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Monday, 24 September 2012

I've moved!


I've been seduced away from Blogger to Wordpress because even though with blogging (as with life) content is all - I really like the clean layout of wordpress.  Unfortunately it has taken ages for me to even start to get to know Blogger and now I'm faffing about with wordpress - pressing random buttons and widgets.  So if you want to carry on reading my witterings, please come on over to:

You'll be very welcome!


Tuesday, 21 August 2012

A little bit of validation

The great thing about avoiding work by surfing internet research is that occasionally you run across something that really brightens your day.  I sometimes read manuscripts and offer constructive criticism for The Literary Consultancy, and today I found out some news about a writer called Rebecca King who had submitted a terrific YA story about a young ballerina in the 1920s.  Frankly the ms was 95% there and just needed a bit of tweaking but the publishing world is such that an almost there manuscript might be turned down with a standard rejection slip by a harassed editor or maybe a few encouraging words scribbled on a complimentary slip.  So I was thrilled to hear that Rebecca tweaked away and now has herself an agent who in turn has a tightly written and marketable story that doesn't need to be edited, pruned or altered.  It just needs to be sold.  I'm so pleased for Rebecca.  It's made my day.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Recession + freelance = extra shit rates part 2

Just finished reading a very good blogpost by the writer Jenn Ashworth on writing for money, and she starts off by stating quite rightly in my opinion that it's not OK to write for free.  Not only because it drives the price down for everyone but it adds to this toxic and patronising idea that writers do it for the love anyway.  It's a very good piece which lists the bullshit reasons writers are given for not being paid and how you should respond to them.

Here's the other thing.  The recession is being used as an excuse to pay writers - all writers - even less.  Squat in many cases.

Anyway, to follow on from my first post on this subject,  last week a friend of mine finished a book and recommended me as copy editor.  I received a nice email from one of the editors at the publisher (and it was a perfectly respectable publisher) asking about my rates so I went to the Society of Proofreaders and Editors and learned that they suggest a rate of 24.25 per hour to copy edit a book which would work out at say 10 pages an hour for a 50 000 word book.  So If I worked for 8 hours solid a day, that would work out at £194 per day.  I reckon I could do a 50 000 work book, line by line in a week which would work out at about £900.  So I offered to copy the whole book for £600 because given these stringent times I thought it would be fair to offer a flat rate but not one so low I would feel ripped off.

Back came an email saying they would use someone else.  My friend later told me that they had offered the work to someone else and had suggested about £400 and he with great difficulty had pushed them up inch by inch to £500.  £400 to copy edit a whole book?  And I've heard of highly experienced copy editors being offered £250.  Which works out - if you take a week to do a whole book at about £6.25 per hour.   With tips you would get more for waiting tables.

The NUJ has a section where writers can post rates - the good, the bad and the ugly as sin.   Perhaps writers should start up another  - like that series of books on Crap Towns and Crap Jobs.  We could add Crap Rates to that.  So what's the worst rate you've been offered?

Friday, 27 July 2012

Recession + freelance = extra shit rates.

Today I was offered some work at a risible rate.  It left me feeling angry but also queasily ungrateful. Money is such a tricky subject among freelancers.  We all tread a fine line between wanting the work, wanting to appear to be reasonable – to be reasonable but we also have to pay our bills. 
So when I named my price, having checked the going rate, and how long the job would take, feeling confident that I was offering a pretty good deal, there was silence at the other end of the phone.    I have been doing this long enough to recognise the pattern.

Trick 1: The disapproving silence.

Passive aggressive tinged with embarrassment.  Oh God – it’s too much money! Quick say something!  Like ‘No – just joking!  I’ll rewrite it for 50p and a pork pie.’ 

Trick 2: Empty flattery. 

The person that I spoke to knows me well enough now to know that I was brought up Catholic and therefore the Guilt Button is always there, just under the surface so she sighed again and then ladled on the flattery – they really like my style and they really wanted to work with me yadda yadda.
Ever tried to pay a bill with flattery?  I haven’t got any actual money Mr Mortgage Company but your 3.4% fixed rate makes my heart go all fluttery wuttery.

I hate negotiating money.  If you have an agent they do all that stuff for you but as an independent, all you can do is check out rates with places like the NUJ and The Writers Guild.  But I would suggest also that you remember that as a freelancer, you are not getting any benefits such as sick or holiday pay or maternity pay.  Also you have to factor in heating, lighting, office expenses so hiring you as a freelancer means that for every £10 a full timer gets, you are getting about £9. 

Trick 3: Say something vague about the recession and how everyone has to tighten their belt.

Right, so does this mean the business you are working for has cut their prices?  You are a business too. And as such, you should not be giving your hard earned skills away to another business.  

So often I’ve thought of the millions of other freelancers out there and panicked at the thought of being ‘difficult’ when really I was just afraid to be assertive.  But what I saw as being ‘nice’ may have been interpreted as ‘a walkover’.  Like the online publisher who wanted ‘all rights’ for an article I was writing.  This included (I didn’t know at the time) moral rights – the right to be identified as the author of the article.  Or the publisher who wanted me to write an A-Z of dieting and offered me £50 for a 2000 word article!  When I said ‘no’ she accused me of being ‘grandiose’ and it only ‘involved a little bit of research’.  Twenty six ‘little bits of research’ in fact if I managed to find some sort of diet with X in it.  I turned it down and she came back to me three weeks later with three times the amount (still a shit fee but hey -) but by then I was busy on something else and really couldn’t do it.
I don’t know what can be done about offering writers appalling rates.  Is it that everybody in the world wants services as cheaply as possible – not just writing but all services?  Is it that good writing looks easy?  Or that because writers tend to work alone and are worried about seeming ‘diva-ish’ or ‘difficult’ so they accept bad or non-existent rates.

I was contacted by a company a few weeks ago who were offering writers the chance to write for their website for free!  Isn’t that great?  And whatever you wrote for that company then belonged to the company – i.e. the copyright was no longer yours but theirs.  And yet they claimed they were a company who promoted and supported writers!  If you want to write for free start a blog but don’t provide content for a website too lazy or cheap to write their own.  And by the way – click per view is not pay.  Unless you count £2.89 per month as pay.

Trick 4: The Biggie.  Yours is the most expensive quote we’ve had (said in mournful voice)

Ah – the implicit threat.  You’re not the only writer in the world.  Well you're not.  Still doesn't mean you have to accept shit rates.

If you have to have the work well it’s your decision and I totally get that sometimes you have to do it – bills need paying.  But writing something suffused with resentment that you are being ripped off is just horrible.   And it drives down the price for everyone else. Don’t do it!  Think of the long game and respect yourself enough to research and stick to a fair price.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

The Boy is Eighteen Today

I can't believe it.  The small, blue eyed, soapy smelling monkey child who would cling onto me as though he wanted to climb back inside is eighteen today.  Technically at 8.47pm in fact because after twenty eight hours of walking up and down hospital corridors attached to a drip and cursing whoever said that 'natural childbirth' was 'powerful' - it all went wrong, I was flipped onto a bed (ok not so much flipped as heaved) and The Boy was dragged from me grumbling profusely.  'No change there' says A, 'he didn't want to leave his room then and he doesn't now.'

The Boy did grumble rather than cry but as he had uttered not a sound up to that point and several ashen faced doctors were gathered round him, we were pleased at any sound frankly.  It was boiling hot, much like today, and A had smuggled in an electric fan which he kindly aimed at whichever bit was the sweatiest.  Oh the romance.  But finally I remember glancing at the clock at the exact moment that the Boy grumbled croakily and it was 8.47 and we had a son and he was fine.

Now he is eighteen and taller than me.  He calls me 'Micro Mum' and when I try to remind him of stuff or tell him off he laughs at me.  Happy Birthday Boy.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

I do love my new flat.  The walls are painted bespoke vanilla mist (I love that word although I'm not entirely sure what it means - bespoke, not walls).  'Yes vanilla mist' I said to the man who came to mend the boiler the other day although to be fair he had only asked me to pass him a torch.  But he was kind enough to reply, 'Looks like magnolia to me.'

There is a big window in every room and amazingly I have a bit of outdoor space - a large balcony with lush billowing plants and an obese pigeon who swoops down every morning to sit fatly on the iron  fence.  The Girl has made friends with a feral squirrel who darts into the garden every morning and ransacks the 'squirrel proof' bird feeder.   Last week I yanked out shelves in one room, drilled holes in walls and put them into another room.  They haven't creaked and fallen off the wall yet.  I was rigid with tension for the first few weeks, expecting something - anything to collapse or stop working or to discover that America's Most Wanted was living in the wardrobe.  In fact the dishwasher politely waited until I'd moved in - worked once and then groaned to a halt, and the boiler flashed at me red-eyed, like the end of Terminator and then died too.  But worrying stupidly about some nameless possibility is never as bad as the reality of some machine just ceasing to work.  Although I suspect that had the boiler gone AWOL on a freezing February night I might have felt differently.

In the middle of all this nesting I'm supposed to be writing a new radio series so once a week I gather up my laptop and head off to the new BBC in Portland Place.   Walking up to this mammoth iconic structure of steel and glass, it's impossible not to feel a tweak of pride.   Inside, it reminds me of a combination of Bladerunner and CBeebies - huge glass walls, steel lifts and dotted with primary coloured furniture that doesn't look terribly comfortable.  It's only half full, so there are great open planned swathes of office, with empty desks.  Every week, my producer books a room with typewritten notes on the door and everything and every week, we discover somebody already in there who glares at us or says: 'Just a mo' and then carries on talking loudly on his phone.  There's something about the place that makes me feel exposed.  Maybe that's the idea.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

My week with the boiler

The only real writing I've been doing recently is filling in large numbers on cheques.   Because as you know, dear reader, moving into a new place means peering into dark corners to find out where that strange clanking noise is coming from, or going red and saying: 'I don't know' when the Electrical Engineer shows up and asks you where the electricity is switched off from.  Further humiliation ensues when after spending two hours reading Boiler Maintenance Made Easy, you still have no idea why the red button is flashing so you ring up Boilerz and after half an hour of selecting 'Option 2: If you want to throw your boiler off a cliff' - someone answers and says: 'Oh no - that brand of boiler doesn't flash - it glows.'  Round comes a teenage boy who scratches his arse for ten minutes before informing you that despite 'specialising' in the type of Boiler you have ie Shit Boilers Inc, they don't have the part you need, so will have to drive to Reading to get said part, at a cost of £80 plus VAT per hour.

Teething troubles I suppose and although a good friend has pointed out that it would be infinitely worse if I had discovered the boiler wasn't working one late night in January, rather than July (even though the weather seems identical - don't get me started) I feel that the last month has been a bit of a fiery baptism.  I'm not good at understanding technical hoohaa and these Technical Manuals are Very Badly Written and utterly confusing.  Added to that is the wealth of TV programmes featuring hard men chasing Bad Tradesmen down the street, leaving a trail of weeping, and bankrupt pensioners, and you are left thinking that men who come round to your house to fix stuff are Nearly Always Crooks.

Of course this isn't true at all.  And so in the spirit of being a bit thick about this stuff and innumerate here are a few tips on getting in tradesmen when stuff breaks down.  Told you I wasn't technical:

The two excellent tradesmen I've hired recently both recommended a site called DIY Not which is full of really useful tips from professionals and DIY experts.

I had my electrics sorted out from a company I found through Which.  If you need some unbiased, consumer led guidance on who to hire and what to buy, you can't do better. They also have a section on recommended tradesmen.

Whatever job you need doing, always ask for at least three quotes in writing.  If they baulk forget it.  Never ever pay upfront for a job.  Or agree to a lower rate for cash.

It's also reasonable for a professional to have a clear idea of how long it will take for them to do the job.

If at any point you don't understand what your trades person is talking about, say so.  Ask them to explain and write it down because it is boring and you will forget it.  But I am now proud to say that like Father Purcell in Father Ted (the most boring priest in the world, I can now hold my own in the world of boilers).  Do you still fancy me?

Saturday, 7 July 2012

I'm back! And with a Mallen Streak!

Does anyone remember The Mallen Streak?   Catherine Cookson meets vampiric white slug on the on the front of hair?  Sometimes it can look sexy as with Caitlin Moran or not as in the case of the bloke on the front cover of the Mallen book who looks like a cross between Michael Bolton and Wolf man (not sure which is worse.)

Anyway the POINT is that I've got one.   A Mallen streak.  A big grey one at the front of my hairline.  Possibly through the sheer stress of moving house.  Or maybe because I've got a hitherto untapped streak of badness.  'Or it could be that you're really really old mummy,' as The Girl pointed out the other day before going outside and doing a handstand in her knickers.

It could be.  But then moving house is unbelievably stressful as well as time consuming.  It's not the actual physical business of moving your stuff from one location to another - it's the getting of the mortgage, the realisation that although banks have no trouble squandering our money, when it comes to lending it, they are still firmly back in the 1950s, by which I mean they look at anyone who doesn't have a 9 - 5 regular job with a solid income - with horror.  And considering that jobs like this just don't exist anymore and most of us are on contracts, and even more of us are self-employed, you would think that a tiny amount of flexibility would be called for.  So although I had a pretty decent deposit, I still had to jump through more hoops than a circus dog and with the aid of a good mortgage broker.   No wonder everywhere I look, people are renting.

I did find throwing stuff out very therapeutic though - even books.  I always felt guilty about chucking out books, it has this Nazi esque connotation to it - the next step down from burning books.  But I knew I was moving to a flat and many of my books felt connected to my past so I gave loads away, recycled the rest and only kept the books that make me look intelligent I love and cherish.

So I've moved house and am now in that stage of finding out how things work (or don't) while working on my next Radio 4 thing, a series.  But I'm acutely aware that I've been neglecting my blog where I moan and whinge constantly write about my fascinating life.  So I'm back and Mallen Streak or not, I'm going to write a lot more from now on.  

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Recording Eggy Doylers

I had a play commissioned by the BBC in March 2011. I wrote the first draft back last summer and it was frankly awful. It’s set in 1979, a few months after Mrs Thatcher came to power and what you have to avoid is info dump about that period of time:

Good morning! And it’s a fine morning in June 1979 and goodness me we have a female Prime Minister. 

Do we? And here’s a pint of milk that cost me 15p. 

CUE: Ian Drury and the Blockheads I do like that Ian Drury. Is he Top of the Hit Parade? Etc.

I wrote a second, third, fourth and by the fifth draft it was starting to get some sort of shape. My producer is very hands on which I like – I gave her carte blanche to cut and change anything she didn’t like. Because I trust her. Some writers hate this. I respect that because for most writers, a word or a phrase is there because it is necessary and it may well impact on a scene later if it’s cut or changed. I’m not quite so bothered possibly because I spent years as a journalist and in that field, writing is often cut to ribbons. I learnt not to be too precious about my writing.  Or maybe I'm just a lazy arse.  Not that distress over heavy handed chopping is precious – but sometimes you get writers in a rage because an ‘and’ or a tiny joke is cut.

The play is about an absolute disaster of a school trip. I initially called it The Ambassadors because I remember that teachers in a vain attempt at good behaviour warned us that we might be out of school but we were still Ambassadors for our school. But then I worried about listeners tuning in expecting an adaptation of a Henry James book and instead find screeching teenagers and even worse behaved teachers. So I changed it to Eggy Doylers which was a generic term of abuse at my school. Nobody really knew what it meant but apparently if someone was prone to bouts of fury, shouting Eggy Doyler at them was guaranteed to push them over the edge. And because the BBC get millions of ideas they tend to get glued to a particular title.  I'm writing a series at the moment and the Commissioning Editor hates my working title.  He wants something more war like - and proactive.  I know what he means but I'm completely stuck.  It's about romance writing and smuggling and World War Two.  So far I've come up with Mills and Boom.  Don't think that will do.

Last Tuesday and Wednesday I trooped along to what look like army barracks in Maida Vale but are the BBC recording studios. The paint job reminded me of Wandsworth Prison as did the two unimpressed looking people at reception. ‘I’m here for a play’ I said tearing in the door at 9.10am. ‘So is everybody’ came the nonchalant reply. I was late and keen to get my Visitor card but they couldn’t find a pen. They slightly reminded me of the time I staggered up the steps of the maternity hospital at 11pm, stomach protruding about five foot, in labour and the Security Guard at the door eyed me suspiciously and said: ‘What are you here for?’

The actual recording room looks like The Enterprise with huge banks of knobs and machines to twiddle. The acting takes place in what looks like a half finished episode of Changing Rooms, with bits of wood and a few chairs lying around. In the middle of this are the studio managers who gamely rustle bits of paper or crush biscuits or clang on things to create the sound magic that in turn creates the pictures in your head. It was wonderful and oddly surreal to hear the words I coming out of actors mouths. In many cases bits were funny that I couldn’t remember being funny and in one case – a whole scene that I thought would be hilarious, off the page was about as funny as a triple bypass. Kill your babies I thought as we cut the scene entirely and fiddled around with the next one so it made sense.

The cast were gorgeous and generous with the endless retakes. My producer Jonquil Panting has an uncanny ability to tell you how good you are while wringing another rewrite/take out of you. It's not till much later that you realise you've been schmoozed into doing it again and again and again. The fab cast includes - Ralph Ineson, Lydia Leonard, Joseph Drake, Amaka Okafor, and Alex Lanipekun. And I’m in it doing a cruel (and accurate) impersonation of a girl I used to know at school. Meanwhile the Studio Managers were playing bits of music from that year and reminiscing about Gary Numan and his constant farewell tours and how everybody fancied Chrissie Hynes. It’s done and it’s in editing. And it will be transmitted on Tuesday May 22nd at 2.15pm. And I’d like to say for the record that BBC coffee is unbelievably bad.

Friday, 13 April 2012

If a tree falls in a forest . . . .

Philosophical questions. If a tree falls in a forest and nobody is around to hear, does it still make a sound?

And if a writer remains oblivious to all my advice and constructive criticism and carries on in her own inimitable style – is her story still shite?

I tutor someone – let’s call her Daria, who for months now, has submitted chapter after chapter of her novel. I read and make notes, offer suggestions and encouragement. Then I start to notice that despite effusive thanks for my comments, they are being roundly ignored and the next chapter is full of exactly the same problems, overwriting, long sentences that require oxygen to read out loud, plot anomalies, too much description and passive writing.
Daria continues to ignore my suggestions thanking me for my help after each chapter. In a last ditch attempt to get through to her, I write notes in CAPS explaining that if one of your characters breaks a leg she can’t be seen RUNNING in the next chapter. The readers will NOTICE. And since you have built the entire story around the broken leg you can’t go back and change it to a SPLINTER. This too is ignored so I give up and make bland polite remarks.
Then when the final chapter is done she sends me an email thanking me for my help and asking if I will write her a really good review as she is going to send the unrevised, unrewritten and frankly awful book to a publisher. She even suggests words I might like to use in my review. (I have a few in mind but not the ones she is considering.) I am staggered at her brass neck and say I wouldn't give you a good review if there was a gun to my head no.
I go to her website a few days later and find she has a FAQ which includes the question:
How can I find out more about Daria's books?
Go into your local bookshop and demand that they stock them!
No - it is not meant to be ironic.

After I scrape my chin off the floor I can’t help but feel faintly admiring. I would never have the cheek to ask for a rave review. Or even imagine that people have nothing better to do than go to obscure blogs, and feel an urge to march into Waterstones and shout: Hey you – overqualified bookseller! Why aren’t you stocking the books of that fantastically talented author called Daria! I'm not leaving until you do!
Where does my student get her dazzling sense of entitlement? Because if she could tie that to actual writing and rewriting ability she would be unstoppable. Think of all the celebrities out there who have no discernible talent whatsoever but are considered a valuable brand.
But wait! That phrase . . . .actual ability . . . actual ability . . . actual ability . . .
I blink slap myself round the cheek a couple of times and realise that answer to the second question is definitely YES.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Everything and nothing has changed

I listened to a Woman’s Hour phone in yesterday on the joys and problems of being a stay at home mother or a working mother. Among the calls was a lady – can’t remember her name but she was very positive and cheerful and basically said, ‘Come on – things HAVE changed. We can go out to work if we want or more likely NEED to, we shouldn’t apologise for wanting more than caring for our children – we work to pay bills not because we’re selfish and even if we do want things like status and a sense of satisfaction in working – what’s wrong with that? We shouldn’t have to feel guilty for having ambition. Things are different for our generation. And I thought – yeah good on you.
And then I read Dennis Waterman blaming Rula Lenska for him hitting her because she’s a 'clever woman' and you know what it’s like with these uppity wimmin and their cruel tongues making less educated men feel bad. Well according to Waterman she (surprise!) provoked him and I think no – nothing’s changed at all. 'It's not difficult for a woman to make a man hit her,' he says. No Dennis, all she has to do is say the wrong thing. Or just get in the way of his fists. The ‘he or she made me do it,’ is the classic abuser’s excuse as we all know. I remember reading some horrendous piece where a paedophile pointed out that little girls were actually very seductive and what's a guy to do? Or the girl who goes out wearing a tight skirt and 'gets herself' raped. Or in this case – clever women deserve to get hit. It’s all the same really. Victim blaming. Nothing has changed. Dennis Waterman – you are an anencephalous tosser. Clever enough for you? And Minder was shite.

PS: After I posted this piece I read again the Christina Odone piece about it in the Telegraph, linked above. And then I scrolled down to the comments. Read them if you want to be depressed. Out they come the 'jokes' about never hit a woman (no matter how much she deserves it) - oh ho ho, and about how the domestic violence figures are skewed in favour of wimmin. Where are the figures for this? I know that there are women who hit men and men are often too ashamed to come forward. But why when there's a piece in which a man admits to having hit a woman and then basically blamed her for it, are practically all the comments of the 'la la la what about men la la la wimmin are bitches la la la' type?

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

How to be a contented mother

The woman who threatens commmunity websites with ruin if they disagree with her shows you how to grow a Contented Little Baby is back! And this time she's not ordering babies about but mothers, in her new book: The Contented Mothers Guide. Basically it tells new mothers, very very new mothers, to slide some nice underwear over the leaking c-section scar, ignore the red, swollen breasts and put out for their husbands. I'm sure it tells you other stuff too like how to stay at home and how to go to work. Or maybe work part time. Oooh yet another book telling us how to do parenting proper. Lovely.
But as Ms Ford is notoriously litigious I will say no more.

Gina Ford and Marjorie from Fat Fighters. Are they related?

I have to go to school tomorrow dressed as a Roman

So I was sitting in front of my laptop musing whether one character’s newly shuffled arc would impact on the other main character’s arc when The Girl comes pounding into the study. She’s got this habit of repeating the question in exactly the same tone of voice until I break.

Mummy I have to go to school tomorrow dressed as a Roman.
Hang on a minute I have to finish this.
Mummy I have to go to school as a Roman.
I said HANG ON
But Mummy I have to go to school tomorrow dressed as a Roman.
Did you not hear me? I have to have five minutes to finish this.
I have to go to school tomorrow dressed as a Roman.

I swear to God she could be used by M15 on stubborn suspects.
It was at this point that I realised that a) the word ‘tomorrow’ was appearing a lot and b) I’m shit at sewing. Not like my mum who made me an Alice in Wonderland costume from scratch when I was nine years old. She even made little pantaloons. I can’t even sew a pencil case. No I’m not kidding. When we made pencil cases at school which involved cutting out two rectangles of fabric and stitching them together, mine ended up looking like some dodgy Rhombus sewn by a drunk person. And my stitching was so bad that the single pencil I put into it fell out almost immediately. But it was time to put my pencil case shame behind me and ransack my wardrobe for anything remotely Roman looking. I tried to persuade her to wear a sheet but The Girl was adamant. She was going as Flora Roman Goddess of Flowers.
So thanks to an old slip, some gold braid, a needle and thread, some glue and a LOT of swearing, The Girl had a costume. And she looked lovely. And I still haven’t sorted out the character arc problem.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Juggling with Spaghetti

I’m writing a Woman’s Hour series on Ida and Louise Cook. These amazing sisters who lived an outwardly very quiet existence in Wandsworth in the early nineteen thirties, spent about five years providing financial guarantees for Jews fleeing from Germany, and sometimes smuggling out jewels and fur coats, the only source of portable wealth that might provide their refugees with future security. Their cover story was their passionate love of opera, and helped by their friendship with the conductor Clemens Krauss and several opera stars, they would travel to German or Austria in their woolworths cardies and sensible tweed skirts, see an opera, then return via a different route to avoid the suspicions of the border guards, often laden with jewels and furs.

After Kristallnacht in 1938, Nazis began to openly attack and loot Jewish homes and businesses and their victims were only given thirty days to get out of the country if they were able to escape at all. But once into Britain, a refugee child had to be ‘adopted’ by a British citizen until the child reached 18. A woman could be brought over on a domestic permit. It was much harder for men because they might have a job waiting in the UK or US but would still have to apply for a Visa from some pompous little Nazi in order to get out of Germany.

Once in the UK a refugee over eighteen would then be put into another queue for Emigration to the US – a queue which could stretch to over three years wait. During this wait, again, they would be the financial responsibility of a British citizen. For refugees over 60 this responsibility would last for the rest of their life. Oh and if it seems as though the UK was doing everything they could to keep Jewish refugees out, it was because they were. When you think about attitudes to refugees now, it seems little has changed.

Using the cover of their operatic passion, Ida and Louise would travel back and forth to Germany. They went in and out using different borders to avoid becoming too familiar with the guards. In Germany they stayed in big hotels with high ranking Nazis to show they had nothing to hide. And why would anyone suspect two giggly spinster sisters? Under this cover they saved twenty nine lives. And as Ida was a prolific Mills and Boon writer she used her earnings to provide sponsorship for her refugees. It was a time where £25 would buy someone’s life.

It’s difficult writing about heroism because nobody decides to be a heroine. The word conjours up marble bust drama – I don’t want that. Living through it is one thing – talking about it – something else. And it’s such a big story that I can only concentrate on a small part of it. As I often tell my students you have to decide what you want to say – what you want the story to be about, regardless of genre.

I think I want this to be about two sisters, who can only do their work if they think of it as a romantic adventure and not a series of terrible risks.

I find scene breakdowns the most onerous part of writing because (to me) it’s the bricks and mortar. If your foundations are dodgy, it doesn’t matter how nice the furniture or the carpets, because the house is likely to totter and collapse. This is a big story so I have to be very careful about what I cover. And with radio – you can’t have loads of voices either – it’s usually a maximum of five per Woman’s Hour episode. I went away and wrote a scene breakdown and showed it to my producer who gently reminded me that I only have thirteen minutes to squeeze in a shitload of story. Start again.

So my basic rule is to start close up then pull back and reveal and finish each episode on a cliffhanger. And not have episode four and five as ‘tidy ups’. The whole story has to have a narrative arc but each episode also has to have a concurrent narrative arc and be interesting enough so a listener can drop in at episode three and have a clear idea of what’s going on.

This is so hard and I’ve only got thirteen minutes to fill! You know – over Christmas (I’m always late to catch up with Must Watch stuff – I STILL haven’t watched the box set of The Killing or Borgen) – I finally watched Series One and Two of Downton Abbey. And loved it. And wondered: How on earth does Julian Fellowes manage to sustain a narrative arc for each episode, within which are about fifteen characters all with their own storylines, laying markers and red herrings for future episodes AND creating an overall arc for the entire series, and finishing on a cliffhanger? Like juggling with spaghetti. I'm merely juggling with er . . . large pieces of pasta - you know - the big shell ones. But it's still hard.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Whitney Houston

I’m surprised at how sad I am at the news of Whitney Houston’s death. And not because I was a huge fan either. I think it’s because in an ever increasing sea of autotune, miming and talentless pop muppets, she had a gloriously pure voice, clear and effortless. It’s only when you hear deluded X-Factor wannabes screeching and mumbling their way through her songs (for some reason Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey were the songs most really bad auditionees chose to ruin) that you realise just how difficult they are to sing.

But Mariah Carey has survived and now has squillions in the bank, a semblance of a private life, and two proper bonkersly named children, whereas Whitney, the ultimate Good Girl with the gospel voice spiralled into hardcore drug abuse. It’s such a waste. But what gets me is the way the tabs with their usual glee (not very carefully disguised as concern) are very keen to pick over the last few hours of her life looking for signs. Her drug use isn’t in question but it’s the way that the tabs trumpet her dishevelled appearance, in the way that when a female celeb is papped with chipped nail polish, or un blow dried hair this is used as proof that said celeb is having an emotional crisis. Or a fat crisis. Or maybe even a thin crisis. If her knicker line is visible then she’s definitely about to kill herself.

We know that Whitney had a history of major drug use, but of course the number one sign in a female celebrity that she’s on the verge of a meltdown is the fact she looks a right state. Right state meaning not polished, primped and glossed to perfection. Normal. So Whitney’s imminent death from a cocktail of prescription drugs and alcohol was clearly signposted by her looking noticeably disheveled with wet hair and mismatched clothes, waving her arms around frantically. In other words 98% of the population on a Monday morning.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

So it’s the new year and I’ve already broken my number one resolution which is:

Stop making up arguments with people in your head where you cut the other person down to size with your incisive remarks and caustic truths.

And my number two resolution namely:

Stop projecting negative outcomes onto events that haven’t happened yet.

On the good side, writer David Bishop has invited me up to Edinburgh University to talk about abridging books for the BBC. I've just had a quick look at what's expected and am horrified thrilled and challenged to read it's the part of the module called Narrative Practice - Vocational Skillset. So I'll have to make abridging sound Extremely Difficult which it is of course but only when the producer is a pain in the arse.

Read book.


Slash through the subplot and the other subplot about hero’s inability to connect to his mother.

Cut the book into five episodes each of 2,500 words.

Read through to make sure it doesn’t have plot holes you can drive a truck through.

Collect massive cheque from the BBC.

(Now one of the above sentences isn't true. Guess which one!)

There have been other major changes too which is why I haven’t blogged for a while. More very very soon.