Author Archives: yakinamac

About yakinamac

When I was 17 years old Mrs Holder, my school's careers adviser, told me not to study English Literature at university because what would I actually do with such a degree? "Okay," I thought, "I won't apply to study my favourite subject. What else might I want to do?" I ended up spending three years on Ancient History and Egyptology, which is probably all you need to know about my flair for logical thinking. I'm now a civil servant taking six months' special leave in the desperate hope of either getting my first novel published or finally finding it in my heart to accept that Mrs Holder got it right and I'll be spending the next three decades or so writing nothing more exciting than advice to Ministers. To be honest, I'd prefer the novel.

A Dish Best Served Cold

Well, my poor old attempt at flash fiction didn’t make the shortlist for the inaugural Reflex Fiction competition. Boo! But on the plus side, I get to publish it here instead. Hurrah!

 

 

Marcus watches as the plate is lowered to the starched cotton tablecloth. F. G. Fotheringale peers at it over his spectacles and scratches a few words in his notebook. The pen moves swiftly left to right, underlining something.

Marcus wonders what it is. “Elegant,” perhaps, or “sophisticated.” But no, knowing F. G. Fotheringale it will be something he’s never heard of, a French term that Marcus would have had to look up to know whether it was good or bad. Not that he’ll need to this time: this review will never be written.

The waiter is at Marcus’s shoulder, presenting his identical plate in precisely the same way, pointing with a neat fingernail to the silky slices of fugu (“prepared with the greatest care by Mr. Blackwood himself”) the glistening pools of plum sauce that Marcus knows already will be the perfect consistency, the delicate shiso leaves adding colour.

The envy tastes like vinegar.

At the next table, F. G. Fotheringale picks up his chopsticks. A few seconds more and he’ll capture a sliver of fugu, dip it in that piquant sauce. How long, Marcus wonders, before Fotheringale’s lips start to tingle, before his vision blurs? Will he look up then and see Marcus sitting there? Will he have time to regret the words that have led to this moment?

“Pedestrian.”“ Prosaic.” “Passé.” Each one an alliterative dagger to Marcus’s soul.

Fotheringale deserves this, and Blackwood too. Walking out like that, as if he owed Marcus nothing. After all those years of training, of patience. Of friendship.

The sous chef had been easy to persuade: a droplet of pufferfish poison added discreetly to Fotheringale’s sashimi. He’s been slipping the mortadella to Maria Blackwood and believes he’ll take over the restaurant when her husband’s reputation is ruined. He’s not the sharpest knife in the block.

Marcus smiles as he lifts his own chopsticks to his mouth. Delicious: he can see why the Japanese take the risk. His eyes meet Fotheringale’s as he chews.

But what is this? The sous chef is at the kitchen door, waving, frantic. Marcus freezes, his chopsticks in mid-air.

He presses a finger to his tingling lips.

 

Nick Clegg Made Me Do It: Why it’s time to end our constitutional ignorance

I wasn’t going to write this post. It was a lovely, sunny day and I was feeling perky and optimistic, in the mood for some light-hearted fluff about weather-related metaphors. And then I picked up the Evening Standard.

Nick Clegg, former Deputy Prime Minister, had written another of his periodic columns on why the world is going to hell in a handbasket. Fair enough. But then he did it. He made that stupid, infuriating comment that’s trotted out from time to time when someone is having a pop at the Government…

     “…the founding flaw of this Government – it has a PM who was never elected by anyone, who has no legitimacy  of her own.”

I think that Theresa May’s constituents, the good people of Maidenhead, might take offence at the suggestion that their ballot papers had nothing to do with the election of their MP. Mrs May herself might have been somewhat surprised to find herself in the House of Commons without having been “elected by anyone”. Can you imagine it? One day she’s sitting there, tucking into her grapefruit breakfast at the kitchen table – I’m sure it’s grapefruit; she strikes me as that kind of woman – and the next she finds herself sat on a green leather bench, waving bits of paper at the people opposite. Remarkable.

Except of course, that’s not what happened. Theresa May, as David Cameron before her, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair and John Major, was elected as an MP by her constituents. That’s it, people. it was the same for all of them. Because NO-ONE DIRECTLY ELECTS THE PRIME MINISTER.

Just to spell it out – because no-one ever seems to – the only person you vote for in a General Election is a candidate for your constituency. Most candidates stand for a particular political party, and when all the votes have been counted and all the individual MPs elected, the leader of the party with the most MPs becomes Prime Minister and is invited by the Queen to form a Government.

It’s really not that hard.

The only difference is that Theresa May became leader of the Conservative after a General Election. You might argue that when people voted for Joe Bloggs instead of Janet Biggles in the constituency of Little Townsville South, they expected that if the Tories got in David Cameron would be Prime Minister – but unless they lived in Cameron’s constituency of Witney, they had no opportunity AT ALL to either vote for him or not.

It’s not just the man who a few years ago was Deputy Prime Minister who pedals this kind of tripe. It’s all over the place. And it’s not just about “unelected” Prime Ministers. There were also – in the wake of the Brexit judicial review – newspapers and even MPs talking about “unelected judges”, as if the separation of powers wasn’t a fundamental principle of our constitution, an essential bulwark against despotism. There was the confusion between Parliament and Government during the MPs’ expenses scandal. There were the MPs expressing horror about the law on bribery having changed a year after they had passed the Act, as though it somehow had nothing to do with them. There was Theresa May, when she was Home Secretary, saying that police and crime commissioners should be in charge of the fire and rescue service because councillors on fire authorities weren’t directly elected, without anyone ever pointing out that she hadn’t been directly elected as Home Secretary either.

This isn’t pedantry. This stuff matters. It matters because a democracy relies on voters having some kind of a clue about what they’re voting for. People need to know how the system works.

And I’m not blaming Joe Public for this. I went to a decent (comprehensive) school and got a first class degree from a Bloomsbury Group University; I read broadsheet newspapers and tried to keep up with current affairs, and I didn’t know any of it either. Because it was never taught. And because commentators like the former Deputy Prime Minister misled us all with the kind of nonsense highlighted above.

It wasn’t until I joined the civil service and was made to do a compulsory six-day course called Parliament, Government and the Civil Service that I understood what the various bits of the system were there to do. For the first time, I knew how they related to each other, how they were held to account, where the tools for influence lay. I had the information I needed to be an engaged citizen.

A little something to be getting on with…

And honestly – I’m starting to wonder if some of this disinformation isn’t a product of design rather than accident.

Do I honestly believe that someone who was Deputy Prime Minister for five years didn’t understand how he got the job? That the Lib Dems went through a set of coalition negotiations with the Tories somehow under the misapprehension that the Ministerial jobs they were arguing about had already been distributed by the electorate in some way?

Clearly, Nick Clegg has seen fit to use an inaccurate and misleading soundbite as a way of scoring political points. Ok, politicians do that all the time.

But should he be allowed to get away with it unchallenged? And is there, perhaps, the smallest chance that there’s more to it than the usual political hollyhocks?

Is the absence from the school curriculum of a grounding in the fundamental building blocks of our constitution  – whisper it – deliberate? Does it help to keep power in the hands of the people who are on the inside? Should I be scratching my head about the fact that the only time I was taught about the most basic elements of our constitution – the only way I even realised I didn’t understand it in the first place – was when I became a civil servant, prevented from engaging in political discourse?

I’m not usually a fan of conspiracy theories and I’m not saying this is all a result of conscious decision-making. But you have to wonder whether the reason this gap in our collective understanding isn’t addressed is because the people with power just don’t think it’s important. Because perhaps they think things work just fine as they are. Perhaps they believe – even at a subconscious level – that the people who need to understand how the system works, how to effect change, already have that information. People Like Them.

But when “the country’s democracy is in a fragile state” (Stephen Kinnock MP, quoted in the same newspaper just six pages on from Nick Clegg’s column), when people have been asked to engage directly through a referendum on issues of sovereign importance to this country’s future, when hardly a day passes without someone banging on about “frustrating the will of the people”… Well, it just seems to me that “the people” should have a bit more of a clue about how this shit works.

It’s time we demanded proper constitutional education as part of the curriculum. It’s time citizens, all of us, were given the tools to make our democracy actually mean something.

Flash fiction – or when size really does matter

flash

So I made my first attempt to write some flash fiction the other day. It was a competition entry – Reflex Fiction’s inaugural contest, which closes for submissions on 28 February if you fancy entering (details here) – and with a top prize of £100, I hoped optimistically to put a dent in the bill for the astonishingly expensive replacement tap I’ve just had to buy for our downstairs loo. Well, you never know. And inspiration comes in all shapes and sizes, right?

Except that was my first problem. How do you pick a topic for flash fiction?

The competition in question has strict parameters for word count: no fewer than 180 words and no more than 360. I’d never tried to write a story that short – the first draft of my last novel came in at over 150,000 words, so it seemed likely I’d find this a bit of a challenge.

A few years ago I went along to a London Writers’ Café workshop where the guest speaker was renowned author of short stories, Zoe Fairbairns. The most famous of her works is “Bus Ticket”, and she maintained that successful short story ideas often focussed on a single, small object.

The thing is, “Bus Ticket” is one of Ms Fairbairns’ shortest stories (and I’m far too scared to get her title wrong after reading it). It comes in at 756 words – more than twice the flash fiction limit. And a bus ticket is pretty small – as far as I can remember, anyway; it’s all contactless and Oystercards in London these days.

So how could I downsize from there? A postage stamp, perhaps? A button? Reasonable enough, but if everyone else was taking the same advice, those nice people at Reflex Fiction were going to be reading a lot of stories about philately and dressmaking.

I’m not sure I follow the logic that physical size has to matter here. Surely it’s the size of the idea, whatever it’s based on, that has to be manageable enough for the word count restrictions?

Then I wondered whether genre might be a factor. Would it be easier to pack the drama into a teeny tiny ghost story, say, or a murder mystery?

I tried looking at flash fiction websites to see if there were any themes. And guess what? There weren’t.

There were fantasies, and stream-of-consciousness pieces, and a rather beautiful story  about telepathy.  There were all kinds of different subjects and styles – which didn’t help at all but which was somehow reassuring in a funny kind of way.

At least I couldn’t get it wrong just by picking the wrong topic.

So I had a go, and while I doubt the resulting effort is really going to help with that new tap, I had fun doing it. Watch this space for the results as soon as I find I haven’t made the longlist. And I might give flash fiction another go one of these days – though I will have to live with that Queen song running through my head every time I think of it…

FLASH! Ah-ahh…

 

 

 

The tax man giveth…

HM Revenue and Customs formDoing what you love for a living, it turns out, is not as straight forward as you’d think. I speak, of course, of the challenge of accounting to the tax man.

It’s true that said challenge is not pressing. I doubt even the most zealous official of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is going to be knocking on my door demanding her cut of the £18.58 that is my current sum total of royalties. But great riches are surely only just around the corner! So in anticipation of those exciting times I’ve been endeavouring to do what all the websites say is crucial to successful self-employment: keeping records.

The trouble is, I can’t find many things to keep records of. It’s not like I have lists of orders, or a catalogue of stock, or receipts or invoices. I don’t have much in the way of costs (just as well, given I have even less in the way of income): communications with my agent are by email, I’ve yet to dip my toe in the self-publishing puddle, and I write everything on the same creaky laptop I’ve had for years.

I do, though, work from home, and those nice people at HMRC will apparently let me count some of the costs of maintaining it – utilities and council tax and so on – as business expenses. Hurrah! But in order to take advantage of this unexpected largesse, I need to find a justifiable way of identifying the proportion of those costs that fall to writing.

There’s apparently more than one way to do this. HMRC have a simplified calculation that will come up with an estimated cost for you – but I can’t help feeling that’s unlikely to err on the side of generosity. Or if you use one room primarily as an office, you can divide your costs by the total number of rooms in your house and use that. But do bathrooms count? And are my kitchen and dining room two separate rooms – there’s an archway between them instead of a door – or would the man/woman from the revenue claim them as a kitchen-diner? Perhaps I should get an estate agent round.

The alternative, as I understand it, is to record the amount of time you spend working- so if you spend 4 hours every day hard at it, say, you could claim a sixth of the costs of running your house as a business expense. All well and good, and keeping a timesheet appeals to the not-yet-completely-dead civil servant in me. Plus it will surely count as another one of those records I’m supposed to be keeping. Simples, no?

Well, no. Because now I have to decide what counts as working time. The bit where I’m actually sat at my laptop producing words seems fair enough. And ditto editing. But just how creative can we get here? Can I count reading “in genre” as research? What about out of genre? If I enjoyed reading something does it automatically become entertainment instead of research? And what about Twitter – surely a quick scroll through #amwriting is practically a requirement these days?

I remember reading once about lawyers getting grief for having billed their clients for time spent in the bath on the basis they were thinking about their cases. Their argument was that, like Archimedes, that might be when they got their Eureka! moments. It seemed like a load of old hollyhocks at the time, but I’m starting to feel more sympathetic…

It’s a minefield. Any advice gratefully received; and if you’d like to send it on the back of a £50 note, I’m reliably informed there’s no tax to pay on gifts.

 

 

 

 

Learning to love your writing

I’ve had a problematic relationship with my current work in progress.

There are lots of reasons for this. I didn’t plan it to within an inch of its life before I started writing, too impatient to get on with it to worry about my individual character plotlines or the scene spreadsheet. “I’ve done this before,” I thought, “I’ve got this.” Ha!

The early stages of writing were interrupted, repeatedly, by publishers rejecting my first book.  I had to put it to one side and focus on rewrites. I felt weirdly guilty about leaving my new characters – as if I’d just breathed life into them and then left them hanging around with nothing to do while I spent all my time with my old friends. It felt rude.

And when I was able to turn back to them, it was because of failure. A few British publishers had expressed interest in book 1 but none had offered, even after all those hours of rewrites, all that bloody effort. It was hard to work up a lot of enthusiasm for going through the whole miserable process again.

It felt hard. The words came slowly. I set aside writing days and sat grimly at my desk for hours, forcing out a few hundred words like a chicken laying a particularly large, square egg.

I dimly remembered the experience of writing the first book, utterly unable to think of what came next, how to move the plot forward; but the memories didn’t seem real. By then, book 1 had found a French and then a German publisher, and I was fond of it again. I looked back on the days of writing it as a sort of golden period, telling myself that the words had come freely, that I’d known what I was doing, that everything – the idea, the planning, the execution – had been better than the current exercise.

I bitched about book 2. I couldn’t find a good word to say about it. So consistent was I in telling anyone who asked how irredeemably rubbish it was, that when I eventually considered it in a decent enough shape to ask people to read it, the Husband – my biggest cheerleader – couldn’t work up any enthusiasm to do it.

Poor, unloved book 2!

It’s on its fourth draft now – two more than book 1 had before it went out to publishers – and there’s still a lot of work to do. But somewhere in the last couple of weeks I’ve found something I’d been missing before. I’ve actually started to like it.

I’ve come across bits of writing and thought, “That’s not bad.” I’ve realised I care about my characters. I can see there’s more depth to my story than there was last time around. In short, it has its good points.

What has brought about this change of heart?

Partly, I think, it’s that the re-drafting has improved things. Sheer time and persistence have succeeded in editing away the worst horrors.

Partly, it’s that my agent has asked hard questions that, while at first they made me want to go and cry in a corner, also made me realise that I do know my characters better than I thought I did. That they have more about them than I’d given them credit for. (Now all I need to do is find a way to transfer that knowledge to the page.)

And a big part is that two of the three people who’ve read and commented on it so far, people whose opinions I respect, have said that they prefer this book to the first one. That makes me happy. Really happy.

I know I probably shouldn’t care so much about what other people think. I know we’re all supposed to write for ourselves, blah blah blah. But I’m writing fiction – I want people to enjoy it. A bit of encouragement goes a long way.

So it’s back to the “to do” list for draft 4 and a half. And if I don’t have a song in my heart, there’s the beginning of a tune on my lips. And no matter what the outcome with this book, one thing I’ll remember from all of this: sticking with something helps. Even if you can’t see a way of it ever getting to where you want it to be. Even if you think it’s rubbish.

Because eventually the clouds part. And when they do, the darkness before makes the sunshine that much brighter.love-of-writing

 

 

 

Fear of the dark

2017 feels a bit scary.

I don’t make a habit of attributing characteristics to years. It’s not exactly rational. But this time I’m making an exception.fear

Because in important ways, this year is make or break for the Yak household.

I’ve got six months to get Book 2 into a state where there’s some prospect of it bringing in some cash. It doesn’t have to be a lot, but it has to be something. If it fails – if I fail – it’s back to the day job. Except that the day job isn’t there anymore, so I’ll have to persuade someone, somewhere that 17 years of making Government policy equips me to do something other than make Government policy.

Let’s cross that bridge when we come to it.

Then there’s the not-entirely-unrelated issue of having a two household marriage. Two salaries and one home, it turns out, was infinitely more comfortable than two homes and one salary. Who knew?

Finances aside, saying goodbye to the Husband as he left last night to return to the Sad Pad where he now spends the working week was hard. Not even the prospect of not having to share the  Waitrose chocolate truffles did much to help. The cats are discomfited by the lopsided parenting. Patsy is anxious and needy, and Poppy is cross about unnegotiated changes to the parental timeshare arrangements.

And that’s before we get to the big stuff. The Brexit and the Donald, and the it’s-OK-to-be-sexist/racist/fascist/just-unkind-because-we-won-and-you-lost-so-fuck-you. And all the sound and fury is bad enough, but what happens when the shit actually gets real?

This doesn’t feel like the way to start a New Year. This should be a time of hope, of resolutions, and fitness regimes and brand new word count targets. So let’s turn that frown upside down. What we need at times like this is a list. A top ten. Perhaps a top five then. Top five reasons for us all to be cheerful.

Here goes:

  1. Difficult times make for great art. Lots of writers hang around here – just think of all the material!
  2. The weather is pretty mild for the time of year. That’s good, isn’t it? Think of the little birds. And the sheep in the fields. And the hibernating ladybirds. (And if anyone knows of any reason why mild winters actually aren’t good news for particular species, please do NOT comment and tell me.)
  3. There’s a new series of Sherlock coming! You see, it’s already better than 2016.
  4. David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Prince and even George Michael can’t die twice.

Ok, top four. Over to you for the fifth. In the words of Ferris Bueller’s teacher, “Anyone? Anyone..?”

 

In Search of Fairy Dust

Somewhere in here, nurse, there's a story, and we're going to save it!

Somewhere in here, ladies and gentlemen, is a story. Let’s try and save it!

I’ve got the editing blues.

After almost three years of sporadic work, the first draft of book 2 is complete and I’m half way through the read through. It’s confirmed my darkest fears: it’s in need of some serious surgery.

First, there are the slips of voice. Was I re-reading Pride and Prejudice, dear reader, when I came over all Jane Austen in the middle of my contemporary psychological thriller?

And what was I thinking of when I plodded my way through all those boring passages: she did this, then she did this, then she did this – and voilà! The cup of tea was made!

And then there are the abrupt transitions, the scenes that don’t seem to have an actual point, the echoes of words and phrases; and those damnable adverbs I’d tried so hard to purge but have somehow bubbled up anyway through the cracks of my subconscious and turned my sentences an alarming shade of mauve.

Keep breathing, I tell myself. It is good that you can see there’s work to do. Admitting the problem is the first step to solving it. Etc. Etc.

But the truth is, those problems are only part of the picture.

Before I started the edit, I took two weeks away from writing to cleanse my mind. It gave me the chance to read and re-read a whole pile of psychological thrillers, proper books by proper authors who had navigated the battlefield of publishing and landed an actual deal. It reminded me that there’s something else I need to add to the mix…

Fairy dust.

Because there are a hell of a lot of books out there. More specifically, there’s a truck-load of psychological thrillers aimed at the female market. Loads of victims and villains, secrets and lies, mysterious pasts and vengeful friends/siblings/former partners. And there are plenty that are competently written, with clean prose and a story that makes sense and keeps you turning the pages.

But the thing is, after a while, the vast majority of those novels sort of merge into one other. And that’s where the fairy dust comes in.

As part of my reading marathon, I turned back to two books I’d loved. No prizes for originality here, because they were both mega-sellers: Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train. I could see that they deserved their success. I could see that they both had something special, something that separated them from the rest. I tried to put my finger on what it was.

In the case of Gone Girl, you could argue that it’s about the voice or the language, those clever descriptive phrases that capture so perfectly a mood or an expression in just two or three words. For The Girl on the Train it might be the concept, elevating something so ordinary – the commute to work – to a stage for gripping drama.

But whilst those elements play their part, I think at bottom they both have something else, something that’s both elegantly simple and nightmarishly complex all at one.

Compelling characterisation.

I mean, I really liked Rachel, Hawkins’ troubled, alcoholic, quietly desperate protagonist. I rooted for her. Remember that time when she threw up on the stairs of her friend’s flat and then went to bed, telling herself she’d get up and clean it all up before her friend got home? Yes it was pathetic and disgusting, but all I wanted to do was take her by the shoulders and shake her, tell her to clean it up now, no matter how bad she felt, because I knew what was coming if she didn’t. I cared about her. I wanted to save her from herself.

And then at the opposite end of the spectrum there’s Amy, Gone Girl‘s anti-heroine. Amy isn’t so much flawed as twisted, psychotic, poisonous – and written with so much snap. She’s horrifying but fascinating, so dark that she sends a delicious shiver of fear down the spine. Like her husband, Nick, I had to know what was going on inside her head.

So I know that when I’ve cut the pointless scenes, and scrubbed out the adverbs, and improved the narrative flow, there’s another, more important thing on my to do list for the next draft:

I have to turn my protagonist into a heroine. I have to find the fairy dust.fairy-dust