Friday, 9 October 2015

The Big C & Me

October is National #BreastCancer Awareness Month in the UK, so in acknowledgement of this extremely important event, I thought I'd interview somebody about their experience of having and surviving breast cancer. Step forward then, one survivor ...... Me.

So Carol, how was your cancer discovered?

I learned that I had early stage breast cancer from a routine NHS breast screen two years ago when I was 63 -  you know the sort: you go to a big white van in a carpark and it's always cold. I had noticed no lumps, bumps or changes so it was a shock to be recalled to the Luton & Dunstable Breast Cancer Clinic a week later.

What sort of cancer did they find?

I had DCIS ( Ductile Cancer In Situ). It's a kind of pre-breast cancer. It was in several tubes in my left breast and was ''high grade'' which meant it was getting ready to progress to the next stage.

So what happened when you received the diagnosis?

I was stunned - after all, I hadn't had any visible symptoms. I had been on low dose HRT for a long time - I reacted very well to it, but I came off it immediately, even though there was no proof that it contributed to the cancer. And I thought naively that I was too old to get the illness.

How did your family react?

My husband was shocked also, but supported me brilliantly at every stage of my journey. I kind of played it down with my daughter, who was in the last few months of pregnancy. I'm not a big over-sharer anyway, and I didn't want to upset her.

What was next?

A very unpleasant needle biopsy, which led to an appointment being made for an operation to remove the cancerous ducts. It all happened so quickly and efficiently I barely had time to take it in. I went in as a day patient, had radioactive dye injected into the area (sadly, I didn't glow in the dark afterwards) and then had the operation. The surgeon cut into the breast underneath, leaving a long but not overtly visible scar.

Did you have to go for follow up treatment?

Ah. Now here it gets a bit controversial. The surgeon recommended radiotherapy, but after researching it, and talking to others on social media, I chose not to have any follow up treatment. I wasn't happy with the side effects, nor with the fact that it wouldn't stop further cancers developing. My surgeon was convinced he'd removed all the cancerous cells and I trusted his judgement.

And then?

I got on with my life and put it in a box labelled 'OK, that happened'. I had my first annual mammogram check up last November, and it came back clear. My second one will be this November. It takes 5 years before they are prepared to say you are totally free of cancer.

What was the worst part of all of it?

You may think this is frivolous ... unless you are a survivor also, but I had to take all the wires out of my lovely underwear, because it hurt too much to wear. And I wasn't sure for some time whether I'd look ''normal'' and be able to wear lovely stuff again. Luckily I can ... and you would hardly be able to tell I am a tad lopsided!

Finally, do you have any advice to offer?

I think the MOST important thing is to TURN UP for your FREE NHS routine screening. I was horrified when the nurses told me how many women fail to attend. Yes, it's uncomfortable and not very pleasant having your boobs squeezed between two X ray plates, but cancer doesn't always present as an obvious lump or change in the breast - mine didn't.
So ladies, don't think you can skip an appointment because you've checked your boobs and you didn't feel any lumps. Go - I urge you. Had I not gone, I might not be writing this blog today.

Monday, 5 October 2015

Bag Lady (Adventures of L-Plate Gran)

Last week I decided it was time to change from the jolly yellow summer bag to the slightly more sombre dark red autumn one. This involved the usual contents swap, which, prior to You must be mad handing over Little G, meant extracting my purse, lipstick, mirror, mobile and sundry tissues and placing them in the new bag.

This time the contents swap consisted of extracting and disposing of: a grape that had gone soft, 5 raisins, a 0.2 cm layer of biscuit crumbs, a small green car that I don't think belongs to Little G or to me, a bus ticket with baby scribbling on it, a packet of crayons with one missing, and a postit note to myself reminding me of something that I can't read (see grape) but I can just make out the words 'Important' at the top.

There was a double mirror with small claggy fingerprints all over it, and an orange lip pencil that had orange lipstick smeared all over the top - because Little G runs on the basis that if I tell her NOT to play with my possessions, the ban only applies while I am actually in the room. Once I go somewhere else, it is open season on my bag and coat pockets.

I also discovered a small spoon, some hand gel, and a packet of unopened chopsticks which Little G must have lifted from Wagamama on one of our visits and I noticed that my mobile was currently showing a time and date of 8.45 on the10th August. I don't know how she does this, but the baby is clandestinely good at demonstrating her communication tool expertise. The last time she left the camera on standby, and drained the phone battery.

I have now placed all MY essentials in the red bag. In six months time, I shall have to sort through it all once again before transferring the contents back into the yellow bag. And goodness knows what on earth I will find ... the mind boggles.

To be continued ...    ......

Saturday, 3 October 2015

How to Make A Million From Writing

Yes, I thought that would get your attention.

Over the past few weeks I have seen several requests on social media forums from new writers or self-published ones asking if anybody knows a good agent, or can advise on submitting to top mainstream publishers. To them and to you, I have one response - and it comes from formerly being both with a top London agency and having books published by two mainstream houses (you can check me out here):

Do not waste your time!

I have blogged before about my experience of literary agents. Basically, they are there to make money for the agency, not you. They will take 10 -15% of your earnings, and unless you have an exceptionally good one (I am told they exist), they may well not bother to submit your stuff if it is not taken quickly. Small agents are in competition with the large established ones in a field that is decreasing all the time as publishers shave their margins and take fewer risks to stay in business.

Agents are certainly useful for sorting out publishing contracts and making sure your rights are protected - pre-agenting, I had a very bad contract from OUP (yes!) which my former agent was disgusted at. BUT the Society of Authors - well worth joining, can do that. And few publishers nowadays make you sign rip-off contracts - we are all too well lawyered for that to happen.

So, let's move on to the mainstream publishing trade. And what a shabby trade it is! Forget all those 'X signed a 3 book contract and has been offered eight squillion in advances and a film contract with a top Hollywood director!!!'  I now see these in the same category as those 'teaser' rates offered by big banks.

The sad truth is that 0.00000006% of writers submitting will be taken. These lucky souls are probably:

1. Very young, very attractive and with a very heart-tugging backstory (see JK Rowling)

2. Have an MA in Creative Writing from a university where one of the publisher's top writers tutors.

3. Is a friend, girl/boyfriend, employee of a publisher or is in the media business already.

4. Is a celeb.

5. Has just happened to write something that the publisher feels they can put out to compete with a rival's book that is just taking off.

6. Has been 'discovered' in one of those 'competitions' where the lure of publication is offered to  unpublished writers. This is a useful way of getting round paying agency fees or having the hassle of dealing with them.

Publishers will skim at least 60% off your earnings (on top of the agent's fee you are paying) as they are unlikely to offer you more than 40% of the purchase price - and remember all media outlets like Amazon discount furiously, so you have to subtract that from the final amount too. If you fail to reach their sales targets, as I did with Usborne, they will stop publishing your books or, as Usborne equally did, reissue them with cheap covers that make your books less attractive on the bookshop shelf. And then, as your sales drop even further, discard you.

So why bother?

I return to my title. IF your only reason for writing is to make money, then go find a job in your local supermarket. Or do the National Lottery. Or find yourself a rich partner. If, however, writing comes in the same category as oxygen for you, then keep at it. Enjoy what you write, marvel at your luck in having such a wonderful gift. Start a blog. Enjoy chatting and sharing with other writers on social media. Self-publish. But do not hope or expect to make a fortune from it.

Of course, I don't expect you to listen to a word of this, because YOU have written the one book in the history of the publishing universe that defies all of the above. Good luck, fellow scribe. You may or may not believe me, but you are going to need it!

Monday, 28 September 2015

Ant! (Adventures of L-Plate Gran)

Until You must be mad entrusted Little G into my unreliable care, I had forgotten how funny small children could be. The baby is now 19 months old and is developing her own sense of humour. I think she could easily do stand up - though in her case it would currently have to be sit-down.

Much of the humour comes from seeing what makes me laugh and then repeating it - on the basis that if it made me laugh the first time, then the same must be true for the second, third, fourth and beyond times. OK, maybe not, but it is the altruistic desire to amuse that counts. And she doesn't get a repeat fee.

One of the things Little G finds very amusing comes into the category of  Winding up Grandma.  'Yellow spoon,' she says, handing me the blue spoon. 'No, that's blue,' I say. 'YELLOW spoon,' she chortles. I correct her. 'Yellow spoon!' she crows, eyeing me devilishly.

Much mirth is also derived from shouting obscure words  'Ant!' she yells at the top of her voice as we are making our way to the bus stop. She then collapses into howls of laughter. 'Ant?' I repeated, slightly puzzled. 'Ant!' she shouted triumphantly. She can keep this up for ages, if I unwittingly play along.

I am reminded, as I am regularly bested by a small cherubic infant with a left-field sense of the absurd that rivals Kafka, that all brilliant comedians and trenchant observers of the human condition must start somewhere. And when in the fullness of time Little G makes her debut at the Edinburgh Fringe, I will be sitting in the front row of the audience, bursting with pride. I may even shout 'Ant!' every now and then. Just for old times' sake.

To be continued ...     .....

Saturday, 26 September 2015

The PINK SOFA meets writer and blogger Terry Tyler

Terry Tyler is a bit of a Renaissance Woman: she reviews, she blogs, and she writes modern and historical fiction. She has a huge following on Twitter (@TerryTyler4), where she is generous with her retweeting and support of other writers. The PINK SOFA, who is always disappointed that I am not a glam blonde, is overjoyed to welcome her and has been sprucing up its cushions like mad in anticipation of her visit.

''First, I must say how grateful I am to be allowed past the hallowed portals of Carol's blog to talk about my new book.  I bribed her with cake, which I am sure she will never eat.... but she can look at and perhaps even photograph (and then tweet) it!
(I have in my head a picture of a mountain top, with celestial beings guarding the entrance to the dwelling that houses....da da daaah ~ The Pink Sofa....)

Right ~ my new book.  As I write this, The House of York is in the hands of my proofreader, who is also the first to read it.  This is always petrifying.  Until the moment another person claps eyes on your latest creation, the world and characters within are known only to you.  Sure, it all works, comes together so smoothly - you've lived with it for months, gone over and over it in your head and on your screen until you know all the ins and outs by heart.  It's only when First Reader says, quite casually, "Oh, by the way, I've started your book," that you think Waaaah ~ I hope it really does work.  Was I imagining it?  It is all just a load of rubbish?

....I am now continuing this post a week later, and The Book Is Back ~ it works, it works, she says!  I was reminded, yet again, how the parts in a novel that 'speak' to a reader might be those you didn't think particularly strong, and your favourite sections might not be theirs; and that this will, of course, be different for everyone.

So, The House of York.  It's about a family called York, and those who join with them through marriage, love affairs, business, nefarious plotting, etc.  The Yorks own a company called Parhelion, which runs health food caf├ęs and York's Wine Bars ~ in the south of England, to rival the Yates's Wine Lodges of the north.  Told from the points of view of selected cast members, the saga (for indeed it is!) spans the years 1993 ~ 2014.  I've written other family sagas, but this is 'darker', with themes of psychic awareness, good versus evil, abuse and murderous intent running through.  It is loosely based on the story of the Wars of the Roses, though not a modern day retelling, as I have done before, with the Tudors in Kings and Queens and Last Child; this true story was far too complicated to be written as anything less than a trilogy, and I am the only writer on Amazon without a trilogy to my name.  I stand alone with my stand alones!  I did have a go at a closer retelling of history, but I got to 30K words and realised that if I carried on, I'd still be writing the first draft this time next year, and it would take another year to read, let alone write.  Perhaps that's how trilogies come about, I don't know.

I hope The House of York will be out in October; it now has to be read by Mr Picky, a family member who will not allow my books into the world without his input.  This is the part of the process I fear almost as much as the day I look at Amazon and think "no-one's bought the wretched thing for days", or the first less than positive review; however, it is good to have a Mr Picky in one's entourage, as he points out the dodgy bits that no-one but those of his ilk will notice.

Now what?  Well, I'm enjoying the small break I allow myself before starting the next one; I like to have a few weeks' trimming down of the to-read-list and have already
ticked a few off this, with a satisfied nod or six.  During this 'between novels' time I kid myself I will catch up on housework, give the whole place a really good going over; I don't know why I still pretend I'll do this because I never do.

There are always so many more interesting things with which to occupy one's time, though, aren't there?  Like my current astrology feature on my blog ~ thrice a week I am featuring a different writer, talking about how the characteristics of their star sign affect how they work.  When I began asking for posts I hadn't anticipated that the response would be so great, and I have posts scheduled until the beginning of December, so far.  The subject is treated lightly and in a sometimes tongue-in-cheek way, I hasten to add.  Very, in some cases; I've had a post from a certain Mr Gemini that totally trashes the whole thing!

Oh yes, I was going to talk about what I was writing next, wasn't I?  Well, my intention had been to write a novel set in the 14th century, and I have started doing the reading for it; I love history (in particular the Plantagenet and Tudor periods) and have been working towards this for some time.  However, I realised when I finished The House of York that it was perfectly set up for a sequel, and my test reader says that, rather than being merely 'set up for', it actually needs a sequel; I already have the story in my head so might have to write that first....  I have a 'to-be-written' list as well as the 'to-be-read'!

Thank you, Virgin Media, for malfunctioning this morning, which meant that I was sans internet and thus got this piece finished instead of ambling around Twitter and emails for two hours ~ and thank you very much, Carol, for inviting me onto your pink sofa!  I hope the cake was worthy and I will, of course, remember to feed the fish on my way out.''

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Monday, 21 September 2015

A Case of Mistaken Identity (Adventures of L-Plate Gran)

There comes a time in every baby's development when they begins to realise they are a separate person from the adults around them and parents/carers have an important role in helping and supporting the child as they establish their own identity. According to the baby experts, that is. Sigh. If only it was that easy...

From a very early age Little G has been fascinated by her own reflection. You must be mad has a large mirror on the floor by the front door and Little G has always spent a lot of time chatting to the baby in the mirror.

She shows the mirror baby her toys and books. She checks to see if the baby in the mirror has the same food. Lately she has taken to standing by the mirror, and kissing the baby. Last week she waved happily to it and said: 'Bye bye baby' as we left. It's very sweet, but I'm not convinced she has made the connection.

The other thing Little G has always enjoyed doing from the moment she could sit unsupported is looking through my online pictures. She loves the cat pictures and the numerous cake ones. Of course a lot of my pictures are of her at various stages and whenever we come to one, I always make sure I tell her: 'Look, it's you!'

Consider my predicament therefore when, scrolling through some pictures the other day, we found a couple of Little G taken recently on holiday. 'So who's that?' I asked. Little G stared hard at the pictures for a second, then announced triumphantly: 'It's you.' Yikes, major #Granfail. I wonder what the baby experts would have to say about that? Nothing good, I fear.

To be continued ...    .....

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Choosing the Write Name

The late & much lamented Victoria Collins

One of the first big decisions facing any budding author hoping to publish their novel is deciding what to call yourself. There are two options.

Option 1: Be yourself.
Plus points are that it's easy to remember who you are (until dementia takes over, when you have to rely on friends and family). And it stops that look of vague terror crossing your face when being introduced as a guest speaker. Or seeing a poster with your face and stranger's name under it.  It also makes the banking of meagre royalties easier, and stops HMRC from going into meltdown every time you fill in a self-assessment form.

Option 2: Be someone else.
Initially, that's what I was going to do. I wanted a different name for the author of Diamonds & Dust. As it was going to be my first 'adult' novel, I thought I'd like to create a new identity to go with it. And I wanted something that would place my books at eye-level on the bookshop shelf - something that not enough writers factor in when choosing their author name. (Think supermarket and bottom shelves). Plus I wanted a name that suggested the book was a historical novel. Thus Victoria Collins was born: Victoria after the Queen; Collins after Wilkie Collins, writer of the first detective novel. Great name! Or so I thought.

Alas, just as I was beginning to develop a split personality and quite enjoying it, the negative aspects of my decision began to surface and niggle at me. To launch as an unknown historical fiction writer seemed a bit risky, didn't it? How would anyone who already knew me, find me? A quick trawl on the internet also threw up a couple of other Victoria Collins. Both established writers, both with blogs. My alter-ego had competition before she'd even started.

However, 'Carol Hedges' existed as a known entity, and had a presence on Amazon, Wikipedia and other sites. It seemed daft to turn my back on what was already set up and running. So sadly, Victoria and I parted company. Purely for commercial reasons. But I like to think that she hasn't completely gone away; that she is still out there, somewhere. A spiky, scatty version of me ... in a bonnet and crinoline. Causing trouble.

Monday, 14 September 2015

Mock & Roll (Adventures of L-Plate Gran)

I used to think my childminding skills were on a par with that famous fictional umbrella carrying childminder: 'Practically perfect in every way'. That was before I started minding Little G. Now it is becoming more and more obvious that I am riddled with faults. Most of them are being brought to my attention by the baby, who has taken to imitating me.

''ALLO!'' she greets me, sounding like a cross between Inspector Clouseau and a South American parakeet. Personally, I wasn't aware that I said this, but apparently I do. I also wasn't aware how often I checked my watch, until Little G started doing it. Not that she has a watch. She does a very good imitation of having one though.

She is also MUCH better at giving people The Hard Stare than I am; it's really scary, I wouldn't like to be on the receiving end of it. And she raises a tiny hand in gracious acknowledgement to drivers who let us cross. I have seen people collapsing over the wheel in fits of laughter as we pass. This is how we roll.

However the ultimate humiliation came last week, when Little G was tucking into her dinner of cheese and peas (we like rhyming food) and a friend called my mobile. Having watched me for a couple of seconds, she suddenly held her spoon up to her ear, gave me a cheeky grin and started making blah-blah noises into it.

They say everyone's a critic, but my goodness don't they start young nowadays!

To be continued ...     ....

Friday, 11 September 2015

Fuelling the Writing Process

Surprise has been expressed in some quarters at the amount of coffee that I drink while writing my Victorian Detective series. Lest it be thought that I spend all day sitting in front of a laptop, mainlining caffeine, I probably need to point out that the coffee cup: word count ratio also includes other writing-related activities that may take place at different times of the day and in different places but can include coffee as part of the journey.

For a start, there is thinking/planning coffee, which happens while counting the fish in the pond, re-arranging various drawers, reading the paper, de-frosting the fridge or moving objects upon the desk. Okay, I call it thinking/planning coffee, but let's be gut-honest, you know, and I know you know exactly what it is.

There is also research coffee. Research is something most writers do, especially those who write historical fiction, because every little detail has to be absolutely accurate. You can wing it, but sod's law dictates that if you do, your book will fall into the reviewing hands of the one and only world-expert in the winged area, and they will take great delight in exposing your ignorance to the wider reading public.

I use two sources for research: the internet, which is brilliant for very specific information: Victorian funerary practices, the acceptable length of mourning for different family members etc. However I also like to get out and use the local library, because there is something about the serendipity of working along the shelves and discovering something you didn't know you needed until you came across it. It's a bit like Topshop, but with books. I once found a whole page on how the Victorians decorated their Christmas trees in a book on Celebrations - and used the information in Diamonds & Dust.

Both research sources involve copious amounts of coffee naturally, although the best thing about extra-mural research coffee is that it is usually accompanied by research cake. Victoria sponge cake, of course.

Monday, 7 September 2015

Talk the Talk (Adventures of L-Plate Gran)

Pushing a baby round town is giving me a whole new insight into the way we (you, I don't do this) use bad language in the street. On several occasions I have had to TALK LOUDLY to Little G as some person has passed by us, swearing liberally while on their mobile. The last thing I need is for Big Ears the Baby to tell You must be mad to **** - off.

Little G is now sixteen months old, and has a wide vocabulary. She soaks up words and songs, often joining in conversations when a word occurs that she recognises. Thus the need to monitor and sometimes censor the language she is exposed to. I am adept at giving miscreants The Hard Stare.

However there is one word she has learned that You must be mad is NOT happy about. Little G has started saying 'Wor - ah' when she wants a drink. She has picked it up from somewhere and it seems to have stuck. Thus we are out and about in town, when this little voice pipes up from the buggy in fluent Estuary English: 'Wor - ah?'

Last week I decided to have a purge on the ubiquitous glottal stop. Whenever she asked for a drink, what she got was some WaTer. Carefully enunciated and in my best Home Counties accent. Thought I'd cracked it. But the best laid schemes of mice and gran gang aft aglay. Next day, we're on the bus going to Baby Rhyme Time, when the little voice suddenly pipes up hopefully:  'Wor - Tah?'

I still have so much to learn.

To be continued ...     ....