All Greek to Me

Highlights of Greece

  • Standing in the kitchen of a little taverna while the cook explained her recipe for tomato fritters. Not a word of English so I stood there sniffing her pots of herbs: ‘Oooh oregano! Mint! Coriander!’ It would have been like a MasterChef test if I hadn’t been trying not to breathe ouzo fumes on her. Then she hugged me with a warmth that made me think a little communal cooking should be able to solve wars before they start.
  • Having to go to the medical centre for the son’s earache. Surreally, the taxi driver took charge of all the interpreting and paperwork, then the nurse led us straight into the doctor’s consulting room, where we stood like two lemons as he examined an old lady. He didn’t acknowledge us at all, just puffed on a fag whilst we peered through the fog and tried not to laugh. I did have to whisper to the son to desist from shaking his head in horror as you don’t need English to understand that. Eventually, while the other patient shuffled out, he asked what was wrong. When I said the son had a bad ear, he shrugged and said, ‘And?’ I mumbled something about antibiotics, and he jammed an instrument in the son’s ear, whilst puffing smoke right up his nose. I had to think about dying a horrible death involving crocodiles to hold in my laughter.
  • Thinking I was *nearly* the bravest woman in the world for going on an off-road mountain biking expedition. I screamed every time the bike skidded a millimetre. When we got back, the guide told me he’d done a mountain biking competition down a glacier. I managed an unusual combination of emotions: feeling simultaneously pleased and foolish.
  • Watching my children do aqua aerobics to YMCA. Released in 1978, 20 years before my first child was born and they know all the words. The strangest things cross the generations.

Lowlights of Greece

  • I’m always telling my children that no one is watching them, that they should have a go, that it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks. I was so bad at serving in my tennis class that I nearly burst into tears and ran out. Less Maria Sharapova brandishing a killer racket and more a bag of King Edwards on the move waving a wooden spoon.

    Eye on the ball, eye on the ball, missed it!

    I know, if I don’t hit it this time, I’ll just sob noisily

  • Having to visit the young male physio with a groin injury. Accompanying panic about what to wear to visit with groin injury that wouldn’t have him wiggling his eyebrows in a ‘Get you!’ kind of way. Having to admit injury was caused not by boxercise, windsurfing, wakeboarding or anything else trendy and youthful, but by breaststroke. I felt obliged to tell him that I don’t try and keep my hair out of the water. I didn’t want him thinking I don’t know how to live.
  • Actually looking forward to the food on the plane and eating it even though it tasted of worn out flip-flops sprinkled with salt. Being airborne somehow damages my food-assessment ability.
  • Not quite managing to second-guess the exotic ailments the family will dream up, despite lugging with me everything from anti-chafing cream to sun factor protection 100 especially imported from the USA, thus requiring several little mimes at the pharmacy. I’m just hoping they never get tapeworm.

 

 

 

Want to get published? Get networking!

I don’t very often write about the nuts and bolts of writing and publishing but as I come up to the publication of The School Gate Survival Guide this Thursday, 3 July, it feels quite appropriate to talk about how I got from ‘there’ to ‘here’. Here’s a blog I wrote for the wonderful Writers’ Workshop – they run the Festival of Writing in York every year and it really is one I would recommend…

 

In 2010, the formidably efficient Susan Franklin rang the bell at the Festival of Writing and it was my turn to pitch my novel, The Class Ceiling, to an agent. An agent! A proper literary agent with the power to make my dreams come true. So the only reasonable thing to do was shake like a leaf and talk so fast that the poor man was probably wondering at what point passing me a paper bag would become an excellent idea. About five minutes into my precious ten minutes of pitch time, I managed to get my nerves under control and started to get a grip on the fact that the man in front of me wasn’t actually god – close, but not the man himself – and it was OK to have an intelligent debate with him, even ask a question.

I’d love to say at this point that he waved my pages and pronounced them a masterpiece. Sadly, not even close. However, the same day, I went through it all again with a different agent who asked to see the full manuscript. A small step towards realizing that it’s a subjective business, a giant leap in demystifying the whole ‘agents are alien beings’ process.

In my naivety, and desire to find representation, I probably forgot to listen to the actual feedback. As it turned out, I had the next three years plus the aide-memoire of an inbox full of rejections to help me grasp that particular lesson. It quickly became clear that sticking my fingers in my ears and singing every time an agent or book doctor offered a constructive comment wouldn’t improve my chances of publication.

In fact, the importance of ‘hearing’ feedback was highlighted to me after the Festival of Writing in 2011. After failing to get an agent for The Class Ceiling, I wrote The Divorce Domino, which won first prize at the festival for the opening line, ‘I was wearing the wrong bra for sitting in a police cell.’ Surely, surely, agents and publication were a mere phone call away? A manuscript critique was my prize and I waited for the ‘fit for publication’ verdict to come in. Which was, in fact, nine pages of ‘fixes’, followed by several days sitting huffily on the sofa and a suggestion from the husband that I give up this writing lark. However, in the end, I had to face the fact that most of the observations were spot on.school gate resized 130jpeg

Even revised until I could recite The Divorce Domino backwards, agents were not bursting forth out of the woodwork. But the one thing I continued to do was network. I went to hear other writers speak and introduced myself when I bought their books. I started to tell authors on Twitter how much I enjoyed their writing and followed agents I liked the look of – cyberly rather than in real life, obviously… I attended festivals and the Romantic Novelists’ Association (RNA) parties. After several events hiding behind pillars, I occasionally plucked up courage to talk to agents and eventually realised that they quite liked to be asked, ‘How’s your day been?’ rather than flattened by a book pitch. I couldn’t concentrate on the answer in case they asked me what I was writing, but I still asked the question.

In the end, it was the networking that paid off. I met Helen Bolton, an editor at Avon, HarperCollins, at an RNA party and just chatted about one of her authors without discussing my work at all. Afterwards, I did a long shot to end all long shots and sent her the first five chapters of The Class Ceiling (which I had, by now, self-published reasonably successfully). She came back to me to ask for the rest, plus my next book. In the meantime, I approached agents I liked. Clare Wallace from Darley Anderson, whom I had also met at the RNA party, offered me representation one afternoon last August. When I got home, I had a two-book deal in my inbox from Helen. So…five years with nothing then an agent and a book deal on the same day. The Class Ceiling will be published as The School Gate Survival Guide this summer.

I leave you with this. However shy you are or however awkward you feel about putting your writing ‘out there’, my husband was absolutely right: you won’t sell your book sitting at the kitchen table. Buy yourself a ticket to the Festival of Writing now!

 

P.S I’ll be there with my lovely agent, Clare Wallace, for our Ask Us Anything panel – but if you see me floating about, do come and speak to me, I’d be delighted to meet you. Or come and find me on Twitter or Facebook.

 

 

Romantic, Moi?

Recently I had the privilege of taking part in HarperCollins’ Festival of Romance, where I’m slightly ashamed to say I was probably the least romantic author there…If you’re interested in reading my author questionnaire, here it is below. Do let me know whether or not you are romantic…

Tell us about yourself…IMG_2036
Most people who live near me will recognise me as the woman with mad hair racing after the naughty black dog with the picnic/model aeroplane/Zimmer frame/kite in her mouth. Otherwise when the dog’s asleep, I’m a relatively normal wife to an astonishingly tolerant man and mother to a teenage son and a 12-year-old daughter.

Tell us about your latest book
The School Gate Survival Guide, out in ebook on 3 July and paperback on 11 September (Avon, HarperCollins) is about school gate snobbery – a modern My Fair Lady story about how hard it can be to belong.

When did you start writing?
I started writing travel guidebooks when I worked as a holiday rep in Italy shortly after leaving university. Then I was a journalist for many years and finally found my niche in fiction writing about five years ago.

Tell us about your experience of getting a literary agent
How long have you got? Suffice to say, I know who the good guys are because of the lovely rejections they’ve written to me. I took heart from Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help – I saw her speak at Guildford Library and she said she had 67 rejections over five years. I vowed that I would use 67 as my magic number before giving up on a book. In the end, after many rejections over four years across three novels, I found an agent quite easily because I already had an editor at Avon interested in my work.

When did you get your first book deal?
Bizarrely, I got my first book deal on the same day I found my lovely agent, Clare Wallace (Darley Anderson). She offered me representation in the afternoon and when I got home that night there was a two-book deal from Avon in my inbox. That was August 2013.

What tips would you give to other aspiring romance authors?
Learn as much as you can about writing and be prepared to ‘hear’ your feedback rather than fall into the trap of thinking that people who don’t shout ‘Genius!’ don’t know what they are talking about. Network like mad. Go to writing festivals, learn as much as you can from other authors, make writing friends and don’t forget to give back.

Where do your write?
Because the dog thinks that I clearly don’t have anything to do if I’m sitting down, I have to hide in Starbucks, where I write 1000 words a day.

Where do you look for writing inspiration?
Because I write stories about ordinary women, I tend to get inspiration from what my friends are talking about. The brilliant thing about being a writer is that no occasion is ever wasted – you can always sit and watch how people interact, however boring the event.

Which other authors do you admire?
Rachael Lucas (Sealed with a Kiss) and Tina Seskis (A Step Too Far) for writing excellent books, self-publishing them with the sort of aplomb I could only dream of and having the nous to use their success to springboard into traditional publishing deals.

Are you on social media?
I am…it’s taken me a while to feel confident there but I really enjoy Twitter (@kerryfswayne). I love the fact that my readers can contact me directly – I’m always so delighted to hear from them. It’s also a great place to keep on top of what’s happening in the publishing world – or any world that interests you.

Personal

IMG_2028aWhere were you born?
Peterborough, Cambridgeshire

What is your earliest memory?
Running around the garden with my golden retriever puppy.

Where do you live now?
I live near Reigate, Surrey. My garden backs onto the M25, which is a huge selling point.

Dog or cat person?
I get enough disdain from the children so I don’t need a cat looking down on me when I’m sweating away on the Wii Fit. Definitely a dog person – when we first got our dog, I was very ‘It’s just a dog, she’ll have to eat dried food and go to the kennels’ but now she’s the one getting organic this and that, while the husband makes do with an omelette. She loves the dogsitter so much, she parks her bottom and won’t get into the car to come home when we’ve been on holiday.

When were you happiest?
Everyone expects you to say something momentous like the birth of my children (knackering and sore) but I didn’t really expect to ‘settle down’ – I was very free-spirited in my youth and loved travelling but of course, that can be lonely too. So I always feel a huge sense of joy when my husband and kids meet me off a plane and I’m going back to a home that’s filled with the chaos of family life.

What advice would you give to your 18-year-old self?
The same advice I give to my daughter now: ‘It’s not what you’ve got, it’s who you are. Fill your life with people who are generous of spirit, can laugh at themselves and don’t keep count.’

What was your most embarrassing date?
My then boyfriend turning up dressed like Adam Ant complete with white nose stripe to go to the cinema. He missed his bus home and I made my mother chase after it in the car because I couldn’t bear to be seen with him one second longer.

What is your favourite romantic moment?
Despite writing about romance, I am utterly unromantic – I’m probably the only woman who loves getting saucepans and vacuum cleaners for Christmas. Top of my romance list is the husband putting the bins out without being asked.

What do you wish for when you blow out the candles?
In the current countdown to publication of The School Gate Survival Guide, my big wish is that I won’t have to go on Twitter and announce my novel is number 400,000 in the Kindle charts.

What is your favourite smell?
Norfolk sea air and sweet peas.

What book would you choose to take on a desert island?
The New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors – my wonderful editor, Helen Bolton, recommended it to me and it answers all those lovely questions about whether ‘powwow’ has a hyphen or ‘god’ has a capital…I love all that grammatical pedantry and I never have time to absorb it.

What music would you choose to take on a desert island?
Abba. You can’t be depressed if you’ve got Abba to sing to. Let’s hope there’s no rum there, otherwise I’ll be thinking I’m the Dancing Queen.

Three people you’d like to be stranded on a desert island with.
I should choose someone like Bear Grylls but I’d have to say my best friend from university days, Maria. We’ve travelled in all sorts of challenging circumstances and we’ve always seen the funny side, plus she’s very charming so if anyone could persuade a ship to stop for us, it would be her. I’m going to stick to one person, as I know she wouldn’t eat me if we ran out of food.

What or who is the greatest love of your life?
I’d love to come up with something original here but I’m going to say my husband for just being a thoroughly decent human being and my kids – well – who’d have thought the woman who’d never picked up a baby before they were born would love them in such a ferocious fashion?

What is your favourite romantic song?
It’s a cliché – no clichés allowed – but I still love Wet, Wet, Wet’s Love is All Around. I had it at my wedding in the late nineties along with thirty million other couples. Though I can’t help picturing Bill Nighy now when I hear it.

What is your favourite romantic film? Love Actually and Dirty Dancing

Do you believe in love at first sight?
Come on, I’m the woman who prefers bins being taken out to flowers…I think that’s a no.

The School Gate Survival Guide is out as an ebook on 3 July…perfect holiday read: http://bit.ly/SchoolGate

A Style of my Own

Oh don't worry, I'll just wear a bin bag

Oh don’t worry, I’ll just wear a bin bag

As part of a publicity drive for The School Gate Survival Guide when it comes out at the end of summer, there’s a wonderful PR agency working their socks off to make sure that it’s not just my Great Aunt Edna reading it. Sometimes they send through requests for my participation in magazines. The latest one was a feature on super-stylish women who wore something a little unusual to get married. I ticked a bit of that box, but clearly not the whole box.

No one, ever, could accuse me of being super-stylish. I still break out into a sweat when I think about the jogger who had the misfortune to encounter me at 5.30am on the hill outside my house, walking the dog in my leopard skin dressing gown, stripy pyjamas where I obviously clicked on the escaped convict style when ordering online, all topped off with furry purple moon boots. Obviously, I don’t usually wander off into public places in my night clothes but it was early on a Sunday morning in November, the dog was a puppy and had yet to be trained out of chasing bikes, kites and toddlers. I thought if I just popped out with her, she might stop barking and we’d all be able to get some sleep. Unfortunately, she decided to chase the jogger, which instead of allowing me to melt away quietly into my garden led to me charging across the hill, boobs flinging about all over the place, hair like a gonk and abject horror on the face of the poor insomniac runner.

I really would like to be more groomed. The sort of woman who could bump into an ex-boyfriend at any time and have the satisfaction of seeing him crumple to his knees at the prize not won. As it is, I think those who got away are more likely to form a little celebration club to skip across the hill outside my house Morecambe and Wise-style, with Ken Dodd’s Happiness as their signature tune.

I think the problem is two-fold. Often enough, the crumb of morning time available for the brushing of hair or the slicking on of lipstick is spirited away by needing to clear up the yoghurt and blueberries helpfully tipped onto the floor by the cholesterol conscious dog. Or a drama involving the shoddy buying of cereals *containing raisins*. Or forgetting to print off the history homework after promising the night before. Yet I see other women at the school gates who have more children than me, with lovely lips and shiny coiffed hair, and no doubt they puffed their pillows and squared their duvets before leaving home rather than tearing out the house, yelling ‘Where’s the dog?’ before shouting, ‘Sausage! Sausage!’ to the amusement of the early morning walkers on the hill.

(Never mind writing The School Gate Survival Guide, maybe I need to read a non-fictional version of the damn thing.)

Anyway…the upside of not being a paragon of sartorial elegance is that I never care when other people’s dogs jump up at me with their muddy paws, I couldn’t give a hoot if I get caught in the rain, and best of all, when I do dress up, the contrast is so stunning that even the husband notices.

Blog Hop…

So…my turn to join the blog hop…many thanks to the lovely Cathy Powell, Australian by birth and a committed Italophile.  See her blog hop post here.

Here come the four questions about my writing process…

What am I working on?

I’m working on the edits for my first traditionally published novel, The School Gate Survival Guide (published by Avon on 3 July), as well as writing my third novel, where I deal with my fascination about family secrets. I’ve always been intrigued by the idea that families start off with small inconvenient things that no one is allowed to talk about and then the secret gathers moss down the generations until it’s huge and far more distressing when it’s finally revealed. This one is actually the fourth novel I’ve written but only the third likely to meet a reader. My first, the snappily titled Wives and Cows from Your Own Country was less a novel than a series of characters wandering from a restaurant to a beach and back again in search of a story to star in. As they would say on Twitter: ‪#drivelIMG_2054

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

It’s always tempting to start disappearing where the daylight doesn’t shine when you start to talk about genre, influences and your own selling points. In order to retain a few rays of sun on my face, I’ll keep it brief: I write commercial women’s fiction but if I had to pick out something, I’d say that I am brutal about portraying honest ‘real’ emotions. When people read my first drafts, they often find my characters are a bit harsh because I never back away from unattractive feelings that people don’t want to admit to experiencing.

Mainly though, I’m not so bothered about being different, more hoping not to be laughed at.

Why do I write what I do?

I love writing about ordinary people. Human beings are so funny because they never see themselves as other people see them. Do arrogant bores regret monopolising the conversation while their audience slowly slump to the ground, eyes rolling back into their heads, desperate for a stray fork to jab into a buttock to shock themselves awake? No. They simply puzzle over why there was an inexplicable rush to the bar to drink more of that dreadful wine when they were just getting to the crux of the solution to the Eurozone crisis, the reform of the benefits system, the superiority of the latest Range Rover.

Since I started writing, no excruciating social occasion is ever wasted.

How does your writing process work?

I may have to use the term ‘work’ rather loosely. I start off with an idea for a character, usually a woman trapped in a situation she doesn’t want to be in, either by her emotions or her environment. I know how the novel starts and I know how it ends and I have few scenes in my head to get me from A to B. I’ve tried to plan, but I find that I can’t write the damn book until the characters start to evolve, and for me, they can only do that once I start putting them in situations. Inevitably this means I get to the halfway point with a plot wobbling like a tray of fine stemmed glasses and I’m not sure whether I’m going to trip and smash the lot or manage to make it to the safety of the table. When I start running round the kitchen in my slippers shouting, ‘We’re doomed’, I usually send the whole lot to my writing buddy, author Jenny Ashcroft for an honest appraisal to get me back on the right track.

Next week, there is a huge treat in store – next on the blog hop are:

Claire Dyer, literary author extraordinaire

Claire Dyer’s novels, The Moment and The Perfect Affair are published by Quercus, as is her short story, Falling For Gatsby. Her poetry collection, Eleven Rooms, is published by Two Rivers Press. She is undertaking an MA in Poetry at Royal Holloway, University of London and lives just outside Reading. You can find her blog at her website: www.clairedyer.com

And Puffin Diaries Sarah, fabulous adoption blogger

Sarah is the adoptive mum of two boys behind The Puffin Diaries. Her blog is full of the highs and lows of her family life, writing about adoption, living with depression, her love of cooking and all things creative, plus lots of photography. Sarah is also co-founder of The Adoption Social, a site that promotes and supports the adoption on-line community.

Sarah can be contacted on twitter as @PuffinDiaries, through her Facebook page The Puffin Diaries and by email at thepuffindiaires@gmail.com