Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Game, set and... yawn

Am I the only person who’s bored rigid by Wimbledon?

It may be the world's greatest tennis tournament but I couldn’t care less about Andy Murray’s quest to snatch the men’s title or Rafael Nadal’s foot injury.

The two-week championships were ruined for me when I covered them as a news reporter. Instead of watching matches that kept me on the edge of my seat I regularly spent Wimbledon fortnight chasing news stories. The sillier they were, the better show you got in the paper. One year an American player called Anne White dominated the front pages of the tabloids for days. Not for her serving prowess or backhand skill, but because instead of wearing a modest white dress she wowed the crowds in a skin-tight white cat-suit. The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club were not at all impressed.

When nothing much else was happening, the press pack would resort to old favourites like royal visitors, ticket touts, corporate hospitality (yawn), rain (this was before that swanky new sliding roof) and the price of a punnet of strawberries.

If three or more journalists requested a post-match interview with a player the tennis stars had to talk to us. They'd pitch up at an unprepossessing bunker beneath the Centre Court and while the hacks from the red tops quizzed the players about their sex-lives, the more serious-minded American press retaliated with questions about why they’d hit a volley at break point in the third set.

After four or five years of this I was so exasperated with the game that I pleaded for a change of scene and got switched to court reporting at the Old Bailey instead. I’ve never watched a single Wimbledon match from that day to this, and I don’t intend to in the future. The rest of the country may be glued to action on the Centre Court, but count me out.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Sticking up for Liz Jones

Columnist Liz Jones is a mass of contradictions.

She’s forever complaining she’s broke, yet buys Prada, Bottega Veneta and most recently a top-of-the- range facelift. She splashes out on a rambling Victorian pile on Exmoor, complete with 46 acres, then gets fed up and puts it back on the market, saying: “It’s too big. I’ve got seven bedrooms and six bathrooms and about 400 animals.” She finds the men in her life exasperating, especially ex-husband Nirpal Dhaliwal, but is now canoodling with an ageing rock star. Incidentally, she refers to him as RS but he’s widely thought to be Simple Minds frontman Jim Kerr.

As a result of her foibles (chronicled meticulously each week in You magazine) the 52-year-old writer comes in for more stick than virtually any journalist on the planet.

But even though she’s definitely high maintenance and at times slightly flaky, I’m a big fan. I’ve cut down massively on the Sunday papers over the years (just too much to wade through) but I turn to her page before anything else.

I occasionally get fed up with accounts of her huge menagerie of animals but even so, she writes so well and with such disarming frankness that her diary is a must-read. Apart from India Knight and Caitlin Moran, I can’t think of any other women columnists I can say that about these days.

PS: It was my birthday last week (coughs quickly when asked which one) and my lovely teenagers cooked an amazing family lunch. “I’d love Ottolenghi sort of food,” I told them beforehand, but never thought for a moment that they’d take me literally. My 16 year old son cooked chilled red pepper soup and my 19 year old daughter did roast chicken with saffron, hazelnuts and honey. Afterwards they turned to Nigella and made me these Happy Birthday cupcakes (above). They looked – and tasted – amazing.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Finishing novel number five - a work in progress

Jess Barker trudged purposefully up the footpath. It was seven-thirty on a chilly April morning and the new summer term was due to start in less than an hour. But before the frantic onslaught of lessons, meetings and marking, she needed time to think.

At least it was Thursday, so she had 7B, her favourite class, first lesson. Unlike some of the older children, the eleven and twelve year olds she took for English were a pleasure to teach. They still hung on her every word. And handed in their homework on time. In a year or two they’d no doubt be back-chatting, texting under the desk and mumbling “whatever” when she quizzed them about Romeo and Juliet. But right now they were lovely – all bright-eyed and eager to please. As opposed to classes 8D and 9E, who were – and she knew teachers weren’t supposed to say this – a complete and utter pain in the ass.
Jess barely noticed the stunning landscape as she walked. The hike across the fields to majestic Pendle Hill was usually enough to banish all her worries instantly but right now she was too deep in thought to appreciate its beauty.
These are the first three paragraphs of my new novel, which I'm halfway through writing. For the last few years the day job - freelance journalism - has taken precedence, but I'm determined to finish it by the end of the summer.
What really spurred me on was meeting novelist MG Harris - http://www.mgharris.net/ - in Oxford this week. She's the author of The Joshua Files - the hugely successful children's series about a boy searching for a lost Mayan codex. With their tightly-plotted storylines and distinctive covers, MG's books have sold all around the world. The first in the series, Invisible City, was the UK's fastest-selling children's fiction debut for 2008. As we chatted I told MG I'd had four novels published but hadn't finished my fifth. "Why not?" she asked. "You need to get on with it." So that's exactly what I'm doing. And if anyone's got any comments, I'd love to hear. 
PS: The first chapter is set in one of my favourite places in the world - Pendle Hill, in the wilds of Lancashire. It looks gorgeous in summer (see above), but in winter it's windswept and desolate. For three years we lived in a farmhouse on the side of Pendle and were snowed in on a regular basis. There was no central hearing, a temperamental solid fuel stove that went out if we left it for more than a couple of hours and a biting north wind that whistled round the eaves all year round. And yes, I was happy as Larry.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Tips for teens

Where did that time go? One minute my darling daughter was a baby with blonde curls and a penchant for Madeline books, felt-tip pens and The Jungle Book video. The next she’s a fiercely independent student who’s fixed an internship in London for the summer (with no help from me or her dad, I hasten to add) and moved into a rented flat with friends.

When I was nineteen I didn’t have a clue about anything. But my daughter’s far more clued up. Even when she was at school she had a part-time job, passed her driving test first time and studied hard for exams (I didn’t manage any of those things). She can troubleshoot my computer problems in the blink of an eye, bakes the most stylish cupcakes (see above) and knows the coolest fashion bloggers on the planet. http://www.manrepeller.com/ and http://seaofshoes.typepad.com/ are her current must-reads, by the way.

I’m loath to give her any advice because she doesn’t need it. But what the hell, I’m an annoying mum, so I’m going to anyway.

So here are my top ten tips for university and beyond:

1. Be confident – in your looks and your abilities. You’re lucky – you’ve got both!
2. Seize the most exciting opportunities that present themselves. You don’t want to look back and regret the things you didn’t do.
3. Travel as much as you can while you’re still young (and don’t wait till you’re my age to go to New York.)
4. You’ll meet loads of exciting new people during your university years but be sure to stay in touch with your old friends too.
5. Don’t ever settle for second best – in your career or your love life.
6. Go to lots of parties – but get masses of sleep too.
7. Don’t drink too much (and definitely say no to the vodka teapots.)
8. Keep fit, take care of your health (skin, eyes, teeth, you name it) and buy the best moisturiser you can afford. When you’re as old as me you’ll be very glad you did.
9. Keep on being kind.
10. Be happy. Don’t roll your eyes but this is the most important rule of all. Happiness is a state of mind, I reckon, so if it doesn’t sound too Pollyanna-like, if you decide to be happy, you will be.

PS: It’s cheating a bit, I know, but there are two extra rules. Please ring your mum lots and come home as much as possible. I miss you!

PPS: If anyone’s got any more tips for teenagers, I’d love to hear them.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

The dos and don'ts of blogging

There’s no question about it. When it comes to blogging, writer Emily Carlisle really knows her stuff.

So when I clocked that she was running a workshop on social media for writers at this year’s Witney Book Festival I hopped in the car and was round there like a shot.

I learned so much about blogging in the space of 90 minutes that I couldn’t wait to put Emily’s tips into action. The rest of the audience, who included an accountant keen to launch her own blog, authors, marketing consultants and journalists, were equally enthused. “I’m going straight home to get started,” one of them told me in the car park.

The key component of a cracking blog, says Emily, is “great content.” This could range from amusing anecdotes and “a day in the life” posts to reviews, interviews, vlogs, excerpts from a novel in progress, background research and hobbies. Your blog can be specialist, generalist or a mix of the two (or “having your cake and eating it,” as Emily describes it.) But, whatever you choose to write about, it must be a good read.

It’s absolutely crucial to post regular updates. Emily reckons bloggers should post two or three times a week – both to keep readers’ interest and to attract the attention of search engines. Blogs should be “short and snappy” (between 500 and 800 words is perfect), the design should make the blog “pleasant to read,” the text should be broken up by an image or two and posts should feature internal links to relevant previous items.

Other advice from Emily (which I’m following to the letter from now on) includes putting links to your most popular posts high up on your blog, tagging the themes you regularly write about (mine are books, France and teenagers) and resisting the temptation to choose wacky titles. As she wisely points out: “Use clear words. If you’re blogging about the best walks in the Cotswolds, then call it that. It’ll be far more likely to be picked up by search engines.”

When it comes to the conundrum of how to build up a readership, Emily says Twitter, Facebook and word of mouth are excellent ways to tell people what you’re doing. She reiterates, however, that 90 per cent of your tweets should be social and ten per cent “business.” Followers soon get fed up and drift away if all you ever do on Twitter is blow your own trumpet. Other tips are add a link to your blog in your email signature, mention it on your business card and consider joining specialist forums where people can click through to your blog.

If you’d like to find out more about the social media workshops Emily runs, go to http://www.allaboutemily.com/ She also writes a laugh-out-loud blog on parenting called http://www.morethanjustamother.com/ - or as she describes it: ”If you’ve ever put the children to bed early just so you can open the wine, this is for you.”

PS: I’ve just bought this fabulous poster (pictured above) from Pedlars. It’s called HAVE THE VERY BEST TIME and is part of a series of limited editions from final year Chelsea College of Art students. Mine's by Jowey Roden - http://www.joweyroden.com/ - and I love it!

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Jenni Murray and the art of the interview

Interviewing is an awful lot harder than it looks. When I hear someone doing it brilliantly – like John Humphrys or Olivia O’Leary – I’m so gripped by what the interviewee is saying that I barely even notice how skilful the interviewer is. When I hear someone doing it badly – sorry to say this, Christine Bleakley, when you’ve just announced your engagement – it is excruciating.

But the newly ennobled Dame Jenni Murray is definitely an interviewer at the top of her game. And last night (June 15) the Woman's Hour presenter gave a studio audience at Broadcasting House an insight into how she does it.

Interviewed by BBC news correspondent Nick Higham (no slouch in the interviewing stakes himself) she revealed that Margaret Thatcher and Catherine Deneuve were two of her most terrifying interviewees, that solid research beforehand is vital and that one of her strengths as an interviewer is, to put it bluntly, that she’s “nosey.” Along the way she said the first thing her husband David asked when he heard she was being made a Dame was “what does that make me?” and that she’d love to interview George Clooney. A night owl, she’s such a fan of ER that on Saturday nights she often watches three episodes back-to-back.

The Art of the Interview is a series of master-classes the BBC College of Journalism is running this year. Names like Libby Purves, Mark Lawson, Jane Garvey and Lyse Doucet have already taken part so watch out for their interviews (and Jenni Murray’s) on the BBC College of Journalism website - http://www.bbc.co.uk/journalism/

One of the wisest people I’ve talked to about interviewing is award-winning journalist Emma Brockes, a former staff writer for The Guardian who is now based in New York. A highly skilled writer who has interviewed everyone from Liza Minnelli to Madeleine Albright over the years, she spoke to me for a book called “Interviewing for Journalists.”

Rather than preparing a long list of questions, for instance, Emma concentrates on plotting a route through an interview. She works out “key turning points” in advance – moments in the interview where she aims to move “from the publicity guff that celebrities want me to talk to them about... to the juicy stuff.”

But what stuck in my mind long after the interview was her passion for the job. As she explained: “It is the most extraordinary privilege to parachute in, go straight to what you think is the most interesting part of someone’s life and be able to ask the most impertinent questions they may ever have been asked.” I reckon Jenni Murray would agree.

PS: Now the exams are over my son's back on his bike (see above) - and I'm terrified!

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

An exciting new literary talent

“The Tiger’s Wife is an exceptional book and Téa Obreht is a truly exciting new talent. Obreht's powers of observation and her understanding of the world are remarkable. By skilfully spinning a series of magical tales she has managed to bring the tragedy of chronic Balkan conflict thumping into our front rooms with a bittersweet vivacity.”

That’s how historian Bettany Hughes, the chair of the 2011 Orange Prize judges, summed up her admiration for this year’s winner - Téa Obreht.

At 25, Obreht is not only the youngest-ever author to win the Orange Prize but she’s done it with her first novel. And if that isn’t enough, she only learned to speak and read English at the age of seven, when she moved from the former Yugoslavia, where she was born, to Egypt. She now lives in New York.

Deciding on the 2011 winner was clearly a tough call. As she announced the award at London’s Royal Festival Hall tonight (June 8), Bettany Hughes admitted that the judging panel had carried on debating the matter till the early hours of the morning.

I can completely understand their dilemma. When I reviewed the Orange shortlist for a newspaper piece last week I was hard-pressed to decide which of the six shortlisted novels I admired the most.

The Orange Prize was launched in 1996 to celebrate excellence, originality and accessibility in women’s writing around the world – and the six contenders certainly fulfilled those criteria. They all tackled gritty subjects - storylines ranged from abuse in care to the bloody civil war in Sierra Leone – but managed to be eminently readable at the same time.

The bookies’ favourite was Room, by Irish writer Emma Donoghue. It was shortlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize and in the run-up to the Orange Prize ceremony sold far more copies than the other contenders. But some readers. me included, found this heartrending story, loosely based on the horrific case of the Fritzl family, too much to bear.

The other books on the shortlist were Nicole Krauss’s Great House, Aminatta Forna’s The Memory of Love, Emma Henderson’s Grace Williams Says it Loud and Kathleen Winter’s Annabel. Remarkably, just like Obreht, Henderson and Winter are debut novelists.

The novel that stood out for me on this outstanding list, though, was the wonderfully-titled Grace Williams Says it Loud. The story of Grace, a severely physically and mentally disabled girl sent to live in a mental institute at the age of 11, Henderson’s book is brave, exuberant and utterly original.

But in the end the judges chose Téa Obreht, and there's no doubt that she is a fantastic new literary talent. Her book, set in the aftermath of the Balkan War, follows young doctor Natalia as she strives to unlock the mystery of her beloved grandfather’s death in mysterious circumstances far away from home and is a magical, distinctive tale. Do read it - and all the others too.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

The trials and tribulations of self publishing

Self publishing gets a terrible press. SoI’m always pleased to hear of a writer who’s self-published a book and sold heaps of copies. The latest success story is Dan Holloway, whose thriller, The Company of Fellows, sold a magnificent 1,766 copies last month in the UK alone. Not only that, it’s just topped a Blackwell’s Bookshop online poll to find readers’ favourite Oxford novel – no mean feat when it was up against the likes of Evelyn Waugh, Philip Pullman and Colin Dexter.

But there’s no doubt that self publishing is a risky business. I speak with authority because I self-published a children’s book five years ago. A fast-moving, fun read for nine to 12 year old fans of The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent!, The Rise and Shine Saturday Show follows the fortunes of five children from very different backgrounds who are all desperate to be stars. The competition takes place in a rambling mansion in the wilds of the Lake District, where the five finalists embark on intensive tuition in singing and dancing.

My self-publishing venture began when having devoured everything by Meg Cabot, Celia Rees and Jacqueline Wilson, my daughter complained she couldn’t find anything she wanted to read. “Why don’t you write a book for me?” she asked. So that’s what I did.

Once I’d finished the book, I (madly) hit on the idea of taking charge of the publishing process myself – from choosing the typeface to commissioning a jacket design. So despite knowing next to nothing about how to get an ISBN number or the importance of printing a barcode on the back I plunged in.

Finding an artist to design the cover was the biggest challenge but I eventually found Meng-Chia Lai, a fabulously talented artist who was a student prize-winner at the V & A Illustration Awards. Our meeting was a bit like something out of Brief Encounter. Meng-Chia was about to fly home to Taiwan so we met for a cup of tea at Marylebone Station. There, surrounded by harassed commuters, Meng-Chia showed me the ideas she’d sketched out for my book. Painted in soft hues of purple and pink, her designs were gorgeous. She did my book proud.

Next I had to find a printer prepared to do a short print-run. Cox & Wyman agreed to print 2,000 books, a scary number, but the minimum they’d do. Even so, it was a shock when the consignment was delivered to my house. As the middle-aged courier staggered down our wonky basement steps and stacked them in a daunting pile by the back door, he said witheringly: “I usually deliver to publishers' warehouses. Then every so often I get one of these.”

The mountain of books was so huge that it certainly got me cracking. I was immediately on the phone to wholesalers, booksellers and journalists, offering my sales pitch at break-neck speed. My daughter designed me an ultra-professional despatch note and my son trotted endlessly back and forth to the post office with parcels of books to send to the wholesalers.

I got a fair bit of publicity (the book even made it on to Radio 4) but the hardest part of all was actually getting a self-published book into bookshops. Local shops were keen to help and I sold quite a few on Amazon but I didn’t have any luck further afield. In the end I sold around half of my books and broke even. My foray into self publishing was fun, creative and very hard work. But no, I wouldn’t do it again.

If you’d like to buy a copy of The Rise and Shine Saturday Show, go to Amazon or   http://www.emmaleepotter.co.uk/page4.htm
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