Some weekend reading

Happy Saturday! I hope those who are now embarked on summer holidays are enjoying them, and that the weather cooperates with any long-planned activities. Personally, I’m just getting to the end of a week off work, and I’m very slightly less tired than I was when it began, so I’m counting that as a tentative plus.

This week I have a guest post up over at I Heart Lesfic where I talk about the difficulty of finding the book I wanted to read and my consequent decision to write it myself.

There’s also a giveaway of Speak Its Name, which still has a couple of days left to run. You might be lucky!

And I talked to fellow self-published author Helena Fairfax about my favourite places, my least favourite job, and what I’d say to Jenny Lind.


100 untimed books: slim

12. slim
12. slim

After posting a poem about taking three ‘slim volumes’ walking with me, it seemed only appropriate to include the third (the other two are here and here).

And while I’m on the subject, I’d like to wish all pilgrims a very happy St James’ Day, and hope that anybody currently on the road has ready access to plenty of shade and water.

100 untimed books

The cheapest art


I said in an interview with another author that the greatest lesson I’ve learned in life is that the best way to get better at something is to do it, and do it, and do it again, and keep doing it until you actually are better.

The problem – apart from the frustration of not being better yet – is that doing something over and over can get expensive. Lessons, kit, entrance fees, instruments. Most arts require equipment, tools, raw materials. Canvas, paints, fabric, metal, yarn, thread, chisels, saw blades, goodness knows what.

And if you’re doing something over and over again, you use up more and more of the raw materials, and the chances are you’ll ruin quite a bit of it.

Then – generally speaking – the better you get, the more sophisticated your tools need to be, and you start wanting to work with raw materials of higher quality. Of course, a skilled artist can make something wonderful out of indifferent ingredients, but they will make something better out of better ingredients.

I started out making jewellery with an ordinary sewing needle and some seed beads that had been reclaimed (I assume; I didn’t do the reclaiming) from some evening dress. Proper beading needles were a revelation: they would actually fit through the hole in the bead. The first specialist equipment I bought was a set of three pairs of miniature pliers, which probably cost about a fiver. They were all very well in 2009, but as I got better I started wanting to do more, and I needed more in order to do that. These days I have another, decently sized, set of pliers, and a jig. I use silver wire as well as silver-coloured, and I throw in lapis lazuli alongside blue glass. I’d like to have sheet silver and a pendant drill and a blowtorch or three, and mandrels and a supply of saw blades that will last out until I learn how not to snap them.

Getting good at things takes time. It is also very likely to take space, and money.

But that doesn’t have to happen with writing. Well, the ‘time’ part does, but not so much the ‘space’ or the ‘money’. I’m still ambitious and I still enjoy experimenting – but writing looks pretty much the same. When I was eleven I wrote in a spiral bound notebook with a fountain pen. I’m still using a spiral bound notebook and a fountain pen. These days I also use word processing software, I’ll admit, but it’s not what makes the difference between good writing and bad.

Because words are words. If I write, for example,

‘It’s weird, isn’t it?’ Lydia said. ‘Waiting. Waiting for the wheels of bureaucracy and justice to finish grinding so that we can get on with our lives.’

you can’t tell whether I wrote that on the back of an envelope or on an expensive Mac. And I can’t excuse bad writing by telling you that the kit I wrote it on cost a lot of money.

The wonderful thing is that words are free. I can throw them in willy-nilly and pull them out again without having to worry about waste. I can make a long string of adjectives and delete it without a second thought. I can pick words up in the street just because I like the sound of them, and use them over and over again. I don’t have to save them for a special piece, the way I would a particularly lovely piece of jasper.

Oh, there are things that have made it easier. An English Literature degree, for example, has really helped in understanding how to take texts apart, and, by extension, how to put my own ones together. A childhood in a house filled to the gunwales with books, swimming in words and meeting them as equals, claiming them as my inheritance. Friends who write and who talk about writing.

But there’s nothing particularly special about what I do. I put in the time, that’s all. I use the words that are hanging around, and I don’t worry about where the next ones are coming from. And I write and write and write until I get better.

100 untimed books: coming of age

85. coming of age
85. coming of age

This was one of my absolute favourite books when I was a teenager, and I still love it. It’s a riotous, anarchic story where the characters are refreshingly and unapologetically flawed (and wandering through a gentle alcoholic haze most of the time in a way that would horrify the morality police). Nothing much happens, but everything changes.

It’s just right for these sultry summer days when you never quite know what the weather’s going to do next. Or, if it comes to that, what you’re going to do next.

100 untimed books

The conundrum

I do not have the answer. I thought I’d say that right at the beginning, and save you all the disappointment.

The conundrum: how to write, and survive.

For a few, a very few, the stars align and skill and luck get them a bestseller followed by another bestseller and they never have to worry again*.

Some others never had to worry in the first place. Virginia Woolf famously prescribed a room of one’s own and a private income. And I can see her point. That would be very nice. One can manage without, but my goodness, wouldn’t it be nice.


The rest of us have two choices:

Writing full-time

And spend most of your time writing stuff you don’t particularly want to write, and/or hustling to sell the stuff you’ve written.

The day job

This is the one that works for me. And you don’t have to tell me how lucky I am to have a day job that pays me enough to live on while leaving me enough spare time and enough of my brain to write. I know.


This isn’t just a conundrum for self-published authors, though certainly we have to do more of our own hustling. More than half the professional writers in the UK earn less than the minimum wage – i.e. not enough to live on by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, I probably earn more per book sold than most debut authors published in the mainstream. Though of course I sell fewer books.

Anyway, whichever way you slice it, the sums don’t add up. And there isn’t an answer. I said that at the beginning.

My point is this: I’ve got the utmost respect for anyone who manages to make a living by writing things, and I’ve got the utmost respect for anyone who manages to write while making a living doing something else. I’d buy you all a drink, if only I could afford it.


* Or so I assume. If it ever happens to me I’ll let you know. Actually, I’d probably still find something to worry about.

100 untimed books: fear to feel safe

90. fear to feel safe
90. fear to feel safe

I’d been meaning to make another excursion into the spy thriller genre anyway, and had managed to lose The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (it turned up on Saturday morning, in a plastic bag in a cardboard box of things I’d cleared off the sofa bed). And then the work book club decided to read this. I enjoyed it: some effective twists on a number of tropes that needed a bit of refreshing, and the proper sense of just-because-you’re-paranoid-doesn’t-mean-they’re-not-out-to-get-you.

100 untimed books


Peanuts give you, gram for gram,
the densest protein ratio, and crisps
(fat and carbohydrate) are best
for energy. Likewise, poetry’s
the most efficient form in which
to take your words. Three slim volumes
(you buy it in slim volumes, like
crisps in bags, unless you get the
multipack, Collected Works)
will make a feast
to last me eighty miles.