Have You Got that Book…?

I have some reading for you today. Writing about the old Waterstone’s in Stratford-upon-Avon has made me nostalgic, and so, in honour of that old shop that doesn’t exist anymore, I publish this extract from Have You Got that Book..? and dedicate it to all the people I worked with. Apart from tidying up some of the grammar, it has been left exactly as it was written and last edited over twenty years ago. This is taken from chapter 3; the much-loved manager of Phoenix Books is retiring and being replaced by a relative of the shop’s owners, but not many of the staff are happy with the change.


Two weeks later, Owen came into work wondering whose idea it had been to have Rodney’s leaving party the night before the new manger’s first day. Her first real visit to the shop at all, as it turned out, and she would be met by a shop full of hung-over staff with red bleary eyes and pounding heads.

The party had been raucous, to say the least. Rodney had chosen his favourite restaurant, an Italian family business that served up huge bowls of delicious pasta and the best pizzas in Robinsworth. Rodney had added to this copious bottles of Chianti and had instructed the waiters to keep the glasses full. He had then set an example by getting stupendously drunk.

“If a man can’t have a few drinks at his own retirement party, then what is the world coming to,” he roared. “Come on Milly, drink up. Susan, down in one.”

And everyone else seemed quite happy to follow him. Spirits had been low since the news that a stranger would be taking over had become known. James, of course, had been devastated, which he turned into anger that someone who didn’t know anything books or the shop would be in charge. His reaction was understandable, and the staff seemed to have taken it to heart. Much to Owen’s disapproval, Rodney was quite open in his agreement with James, which certainly didn’t help. Owen could sense a mounting wave of hysteria, despite all his best efforts to reassure everyone that the new manager had probably wanted to work in Robinsworth because it was already successful and therefore wouldn’t want to come in and change everything overnight. He wasn’t sure if anyone was listening to him though. In fact, it seemed that they were all set on drowning their sorrows and throwing caution to the wind.

Owen had drunk a fair amount himself, but had been determined that at least one of the staff would be in a fit condition to meet the new manager, and had carefully refrained at a sensible hour, keeping his glass full so Rodney couldn’t insist on refilling it. Seeing Milly sobbing into her tiramisu, he had volunteered to open up in the morning, guessing that Milly wouldn’t be fit for her usual duty. So he arrived at the shop early, with a relatively clear head.

He turned on the computers and began running the morning set-up programmes, which loaded the shop’s computer system. Then he went to make himself a cup of coffee, and took the opportunity to browse. He liked being in the shop when it was empty and silent; he felt at home, as if all the books were his, and he went around, straightening the books here, replacing stray books there. As always, he became completely absorbed, and was surprised by Milly staggering in, who had forgotten Owen’s offer to open up. Owen quickly steered her to the admin room where he left her with a cup of sweet tea and a promise that he would give her a hand later on. Just before nine, Rob and Sophie showed up, both looking a little green. Owen had never seen the quiet Sophie drink so much. She had even been singing with Rodney. She was now trying to act as normally as possible, but when she got to the children’s section, she had to sit down on a kick stool and rest her head against the shelves. Rob muttered something about paperwork and didn’t emerge from the staffroom, leaving Owen to man the till on his own. When Susan arrived at nine-thirty, Owen was almost afraid to leave her on duty at the till, she was in such a foul mood. He went up to the back to see what Rob was up to, and found that Alex had sneaked in the back, but was collapsed over his workbench in the parcel room. And just at that moment, James appeared, looking as sick as a dog, barely even saying good morning before rushing to the toilets and shutting himself in.

Owen decided there was nothing he could do except make some very strong coffee and dole out sympathy, along with gentle reminders that their new boss would be coming in some time that morning. This did little to rally them, especially James, who just shouted at Owen to leave him alone. Owen was congratulating himself on avoiding a hangover, until Rodney phoned to say he wouldn’t be in until that afternoon.

“But the new manager is coming in this morning,” protested Owen. “What am I going to say if she gets here and you’re not even here to welcome her.”

“Tell her the truth,” said Rodney. “It’s got nothing to do with her what we all did at my retirement party. If she doesn’t like it, tough.”

“But you’re meant to be showing her round,” said Owen.

“I’m sure you can cope with that,” said Rodney, and promptly hung up before Owen could say anything else.

Now Owen was faced with a real crisis. Not only did he have to rally the staff, but he also had to look after this woman who was his new boss. He knew very little about her, other than her name, which was Sarah, and that she had been working in management for a large supermarket chain. Still, it was important to make a good impression.

He quickly organised some legitimate paperwork for Rob that he could sit and do in the staff room at his leisure. Alex agreed to start opening some boxes, even if it was slower than usual. He rescued Sophie from the children’s section and set her at the computer in the office to do some ordering. There wasn’t much he could do to improve Susan’s mood, but he could at least help her at the till, so he stood a chance of being there when Sarah Phoenix arrived. He apologised to Milly for not being able to help her after all, but told her to take as long as she needed and he would help her make up for lost time the day after. He left her bravely beginning to count out the previous day’s takings with fumbling fingers. James, he gave up on and left to his own devices, which seemed to be not much more than retching in the toilet, but at least he was out of the way.

All morning, Owen watched the door like a hawk, weighing up every woman in anticipation. By eleven, he was beginning to get hopeful that Rodney would make it in before she would, when a woman walked in that Owen knew instantly had to be Sarah Phoenix.

She was younger than he’d been expecting, perhaps a year or two younger than himself, which was his first surprise. The second was that she was a very attractive woman. She was wearing an expensive suit that fitted her slim figure perfectly, which was both smart and feminine. She had very blond hair, drawn back into a severe bun, but this only served to highlight her delicate face and long neck. She had a pale, clear complexion, and she seemed perfectly calm and in control as she walked up to the till.

“Sarah Phoenix,” she said briskly. “I’m here to meet Rodney Burgess.”

Owen was still getting over the surprise of her looks and was taken back by her abruptness. “Hello,” he said nervously. “I’m Owen. I’m afraid Rodney’s not here.”

“Not here?” she said sounding irritated. “But we arranged to meet today. I spoke to him yesterday about it.”

“He is coming in,” said Owen, “but he’s going to be late. He’s not feeling all that well this morning. He’ll be fine later.”

Sarah tutted. “What am I going to do now?” she muttered, and Owen saw now that she wasn’t as calm as she had first appeared. That made him feel better.

“Well, I can show you around,” he said. “I can’t go through all the business details, but I can at least give you a tour of the shop, and introduce you to the staff. They’re all looking forward to meeting you.”

“Yes, all right,” she said. “I’ll see my office first.”

“Yes, of course,” said Owen, glad to get her away from Susan, who was scowling at an old lady who was laboriously paying for her book with coppers. He quickly whisked her up to the office, knocking on the door first to warn Sophie, who had fallen asleep at the keyboard. She sat up quickly, but not quickly enough to stop Sarah seeing her. Owen introduced them, and Sophie barely said a word and scuttled away as quickly as she could.

“She’s a very quiet girl,” said Owen apologetically, “but she knows everything about children’s books. She does it brilliantly.”

Sarah was too busy looking around the office too pay much attention to him. Owen saw her looking hopefully towards the admin room, and guessed she was hoping to see the real office.

“That’s the admin room through there,” he said quickly. “It’s where Milly does all the cashing up, and the invoices.”

At least Milly had recovered enough to be polite, though Sarah paid her little attention. After scanning the admin room and seeing no further doors, she returned to the office and stared at the desks.

“Is this it?” she asked.

“Yes,” said Owen. “I’m afraid it’s all there is.” She was looking with pure revulsion at Rodney’s sagging old chair. “That’s Rodney’s,” he said. “I think he’ll be taking it with him when he leaves.”

“Good,” she said softly, putting her briefcase down on Rodney’s desk, or her desk, as it was soon to be. She was studying the other desk. “Isn’t the deputy manager in today?” she asked.

“He is, but he isn’t very well either,” said Owen awkwardly.

“Good god, what’s wrong with every body?” she snapped.

“Well, we had Rodney’s retirement party last night,” said Owen, “so everyone is a little worse for wear.”

“I see,” she said. “I wish Rodney had told me that when I called him yesterday. I could have postponed my coming. I’ve had to come all the way from Cambridge this morning.”

“I’m sure Rodney didn’t realise how bad things were going to get,” said Owen, shamefully wondering if Rodney had planned this all along. “He’s been more than a boss to most of us, he’s going to be missed a lot. It was an important occasion.”

Sarah sighed. “Well, I might as well get familiar with the shop. I presume you’re not too ill to show me round.”

“Not at all,” said Owen, although he was beginning to tire of her waspish attitude and did not relish spending the rest of the day with her. But once they got out onto the shop floor, Owen forgot all about this as he relaxed into his favourite subject, the books. He took her round the shop bay by bay, section by section, describing in great detail the arrangement of each, guiding her through the numerous nooks and crannies. She said little to interrupt him, but made him feel uneasy by scribbling copious notes in a notebook. It took them over an hour to get round, during which time they were avoided by all the others. Owen had been putting off taking her to the parcel room and staff room, but finally, he ran out of shelves and it could be avoided no more.

“This is the parcel room,” he said, leading her in. “I’m sorry, everything’s quite disorganised out here.”

As he said this, Alex knocked over a stack of books. With a loud curse, he set to picking them up, until he saw Owen and Sarah standing in the door. He quickly straightened up with a friendly grin.

“This is Alex,” said Owen. “He’s responsible for goods in.”

“And not usually so cack-handedly,” said Alex apologetically, holding out his hand. “Pleased to meet you.”

For the first time, Sarah smiled. “It’s alright, I think I know what the problem is,” she said. “Perhaps you could show me how things work in here?”

Owen left Alex to it and nipped into the staffroom, to find James and Rob sitting there, drinking coffee and eating cakes.

“Are you two still here?” he hissed at them.

“Excuse me, we’re having our break,” said James defensively.

“Break!” said Owen. “You haven’t done anything all morning.”

“Well you didn’t expect me to be there to greet her, did you?” snapped James.

“Yes, I did, and so did she,” said Owen. “How do you suppose it looks to her, if her deputy manager is too hung-over to even say hello?”

“That’s just tough,” said James. “If she wants to get on with me, then she has to realise that she’s not going to tell me what to do.”

“Oh, for God’s sake, she’s only been in the shop a couple of hours,” said Owen. “She hasn’t asked you to do anything yet. It’s me that’s asking you to at least be civil. You do have to work with her, remember.”

It had been a close call between James staying on as deputy manager, and handing in his notice in disgust. At his most angry, he had been determined not to work for an outsider who had no right to a job that should have been his. Owen had finally persuaded him that he loved the shop too much to leave. He had resorted to using Rodney’s argument that James would be needed to see that it stayed on the straight and narrow. The result was that James had decided to stay, but with such a stubborn attitude that Owen wondered if he would last the month out.

“If she wants to be civil,” said James, “then she can come to me.”

“Fine,” snapped Owen. “Rob, you’ve been in here all morning. At least go and relieve Susan from the till so she can have a break. And come and say hello to Sarah.”

Sulkily, Rob finished his cake and followed Owen out into the parcel room, where Sarah was now chatting to Alex. She looked much different when she was smiling, which she was doing now. Owen guessed that the main reason for this change was Alex, which amused him but was not a surprise. Most women who visited the parcel room ended up flirting with Alex, falling prey to his good looks, muscular figure and warm smile. Alex was friendly with everyone, and yet while he made everyone feel welcome and at ease, he was immune to any further attentions. Owen knew Alex was devoted to his girlfriend, Deb, who he had been living with three years, and in no danger of having his head turned. He wondered how long it would take Sarah to work this out. She hadn’t been very nice to him so far, but he didn’t want to see her make a fool of herself, especially not with James waiting for her to put a foot wrong.

He quickly introduced her to Rob, who became suddenly much keener to say a few words now that he had seen Sarah, but Owen hurried him down to the till. If Susan didn’t get regular breaks, she was even grouchier than usual.

“So, is there anyone else to meet, besides Rodney,” asked Sarah.

“There’s Susan, who’ll be up in a minute,” said Owen. “And there’s James.”

“The deputy manager?” she asked. Then she looked towards the staffroom. “Is he in there?”

“Yes,” said Owen. “That’s the staff room. It’s not very big, or very comfortable, but it’s all we’ve got. Rodney used to talk about an extension, but I don’t think it was ever possible.”

Owen knew he was rambling on the take the edge off the forthcoming confrontation. Sarah marched unhesitatingly into the staffroom, where James was caught in an unfortunate moment of having a mouthful of cream cake. In a flustered moment, his courteous sensibilities over-rode his rebellious streak, and he stood up politely.

“You must be James,” said Sarah curtly. “How’s your head?”

“It’s fine, thank you,” said James in surprise. He held out his hand, and they shook hands very briefly.

“I think you and I need to talk,” she said, looking around the staffroom as she talked. “Maybe if Rodney ever shows up today, you could join us. There’s a lot I need to go through with you.”

“Yes there is,” said James, his bitterness not faltering for long. “I would be quite glad to show you how things are done around here. There’s no need to wait for Rodney, I can show you everything.”

“I’d rather wait,” she said dismissively. “I think I’ll go and get some lunch.”

Owen followed her back to the office, partly ashamed at James’s behaviour, partly angry at her rudeness. At least he could get away from her now, if she was going out. But when she reached the office, she sat down at James’s desk and rested her head in her hand, and he saw once more that she was not as tough as she made out.

“Don’t mind James,” he said. “Do you know he also applied to be manager?”

“Yes, I was informed,” said Sarah, lifting her head. “I was also informed that he probably would have got the job if it wasn’t for me. But I did get this job fair and square. I was interviewed just the same as him.”

“James will appreciate that,” said Owen, surprised at her sudden openness. “He’s upset about it still, but he will get over it. And then you’ll find he’s really very good to work with.”

“We’ll see,” she said. Then she smiled at him. “You’ve been very good to me this morning. Would you maybe like to join me for lunch?”

Just a few moments before, Owen had been looking forward to a break from her. Now he found himself saying yes to joining her. Maybe it was because he had finally seen the strain behind the calm exterior she showed. He had been determined to make an effort for her, and now he thought it might not be such an effort after all.

“You’ll have to suggest somewhere,” she said. “I don’t know Robinsworth at all.”

“It won’t take long to get to know,” said Owen, and he listed a few places. Strangely enough, Sarah picked the Italian, Angelo’s, and seemed even keener to go when Owen pointed out that this was where the party had taken place. Owen didn’t usually eat out for lunch, so it was a nice change to sit in the dark restaurant with its beautiful smells of cooking and coffee. As they ordered, the waiter, recognising Owen from the previous evening, laughed and joked with him at some of the things that had gone on. Sarah listened, looking very interested, but made no comment till the waiter had gone.

“Sounds like you had quite a night,” she said.

“We did,” said Owen, then added, “but it doesn’t happen very often.”

Over lunch, Sarah quizzed him about Robinsworth.

“I see there’s also a Harrows,” she said. “It must cause some troubles.”

“Of course, but it hasn’t threatened us so far,” said Owen.

“Well, I have some ideas that might make them feel threatened,” she said enthusiastically. “There are so many things I want to do. There’s so much we can make of the shop. It’s just sitting there waiting to have its best drawn out of it.”

Owen said nothing. When they arrived back after lunch he was very relieved to find that Rodney had made it in, and was glad to hand Sarah over to him. Rodney took her into the office, where they stayed most of the afternoon, and the staff visibly relaxed. They were now full of curiosity and asked Owen many questions about what she was like and what he thought of her. James in particular demanded that Owen tell him word for word what was said. By four o’clock, they were all much more recovered and restored, but Owen felt tired and drained. Even when he sat down for a well-earned cup of coffee, James came through with a scowl that made Owen’s heart sink.

“They want coffee,” he said sulkily.

“Well take them some,” said Owen, wondering if he was going to have to do everything himself.

“I’m not taking it,” said James indignantly. “I don’t want her to think I’m just an errand-boy.”

So Owen made coffee and took it through to the office. Rodney greeted him with a big smile, which was normal, but was surprised when Sarah did too.

“Thank you Owen,” said Rodney. “Honestly Sarah, this man is a wonder. There is hardly anything he doesn’t know about books.”

“I know,” said Sarah warmly. “He showed me round earlier, and it was certainly comprehensive.”

“He knows the stock much better than I do,” said Rodney.

“But you taught me everything I know,” said Owen. “Do you take sugar Sarah?”

“No sugar, just milk,” she said. “And by the way, no-one ever calls me Sarah. Call me Sassy.”

“Sassy!” said Rodney with a grin. “Well that certainly suits you.”

She blushed slightly, but was still smiling. “It’s not the most complimentary of nick names, but it stuck some time ago,” she said. She smiled up at Owen again. “I do want everyone to feel relaxed with me.”

“And they will, they will,” said Rodney, gushing with enthusiasm, and Owen suppressed a grin to see that even he had succumbed to her attractive charms.

There was a mass of paperwork spread out over both the desks, and so Owen left them both to it. As he left the office, he bumped into James, who was lurking outside suspiciously.

“Things sound quite jolly in there,” he said, following Owen back to the staff room. “What’s going on?”

“Nothing,” said Owen. “They’re just going over the books. Why don’t you just go in if you’re that bothered about it. I’m sure they wouldn’t mind.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t like to intrude,” said James bitterly. “I do think Rodney should have called me in by now.”

“James, will you stop worrying,” said Owen. “It’s her first afternoon, there’s a lot to go over. Have you ever stopped to think that maybe she feels intimidated by you.”

“Ha, I doubt it,” snapped James. “You heard the way she dismissed me.”

“She’s nervous,” continued Owen, determined to make James give her a break. “Look, if you’ll give her a chance, you’ll find out that she’s actually quite nice. She wants to get on with us all. She’s actually asked me to call her by her nickname.”

James’s eyes lit up. “What’s her nickname?” he asked eagerly.

“Apparently, it’s Sassy,” said Owen, beginning to regret he’d mentioned it, and even more so when James whooped with delight.

“Sassy!” he cried. “What a ridiculous name. If anyone called me that, I wouldn’t admit to it. Who does she think she is? Sassy indeed. I’m going to have to tell everyone this.” And off he went, leaving Owen despairing that the peaceful atmosphere that had once pervaded the shop had gone forever.

The Bookshop

My novel Have You Got That Book..? is set in a bookshop called Phoenix Books, but I will absolutely admit that it was based on the bookshop I was working in. While Phoenix books was located in a fictional suburb on the far outskirts of London, my bookshop was Waterstone’s in Stratford-upon-Avon, and I lifted nearly everything from real life to create the novel, from the lay-out of the shop and the day-to-day business of the job to the type of people who worked there – minus the drama, of course.

Rereading the novel has brought back lots of happy memories, particularly of how the place looked. Since I wrote it, Waterstone’s in Stratford-upon-Avon has changed location, to a bright, modern and much more suitable venue, which I thoroughly appreciated when I worked there and still love going in. But before then, it was in an old building that had been inadequately repurposed for a bookshop. It had once been two shops, but so many of the internal walls remained that the two parts never joined together very well. It had an eccentric lay-out, with dark corners, tight passage ways and unexpected areas, all made even more cramped by the display tables and extra shelving units that were crammed into every available space. The shelves weren’t uneven, as such, but they were all different and looked mismatched. Books frequently went missing, because there were so many places they could have been stashed. The shop was long and thin, with no natural light at the far end – in power cuts, we had to close because it was too dark to see, even during the day. There was no back entrance, so all deliveries had to go through the shop – very tricky when when the shop was full of customers, and made even more difficult by the change in floor levels accessed by a step in the middle of the shop. For many years, there was no air-conditioning or heating, so the summers were too hot and the winters too cold. There were two back rooms – one small office, where the managers, the cashier and the admin clerk worked, and another room which operated as kitchen, staff room, unpacking area and stock room. Sometimes it got so full of deliveries that we had to climb through the piles of boxes. It opened straight out on the shop floor, so customers would stick their heads in and ask us questions when we were eating our lunch. But despite all these challenges, we loved our crazy, quirky shop. What it lacked in convenience, it made up for in character. Customers liked the old-world feel of the place, tourists and locals alike. The only other place in town that sold books was WHSmith, so we prized our reputation as the ‘real bookshop’, and we certainly did beat them when it came to range and stock. We were open until eight o’clock in the evening, despite the fact that we were the only shop in town to do so. And we held the most amazing literary events, hosting authors regularly for talks and signings, drawing large audiences from a very long mailing list. Moving all the heavy furniture to fit in audiences of sometimes up to a hundred was exhausting and difficult, but somehow we managed.

I chanced upon the job by accident. I had been in Stratford studying Shakespeare (of course!) and the course was coming to an end. I didn’t want to leave, so when I saw that Waterstone’s were advertising for full-time staff, I jumped at it. That’s when I realised that I had always wanted to work in a bookshop. When I got the job, I also realised that this could be a long-term career. The other staff were people just like me – young, mostly university-educated book-lovers, dedicated and passionate about bookselling. Over the years, I worked with many different people, but we all had that in common. We read vociferously, and swapped books and recommendations all the time. I can’t remember who read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone first, but by the time the second book came out a year later, we all had and were passing around the proof copy of The Chamber of Secrets that Bloomsbury had sent to me. We loved the proofs and there was some stiff competition to get your hands on the best ones, along with the posters and marketing materials that the publishers sent. We became really good friends with the publisher’s reps that came in; they, like us, loved their books and the process of subbing new publications could take hours. We would all get excited over new books and gave far too much of our wages back to the company in sales, even with the generous staff discount. We worked together to find lost books and laughed together at the most ridiculous customers – I really did once get asked if Anne Frank had written anything else besides the diary. There was so much more to the job than stacking shelves and serving at the till; we all ordered stock for our own sections, and got the chance to do window displays, promotions and planning events, as well as being trained to do the back room stuff like counting the cash, unpacking and returning the books that hadn’t sold. But best of all, there was always a great team spirit. Despite the physical challenges, or maybe because of them, we worked really well together and kept the shop running relatively smoothly and successfully. I made some very great friends during my years there, and though none of them inspired the characters for my novel, they were the first people to read it.

I ended up working for Waterstone’s for eleven years, and only left because I was about to have my second child and chose to be a stay-at-home mum instead. It’s now been fifteen years since I worked there, and the company and the book trade have been through massive changes. I’m sure some of the things we used to get up to are no longer deemed acceptable. But whenever I go into any branch of Waterstone’s, I feel at home there, and want to say the staff “I am one of you.” If I lived in a town with a branch, I am certain I’d be back working there. And of course, if I ever get published and get the opportunity to do my own author events, it goes without saying that I will always say yes to a Waterstone’s.


The photographs you see in this post were old even before I started working there. Judging by the books, they were taken around 1987/88, which I believe is when the shop first opened. We found them during a clear-up, and no-one working there at the time remembered them being taken. They seem to have been taken professionally for promotional purposes. The exterior shot shows the shop as having two doors, which had been changed by the time I got there. The interior shot shows the front of the shop, and gives a very good impression of what the whole shop was like. These days, Front of Store in any branch of Waterstone’s is a beautifully presented display space for new titles and special offers – back then, customers walked directly into this jumbled mess. But as you can see, huge amounts of stock and the chance of finding absolutely anything – a real book-lover’s paradise!

Summer Reading

Summer is a time for reading. At least, that is what the literary types would have us believe, with their lists of best summer reads in the press and summer reading special offers in the shops. Happily, I concur – one of the best things about summer holidays is having time to read. Before we go away, I plan my summer reading meticulously – we usually camp, so with no TV and radio, and limited access to scrolling the internet on the phone, there is plenty of time to read. This year, I took two carefully chosen books. The first was Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet. This was something new to me, as I’ve never read anything by this author before, but I knew I had to read it – I love Shakespeare, and having lived in Stratford-upon-Avon for years, felt like I had a personal connection to many of the places featured in the novel. It turned out to be a good choice, as I absolutely loved it; it’s beautifully written, offering a fresh perspective that felt utterly authentic and true to what Shakespeare means to me. It becomes yet another book I wish I could have written. The second book was David Mitchell’s Number 9 Dream – one of his earlier novels, but I’ve been saving it, as I like knowing there are still books by my favourite authors that I haven’t read yet. I knew I was going to enjoy this because I love Mitchell’s writing, and it didn’t disappoint. If you are still looking for a good read this summer, I highly recommend both these titles.

However, my third summer read is something that definitely hasn’t been recommended in the special offers or top tens. That’s because I had a sudden urge to reread one of my own old novels. Have You Got That Book…? is a novel I wrote back in the late nineties, when I was working for Waterstone’s (in the afore-mentioned Stratford-upon-Avon, as it happens). When I last wrote about it in my blog, I said that I didn’t think there was a future for the novel; it was written as chick-lit, and while I think I put more depth into it than some examples of that genre, it was still very much of its type. I concluded that it wasn’t very well written, and as it didn’t fit with my other writing and changing it to make it fit would change it too much, it was filed away in limbo, likely to remain that way permanently.

And yet, it is still a novel, complete and substantial. When I write to literary agents, it is included in my portfolio of work as one of two novels in first draft form. People who read it enjoyed it. I spent over two years working on it, and the characters and stories are imprinted in my head. So it was with some curiosity that I returned to it this week. I only planned on reading a few sections, just to relive the emotions that I put into those key chapters. I was expecting to feel toe-curling embarrassment at the standard of writing, vindicating my previous decision. And yet, that didn’t happen. One chapter lead to another, and then back to another, and before long, I had reread the whole thing. And I didn’t hate it. In fact, I really enjoyed it. Yes, I could see mistakes, and simple things that I would change if I had the chance – there is so much drinking, coffee, tea, all kinds of alcohol, it’s literally swilling with liquids! But I didn’t want to change any of the characters, and none of the plot. It is chick-lit, but I think, and I dare to say, it is good chick-lit. The main characters are not just stereo-types but are believable and engaging. The structure is tight, with the multiple plot-lines sitting well alongside each other. It has a classic story arc, with enough twists along the way to keep the reader entertained. And it has some cracking dialogue that made me laugh out loud. For a long time, I have come to think of this novel as something to be ashamed of, a guilty past that I had to hide away. But I now think I have been unfair on myself. I haven’t read any of that genre for ages, but I think it would stand up well alongside any of the bestselling chick-lit that is currently being published. And that’s nothing to be ashamed of.

But where does that leave the novel? Will anyone ever read it again besides me? It only exists as a collection of files on my computer, and it would really have to be severely edited before it was fit for general consumption again. But I wouldn’t change it from what it was, and more importantly, I would not be averse to it being read again. I love the characters that I created and would be happy to share them with other people. And it doesn’t matter that it doesn’t fit with my other novels – it is what it is, my first and only chick-lit novel. Who knows, maybe someday, under some other pen-name, it might find its way back to the bookshop –perfect summer reading.

My Earliest Reading Memories

In my newspaper of choice, the literary review section includes a Q&A Interview with famous authors, asking about their favourite/worst/most moving/most influential books. It includes a question about the author’s earliest reading memories. Reading the interview this weekend made me wonder about my earliest reading memories, and I realised that I had a few that I could choose from. As far back as I can remember, I have loved books and reading, so much so that the memories have stuck with me through the years.

I remember my Ladybird storybooks, and making up my own stories to go with the pictures because I could not read the words. I’m sure I remember being disappointed that the real stories were not as exciting as my own creations.

I remember being told I could have the privilege of an extra half an hour to read in bed, and gathering up a huge pile of books to read, and being surprised that I only had enough time to read one of them.

I remember imagining a cardboard box was a typewriter so I could write my own stories. This led to me getting my first typewriter when I was six.

I remember picking up a novel that my mum was reading, being intrigued by the title, and realising that the words inside, although smaller and more abundant, were still words that I could read, and so I started reading it, to my mum’s surprise. This was definitely before I was seven.

These memories are just the start of my relationship with books. And later, when children of my own came along, they brought a whole new dimension to that. When we had our children, my husband and I filled our home with books for them. Reading with them, even when they were babies, was something that was really important to us, and I’m they benefited from that. And I benefited too, as it added to my stock of memories in so many new and wonderful ways; having to stop reading the end of Charlotte’s Web to my eldest because I was weeping too much; my youngest being too scared to finish Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone; a book called Kiss Goodnight Sam that my middle child had every night, to which she added her own silly voices. I wonder what their earliest reading memories will be; maybe the weekly trips to story time at the library, or the evening routines of letting them choose the reading matter while they had their bedtime drink of milk. There are so many distractions and alternatives to reading these days, but I am happy that my children already have their own relationships with books.

All these memories, old and new, make up a part of the story of my relationship with books. I can’t imagine life without books. And yet, I know this is a precious gift. Recently, as part of my job, I have been taking part in training to enable us to improve the literacy of older children – children who have got through first school and have still not mastered the skill of decoding those squiggly black shapes on the page that make up words. Basically, we have been learning how to teach these children to read. For someone like me, for whom reading is not just a skill but a passion, it is a tragedy that some people find reading a mystery and a struggle. I know that being unable to read can have long-lasting effects on a person’s whole life, and I want to do anything I can to change that while there is still that chance. But it means more to me than just that. I know that not everyone enjoys reading, but what if the barrier to enjoying reading was simply the lack of ability? What if helping children decipher those black squiggles led them to something they could enjoy, maybe even be passionate about? I would be proud to be part of their reading memories, but it would make me even happier to think that they might share this with their own children and add to the next generation of reading memories. That would be the greatest goal of all.

In the Garden

Now that the weather has improved and Spring is starting to feel like Spring again, I have been out working in the garden. Nothing impressive, I hasten to add – our suburban garden is usually a mess, and it is my husband who coaxes it into just enough order to grow vegetables. But we do have some fruit bushes and these come under my jurisdiction. At this time of year, I have to chop back the long grass and nettles threatening to engulf the bushes, so that when the fruit ripens, I will be able to get at it. After a few more weeks of sunshine (hopefully) I will be out collecting the fruit – gooseberries, blackcurrants, jostaberries, loganberries, rhubarb, all ready to be turned into something delicious.

So I will admit that I don’t spend a lot of time working in the garden. And yet when I do, it is quite satisfying; to see the patches of clear earth where weeds have been dug out, to rake up clumps of evicted nettles and bindweed, and to hack away dead growth to make room for fresh green shoots. In these moments, I feel like my character Marianne.

Marianne loves gardening much more than I do. Even though she starts from a place of knowing nothing, her first attempts instantly hook her in, engaging her with a passion that I, literally, have only imagined. She doesn’t give up at the first turn in the weather. She keeps going at what she starts and dedicates all her free time to it. To be fair, Marianne’s life is meant to be different to mine; when she first sees the garden, wild and in need of restoration, there is a hole in her own life and an ache to fill it. Not only does the garden soothe that ache, it becomes her obsession. I admire her, and real people like her, who turn their outdoor spaces into something beautiful. When I first started writing the novel, I knew I didn’t have enough knowledge on the subject to describe the garden or make Marianne’s devotion seem real. So I did a bit of research. I started visiting gardens and paying attention to the work that went into them. I read some books, both modern and historical, so I could back up Marianne’s work with genuine expertise. I think I was also hoping that some of the love would rub off on me, and that I too might become inspired to work a bit harder at creating a beautiful garden of my own one day. But the only thing I learnt was that gardening takes hard work and commitment, and I was already giving those things to my writing. So I let Marianne be the gardener, while I concentrated on creating a beautiful garden with words alone.

I have always viewed the garden in After the Rain as important as the characters in the story. It is as clear and distinct to me as the people I created to inhabit it. I don’t need to know great details about garden design or planting schemes to see its beauty in my head. The layout of it is as clear as if I had been there in real life; I can walk across the lawn, into the cool shade of the trees, listening to the babble of the stream, smelling the fragrance of the roses carried on the warm air. Sometimes, it so real to me that I can hardly believe that it doesn’t exist. But it is not just its appearance that is important to me. Just like Marianne, it offered me something when I needed it most, a plot device to fill a hole that had been holding back the story. And then it became so much more, providing the underlying theme that glued the story together. In this novel, love and growing go hand in hand. Marianne’s love for the garden is not just an obsession but a regeneration. Without it, she would not have the strength to fix her life, and or Justin’s. To him, the garden is the antithesis of his experience in the trenches, and in the juxtaposition is the nurture he needs to finally recover. The garden brings them together by chance but binds them together with love. The garden IS the story, and I love it just as much as Marianne and Justin love it. My greatest wish is that readers can love it too.

Back in the real world, I still have no desire to give up my time to gardening. It is just another chore that gets in the way of writing. I will be more interested when it comes to cooking up the fruit – I love making jams and desserts, and my gooseberry gin is just heavenly. Marianne may be the better gardener, but I am the better cook. And yet when I am out there, I put myself in her shoes, shrugging off nettle stings and thorn attacks, straining my back with fork and spade. She may only be a figment of my imagination, but it is good to feel connected to her in this way.  

Losers

One of my favourite films is Little Miss Sunshine. Its story of an odd-ball, dysfunctional family driving across America so the young daughter can take part in a beauty pageant is so funny that it makes me shriek with laughter – Uncle Frank’s running, the inappropriate dancing, the manhandling of Grandpa out of the hospital – I could go on and on. My husband and I watched it again recently, with the added bonus of introducing it to our daughters, who are now old enough to appreciate it. They loved it just as much as we did.

For all its absurdities, the film is not just about the laughs. The way the family come together to support each other is genuinely heart-warming. And there is one kick-ass message about aspiration and perseverance. When the family arrive at the beauty pageant, it is evident that daughter Olive is not going to stand a chance among the other highly preened and overly made-up contestants. But that has long become irrelevant, thanks to some wise words from Olive’s Grandpa. He’s not an obvious source of wisdom; he has been thrown out of his retirement home for taking heroin, swears profusely, reads nasty porn and teaches Olive some questionable dance moves. But when Olive is feeling nervous about the contest and says she is afraid of being a loser, he knows the right words to cheer her up; “A real loser is someone who is so afraid of not winning, they don’t even try.”

I’ve been feeling a lot like Olive recently. Yes, I’ve had some rejections – an unpleasant event made even worse by the brief moment of exhilaration only to be crushed by inevitable disappointment. And it’s not just that. The more research I do, the more it seems like I am facing the impossible. I read blogs and advice pages, only to be reminded that thousands of others are attempting the same as me, and that the vast majority of them (us) never get picked up. Even the success of acquiring an agent is no guarantee of getting published. I’m only a few months into the process, but I feel that fear of rejection and failure. Not everybody can win in this game. There are many, many losers. No matter how much work and effort I put into my writing, I will be one of them if I don’t get that lucky break. And being a loser hurts. It would be so nice to never receive another rejection email, the thanks but no thanks messages that ping into my inbox. Why should I bother putting myself through this pain and humiliation? But then I remind myself that it only hurts because I care so much. I care because I have a passion for putting words on a page and a belief that other people will enjoy reading them. That’s nothing to be ashamed of. So I will keep trying, and be proud of myself for that. Even if I never win, I won’t be that person who never tried. Thanks, Grandpa, you are right. I’m not a loser – I’m a writer.

Things I will never have to worry about if I don’t get published!

Photo by ROMAN ODINTSOV on Pexels.com

This time last year, I was busy using Lockdown to write a new novel and getting on really well. This year, Lockdown 3 has been very different. I have been in school almost full time, working with those students who were entitled to keep coming in. I also volunteered to be on the Test and Trace team, and helped with the swabbing and testing of staff and students for weeks. So it’s safe to say that writing and submitting have taken a back seat over the last two months.

But now it’s the Easter holidays and I finally have some time to get back to my “other job”. I shall spend the next few days identifying the next round of agents to approach, preparing the letters and meeting the submission requirements for each. Plenty of work, and for no rewards yet. I know it’s only been three months, but, well… it’s lucky that I actually enjoy my job as a Teaching Assistant. And if it is my destiny to remain as just that, then it might help to remember the following…

Things I will never have to worry about if I don’t get published.

1. People telling me that they didn’t like my novel.

2. Doing my own taxes.

3. Making awkward small talk on book tours.

4. Teenagers ‘shipping’ my characters in inappropriate ways.

5. Terrible film/tv adaptations that completely change the story.

6. Returns.

7. Writer’s block.

8. Being asked for J K Rowling’s autograph.

9. Being informed of mistakes in my novel.

10. Saying the wrong thing on Twitter.

Ahh well, shouldn’t get maudlin for at least another year!

Photo by ROMAN ODINTSOV on Pexels.com

The submission process – a story within a story within a story…

So, I have made a start on submitting to agents. While it’s far too early to comment on the results of that (because there are no results!) I can write about the process in practice, and the things I have learnt so far. Because, to my surprise, it has been the proverbial steep learning curve. And I am happy to share my three big findings, for anybody else who might be looking for some advice.

Firstly, it is very time consuming, even with the ease and speed of submitting on-line. Selecting names from the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook is only the first step in the process. It is then essential to read the website of each individual agency. Submissions criteria are diverse – my suspicion is that they each thrown in a tiny variation just to make sure you have read their instructions carefully. Then there is the task of selecting a name to submit to, which means reading through all the biographies and preferences of the company’s agents. You then need to find that all-important reason why you want to work with a particular agency – at least, something you can put in your letter! If you can’t find this from a close-reading of the website, then maybe this is the sign that a particular agency is not as promising as it seemed in the Yearbook. After reading through a few websites, I started to get a feel for which agencies were more suitable for me, and which ones I’ll pass over for the time being. Putting all this together takes time, and it can’t be rushed.

The second thing I have learnt is that I was not as prepared as I thought was. I had proof-read my chapters and synopsis and letter so many times, but I was still discovering mistakes after I had made my first few submissions. There are ways of doing things that I wasn’t doing – simple things when you know them, but easy to miss when you first start. The more websites I have read, the more I have polished my submissions. Unfortunately, I see now that those first submissions probably don’t stand a chance, just because of those small imperfections. So if I had a piece of advice here, it would be to not start with your favourite agencies. Get some practice in on some of the less promising agencies first.

So far, so much common sense, and I am sure no-one is surprised by it. It is the advice that is freely available on-line and in the books, and my only addition to it is to be prepared for it being harder to achieve than first imagined. But if my first two findings were to be expected, my third discovery is maybe not so obvious, and it is this; you submit one novel, but you need four different adaptations of it for each submission. Four different versions of the same thing, like matryoshka dolls, copies of each other but varying in sizes. It was only after a few attempts did I fully understand why this was necessary.

The big mamma matryoshka doll is the full manuscript. That stays at home, for now. The biggest doll that gets sent in a submission is the first three chapters – or ten/thrity pages/10,000 words, depending on the instructions. Obviously, this is crucial, as this is actually your writing. This has to be good, or nothing is going to help it. However, the smaller dolls inside are there to persuade someone to read it.

The next doll down is the Synopsis – usually a page long, giving a full account of the plot chapter by chapter. Most agencies ask for this and they are very precise about what they are looking for. It is the equivalent of Cliff Notes for your novel, telling the reader exactly what happens. This is not the place for cliff-hangers or teasers. That sounds easy, but it is actually quite hard to condense into one page.

The doll that comes next is the brief description for the cover letter. This is more like a blurb on the back of a book; it has to reveal enough to generate interest within the confines of a single paragraph. While it doesn’t say as much about the plot, it can be used to explain themes and styles, as well as suggesting genre and similarities with other authors. Despite the brevity of this description, this is the place for selling the novel and why you think it should be published.

And finally, we come to the smallest doll of all, the baby, but don’t dismiss its importance. In the trade, it is known as ‘The Elevator Pitch’ – the idea being that if you had a sales pitch and you happened to get into an elevator with someone it was worth pitching to, you would need one killer line to get their attention before they called security and had you removed from the building. I really struggled with this at first; how could I possibly reduce my novel to a single line and still make it sound unique and exciting? Surely the brief description did that? But after rewriting my cover letter several times, I realised that starting the letter with the Elevator Pitch was the best opening for a letter from one stranger to another. It’s like writing an essay – it needs a beginning, a middle and an end, and the Elevator Pitch is the beginning. And so it doesn’t matter that it doesn’t give any detail, or that it repeats what you are going to say in the middle, because it is just the hook. So rather than thinking of it as a ‘pitch’ but as an introduction, I used it to get straight to the point, using modern terms that I never actually use in the novel or any of the other descriptions because they are anachronistic but are striking and relevant to a modern reader. And then I had my Elevator Pitch.

Only time will tell if any of this will actually work for me. I hope that someone out there will unpack my dolls and like what they see. But one thing has encouraged me as I have been doing all this. On every agency’s website, there are lists of the authors they represent. I was surprised by how few of them I had heard of. I do follow the book trade, through reviews in the paper and on-line booksellers’ promotions, but this only gives a snapshot of the writers out there, the famous or most promoted authors. Below the surface, there is a wealth of authors, getting on with writing their books and seeing them into print, who never get the fanfares or celebrity status. And I would be happy with that. I don’t need to be famous – I just want to call myself an author.

2021 – Phase Two

For the past few years, my New Year’s resolution has been to write a new novel. Well, in 2020, I finally did that. So, for 2021, I need a new New Year’s resolution. And here it is, to start Phase Two – getting my work published by a real publisher and into the bookshops, which means being proactive about the other side of this ambition of mine and start submitting.

As I’ve said before, I think this is much harder than actually writing the novels. I have tried before and gave up because it was so demoralising. But here I am again, with my new copy of The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook, all marked-up with possible agents. I have a spread sheet to work through, and the first five potential agents identified. I’m proof-reading (again) my first three chapters and synopsis, and agonising over the query letter which is supposed to make me sound engaging and yet not too boastful. Next week, I shall fire out my emails, and then sit back and wait, and prepare to repeat the process in a month or so.

As I embark upon Phase Two, my mood is erratic. I vary from being super confident – how could all this work count for nothing, my work is better than some of the dross that is published – to terrified and bitter – how long will I be able to keep this up for, and what will I do if nothing comes of it? I have been here before and lost faith in myself. However, I never lost my desire to write, and because I kept on doing it, my writing has improved since then. So I have to believe that I stand a chance, maybe even a good chance compared to some of the other thousands doing the same thing. If I don’t believe it now, why bother at all?

Who knows, maybe some diligent agent is checking out this website and reading these very words…

The Art of Christmas Stories


Merry Christmas Eve. I hope that those of you who downloaded an Advent Story have enjoyed it – have you read the last episode yet or saving it for later on? As promised, I’m writing this blog to let you know which was the most popular story this year, but first, I’ve been giving some thought to Christmas stories in general.

Christmas is a time for stories, from literary classics to the popular Christmas films. The TV schedules are bursting with festive favourites and Christmas specials. But despite the abundance, it seems to me that there are four basic types of story. Nearly all Christmas stories can be put into one of the categories, or cross-over into two. Once you start to think about it, you’ll be able to spot the categories for yourself – to help you, I can demonstrate this with my own Advent stories.

The first type is probably the most well-known, immortalised by Charles Dickens. A Christmas Carol is so famous that the adaptations and retellings are probably beyond counting. I don’t know if Dickens invented the story of a Christmas-hating character transformed into the most ardent Christmas enthusiast, but he deserves the credit for popularising it. Even if the character isn’t called Scrooge, he or she is recognisable in many forms – the Grinch is the most obvious example, but I’m sure you will know many others. In the process of learning about the true spirit of Christmas, the character becomes an all-round better person, so I call it the Christmas Redemption story. Of my stories, Mrs Christmas fits into this category, along with The Very Special Christmas Star, in which the Christmas message is delivered to a grumpy old uncle via a talking puppy.

The second type is closely connected, in that the spirit of Christmas is used to bring about another important change. This one involves the bringing together of former enemies, or divided friends or family. Christmas reminds us that we have more in common than that which divides us, and differences can be put aside for the season. Warring neighbours Danny DeVito and Matthew Broderick finally become the best of friends in the film Deck the Halls, and Kevin McAllister’s scary neighbour is reunited with his son and grand-daughter thanks to Kevin’s intervention. Of my stories, Chorister Rock fits into this category, with rival choirboys Nigel and Cuthbert realising that they have more in common than they originally thought with the setting up of a choir rock band. So does Elf and Safety, where Father Christmas’s workshop is divided by a dispute over whether to hang holly in the workshop or not; thankfully, the elves resolve their differences in time for Christmas.

Christmas brings out the best in people, and this can be seen in the third category, which is the helping of others less fortunate than the main character. Despite the fact that people are miserably and suffering through-out the year, it seems that this can’t be allowed at Christmas, and extra steps will be taken to improve even the most dire situations. When Scrooge took the prize turkey round to the Cratchits, he started a trend that books, TV and films can’t resist. Of my Advent stories, The Magic of Carol Singing comes into this category, with the characters of Dan and David fitting nicely into this role, fore-shadowing the roles they will play later in life in The Most Beloved Boy. I would also include The Carol Singer, my most mysterious story, because the unexplained singing heard by the villagers seems to have a restorative effect over Alison’s ill mother.

The fourth category could be said to involve elements of each of the other three categories, but gets a category of its own due to the fact that it is Christmas itself that is under threat. No-one wants their Christmas ruined, but the excitement it can add to a story makes an excellent plot for films and books – think of Arthur Christmas, or The Box of Delights. The biggest threat to Christmas in my stories comes in Disaster at the Christmas Pudding Factory, where Peter’s mischievous plan to bake the biggest Christmas pudding in the world almost brings the factory to a close. After some consideration, I decided to put Bunny and Pup’s Big Christmas Adventure into this category, as Bunny and Pup disrupt the natural order of Christmas and have to hurry back to restore normality.

So, that’s four categories, and eight stories that fit nicely into the theory. However, you might have noticed that two of my stories haven’t been mentioned yet. And that is where my theory falls down. Because it seems that there is another category, one much harder to define. One of those stories is The Advent Diary of Amanda Brown, a simple tale about an ordinary girl’s ordinary count-down to Christmas. There are no disasters, no feuding relatives and the most exciting event is waiting to see who is going to get the big solo in the Christmas Eve service. The other story is A Shepherd’s Tale, in which Joe the shepherd boy has a mystical experience in the fields at midnight. If there is a message, it is that Christmas is even more magical than first believed. And that is the closest I can get to classifying the fifth category – Christmas is wonderful as it is. It doesn’t need adventure or redemption, or morals and lessons. Maybe you won’t see it in the films or Christmas specials, but it will be happening in homes around the world, even this year. And funnily enough, these two stories are my most popular. In the months of November and December, The Advent Diary of Amanda Brown was downloaded the most, closely followed by A Shepherd’s Tale. Another interesting fact is that these two stories are downloaded regularly through-out the year – maybe this magic is something we need all year round.

So there we go, the five categories of Christmas stories. Whatever you are doing for Christmas, I hope the disasters and transformations stay in the stories, and that you have an ordinary, magical Christmas safely and peacefully at home. Merry Christmas.