Saturday, 26 February 2011

Steam Punk and Mutant Zinnias

It’s been a demoralizing couple of months and not just because of appalling weather. Just when I was getting on well with the final spruce up and edit of my second attempt at novel writing, I spotted a question and answer session organised by the Romantic Novelists’ Association. Just the thing, I thought, a chance to hear what an expert panel of editor, agent and published author has to say, maybe even pick up a few hot tips from the real insiders.

A crowded basement room at the New Cavendish Club, a cup of tea, some bikkies and all the expected advice:

A useful reminder about what to put in a submission letter – keep it to the point, and check out the agent actually deals with your genre – complete with cautionary and comi-tragic tales of authors sending off huge packages of historical romance to agents who only deal in cyber punk.

What is required in a synopsis? Apparently these are seldom read, and are asked for only to prove you’ve actually written an ending. When I think of the hours I have spent worrying...

Which leads to why I am feeling particularly disheartened. A brave soul asked what was the coming thing in fiction, a sure fire route to getting published, like what was every publisher gagging for at the moment? What did their mutual crystal balls say would sell in these cash hardened times?

I crossed my fingers, please, please let it be optimistic fiction with a couple of twists, a sad bit, a few laughs and a happy ending. Was it hell – What do readers buy during hard times? Well certainly not cheery novels to see them through until their spirits are uplifted. Okay, it's no surprise ditzy chick-lit is currently way off the mark (do I hear you say ‘at last’ and ‘hooray’?) But apparently what the buying public wants is even darker, dark hard times, with grim escapist drama, and not just suspenseful, woman in jeopardy sort of stuff, but more Victorian Gothic meets Blade Runner on a particularly bad day, with a pinch of Wuthering Heights thrown in. And keep it urban, very urban. I swear I’d never even heard of Steam Punk Romance until that day, and it’s been taking the U.S.A by storm for simply ages and is catching on in a big way here too. Dr Who has a lot to answer for; it would seem his tardis is the perfect piece of steam punk kit.

So it’s time to wipe off my brass goggles and get my bionic parasol all buffed up. If I want to get published it’s into the ditch with my cheery plots about young women working in country gardens and making out in life. I need to get going with end of days, edgy, cyber chick noir and something nasty lurking in the potting shed, mutant zinnias perhaps or cyber chrysanthemums methinks. Then again, maybe not.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Two young men, the writer Paul Howard and his friend Tanzin Norbu, are about to start a trek up the frozen Zanskar river valley, in temperatures as low as -30ÂșC , through a gorge deeper than the Grand Canyon. This gorge has been the only winter link between Zanskar and the outside world for a thousand years. Because of the isolation, Zanskar is cut off from the rest of the world for nearly 7 months of the year, making education very hard to maintain.

To address this issue, Tanzin and Paul are developing a scheme to adapt the remote schooling techniques developed by the famous ‘Schools of the Air’ in the Australian outback for use in the valley. In collaboration with existing schools in Zanskar, the aim of this project is to use radio communication, along with written course materials distributed throughout the summer, to keep at least the flame of education alive in the winter months.

The first stage in the development of Radio Zanskar is for Paul Howard and Tanzin Norbu to visit Zanskar in winter via the Chadar, a trip funded by the Royal Geographical Society through its annual Neville Shulman Challenge Award. If you’d like to check out more, why not follow their progress on

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Service With Barely a Smile

I’ve been off on a short break in Southwold, Suffolk, so missed the last programme of Michael Roux’s Service on BBC 2. I didn’t see all of the other programmes either, just enough to make me particularly conscious of the type of service I was getting while away. Now Southwold is a trendy little Suffolk seaside town, full to bursting in summer, but delightful – if a bit windy - out of season, and full of tempting boutique style clothes shops. Sadly trying to buy in them left me feeling nigh on invisible. Having enticed me in by a 50% sale, the three members of staff in one were far too busy babysitting to even acknowledge my presence. The object of their attention, a small child reading aloud from a book.

“She’s sooo clever,” the owner cooed when I asked for help in finding a bigger size. A pair of blue eyes looked up for approval. Not having a heart of stone, I agreed, but left without buying the stripy tee shirt, to try my luck down the street. Here the assistant didn’t even acknowledge my presence at all. Just flicked her eyes away from her computer screen long enough to check the door was shut behind me.

Thus I came away from Southwold with no ‘little something’ to remember my trip. Actually that’s a lie. The Serena Hall Gallery opened its doors a few minutes early to let me in. We had a long chat about how art was selling, the problems of parking in a seaside town, plus how crazy it was to cut rural buses. I left with one of Lincoln Kirby-Bell’s signature ceramic bowls, just covered in the most wonderfully gaudy spots, swirls and spirals. Both my welcome in the gallery and the pot I bought were a rare treat.

No one wants servility, but politeness with perhaps a smile, along with an attempt to do the right thing, helps to make the shopping/eating out experience memorable or at the very least a pleasure. Even if sometimes a cheery approach can go too far. Breakfast in our hotel came accompanied by a running commentary. The woman who took our order went round the tables asking everyone where they were from and what were they going to do that day. Just by the chance of being in the same room, I found out a lot about my fellow guests. My breakfast kipper arrived via a stream of information as to where our waitress lived, both now and in the past two years, and where she was thinking of taking her own short break. Happily the details of her many ailments were saved for some of the other eaters.

So it may be good to take an interest in your guests, but it can go too far. I’m sure the whole dining room stretched its collective ears to hear the answer from one of the couples. She, a young woman in her very early twenties, he more of a father figure and from his demeanour most likely her boss. At breakfast they were asked if they’d enjoyed their stay and did they do anything nice the previous night. I can only say their joint reply, though barely audible, did seem a bit flustered.