It’s bluebell time again. I have measured out my life not through coffee spoons like J Alfred Prufrock but through bluebells. These are taken at Duncliffe wood in Dorset at dusk. The scent of the flowers is always strongest then. It’s hard to concentrate on writing when I know that just a few miles away the bluebells are waiting for me…
Yesterday, the postman delivered the very first copy of Mr Rosenblum’s List. It’s an actual proper book. In hardback. With my name on. I placed it on the shelf in the sitting-room amongst the proper books by real authors (hoping they wouldn’t pick on him). I feel slightly dazed. I’ve seen proofs and typeset manuscripts and cover roughs and back copy blurb, but nothing quite prepares you for seeing your story bound into an actual book.
This the edition that will be sold in Australia and New Zealand…
I’ve done a couple of interviews now — one last week with an Australian paper. I feel amazed at how Jack and Sadie’s story has traveled. It is so lovely that people so far away want to read a love story about a short, middle-aged man and his roundish wife…
And, if any of you are in London, I’m doing my very first book event, which will be at Jewish Book Week on March 2nd, at 5.30pm in Bloomsbury. It’s free and un-ticketed and you will be able to get an early copy of Mr R…
My grandmother had a rather spectacular recipe book. It doesn’t look like much – a battered exercise book with the cover torn off – but it contains magic. All the family recipes are in there, and although she died when I was very small, I feel that I know her little through the Baumtorte, the Apfel Kuchen and the Sachertorte recipes.
Here are her Vanilla Crescents. I loved rolling these out as a child and coating them in sugar. They make me long for evenings in front of the fire, licking sugar crystals off my fingers.
6 oz flour
2 oz semolina
4 oz softened butter
3 oz vanilla sugar (2 for cooking, 1 for dusting)
drop of almost essence
Mix the ingredients together in a bowl until a rough dough is made. Then, with your fingers, roll out small sausage-shaped pieces and pinch them into crescents. Place them on oiled grease-proof paper and put onto a baking tray.
My mother and grandmother always keep a jar of vanilla sugar in the larder for making cakes and desserts. All you do is put one or two vanilla pods into a sealed container of caster sugar and leave it there. Every six months or whenever the pod begins to lose its potency, replace it with a fresh one.
Bake in a moderate oven for about 20 minutes or until golden brown.
Today I went out with Julia, the lovely Hodder sales rep, to meet booksellers in the Dorset area. It was great to meet the people who will actually be selling Mr R. There are just so many people involved in the selling of a book – from the brilliant team at head office, to the traveling sales reps (make me think of old fashioned peddlers with donkey carts piled high with glittering books) as well as the booksellers in the shops.
Jack is on his travels too. I’ve been e-mailing with Professor M, my German translator. Having someone scrutinise your book in minute detail is quite an odd experience. In my alternate life as an academic, I have spent eons reading a poem, researching every line, and as a screenwriter I have interrogated the text I am adapting. It’s a fantastic experience, and one becomes quite obsessed with the source text – it feels at times like squatting in someone else’s brain. However, having that gaze turned upon one’s own work is quite disconcerting.
I’m now getting glimpses of the foreign covers. This is the Dutch one:
And this is the Spanish:
Mr S and I have been writers-in-residence at a rather lovely school in Kent this week. There was a blizzard on Wednesday night and we woke to Narnia. And, last lesson was cancelled – after leaving school I never thought that I would once again experience the joy of a snow day.
We’ve been running workshops on writing fiction and screenplays. Lots of the the girls had questions about how to get started on your first screenplay and Mr S wrote them a how-to list. I think it’s really useful so am posting it here.
There are far too many screenwriting manuals out there. Anyone who has ever brushed up against the film business seems to think it qualifies him to tell the rest of us how to write for the movies.
So, first, a warning. Reading too many How-To books will almost certainly paralyse your writing aspirations. Unless you want to be deluged by off-putting jargon and prescriptive advice, I suggest that before you pick up a single manual you start at the source and read a bunch of screenplays.
You can get hold of many of your favourite films here:
All of these sites are run by fans so there’s one thing you should watch out for. Make sure that you read the actual screenplay (i.e. the draft written by the screenwriter(s)) and not a transcript that a fan has put together after watching the film three hundred and eighty-seven times. The sites usually tell you which is which.
Nothing will teach you more about how to write a screenplay than reading one.
And if, after that, you still want to write one, I suggest this book. It sounds cheesy (it is) but I used it at the start of my career and, hey, look at me now.
‘How To Write a Movie in 21 Days’ by Viki King
It’s strangely compelling and inspiring and utterly practical. You feel as if she’s holding your hand throughout the process, and who doesn’t like to have their hand gripped by a complete stranger? But don’t expect to turn out a great screenplay. This is about practice.
If you prefer something a bit more serious to get you started, then Syd Field’s ‘The Foundation of Screenwriting’ might be your thing.
Many people will suggest that you pick up Robert McKee’s comprehensive tome, ‘Story’. It is fascinating, it is dense, it is a cohesive philosophy, it makes many, many insightful points. And it will probably kill you. Stay away from it for a few years, that is my advice. Early in my career I glimpsed thirty seconds of a McKee lecture on a DVD, and was unable to write for the next six months. Seriously.
I suspect that the book which inspired me won’t have the same effect on you. Mostly, because the films he references are ones you probably won’t have seen. The book is ‘Adventures in the Screen Trade’ by William Goldman. He is one of the true greats. ‘All The President’s Men,’ ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,’ ‘Marathon Man,’ ‘Princess Bride’ (I’m going to guess that you do know this last one). He writes about the process of writing and making several of his movies, with excoriating anecdotes about the business mixed in with practical advice, especially on what to expect when your screenplay is turned into a movie.
So now you’ve read a couple of books and many more screenplays. You know how to format your work, you’ve got a sense of story and structure. My advice would be to stop reading and start writing.
In the film business, you will be met by unceasing hordes of people telling you what works, what doesn’t work, how to do it, how not to do it, but, as the great William Goldman so succinctly put it, the truth is that Nobody Knows Anything.
It’s been 20 years and it’s time for the cottage to be re-thatched. This is the cottage that my grandparents bought when they first arrived in Dorset and the place where I spent all my holidays as a child. The windows are really high as it used to be the village school and the teachers didn’t want the children to be distracted by interesting goings on in the lane outside.
The thatcher and his assisant are doing a grand job as you can see. My mum mentioned ‘Mr R’ to John the thatcher and he was very enthusiastic and is bringing his wife and their book group to the launch. If only he could have helped Jack and Sadie with their leaky roof in chapter 10…
And you need a good head for heights… I feel dizzy.
Mr S and I are back in Dorset after a busy week in London. It was all rather fun – I met my charming Dutch editor, Jacqueline, and saw the cover for the Dutch edition of Mr R. The book is being busily translated at the moment, and editors and translators are starting to send through questions about the text. The biggest challenge seems to be the Dorset dialect. There is a motley collection of local folk in Mr R and they speak in broad Dar-set tones.
This was great fun to write: I scoured old dialect dictionaries, read lots of William Barnes and, of course, Thomas Hardy. The speech is written phonetically with dialect words like ‘jitterbug’ (glow worm) and ‘yow’ (ewe) and ‘noggerhead’ (idiot). In old West Country speech, nouns are gendered as they are in German or Anglo-Saxon and are nearly always ‘he’. So, a roof in need of repair is: ‘ee’s in a bit o’ a bad way, isn’t ‘ee?’ I chose to elongate the ‘ee’ when transcribing, as I felt ‘e’ as in ‘e’s in a bit o’ a muddle’ sounds too much like cockney.
All well and good – gave the poor copy editor a bit of headache – but I thought it was all finished. Now, the poor translators are going through exactly the same thing. Jacqueline and her translator are trying different rural Dutch dialects and choosing which sounds best. Professor M who is working on Jack in German, is struggling with the eccentric spelling of the dialect. He emailed to ask what an ‘ersey mistake’ is – (it’s an easy mistake to make…)
It’s a very strange feeling to be taking a week or so off writing (agent Stan has Fred) while knowing that other people are busily working on Mr R. I think they are all in need of some of Curtis’s jitterbug cider.
I have now finished the first draft of Fred. I cried when I reached the end. I took a moment in the summerhouse to be alone and to feel sad that this part was over. Writing can be really hard, it can be frustrating but it also one of the greatest pleasures in life – or in my life anyway.
Writing endings are different to writing beginnings or middles. The story and characters are set up, and the reader has been on a journey for two or three hundred pages and has built up her own vision. By the end, I want to allow my reader to fill in the spaces between the words. I don’t mean leave an ‘open ending’ in terms of story, but allow the reader room to imagine things herself and be able to fill in the blanks. I think it is more emotionally resonant this way.
In case this seems all rather vague, I’m going to turn to my usual guru: Jane Austen, and in this instance the obsequious Mr Collins. In this scene, Mr Collins is taking Elizabeth Bennet round Rosings Park, and describing the scene in front of them:
“Here, leading the way through every walk and cross walk, and scarcely allowing them an interval to utter the praises he asked for, every view was pointed out with a minuteness which left beauty entirely behind. He could number the fields in every direction, and could tell how many trees there were in the most distant clump.”
‘Pride and Prejudice’ chapter 28.
Mr Collins is not allowing any space between the words. He is describing the scene (which they can see anyway as it’s right there in front of them) in such detail that he ruins it. As a writer, I think one of the hardest thing is knowing how and when to evoke places, people and reactions, and when one needs to leave it to the reader’s imagination and trust them to fill the spaces. As Keats (almost) said ‘hear words are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter’.
Beattie’s book blog said lovely things about Mr R: http://beattiesbookblog.blogspot.com/2010/01/mr.html
I’ve been having one of those days… so close to finishing this draft of Fred… and part of me doesn’t want to. Feeling a little melancholy* so this made me smile.
*(interestingly, a word I used with a creative spelling in a story aged nine and was told off by my teacher for being pretentious – when asked what that meant, I was told ‘if you don’t know ‘pretentious’ you can’t possibly be melancholy’).
I feel slightly odd, like I’m actually living in two parallel worlds; or, at the very least, jet-lagged and trying to zoom between two time zones. Only rather than London/ Los Angeles, the zones are 2010 and 1941. I disappear to write and vanish into wartime Tyneford, then return to the kitchen for a cup of tea, a chat with Mr S and to make a phone call or two, and I feel very discombobulated. Time-lagged.
When I approach the end of a draft the story takes over and I start to think incessantly about it. I don’t sleep very well and, when I do, I dream of Dorset long ago. Out walking with Mr S, he complains that I’m quiet, but it’s not quiet in my mind, or at leas they’re not quiet, since they are chattering very loudly in my head. Before you start to panic, and think you need to send Mr S or Jocasta or Agent Stan concerned e-mails, let me assure you that this is a hazard of the job. Many writers talk about hearing snatches of conversation between their characters, and that part of getting into a story is learning to listen to them.
When that first draft is finished and set aside for a few weeks to rest and simmer, it will become peaceful again. My noisy characters will be held inside the manuscript, waiting to be read so that they can talk again. For now, I might go out to the summerhouse and hide, but somehow I expect they’ll be waiting for me there, impatient to get on with the story.
It’s so good to be back in Dorset. Within a week I start to pine for green fields. The snow has almost gone here, just a smattering of white across the high ground. I think I timed it very well, carefully avoiding the evil slush.
Emails are flying back and forth as Sceptre (and my mum) try to organise the launch of Mr R and begin to arrange events for the book group tour. (If you want me to visit your book group, click on the link at the top of the page and leave a message – or email me at: mrrosenblum AT hotmail DOT co DOT uk). I’ll be very well behaved and will even bring my own biscuits.
Yet, while all this is going on, I’m hurtling towards the end of Fred. She even has a title. I can’t sleep for Elise and Mr Rivers wandering through my dreams. All I want to do at the moment is write. I have notebooks and files and scraps of paper, all filled with scribbles for the last few chapters and these are slowly making their way into the story. If only they could all stroll off into a sunset as lovely as this one…
I’ve got used to telling people that my book’s coming out next year. Only now it’s this year. I’m excited and nervous in equal measure. Little snippets are starting to appear, like here:
Where the fab book blogger Simon Savidge picks ‘Mr R’ as one of his books to watch in 2010…
I’m also speaking at my first event – Jewish Book Week on the 2nd of March. So, do come along. It’s my very first Mr R talk, so I might be rather nervous…
It’s quite strange, as we get closer to the release of Mr R, I am busily writing Fred. In fact, I’m hurtling towards the end. I’ve enjoyed writing her so much that part of me really doesn’t want to finish. But, I know it’s alright. It will only be the first draft and I’ll have Mr S’s notes and then agent Stan’s and then Jocasta’s. So, Fred and I will spend a lot more time together yet. But this is a good thing – I really don’t get tired of the stories or the characters. I’m looking forward to seeing Jack and Sadie once again. Only this time, they won’t just be mine, but will belong to other readers too.
I’ve been in London again for a few days. Actually it was my birthday and I decided to celebrate in the big city with my friends. My mum came too and baked me a Baumtorte – a traditional German cake which literally means ‘tree-cake’. Rather than being baked in the oven, it is made by whipping up a vanilla flavoured batter which is then cooked in layers under the grill – like an enormous stash of very thin pancakes placed on top of the other. When it’s sliced, the layers look like the rings of a tree.
The recipe comes from my grandmother, Margot, a champion, if eccentric, baker. Each layer represents a memory or a thought, so it’s very appropriate for a birthday cake. The cake features rather prominantly in Mr R – Sadie bakes it whenever she needs to remember something or someone. So, I saved a piece for Jocasta (my editor) who had never tried it before. I felt almost guilty at giving her rather stingy slice. Almost.
Today, Mr S and I finished off the last slice and I couldn’t help but feel a little melancholy. The last of this year’s birthday Baumtorte. There’ll be another layer on next year’s. It’s like the thaw. I love snow. It transforms the most stoic grown-up into a sledging six-year-old. We’re all transported back to a childhood in Narnia and a land of hot chocolate and stories before bedtime. But, with the thaw, the magic disappears. As the snow drips from the trees and turns into grey slush oil stained by car-tyres, we all grow up again in an instant. I don’t mind it once the snow has gone, but the act of watching it fade from perfect whiteness into sludge, I can’t bear. I’m tempted to hide in London until it’s gone.
And, yes, I switch off the Narnia movie, the moment that the snow begins to melt.
I couldn’t resist posting this picture of my grandparents’, Paul and Margot, looking so chic after a country snowstorm in the 1950s. My grandmother looks particularly fetching in her blouse and slacks.
The festive season was so much fun, but I am really glad to be snuggled at home writing again. Jocasta is busily preparing the paperback edition of Mr R and has asked me to find some photos of my grandfather, Paul, who was one of the inspirations behind Jack. I sent her the pictures through and she called straightaway to remark on how handsome and elegant Paul is. Jack is many things – determined, obsessive, tender, ‘five foot three and a half inches of sheer tenacity’ – but he is neither handsome nor elegant.I found myself oddly glad that Jocasta had observed the differences between the two men as well as the similarities.
I hope my grandfather would be proud of Mr R – even though he was never really a fan of fiction, never quite understanding why writers felt the need to make things up when the world is already chock-full of fantastic stories. I suspect he would not approve of Jack. He’s too rash and impetuous for his taste. And Paul would consider himself a far superior golfer.
For the first time in about a decade, I spent New Year’s Eve in London rather than in Dorset. Mr S and I joined friends at Wilton’s Music Hall for a twenties-themed evening of decadence, opera and burlesque, instead of the usual fireside supper at my parents’ cottage.
It was very different to last year, when I’d just signed with agent Stan and was about to embark on the edits for ‘Mr R’. Stan was planning on submitting the manuscript in February and we were all hopeful that it would find a home. So much has happened in the past year: from getting an agent, to selling ‘Mr R’ at auction, signing foreign rights deals and meeting so many amazing people involved in the publishing process. And, I can’t quite believe that 2010 is the year that I’m really going have a book published. It still doesn’t feel real.
Thank you for reading this blog and for your lovely comments, and I wish you all the very best for a wonderful 2010!
I love winter. There is something about the cold weather that makes me want to sit by the fire and write. It’s too cold to venture out to the winter house across the ice-field terrace and arctic lawn, but Mr S has the woodburner blazing. I also love the seasonal food. Slow cooked stews, stroganov with cardamon rice, and most of all the cakes. This is the time of my grandmother’s sugar dusted vanilla crescents, marzipan stollen, gingerbread and the legendary Pffefferkuchen.
Christmas is marked each year by the search for the lost Pfefferkuchen. This is a chewy biscuit made with mixed peel, mixed spice, chopped nuts, sugar and egg whites, which my grandmother and her sisters used to make. Unfortunately, the recipe was recorded in my grandmother’s usual haphazard fashion: ‘chop sufficient nuts and fruit, cook in an oven that’s hot enough, until they’re done.’ No one is left who can remember the precise proportions so every December my mother, sister and I try to make the perfect Pfefferkuchen – ‘less sugar’, ‘just bash the nuts’ – and every year we fail. Inevitably our biscuits don’t rise, the texture is all wrong, and yet our quest for the lost Pfefferkuchen has become a memory in itself. Hmm. I’m getting hungry. I think it’s time for elevenses and perhaps a slice of stollen.
This is the teapot that I really want to pour my tea from. It was made my Polly at Hodder.
And from the back…
It’s time to go home. I’ve seen dolphins and pelicans and manatees, and this morning a sea of black ducks soaring above us as we stood on the pier. The weather has been beautiful the last few days, and it’s been amazing to sit outside and write looking at the sea. It might be the Gulf of Mexico and not Worbarrow Bay, but that is what the imagination is for.
Of course, I took Fred on holiday with me. Kit and Mr Rivers et al refused to be left behind – even on the plane, I am sure that they were all huddled a few rows behind. They certainly paced up and down the beach with me, gazing at the sea and daydreaming about what happens next.
In the early morning mist, with fog drifting along the beach thick as smoke, I could easily see the scenes of Fred and the heron haunted English streams. Although, this picture by Mr S, shows a different view of a heron. He’s got his rod and tackle box and is enjoying the sunset.
And here’s a picture of me at the Ringling Circus Museum (a place itching with stories…) snapped by Mr S as I’m pondering Fred. There are probably some shadowy figures in the window, waiting…
Sorry for the silence. Mr S and I are on holiday in sunny Florida at the moment with the senior Ss. Florida is amazing – it’s one of the few places in the world where you can get chopped liver and chicken soup on the beach. It’s also a magic land filled with Grandparents.
The apartment is right on the beach with an amazing view of the Gulf of Mexico. The other S’s have been perturbed from time to time about the morning mist which lingers over the sea, much like a Scotch harr. I, however, rather like it as the brilliant turquoise sea and bright blue sky is nothing like Dorset, while a bit of fog and grey makes it much easier to day-dream about Fred.
We’ve been celebrating Hanukkah (with aforementioned chopped liver and chicken soup as well as pineapple and chocolate fondue) and the Senior Ss found a bottle of Mr Rosenblum wine! It’s fortunate I’m not into writing sequels…
We’ve had some good, hard frosts here in Dorset. Mr S is an early riser, and has persuade me to get up and walk with him across the fields in the ice and frost before breakfast. I love crunching through the frozen grass in my wellies, it triggers some childlike glee. We’ve been preparing for winter all around: a ton of logs were delivered from the woods on Bulbarrow and we then stacked them around the stove and in the woodshed. The winterhouse is so cosy with its shiny new radiator, and I feel a little guilty, sitting inside warm in my fingerless mittens and listening to the radio, whilst I watch Jeffrey pheasant strut around outside in the cold.
My parents have recently replaced their laptops (in white so as to match the fridge) and have complained that my blog was not on their new computers, so they’ve not been able to follow my progress on Fred. My father in particular is worried that the ending will not be happy enough. He is addicted to happy endings; he likes his stories, whether movies or tv shows or books or dinner party anecdotes, to end with an avalanche of happy endings. The hero must always get the heroine and there must be a happy-ever-after on a triumphant scale. For a while he was concerned about even reading Mr R, just in case there was a sneaky miserable ending.
In the pub last night, he suggested that if there is any ambiguity over the ending in Fred, that I write an alternate version just for him, where everyone lives happily-ever-after, surrounded by plump grandchildren, golden retrievers, chocolate cake and goes off sailing every Saturday in perfect weather with beer and a picnic. My father is a huge fan of Jane Austen. Though interestingly, his favourite is Persuasion which, I would suggest, has one of the least happy endings in all of Austen. But don’t tell my father – or he’ll never be able to read about the adventures of Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth ever again.