnip, it sprang out with a pop which literally – yep, literally - sent the consultant reeling backwards. 'Phew!' he said, in a delightfully understated fashion, 'That was a stubborn one.' He held up the offending item, a mixture of pride and mirth covering his perspiring face.

'Do you recognise this?' he asked, bearing the tip of my hearing aid, the 'dome' in the trade, the removable bit which covers the receptor and goes directly into the ear. I say, 'removable', but must clarify that it is only to be removed for cleaning once outside of the ear canal. 'It happens more often than you think,' he said, in a kind attempt to placate my embarrassed shame – I told you he was lovely – 'You don't remember it coming away in your ear, then?'

The thing is, I do remember the moment he was referring to. I remember sitting in front of my mirror looking at the dome-less hearing aid, convinced I'd already replaced the tip. I asked the hubbie to have a look down my ear using the torch on his iPhone (Love is…) But when he couldn't see anything, I put it down to the advancement of my years, replaced it with another from the box, and never gave it another thought.

Instantly, the hearing pain was gone. I had to do everything in my power not to jump up and hug and squeeze the audiologist with every ounce of my being, for removing the pain, but also the fear that my stage two and hopefully curable grade three, caught early, breast cancer could actually be the treatable, but currently not curable stage four.

The hubbie and I shared a bottle of champagne that night, and it will always make me smile that only seven days after diagnosis, waiting for my operation, waiting for chemo, we were celebrating with champagne. Such is the strange world of Cancerville. I also remember running out into the waiting room and throwing myself on my husband in the way I'd stopped myself doing to the fortunate consultant, as I told him as well as I could through hysterical laughter, that he'd never guess what it was but it wasn’t a brain tumour.

Thankfully, he has pretty goddamn perfect hearing so he knew what I meant. 

If you're interested in hearing loss, you may like to read: Run That By Me Again and The Bottom of the Swimming Pool. 

A Deaf Character

A man 'in his prime', as my mum would say, a retired, silver-haired lecturer, is not peering down the top of a woman two generations his junior for reasons of impropriety. This gentleman has a hearing problem. His head is bent in order to fix his ear as close to his interlocutor's mouth as is acceptable in public, to give him the best chance of working out what on earth she is saying. Such is the first scene in the amusing novel, Deaf Sentence by David Lodge which had me chortling, sighing and laughing out loud all the way through.

I'm somewhat surprised I enjoyed it so much because, try as I might, I'm afraid there is very little about hearing loss that I find amusing. It can be peaceful. I do appreciate taking out my hearing aids in a crowded coffee shop for a spot of indulgent, uninterrupted writing. And it's with great pride that I admit I'm the Miss Marple in our house who tends to work out complicated plots and this surely comes from having to focus so completely on the subtitles of the film in question. I do also feel lucky to live in a world where there is so much technology to help us. Without my incredibly techie hearing aids, I would barely be able to function in hearing society and certainly wouldn't be able to do the work I do. 

But generally, I find my ever worsening hearing increasingly sad and isolating and I can't pretend I laugh about the situation very often.

Witty people, for example. I love funny people. I love comedy clubs, stand-up, romcoms, even my father-in-law's ever rolling conveyor belt of punditry. But these days, I can't always tell that funny people are being funny and that's a shame because I think laughter makes the world brighter. It's just not the same when your brother-in-law, second only in volume of wit to said father-in-law, with a Dad Joke thrown in, oh, every two sentences, says: Ahh! Surely your appointment's not at the hairdresser at two thirty but at the dentist? - and as the rest of his audience either groans or rolls around like little Smash men, you're still wrestling with the potential humour in your appointment not being at the bear presser but at the atheist's.

Lodge's main character, Desmond, talks humorously about the blind/ deaf comparison and it resonated with me so loudly (hah! Chance would be a fine thing). It's the truism of counting our blessings that our disability is deafness as opposed to blindness which, surely, has to be more difficult to handle, but recognising that blindness invokes pity, awe and wonder, whereas deafness arouses only an array of reactions along the continuum between mild irritation and full-on screwed up, pained face disdain. It's true, I've never known anybody grab the chin of someone who's blind and say, Just look for goodness sake! Whereas the look of anguish and the shouted irritation in the converser's raised tones – even though we understand the frustration, believe me, we do – sounds like all the world as though you're doing it on purpose. Trust me, nobody would choose not to be able to keep up with the conversation, give the impression of being stupid, not be able to join in because they can't hear the instructions, not be able to get the joke quickly enough, wear themselves out with the sheer energy it takes to focus on every single sound that does make it through their 'cloth ears' to their dulled brain as it tries to piece them together all in a rush, for fun. There is very little fun in social interaction when you can't hear and to be honest, there is very little more depressing than to be shouted at when you can't catch what someone else is saying. It makes me just want to slink away, hide and then slip away home.

But it's good to remember that I'm surrounded by very patient people and that any situation can be amusing if you look for the funny side. Lodge's book reminded me of that and although I'm a little late to the party (it was first published in 2008) I thoroughly recommend it to readers both with, and without, five fully functioning senses.

The novel also plunged me back into the ENT consultant's chair where I'd been referred as an attempt to get to the bottom of my excruciating ear pain which had gone on for months – three months, to be precise, not that I was counting. I've written about that in The Enormous Hearing Aid Dome.

By the way, I was recommended Deaf Sentence by an unassuming, fiercely intelligent, older-than-my-father-and-totally-on-the-ball retired judge and fellow student in my weekly lipreading class. He also told me that the great thing about being deaf is that we will never get Alzheimer's, because our brains are in a continuous state of brain gym, hoola-hooping their way through the jumble of words we have to piece together all day, every day.

There are silver linings in everything, you just have to know where to look 😊

Thursday, 21 December 2017

First Drafts and Happy Endings

In view of the final Christmas cards not writing themselves, the snow peaked Christmas cake still looking distinctly like a fruit cake and Father Christmas struggling to get everything wrapped without its little helper, this will be my last post of 2017.

But, after an 'eventful' year, I thought this would be a good moment to announce that by hook or by crook, I have reached my deadline and penned the final word of a very sloppy, for my eyes only, first draft of my second novel. In January that was looking as likely as crispy, frosty days lasting until Christmas. In February I had a few words behind me but when I went running in March and decided I wasn't writing the story I wanted to write, I hot-footed it home, shoved the draft in the back of the drawer and reset my word counter to nought. News of secondary cancer stole my mojo for a few weeks in the spring and in the summer, I was spending a little too much time travelling around the country talking books (and loving it) – not to mention going on holiday – and not quite enough time in my study. Thankfully, in August, the wonderful guests at a talk at the Feva Festival in Knaresborough, made me realise things had to change, and that's when I discovered Prolifiko. It helped me re-discover my Writing Habit and now I write every day because I'm too scared to lose it again. Thank you Fear, you have been, and continue to be, incredibly helpful.

I also end the year with my health in a very stable position, beaten back by the brilliance of modern medicine. And that was the stuff of dreams back in March when I received that phone call from the doctor. As Christmas presents go, and please don't misunderstand me, I appreciate them all, this one is the best.

I am so very, very grateful as I know only too well, that this is not the same for everyone. I send my love and best wishes to those who have lost loved ones, and for whom Christmas will be particularly difficult.

Thanks so much for visiting my blog posts in 2017 and for all the heart-warming and amusing messages you write in response here and over on Facebook and Twitter. They always make me smile 😊  I wish you all a wonderful Christmas and a 2018 full of love, happiness and loads of extra time for reading.

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Just Treatment

After a bit of a turnaround, I've found myself getting involved with an exciting and growing organisation, Just Treatment, who are challenging large pharmaceuticals to lower the cost of maintenance and life-saving treatments so that they are affordable to the NHS. I'm not one to rush in, keen to research whether there's another side to the story and here, I thought the flip side of lowering prices would be that there would be no innovation in the future because the big pharmaceuticals wouldn't be able to fund it. 

Phew, I was wrong, very wrong. 

Every single one of us would benefit directly, or indirectly, if the large pharmaceuticals lowered their prices. And here's the thing: they'd still stay in business, they'd still make a tidy profit, they'd still research and invest. I think that from small acorns great oaks can grow and this initiative may not only prolong and save lives on an individual level, but also save vital funds for the NHS for all of us. Intrigued? Find out more here. And here's a link to my story. 

Monday, 11 December 2017

Funny Old World

It was a sunny Saturday in June and off I went to the hospital for my scan. It was my first scan post-secondary diagnosis and although this time I knew the drill, you won't need me to tell you that these things are never entirely without emotion. It's hard to have a scan and not think about what they are looking at on the other side of the window, alongside that out-of-body experience when you still can't quite believe it's you lying there under the scanner.

Once there though, we were soon talking books and quickly it was as if I'd merely popped (I say 'pop', it's a short train ride and a fast twenty minute scuttle to the hospital) in for a coffee.

Our ex-colleague has written a book, one radiographer says. And she's left us, gone to open up a book shop in Harrogate, says the other.

Not Imagined Things? Not the independent book shop I'd read about in the Bookseller and actually whooped out loud at the news on the train? Not Harrogate's first independent book shop since, I don't know, Emily Bronte signed copies of Wuthering Heights? (I made that up. But she might have done, Haworth would have only been a short horse and cart ride away). Yes, that book shop.

Next thing I know, I've exchanged my hospital gown for her contact details and I step out of my comfort zone to email the owner.  Little do I know that I will be signing copies of my books at the shop's buzzing launch during the week of Harrogate's prestigious Crime Fest in July (with star attraction, the fabulous, Tammy Cohen who was launching the breathtakingly good, They All Fall Down, which I reviewed here).

Funny old world.

Imagined Things, owned by Georgia Duffy, is a gorgeous bookshop at the top of the quaint, Westminster Arcade in Harrogate – yep, very close to Betty's 😊. It's packed with quirky, heavily reading and writing related gifts as well as a great mix of new titles, local authors and beloved favourites of adults and children. Lots of artistically hand-written opinions and summaries accompany books and you can always consult with Georgia - I have yet to find a book in her shop she hasn't read herself. If you can't find your chosen title in store, it can be ordered for next day delivery so you get the whole bookshop experience with the speed of online.

Although it all sounds very exciting to us die-hard traditionalists who dream of physical books shops which don't tap you on the shoulder every time you pick up a paperback to ask whether you wouldn’t prefer to read it for free on Kindle (don't get me started), I wondered what it was really like to be the owner of a bookshop in this paradoxically buoyant but difficult age of publishing. And so I spoke to Georgia about the good – and the bad – which you can read, here.

Oh, and there's a 10% discount for all my blog readers off any book in the shop before Christmas. More here.

Independence at Imagined Things

Ever wondered what it would be like to own your own bookshop? I imagine it would be like my childhood dream of owning a sweetshop where you just sit and taste all day, but that the reality is a little more like hard work. I spoke with Georgia Duffy, owner of Harrogate's new and very gorgeous independent book shop, Imagined Things, and author of Futurespan, who gives a fascinating insight into her move to 'independence'. 

Georgia's also kindly offering a 10% discount off books in her store, exclusive to readers of this blog - see the end of this post for more information.

You've taken quite an unusual route to owning a book shop in Harrogate, could you tell us about it?
Well, instead of doing an English Degree which I very nearly did, I ended up doing a degree in Diagnostic Radiography. I had always loved English and science, but after wondering what I would do with an English degree and discovering that medical careers weren't limited to doctors and nurses, I became a radiographer instead. I really enjoyed the training, and the job, for a short while, but ultimately it wasn't suited to me long-term. I considered all sorts of careers (physicist, chiropractor, NHS Manager) until I finally realised I would only be happy working for myself. I considered lots of other businesses until the idea of the bookshop just kind of metaphorically hit me on the head one day, and I couldn't believe I hadn't thought of it sooner! 
What was the push which made you leave your hospital job? 
After nearly 6 years of being a radiographer, and 5 of them knowing I didn't want to keep being one forever, I was very ready to leave. I think I just reached that point where I thought if you don't do something now there's a chance you won't. Life was only going to get more complicated, and there is never really a good time for such a huge change. It was my partner, Karl who gave me the push really, saying to do it now. I didn't agree with him at first but then I realised he was right, and we found the shop, and just went for it. 
Are you enjoying it so far? What's the best thing about owning your own book shop…? 
Yes, it's lovely working amongst all the books, and it's like Christmas every day when the new books arrive. It's great to interact with the customers and talk about books, as well as getting to know regular customers. I think the best thing is that I'm reading more than I ever have, and that reading is now part of my job! 
 …and what's the worst? 
It is scary starting your own business from scratch. It takes a long time to get established so I think the start is always going to be a bit scary, and by the nature of retail it is very up and down. On the days you barely see a customer it is especially worrying, but then on other days you see more than you were expecting, so it usually evens out. Dealing with damaged books is also a big issue. It seems to be a common problem in the book industry, but it is very frustrating when you have ordered a specific amount of books and a lot of them come damaged. I really wasn't expecting that. 
I'm sure it's difficult competing against giants in the books business such as Waterstones and Amazon - what can you offer customers that the others can't?
The shop isn't run on an algorithm or filled with the latest celebrity/mainstream titles. It is a real mixture, with lots of different books that aren't seen everywhere. As well as that, it's also evolving. If my customers ask for more of certain types of books, I'll get them. If they ask for a hard-to-find book, I'll find it. I can order anything too, usually for the next day, so if a customer is after something in particular and I don't have it, I can get it quickly. I'll be able to take Christmas orders until the 22nd of December (though preferably, order earlier as popular titles may well be out of stock by then!) and a certain well-known chain bookshop usually stops taking orders from the 12th. I can also give personalised service and recommendations and suggest new things to regular customers too. 

Does your experience as a radiographer help you to run your business?
I think it has helped me run the business. I laugh when other people in the industry say that me working six days a week is a lot, because it doesn't feel like a lot. I tell them that it's child's play compared to working in the NHS. I mean of course it does come with its own challenges and pressures (like the impending Christmas season!) but there are no nightshifts, or 10 hour shifts, or 15 hour night shifts. There's no getting called in at 2am, and nobody, thankfully, is dying. So as much as I care deeply about the bookshop and giving the customers the best service possible, the stakes are really not as high. I make a mistake in the bookshop it doesn't have the same kind of consequences. Also my IT skills from operating the CT scanner and hospital systems have served me well in learning my stock control system. And I have experience with many different kinds of people from radiography - but it is a different interaction in the shop so it has taken a bit of adjustment!

And does your experience as a radiographer influence your own fiction writing?
It definitely influences my fiction writing. In Futurespan there is a scene in A&E and one of the main characters is training to be a doctor. In one of my works in progress, it's a story that has, in part, been in my head for over ten years. It's about a kind of dream world that has been infected and is now more of a nightmare, and parts of it are seeping through into our world. Trouble is most people can't see that, or do anything about it - except the main character who is slowly being driven mad by her visions. I had a gap in the story which was what the main character did in her everyday life, and last year I realised it would be perfect if she was a radiographer!

Futurespan is your first novel, can you tell us about it?
Futurespan was published last year. It is a fantasy novel, but really it is very character driven and has been enjoyed by those who usually stay clear of fantasy. Several characters are trapped in the strange world of Futurespan where they find doors to their pasts and futures, which give them the opportunity to realise things about their life. It is very much about where life leads us and how seemingly small decisions can change our life irreparably. I'm working on a kind of sequel to it at the moment, but it is much more complicated than Futurespan (which took me two years), so it may be a while!

Do you get more or less time to write these days?
Less. Definitely less. I naively thought that when the shop was quiet, perhaps I could write - but there's always something to do: accounts; ordering; pricing; looking at new books to order; reading books; customer orders; planning; advertising; social media... the list goes on! Maybe in January...!

What advice would you give to someone thinking of opening up their own book shopHmm, well most advice you read nowadays basically says: don't! And some of that advice makes some very compelling points - it is not easy. There is lots of competition from big companies selling books for much less than they should be. There are supermarkets who don't even care if they make a profit on the book as long as it provides another reason for people to go there. There's more competition for people's free time generally - Netflix, games, social media etc. Even the publishers, many of them, don't do as much as they could to help independent bookshops. So it is rather an uphill struggle. But if you have the passion (I mean real, deep, the thing you love the most, the world might as well just end if we didn't have stories, kind of passion - not just the 'I like books' kind), and determination (tonnes of it) and are willing to work very, very hard (evenings, weekends, when you should be sleeping) and think that books and stories are one of the most important things about us being human, oh, and if you are willing to take a huge leap of faith, then look into it, properly. Visit other bookshops, check this is something you want to do, even something you feel you're meant to do. And if so... then go for it. The more independent bookshops we have, the better, since we've haemorrhaged over 600 in the last 11 years. The country needs more indies, as long as you go into it with your eyes open and know what you're getting yourself into, it is the most amazing job! 
Imagined Things, 4 Westminster Arcade,
Tel: 01423 391301
Do you have any events lined up over the next few months?
Yes! After Christmas we're planning to have more signings in the shop with local authors, including a book launch for the 6th book in the DCI Bennett series which is set in Harrogate. We're looking at writers' workshops and other writerly events, so watch this space! We'll have details of all our events on our Facebook page and on posters in the shop.

Thanks so much to Georgia for her brilliant answers, not forgetting for setting up Harrogate's only independent book shop in the first place!

So, would you like a 10% discount off any
book in the shop on or before the Christmas closure? Just tell Georgia I sent you πŸ˜‰

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Store Dedicated to Cancer

Talk about London buses… I'm back again.  

Well, talk about London buses because I'm going to be down south next week at the launch of the UK's first retail store dedicated to people living with cancer, and their loved ones. It's the brainchild of Live Better With in collaboration with Browns and is based at Guy's Hospital Cancer Centre, London Bridge.

Honoured, is the only way I can describe being asked to attend the launch where I'll be reading from Tea & Chemo (any help choosing which chapter, gratefully received), participating in a Q&A together with Lucy O'Donnell, author of Cancer is My teacher, and signing copies of Tea &Chemo which will be available in store as well as from Live Better With online. 

And you're all invited! Please come and say hello, and bring some pennies because the shop looks gorgeous and there's nothing those clever people at Live Better With haven't thought of 😊

The store is now open Monday to Friday between 9 and 4pm and the official launch takes place between 11.30 and 1.30pm on Wednesday 8 November. Click here for more info. 

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

The Madness of Twins

I have two little sisters. They're not 'little' as such. They're 40-something and not even shorter than me – only my mum is shorter than me – but they are younger, so they shall be forever little to me. Anyway, they are also twins which makes them slightly bonkers. It always has done, and I've always found it fascinating. Even though they're grown and have families of their own now, the 'twinniness', as our older sister first coined it, hasn't let up.

They have this psychic thing. Granted, they shared a womb and a bedroom their entire childhood, some of the same teachers and of course, many of the same friends, so they're bound to be in tune.  And they look the same. Exactly the same. Having someone who shares every one of your features has got to bond you to them, right there, hasn't it?

But it's more than that.

They have had those weird unexplainable shared moments and shared pain, such as when one had a medical emergency in Italy and the other felt it in Wales, pre- mobiles, pre- even entertaining the idea of calling from abroad because it was way too expensive. They've bought the same clothes without realising and yet, somewhat surprisingly, they don't have the same taste.

The previous episode to make me gasp before this morning's, just-too-weird moment, was on the day of the launch party for Glass Houses. One was coming up to Yorkshire from the South of England and the other from South Wales. Both aimed to arrive 'around mid-afternoon'. Neither of them has tendencies to lateness – ahem, that's just me – but one is much more punctual than the other. The less punctual one rang the second, hands-free, to ask how she was getting on. Struggling! She was going to stop at the next services. How funny, says the first. It was exactly what she was thinking and she was only two miles away from being able to stop. Me, too! says the second. And they laughed at sharing yet another nugget of 'twinniness'.

Now, bear in mind that both sisters would join the M1 eventually but neither until the second part of their journeys and they hadn't discussed what time they'd leave their respective homes nor their ETA at my house. So when one says, Hang on a minute, isn't your registration '*$!"?~%'?, she wasn't expecting to see her (identical looking) sister at the wheel of the car immediately in front, now glancing in her rear view mirror as both stop talking and gasp because they are one behind the other, at the exact same time, on the exact same section of motorway, both craving a drink (and they're not like me, the kettle back on, the moment the previous cup of tea is gone) having set off from homes over 100 miles from each other. Well, that blew my mind.

But this, this is even better than that.

Today I get two pieces of post. One from each sister. They are lovely and I can happily report that all four of us sisters are very close, but we don’t send each other post every week. It's high days and holidays at most, so that in itself made me smile.

On closer examination, I see that one sister was rushing or multi-tasking when she addressed the envelope because it contained only my house number, street and the name of our tiny village. No town or postcode, let alone county. Consequently, the letter, a thank you for a present given in September, had taken a while to get to us. Although I must say, well done to the super sleuths of the Post Office and thank them for their determination as the letter had been to two other counties first.

Next comes the other sister's mail which is a Christmas card. This wasn't just any old Christmas card however, this had flashing lights and a picture frame type stand, because we both LOVE a bit of Christmas bling. We all send each other Christmas cards, and granted, of our entire family, barring perhaps one auntie, my Christmas cards are always the last to arrive, but still, I have never, ever in my 49 years on this wonderful planet, known any member of my super-sized family to send a Christmas card in October.

Something, some external force, and what I can only label as extreme 'twinniness' decided that this year, on that day, my sister was going to send me a Christmas card before Halloween and that card would arrive on the same day as a letter which had taken a very circuitous route to get to me.

This is the madness of twins.

And I think this is why a twin has crept into the first draft of my latest novel. This twin arrived unannounced and bears no resemblance to either twin in looks or temperament. And (s)he – no clues – may not survive the first edit cull, but for now, (s)he's amusing me. 

So, are you a twin? Do you have twins in your lives? Please do share your stories - I do love a good 'twin' story😊