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#Parenting and work. Why we still haven’t got the balance right.

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Both my children are now back at school after a nasty bug that meant they were at home for pretty much two whole weeks between them. I work from home so this wasn’t a problem, but it certainly got me thinking. For two full-time working parents this sort of situation is nothing short of a nightmare. But in this modern, digital world, surely we must be able to come up with a decent solution to the dilemmas which face working parents?
Providing flexible working hours and allowing men to take time off to raise children as well as women has gone some way to addressing the issue. However, the impact of the recession since 2008, which has resulted in widespread insecurity about jobs, and the stagnation of pay has meant that many families are reluctant to take advantage of these offers. The bread-winner’s career remains sacrosanct. That’s certainly the way it is in our house and the reason I gave up my part-time teaching job. My husband’s career requires him putting in very long hours during term-time and it became increasingly clear that I would need to be the one who took full responsibility for the childcare. This meant adopting a less rigid approach to work.
What I have discovered, as a result of this shift in my working patterns, is that I’m far more efficient now. My children being off school ill didn’t really put a dent in my schedule. In fact, it meant I was stuck at my desk with nothing else to do but get on with my job. So how might this observation translate into the wider job market?
Firstly, I think we need to debunk the myth that the number of hours you are seen at your desk or in the workplace equals how valuable an employee you are. Women need to rush out of the door bang on five, to pick up the kids from childcare or school. It doesn’t mean that they aren’t putting in another few hours back home later.
In certain professions, working from home just isn’t possible. Teaching and medicine immediately spring to mind. There needs to be one-to-one contact with students and patients. But having said this, the world of education is gradually changing. In a few years from now, it will be possible for students to follow an entire school or university curriculum remotely, needing a tutor’s feedback only through e-mail or Skype. Pre-recorded tutorials and seminars could be produced for a global market. This type of future would clearly benefit those in the poorest parts of the world and enable the primary carers who have an educational background to achieve proper, flexible working.
This example is just one of the many potential possibilities, but I strongly believe that as a society we aren’t giving enough thought to the issue, largely because we all manage to muddle through, just about. Some new and innovative thinking is required in this area. We aren’t utilizing our female workforce effectively by not taking this issue seriously. With a recent boom in the birth rate in Britain, it’s an issue which certainly isn’t going to go away any time soon.

#Writers need to maintain a mental scrapbook

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I’ve spent a little while working out how to use the visual media site, Pinterest. Now, reading how others operate on the site, I believe that my method of utilizing the images that I pin may be unusual. Like every writer, I try to maintain a sort of mental ‘scrapbook’ of ideas. For example, whilst listening to the radio this morning, I heard a riveting discussion between a middle aged couple. One partner was dead set on moving to the other side of the world, for at least a couple of years and the other didn’t want to go. I immediately lodged this idea in my mind, thinking it would make an interesting dilemma in a novel. It struck me as something to consider developing in the future.
I have begun to use Pinterest in a similar way. Fellow users often enter an interesting description or potted history of the image they’ve pinned. If the story grabs my attention then I’ll add it to one of my boards. This technique provided me some valuable information about the cairns produced during Scottish clan battles in the 16th and 17th centuries, which I referred to in my last book.
The point of this exercise is that you don’t always know what it is you are looking for. Inspiration can emerge from the most unexpected of circumstances. But when something piques your interest and your writers’ antennae starts to flicker into life, you need to capture that snapshot before it slips away from your grasp. So I metaphorically ‘pin it’, adding the scene or conversation to my mental scrapbook. Then, back at the office, I can record the events or dialogue in my notebooks. At some stage in the future, it may find itself into a novel. This is how the process works and I’ve discovered that Pinterest can be a great aid to this. It might not be exactly what the site was designed for but what the heck, it works for me.

Interview: Christopher Eccleston, Safe House

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safe_house_itvTomorrow night (Monday 20th April) there’s an intriguing new four-parter on ITV called Safe House. It tells the story of a married couple: Robert (Christopher Eccleston), a former detective; and Katy (Marsha Thomason), a teacher, who are asked by close friend and detective Mark (Paterson Joseph) to turn their remote guest house into a police safe house. Their first ‘guests’ at the safe house in the Lake District are a family in fear for their lives after they are violently attacked by someone who claims to know them. For Robert protecting the family resurrects fears and anxieties bound up in a terrifying night 18 months ago – where he was protecting a star witness who was about to testify against her gangland husband. He was shot, and she was killed. As a consequence of running the safe house, Robert re-questions this incident and uncovers a web of lies. Here’s an interview with Chris…

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Is there nothing sacred for #writers?

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I’ve written nine novels so far, and in the search for new plotlines, I’ve not yet really struggled. I seek inspiration from things that happen in the news, or situations that I’ve seen other people caught up in. In addition to this, I have been known to weave some of my own life experiences into my novels too, although usually much altered and significantly exaggerated.
As I continue to produce more work, I do delve into my own personal history more frequently. Although, I am acutely aware that I must be careful not to upset anyone with my storylines. It wouldn’t do to dredge up too many painful instances from the past.
But to a certain extent, that is what writers do, isn’t it? They use their own observations to create narratives, tweaking it here and there for dramatic effect. At some point, a friend or relative is undoubtedly going to recognise themselves in a novel written by someone close to them. It could even be viewed as a privilege to be immortalized in such a way.
I can definitely admit that several of my characters are based on real life individuals although never in their entirety. My brother-in-law once suggested, very astutely, that he believed I’m not always aware of when I’m using parallels from my own life in my books. I would agree with him whole-heartedly, as I never set out consciously to recreate scenes from my own experience.
In fact, I would venture that most writers have topics which remain ‘sacred’ to them. This may be a difficult childhood relationship with a parent or a painful divorce for example. There will be some aspects of their lives that remain strictly off-limits in their quest for plots.
There are authors who have made a niche for themselves out of exploring the most anguishing experiences of their lives. These types of frank, semi-autobiographical pieces of writing can be extremely popular. But for me, I like to hide behind my role as the author. I wouldn’t like to reveal too much of myself on the page, although the clues to everything that makes me tick are certainly within the lines of my books, even if they are not glaringly obvious.
Writing is not therapy or catharsis for me. I use the creative process to escape into an imaginary world. If it resembles my own life too closely then I wouldn’t enjoy the experience as much. At the same time, I would be naive to think that I wasn’t revealing a great deal of myself through the process of being a novelist. But for me, some topics certainly are sacred. I know that resurrecting certain issues and events would hurt the people closest to me and I’m not in the business of doing that. But I wonder how much other authors feel the same. Are some subjects sacred? Or does the writer, by taking on the job, agreed to open themselves up entirely to their readership? I’d certainly be interested to know.

Comparing maternal and romantic love is like comparing apples with oranges

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I’m sure that many people read the Huffington Post article doing the rounds yesterday. It was about a woman who said she loved her husband more than their children. It was a controversial sentiment, shocking even. But what immediately struck me when I read the piece was that the premise of her argument was quite wrong.
When our babies are born, the first instinct we have is to protect and nurture them. This is the basis of maternal and paternal love. You are both terrified and in awe of this tiny person whose entire existence depends upon your skill at being a parent. Yet when we start out, we possess no skills at all. Of course, with time, we start to get used to the concept. But it’s still bloody difficult.
To compare this experience with the romantic love that a parent has for their spouse is erroneous. It just isn’t the same. My husband doesn’t need me to protect and support him in the way our children do and because our offspring need us so desperately and demand so much from us, especially in their early years, the relationship we have with our partner inevitably takes a hit. There is really no getting away from this. Young children absorb so much of your time and energy that it could hardly be otherwise.
What I think the lady writing in the Huffington Post was suggesting was that she had ‘ring-fenced’ her relationship with her husband in an attempt to ensure that their romantic love was not damaged by the unremitting onslaught of parenting. In order to achieve this, she had upgraded the romantic love of marriage to be more important than the love she had for her children. However, I’m not entirely sure that such a distinction is necessary.
This kind of direct comparison is unhelpful and certainly damaging to a child’s sense of security and belonging. Every child needs to feel they come first. Your other half is a grown up and doesn’t require this sort of pampering any longer. This is simply a natural element of the life-cycle. When your children are older, there can be more time for the two of you as a couple once again. It can actually be quite nice to ‘rediscover’ your other half in this way.
Our children seem so vulnerable and tiny when they are little. There’s a reason for this. We are designed to feel responsible for them and worry about their safety every minute of the day. If I felt this way about my husband it would be slightly odd. He’s a grown man and doesn’t need me to fret about him in this manner. But actually, my children really do.
There’s no denying it’s tough. Several of my books explore the difficulties that emerge within families under the pressure of bringing up small children. But I do try to stress the fact that it gets easier, time passes and the burdens lessen. On the other hand, the writer PD James, in her later Dalgliesh novels, discusses the circumstances created for the child when its parents adore one another to the exclusion of others. As always, her observations are astute. The child feels isolated and diminished, as if he was an awkward and unwanted presence in his own home.
The truth is that as adults we can accept that we might get shunted down the pecking order when our babies come along, because we know how much we were loved ourselves as children. But our offspring can’t understand this concept, they aren’t designed to. They need to come first and as grown-ups we need to gain our reward from knowing that we’ve done our very best to make them feel this way.

Is it really worth attending the London Book Fair?

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This is a question that many professional writers will be asking themselves this week. The annual London Book Fair kicks off at Olympia tomorrow and today is the last opportunity to buy discounted entrance tickets online. I’ve been to the fair in the long distant past, when I worked in the book trade at the end of the nineties. Then, I was on the other side of the fence from where I am now. In fact, back when I worked at the Good Book Guide, I attended a few different trade fairs, particularly when I was selecting products for the gift supplement. Even then, I had doubts about their worth. Most of the decisions I made were based on the product catalogues I brought back to the office with me, which presumably I could have received through the post (or from the company website these days).
Of course, it’s not all about sourcing new products. These trade exhibitions are about networking and building up contacts, aren’t they?
This week I would actually be able to attend, as my husband is at home to do the school run, otherwise I wouldn’t even consider it. But as I peruse the event website, I become less and less convinced. There will be hundreds of folk there, each one battling to reach the stands for all the major publishers. Yet, I don’t want a ‘big name’ publishing contract, I’m doing very well on my own, thanks, and learning lots of new skills along the way. There are training seminars to attend on marketing and digital publishing. Well, everything you need to know on these subjects is already available free on the internet, to be perused in the comfort of your own home.
I’m missing the point. The draw of the Book Fair is the buzz and the exciting prospect of meeting fellow authors and perhaps a well-known writing celebrity or two. But is it really worth it? I live fairly near to London and the jaunt would cost me at least a hundred quid. I could use that money extremely profitably on book jacket design or editorial services (not to mention my daughter’s upcoming birthday). I think I’ve already talked myself out of it. I might have enjoyed it when I was younger and could afford to waste the cash. Because it really would be wasted. The modern publishing world doesn’t look the way that the Book Fair would wish to present it any longer and thank goodness for that. To enjoy an expensive day of small-talk and glossy brochures all results in more expensive books for the consumer.
I think I’ll stay at home this year and spend that money on my daughter’s birthday party. I shall continue to work hard in my little office, using all the treasures that the world wide web can provide me with and produce my books and Ebooks at a fair and affordable price. I suspect that would be a far better use of my time and money.

Who exactly are we writing for?

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When watching journalist Giles Coren’s programme on how to eat to live longer, one thing he said really stuck in my mind. Whilst speaking of his late father, the satirist Alan Coren, Giles explained that on the day his column was printed, his dad would call him up to say how much a certain joke or phrase had amused him. The journalist paused at this point, obviously full of emotion, before declaring that now his father was gone there wasn’t much point in writing any more, because he only ever did it to make his dad laugh.
This very personal insight touched a nerve in me. I could sympathise with the man’s dilemma. Although the books and articles we produce may be read by hundreds, or even thousands of people, I can honestly admit that I usually only have one or two readers in mind when I write.
It may not be the same person on each occasion, often it depends on what I’m writing about. I certainly don’t consider a ‘mass audience’ when I begin a new story or article. In some cases, I will simply be telling a tale that appeals to me on some level, I then just cross my fingers and pray that others will like it too.
I hope that Giles does keep on putting pen to paper, he certainly succeeds in making me laugh, and many others as well. But I think that he has highlighted an important reason why many authors and journalists get started in the first place. For many writers, there was that one special person who they wanted to impress, or make proud of them. In many cases, this solo audience will remain forever private to them. It just so happens that the rest of us get the benefit of their work too.

Professionalise all aspects of the job you’re doing. The end results will be better for it.

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I read a very good blog this week by a fellow writer. He was bemoaning the fact that authors are now required to diversify in order to get their books to a wider audience, he didn’t want to have to claim that he did anything other than write books. I can certainly sympathise with his view, however, I suspect that I’m one of the people that this particular blogger was complaining about.
These days, I would say my job was not simply being an author, but also a publisher, a digital marketer and someone who has to turn their hand, quite frequently, to graphic design. I also edit and proof-read, alongside my very able team of editors and advisers. So I really can’t say that I’m just a writer, it would be disingenuous. Much of what I do on social media is marketing. It would be misleading to suggest otherwise.
The image of the hapless author, who has their mind almost permanently focussed on plots and characterisation and not on the realities of the business side of writing is really now a thing of the past. Even if your novels are handled by a large publishing company, you will still be required to do your own marketing.
As time goes on, I find myself increasingly enjoying these other aspects of the job; particularly the cover design and the making of the promotional materials. Why should I pay for a so-called ‘professional’ when I can do the task myself and the more I do, the better I get at it. I think it’s important not to undervalue the new skills we are learning. I actually think I could give some traditional publishing companies a run for their money in terms of the editing and design I’ve produced. I see no reason to be coy about the new trade that we are budding apprentices of.
If we take these various business roles seriously and treat them as a professional part of our job description then I believe that the end results will be better too. Don’t treat self-publishing as an amateur venture, give your hard work the credit it deserves. I reckon I could join a marketing department in any sector of industry now and have a reasonable amount to offer. I think that authors (and part-time working mums for that matter) have a tendency to trivialise the work they do. This is unwise. Be confident about producing a polished and professional end product and your work will be taken more seriously, which is something that every writer must surely desire.

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