Does any restaurant regularly offer Vegan options?

Bit of a rant this week. Regular readers of this blog will know that most of the recipes/meal ideas that appear here are vegan, because although I’m not vegan myself (I eat fish, occasionally dairy, and  very occasionally, free-range chicken) my dear other half, known here as Vegan Husband, is.
Now, for a foodie such as myself, this is a challenge. I don’t care what all those websites say, it is NOT ‘easy’ to prepare ‘healthy and delicious meals all year round’ without using any animal products. But it’s certainly easy to prepare somehealthy and delicious meals; maybe even quite a few. And I could possibly – probably, in fact – come up with a month’s worth of pretty tasty vegan meals, plus a few puds, cakes and biscuits into the bargain. It’s coming up with a good variety that’s difficult, not vegan cooking in itself.
As I’m cooking vegan meals most of the time, I have of course looked into specialist foods such as soya alternatives to meat and dairy products. To be honest, some of them are pretty awful, but there are some products that I regularly make use of, so that creamy sauces are not necessarily a thing of the past, and I can even knock up some pretty mean vegan ‘meatballs’.  But even if I couldn’t use these products, I would still be able to come up with a good few meals that are actually nice to eat and attractive to look at.
Why, then, is it nigh on impossible to get a vegan meal in a restaurant unless you’re eating Indian? Or (if you like Tofu) Chinese or Thai? Wouldn’t you think that there could be just one thing on the menu in European restaurants, dining pubs and cafe-bars? Even a plate of pasta with a veggie sauce would do the trick.  I often see dishes that look like they could be vegan, but then I see ‘finished with ricotta/goat’s cheese/double cream’. I’m sure if we called ahead most chefs would rise to the challenge, but just occasionally, I’d like to be able to go out with my husband on the spur of the moment for a meal that isn’t Indian, Chinese or Thai. Cafes aren’t too bad. We could probably get lunch fairly easily. But it’s dinner I want; with wine and candles and proper tablecloths and the option of three courses.
For a starter, they could do a vegan soup, served with crusty bread; or some mushrooms in white wine and garlic; or bruschetta.  Pasta would be an easy main-course choice.  They could serve it simply coated with olive oil, garlic, minced chilli, lemon juice and parsley; or with a tomato, olive and caper sauce; or a homemade pesto (without cheese); or a spicy tomato sauce. It’s not fine dining, but it would be nice.
Even puddings aren’t that difficult.  There’s always fruit. Baked peaches drizzled  with maple syrup are good.  Ready-made puff pastry is dairy-free (if you don’t buy the buttery version) so a caramelised apple tart wouldn’t be beyond the wit of man or woman. And it’s easy to get really good dark chocolate that doesn’t contain dairy, so there’s stuff you can do with that, too.
I’m sure the management of most restaurants would argue that ‘there’s no call’ for vegan dishes; I’d argue that vegans don’t bother trying because their dietary preferences are seen as weird and extreme. I  couldn’t find an up-to-date estimate of how many vegans there are in the UK, but the Vegan Society  reckons it’s at least 150,000. Not a huge number, it’s true. But there are plenty of people who are allergic to dairy and would happily go meat-free for a night. And plenty of vegetarians who’d welcome the chance to try really good and exciting vegan food.

Given that when a group of people goes out for dinner, they’ll look for a restaurant where the one vegan among them can get a meal, so by offering one vegan option, restaurants could attract other new customers. And who knows, if the vegan option was attractive enough,  a non-vegan might actually choose it.

Any vegans out there have the same problem? Are you vegetarian but would like to eat vegan occasionally? Are you a chef or restaurant manager who’d be keen to offer a vegan option? And does anyone know if there’s anywhere outside London where we could get a vegan meal that would be good enough for a special occasion?
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When your characters speak

The Writing Bit
How do you make your dialogue convincing ?  It has to be realistic enough to be believable , but  your characters shouldn’t speak exactly like real people, and you only have to eavesdrop on a few conversations to see why.  Real people  say ‘um’ and ‘er’; we waffle; we go off the point; we don’t finish our sentences; we use the wrong word; we can’t remember why we started telling you this in the first place. Characters can’t get away with that (well, once, maybe, to make a point about the character).
But by and large, what your characters say should be more interesting, meaningful and to the point than what real people say, and they should say it in more interesting ways.  If you catch your character wittering on about something that really isn’t relevant to his/her character, the scene, or the overall story, it’s time to shut them up!
Dialogue is a wonderful way of ‘showing’ rather than ‘telling’, but we do need to ‘tell’ sometimes, such as when showing would clearly bore the pants off our readers. So for example, it’s ok to summarise:
‘How was work,’ he asked.
She sat heavily on the sofa and sighed. ‘You don’t want to know,’ she said, and then proceeded to give him a blow-by-blow account of her day.
In terms of the characters and their relationship, maybe we do need to know that they had this discussion, but we don’t need to hear the blow-by-blow account of her day, so summarising in this way is fine.
Speech attribution
He said/she said. That’s it; it’s all you need.  Anything else is an authorial intrusion, because the reader is likely to notice it, and when a reader notices the writing, it means that he or she has stopped reading, albeit briefly.  Ok, we can probably get away with ‘he whispered’ (or muttered/yelled/shouted); and I don’t think the reader is likely to trip up over ‘she asked’ (or replied/added/continued) but please, oh please, avoid speech tags that are unnecessary or inappropriate at best, and at worst pompous, overblown or archaic. I have seen all of the following used as speech tags in contemporary fiction:  opined; interjected; retorted; exclaimed; remonstrated; expostulated; and (I kid you not) ejaculated.
The simplest tag of all, ‘said’, is virtually invisible on the page. If you feel you’re using it too much, can you show who’s speaking by their actions, or just by what they’re saying? For example:
‘Hey, at last!’ He stood up, smiling, his arms outstretched.
 She hurried towards him, dropped her bags at his feet. ‘I’m so, so sorry!’ She leaned in and kissed him. ‘First I couldn’t get a taxi, then the traffic was horrendous and the stupid man kept going on about what was wrong with the transport system in this country, and …oh sorry, I’m rambling. But I mean really, do I look like the sort of person who would be interested in – ‘
‘No, darling, you don’t. Anyway, you’re here now.’ He leaned over and pulled out the chair opposite. ‘Sit down. Drink?’
‘Oh lovely. G and T please.’
He looked around for a waiter. ‘Gin and tonic for my companion, please.’
She giggled. ‘Ooh, get you. “my companion” indeed.’
He leaned back in his chair, a smile spreading slowly over his face. ‘So how would you describe yourself?’
‘Let me see…girlfriend is too young; ladyfriend  is too old. Mistress? No, then people would think you were married. Shame; I quite like the idea of being a mistress.’ She leaned towards him and lowered her voice. ‘How about lover?’
Ok, it’s not the most riveting piece of dialogue I’ve ever written, but I think you’ll agree it’s fairly easy to tell who’s speaking, and not a speech attribution in sight. I’m not a fan of qualifying ‘said’ with adverbs, either (she said, angrily) But that’s probably a whole different blog post. 

So to sum up: he said, she said – fine. That is all.
The Food Bit
If you don’t went to spend too long faffing around in the kitchen, this  garlicky mushroom pasta is  dead easy and quite delish.
Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil and pop in enough pasta (egg-free if you’re vegan) for two. Meanwhile, slice about 300g of mushrooms. I use a mixture of portobello, chestnut and ordinary closed cap mushrooms.  Put in a pan with some olive oil and cook over a medium heat. Crush two big fat cloves of garlic and chuck that in with the mushrooms. Add a good grind of black pepper, a teaspoon of wholegrain mustard and a slosh of white wine. Cook for a couple of minutes – they should be more or less cooked by now – then add about 100ml of string vegetable stock and a squeeze of lemon juice.  When the liquid has more or less evaporated, taste, and add salt and more pepper if necessary, and chuck in a handful of chopped flat leaf parsley.  Mix with the cooked pasta, adding more olive oil if liked, and serve. 
This goes well with most types of pasta.  For even more flavour, add a few dried porcini  (wild mushrooms). Soak in a little boiling water first, then add to the fresh mushrooms. You can use the remaining water as a base for your veggie stock, but make sure you strain it first because the mushrooms are sometimes a bit gritty. Suitable for vegans if you use vegan wine (or use more stock instead of wine).

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When’s the right time to share your novel?

The Writing Bit
So, you’ve finished the first draft of your novel; you have a story, a world, and a beginning, middle, and – oh joy of joys – end. You’re probably bursting to show it to someone. You’ve written a book and you know that at least some of it is really very good indeed, so why not?

Although it’s natural to want to show your nearest and dearest how clever you are, there are a number of reasons why it’s best to wait. 

First, I should perhaps make the distinction between showing your work to writing friends for feedback and/or constructive criticism, and showing it to your partner/mum for a well-deserved pat on the back.

Showing it to writing friends:
Writing friends are useful for spotting sections that don’t work so well, repetitions, overwriting, lack of pace, inconsistency of tense, etcetera, etcetera. You may have shared individual chapters or scenes already, and if you haven’t, now is perhaps a good time to identify the parts of your novel that you’re not so happy with and get some feedback from people who know what they’re talking about.

Having said that, I’d still caution against showing the whole of your first draft to too many people at this early stage. You’ll need to ‘save’ readers for future drafts. We all get to the end of a first draft with the hope that it’ll just need a bit of tweaking and it’ll be ready to go, but in reality, it’s likely to go through significant redrafting that may include structural changes, adding and deleting scenes, even getting rid of entire characters. The problem is that once someone’s read your novel a couple of times, they too become too close to it to view it objectively; they may also be thrown by the changes you’ve made, because they remember the first version.

If you have writing friends who are kind enough to commit to reading your entire draft, use them wisely! Don’t give it to anyone until you’ve re-read it after leaving it for at least six weeks to ‘ripen’.  Then, when there’s no more you can do, give it to a writing friend whose judgement you trust – but only one at a time. There’s no point in giving it to four people (assuming you’re lucky enough to have four willing readers) only to find that the first one to finish spots something big that you know you need to change. If you use one reader at a time, you’ll have fresh eyes on every draft – much more useful than a jaded reader who’s almost as close to it as you are.

Showing it to your loved ones and non-writing friends:
This group of people tends to fall into two categories – those who’ll tell you what you’ve written is sheer genius, and those who’ll try to give you what you’ve asked for – honest feedback. The first group is of limited critical value for obvious reasons.

The second group can be useful, but I’d say don’t use them until you’re at or near publishable standard. The reason is that people who’ve never written a novel have no idea just how difficult it is and how much revision and redrafting is perfectly normal. When you tell a non-writing friend that you’ve written a novel, they may be happy to read it and give you feedback, but remember, the only terms of reference they have are published novels, and that’s the standard they’ll be judging you against.

Most people accept that writing a novel is difficult, but they often think that’s because of the sheer volume of words. When I started my first novel I had this idea that I’d start at page one, write through to the end, then do a bit of editing – even a lot of editing – and then it would be finished. I didn’t understand that this is something that only happens rarely for some lucky writers, and it’s the exception rather than the rule.

So your non-writing readers  may unwittingly knock your confidence because their expectations are just too high. The best advice is, I think, to wait. Use readers sparingly, one at a time, draft by draft. I wish I’d had this advice before ‘using up’ all my readers in drafts one and two!

The Reading Bit
No book review this week, but I thought I’d just mention how useful I’ve found the ‘reading journal’ a friend bought me for Christmas last year. I don’t know about you, but I can read a book, love it, but totally forget the story within a few weeks, so when I recommend it to friends and they ask what it’s about, I look blank. The journal allows me to keep a record of what I’ve read, who wrote it and what I thought of it – anything from a few details to a full review. So at a glance, I can tell you everything I’ve read this year with details of plot, characters and how the story’s told. There are also pages to record books I’ve leant to others, and a space to list books I want to read next. If no-one buys you one of these for Christmas, treat yourself!t
The Food Bit
This is the easiest, bestest Chocolate Pot recipe ever – and its vegan!
Simply melt 100g dark chocolate in the microwave or in a bowl over a pan of hot water (some dark chocolate contains milk, so check the ingredients first.) Then stir in 150ml Alpro soya cream and a tablespoon of brandy. When thoroughly mixed, pour into shot glasses and put in fridge to set. Serve garnished with a couple of physalis (those little orange fruits with a papery husk) just pull back the husk and set the fruit on top of the chocolate pots. Yum yum, piggy’s bum.  It’s very rich, so small servings are good.

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NaNoNonsense – the aftermath!

The Writing Bit

This is the last post that will mention NaNoWriMo (until next year!) So, it’s over! You have 50,000 words of story and a hangover from the champagne you’ve been knocking back in justified celebration. What do you mean, you haven’t had any champagne? As I pointed out in last week’s blog, NaNoWriMo founder Chris Baty advised us to purchase champagne at the start of week 4 so it could be chilled and ready for when we crossed the finish line. If you haven’t had champagne yet, buy some now. It’s THE LAW!

For me, it’s been an enjoyable but intense month. It’s been pretty time-consuming; the house is a tip, the laundry’s piled up and I’ve been neglecting friends and family. (I really must phone my mother.) And apart from the less-than-riveting prospect of catching up with the housework and laundry, I’m aware of a very slight ‘down’ feeling, too, a bit of a sense of anti-climax. All that writerly camaraderie is over, and instead of the buzz and excitement that goes with the daily challenge of hitting the word count, we’re left with the reality – a very, very veryrough draft.

I don’t know about you, but mine’s a bit of a hotch-potch, a Frankenstein’s monster of a draft with lots of bits that might work in themselves but don’t necessarily go together. Between page 1 and page 109, I’ve changed the ages of the two main characters; I’ve changed their parents’ personalities; I’ve turned a nice experience one of them has in the early pages into an unpleasant episode later on, and on page 100, or thereabouts, I decided it might work better if my characters were sisters rather than friends – a change that will alter at least the first few chapters.

So basically, it’s all over the place, and the ideas are still coming – and changing. But I’m not going to be too disheartened by the problems with my manuscript. The process of writing a novel involves a massive amount of rethinking, reshaping and rewriting, and the great thing about having taken part in NaNoWriMo is that I feel I’ve taken a bit of a shortcut – I was always going to write thousands of words that would end up being changed or cut; I’ve just done it much more quickly. 

My plan now is to print it out, read it through and see what I’ve created. I’ll use a highlighter pen to mark the bits I want to keep, then I’ll try to put them in some sort of order, even if it’s only ‘beginning, middle and end’. And then I’ll start the long, slow process of redrafting.

Did you take part in NaNoWriMo? How did you find the experience? And if you didn’t do it this year, are you tempted for 2012?

The Reading Bit

I heard M J Hyland speak recently at a writing Masterclass; she was incredibly generous with her insights into the writing process, and she was also enormously entertaining and good fun, so  I bought her most recent novel, This Is How – I often buy books largely because I like the author!

This Is How is written in the first person, present tense, from the point of view of Patrick, a young man who arrives to start a new life in a seaside town after a broken engagement. Patrick is a loner, at odds with the world. Clearly much brighter than the rest of his family, he studied psychology at university, but dropped out after a year in order to become a car mechanic, something at which he excels. Patrick knows where he is with engines – they’re less complex than people. Although Patrick would like to have friends, he finds it difficult to engage with people and to express his feelings. Throughout the novel, he says one thing while feeling something completely different. Often what he feels is intense and even violent anger, but it’s a repressed anger. Repressed, that is, until one day when he commits a single, violent act, apparently not realising the magnitude of what he’s doing until afterwards.

The novel then follows Patrick as the consequences of this spur-of-the-moment act unfold. The prose is spare and there’s a lot of dialogue. Patrick’s observations are brief and straightforward. The complexity of his thoughts and feelings is shown by what he says and does, rather than by us being privy to his thoughts. I can’t say a lot more about the plot without giving too much away, but suffice to say that the closeness with which we follow Patrick has the effect of making him a hugely sympathetic character, even though he often seems strangely detached and emotionless. Despite his sometimes violent feelings, he is usually polite and courteous to everyone, and when he acts on his violent impulse, his regret and guilt are almost palpable. Hyland writes Patrick so vividly that we feel almost part of him; we feel the physical sensations he experiences, seemingly in place of emotions. We even feel the unexplained pains in his neck and shoulders that plague him throughout the novel – a subtle touch suggesting a character who is contantly burdened.

This is not a thriller or a ‘secret-to-be-revealed’ type novel, and yet I still found it an absolute page turner. Patrick is a powerful, heartbreakingly sad and brilliantly evoked character, and he will stay with me for a very long time.

The Food Bit

This section is where I tell you how I’ve managed to feed Vegan Husband in a reasonably interesting way over the past week. I occasionally still eat fish and dairy products, so I’ll talk about non-vegan food now and again.
Father-in-law coming for Saturday lunch, so we’re going to start with a spicy butternut squash soup, then veggie sausages and mash with red wine onion gravy, followed by baked peaches and vegan ice-cream.
For the soup: peel and dice a butternut squash, put in a roasting dish with a quartered onion, a couple of cloves of crushed garlic, some fresh thyme and a sprinkling of chilli powder and salt. Pour over some olive oil and mix so that everything’s coated. Roast until the squash and onion are soft, then add about a pint of vegetable stock and whizz until smooth. Add more stock for a thinner consistency, check seasoning and serve.

For the sausage and mash: we love the Linda Mc Cartney veggie sausages. The trick is to make sure you don’t overcook them. For the mash: when the potatoes are cooked, add some unsweetened soya milk, a dollop of vegan sunflower spread, (or just some olive oil), and about a tablespoon of wholegrain mustard. Season to taste. For the gravy: slice an onion and fry gently in olive oil until soft. Stir in a little flour and cook for a minute or two, then add some strong vegetable stock, some red wine, a bay leaf, a good pinch of dried sage and a dessertspoon of dijon mustard. We’ll probably have some broccoli and carrots with this, or whatever veg is knocking about in the fridge.

For pud: cut a peach in half, remove the stone and fill the hole with chopped pistachios, hazelnuts or almonds (or all three). Sprinkle on some  muscovado sugar and bake in the oven until soft. Serve with ice-cream or non-dairy ice-cream – Swedish Glace is very good.


NaNoWriMo Week 4 – Champagne time!

The Writing Bit
So, we’re nearly there! I’ve found it helpful over the last three weeks to read No Plot, No Problem,  by Chris Baty, founder of NaNoWriMo. The book is full of useful tips and is designed to help you through this 30 days of madness.
At the beginning of the chapter that covers week 4, he says, ‘I’d like  you to put this book down, put on your shoes, grab your keys and go to the grocery store. Seriously. Go now.’ He then concedes that it’s ok to go later if you must, but the point is to buy a bottle of champagne ready to crack open when you cross the finish line (well, he says buy two, actually – he reckons your nearest and dearest deserve a bottle for putting up with your absence from family life, but I say, have a glass or two of mine and be grateful!)
Having done NaNoWriMo last year, I can tell you that you will be amazed at just how pleased with yourself you’ll feel, even if what you’ve written isn’t exactly great literature. I was childishly thrilled when, having uploaded my 50,000 words and been verified a ‘winner’, I got to watch a short video of the NaNoWriMo organisers outside their office clapping and cheering their congratulations. I know I’m sad, but Reader, I watched it twice.
Last year, I’d made sure I’d ordered a bottle of champers to be delivered with my grocery order, due to arrive between 3pm and 5pm on the 30th November. But then disaster struck; it snowed. Heavily. I got a text saying the delivery would be delayed by an hour or two. Ok, fine. Then another text warned that delivery was estimated for around 9pm. Ok, well, I was ready to celebrate earlier, but I’d survive. Then at 8.40, Customer Services phoned to say the van couldn’t even get out of the depot – there would be no delivery that night.  ‘But I’ve got champagne coming,’ I said. ‘I need to celebrate!’  ‘I’m very sorry,’ the nice man said, ‘but congratulations, anyway.’
Fortunately, my husband, who had cheered me on all the way through and did deserve some champagne of his own, to be fair, heroically donned coat, hat, scarf and gloves and set out to walk to Waitrose, which is a ten minute walk away in fine weather and closes at 9pm. People, it was a tense time. The snow was deep, the walking was tough; would he make it in time? And if not, would they take pity if he pounded on the door , perhaps thinking him in need of medicine for a sick child? Or even milk or bread? And if they then opened the doors, would he have the nerve to blithely pick up a bottle of pink fizz and declare it essential?
Happily, at 9.15, as snow-covered and red-nosed as Santa himself, my hero returned, and together, we celebrated my 50,000 words.
This year, I have to tell you, there is already a bottle in the cellar.
So, my fellow NaNoWrimers, get thee to the shops and be prepared! The last mile is, as they say, the hardest mile, so we need a considerable carrot, and I find a  good bottle of bubbly fits the bill rather splendidly.
Come December, we can have a look at those 50,000 words and see what we can do with them, but for now, keep calm and carry on!
The Reading Bit
Partial Eclipse by Lesley Glaister was published in the mid-90s, and I read it then for the first time.  Something made to go back to it this week and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s  only just over 200 pages long, but Glaister manages to get two complete stories into this short novel, as well as an interesting subplot. The first person narrator, Jenny, is in solitary confinement at the start of the novel, and with no mental stimulation whatsoever, she is forced to turn to her own memory and imagination and she takes us through two alternating stories. One  tells  of the events leading up to her crime, and the other is centred around Jenny’s ancestor Peggy, who was deported for stealing a peacock. This  vivid and gripping story is a product of Jenny’s starved imagination, and the parallels  with Jenny’s own story of forbidden love are gradually revealed.
I love many things  about Glaister’s writing, but in particular, the sensuality of it, the wealth of detail and the vivid and interesting characters.  Jenny’s naturist grandparents, for example, and her grandmother’s new friend Ursula, who turns out to be not quite what she seems.
As Jenny’s story unfolds, we see how she is drawn into a doomed love affair with a philandering older man, and we are able to see the things that Jenny cannot see. We know before long that this can’t end well, and indeed it doesn’t, but it’s not until very near the end that we learn the truth about Jenny’s terrible crime and it’s consequences.
If you like a dark tale and you haven’t discovered Lesley Glaister yet, you’re in for a treat!  
The Food Bit
This is the last week that I’ll be posting a list of what we’ve eaten during the week. Next week,  once NaNo madness is over, it’ll be back to a recipe or detailed look at one meal each week.
Saturday: Butternut squash and walnut risotto with rocket
Sunday: Pepper and mushroom fajitas with guacamole and spicy tomato salsa
Monday: Shop-bought nut cutlets for him and Quorn escalopes with cheese and leeks for me, both served with new potatoes and a salad made with carrot, orange, tomato, chilli and garlic.
Tuesday: Kidney bean dhal, sag aloo, basmati rice.
Wednesday: Peppers stuffed with risotto rice, vegan pesto, cherry tomatoes and pine nuts
Thursday: Vegan sausages with red wine onion gravy  and mash – we’ve had this a lot lately, but it really is the thing for a cold and blustery autumn night.
Friday: Oh dear – haven’t planned tonight’s yet. Probably a spicy tomato pasta bake with  mixed leaves.

NaNoWriMo Week 3

The Writing Bit

After my decision last week to swap what I’d written so far with something I wrote some years ago, I’m convinced that I made the right decision. (see my public confession in last week’s post!) I won’t say the words have been flowing easily – I’ve rarely had that pleasure – but I’m making steady progress, and I do feel more engaged with this novel, in spite of the fact that I know that much of what I’m writing now will end up being deleted.

I’ve been lucky this week in that I’ve been away on holiday, and am writing this in a tiny cottage in the Peak District. The village is so quiet that most of the time it seems deserted. Very occasionally, a car or a tractor goes down the street. Today, I’ve seen no-one but dog walkers and two women on horses, and yesterday afternoon, to my delight, a pig came trotting down the road. An anxious-looking man was in hot pursuit, and I wondered if the pig had come from the smallholding up the road that has a sign outside saying ‘fresh sausages’.
I found myself hoping the pig escaped; maybe it made friends with the golden retriever that was coming the other way. Or perhaps it found its way to another village where a widow and her lonely daughter took it in and kept it as a house pig, feeding it with apples from their orchard and lavishing it with affection for the rest of its life.

I digress. But allowing myself to invent a story for the pig reminded me that NaNoWriMo isn’t about agonising over whether that character would really do those things or whether that scene has any real relevance to the plot; it’s about being free to go where you imagination takes you, even if you don’t think what you’re writing is any good at the time. At the moment, my novel is ‘thin’, to say the least. But I’m allowing myself to go off at tangents, because sometimes that’s where you find themes, sub-plots and even new and interesting characters and storylines.

This week, I’ve tried to get ahead because I know that on my return, there will be emails to answer, phone calls to make, students’ work to read and comment on, and all the other things that make up ‘real’ life. So I’ve been having three writing sessions a day, aiming for a minimum of 700-800 words a time, and I’m roughly a day ahead now. Little and often is the trick!
Apart from that, my husband and I are relaxing in peaceful and beautiful surroundings, and doing nothing but reading, eating, drinking and walking the dog. But it’s back to the real world soon.
The Reading Bit

Sister by Rosamund Lipton is a clever, fast-paced psychological thriller.  Beatrice, the first person narrator, has abandoned her English life and family for an exciting, designer-label life in New York. She remains close – she thinks – to her younger sister, Tess, but when Tess goes missing, Beatrice flies home, determined to find out what has happened. During her search for the truth, Beatrice discovers some uncomfortable truths about herself as she realises just how little she really knows about her sister’s life.

The plot is intriguing and the storytelling is accomplished, keeping the suspense and tension at just the right levels. Unlike some thrillers, the book has some emotional depth, and I felt the musings on grief were particularly poignant. However, I didn’t find myself engaging with the characters as much as I’d hoped, and I struggled to sympathise with Beatrice. I found her frequent references to the closeness between her and Tess rather irritating – at one point I said aloud, ‘ok, I’ve got it!’ and her equally frequent declarations of love for her sister were cloying rather than touching.

There is a twist at the end that works very well (I guessed it before it was revealed, but that was ok) and I finally found myself sympathising with Beatrice in the last few pages. To sum up, a damn good thriller, but the characters lacked emotional credibility.

The Food Bit

As explained previously, throughout NaNoWriMo, I’m posting meal ideas (mainly vegan) rather than recipes . Even if you’re not vegan, believe it or not, these meals are actually very nice!

This week, we had:

Saturday: Sausages, sweet potato mash, onion and red wine gravy, broccoli.

Sunday: Soya mince with peppers, mushrooms and new potatoes, cooked in a sauce made from tomatoes, red wine, garlic and herbs.
Monday: Vegan ‘meatballs’ with spaghetti and spicy tomato sauce.
Tuesday: Mixed bean cassoulet.
Wednesday: Creamy mushroom tagliatelle.
Thursday: Curry night: aubergine and chick pea, sag aloo, aloo gobi, chapatis.
Friday: Tapas: (I’m quite proud of this one!) vegan ‘paella’,  patatas bravas, garlic mushrooms, aubergines with garlic and herbs.

NaNoWriMo week 2 – NaNoNaughty

12 November 2011


The Writing Bit

Oh dear. I considered doing a normal ‘keep-going-even-when-the-words-don’t-come-easy’  blog, but there’s a dark creature that lives in my brain called a conscience, and he (for he is definitely male) won’t let me get away with it, so here is my public confession: First of all, you should understand that I haven’t cheated as such, it’s just that the 15000 words I’ve actually written this month are now languishing in another document where I’ll pick them up at a later date, and the 15000 words that now reside in the document named NaNoNovel2011 are actually words I wrote in 2004. There, I’ve said it; I’ve imported words from a novel I started years ago. 

So how did I end up committing this NaNo sin? What happened was this: the second week of NaNoWriMo is notoriously difficult; this is the week when the first flush of excitement has worn off, and the words come more slowly. I was carrying on, though, trusting the process, allowing my fingers to be ready at the keyboard for when new ideas came through.

Then about halfway through the week, I’m walking through the woods with the dog, minding my own business and trying to plan my next scene (don’t think ‘whole novel’, just think about the next scene, and then the next…) when one of the two main characters from my abandoned 2004 novel suddenly comes jumping into my head, and what’s more, she’s done something bad; very bad. Then the other one arrives, and she has quite a lot to say about it all, too, and then a third character, who wasn’t very important in the 2004 version is also demanding attention and he’s turned out to be someone we really can’t ignore.

Well, I told them all to shut up, because I was busy with another group of characters, and that I would come back to them in due course. But that night, they all climbed out of the box in the back of my brain and started getting up to all sorts of things. In the morning, I went straight to my desk as usual (I find if I can write for an hour before breakfast it gives me a really good start on the day’s wordcount) but I just couldn’t get into what I was supposed to be doing. I tried again later, but those three characters had staged a sit-in and there was no way I could get past them.

So the upshot is, I’ve put aside what I’d already written for NaNoWriMo and pasted in a fair chunk of what I want to keep from the 2004 novel (it’ll need rewriting anyway) and I’m now writing on from there.  That’s my confession. Now I wait for the NaNoPolice. In my defence, I will have written 50,000 new words by the end of November, but it’ll be 15,000 of a new novel, and 35,000 of a novel already started. What do you think? Have I been very bad?

The Reading Bit

No proper book review this week, but I just want to urge you if you haven’t already done so, to read Stephen King’s On Writing. I’d say it’s a particularly useful book to read when you’re in the middle of NaNoWriMo. Not only are there great examples and tips on the actual craft of writing, but there’s some very encouraging stuff about the process of writing, and about the story being a ‘found thing’, something that the writer uncovers through the writing process . It’s a fabulously entertaining read, too.

The Food Bit

As explained last week, throughout NaNoWriMo, I’m just posting (mainly vegan) meal ideas. Even if you’re not vegan, most of these meals are actually really very nice, although I must admit, not all vegan grub is to my taste.
This week we had:
Saturday: went out to eat – Vegan Husband had the falafel burger with spicy potato wedges and salsa, I had a salad with cajun salmon & lemon goats cheese.
Sunday: vegan pizzas & salad (made these with ‘vegan mozzarella’, tomatoes, onion, garlic, olives, capers & artichokes)
Monday: my teaching night, so I had salmon and ricotta ravioli, VH had lentil dahl and rice (he eats a lot of dhal!)
Tuesday: vegan sausages and sweet potato mash with onion and red wine gravy.
Wednesday: vegetable pasta bake and salad
Thursday: burgers (made from Granose burger mix – v good!) in buns with soya cheese slice, served with chips and salad.
Friday: mushroom, pepper and cashew nut stir-fry with noodles and rice.

NaNoWriMo – the first week

During November, like many other writers, I’ll be blogging about NaNoWriMo because basically, I can think about little else at the moment. Normal blog activity will be resumed in December.

The first week is always exciting – you’ve decided you’re going to do it, you’ve told the world, and you’re now on the threshold of this wonderful achievement. You’ll have been thinking about your novel for a while, and some of you sensible people with have drawn up a plan or an outline. Others. like me, will have dived in with nothing more than a vague idea and a few characters. But with a bit of luck, the message ‘quantity, not quality’ will have got through and by now, you’ll have a substantial number of words nudging up that little blue line on your author page on the NaNoWriMo site.


This is how my week’s been so far:

Day 1:  Got up at 6.15, an hour earlier than usual, staggered to my study and switched on the computer. Resisted urge to check emails, twitter, blog stats etc. Looked at screen and wished I had a plot. Typed three sentences, deleted two. (This is what you’re NOT supposed to do – no deleting precious words until December!) Then I told myself that it really didn’t matter because whatever happens, I have nothing  to lose. Typed 730 words of rather poor prose in a very uncertain voice, then stopped for breakfast. Walked the dog, dealt with emails and stuff, then typed another 700 words. Broke off to move around and then typed a little bit more.  By the evening, I’d got to 1800 by typing little bits here and there. Voice not right; character not right; not sure I even need this scene!

Day 2: Sat at the computer and stared at it for a good ten minutes. Not knowing what to write can  be almost painful! Eventually, decided to write a scene showing one of my main characters having a conversation with her partner in which I attempt to reveal that he is controlling and that she’s in denial. This, and her thought and actions immediately afterwards, kept me going for the whole day’s word count!

Day 3: Slightly easier today. Getting into the dynamics of a relationship has proved fruitful and has suggested several new plot possibilities for the future. Started a new document named ‘nanonotes’  (seeing as how I still don’t have a title for my novel) which I now keep open all the time I’m writing so that I can make a note of things I might use later.

Today is day 4: Got up relatively late for me (7.40) wrote another 500 words before breakfast, this time from another character’s point of view.  Took the dog for a walk in torrential rain, which meant there were no other dog walkers around (lightweights!) but which also meant I was able to think about my novel. Came to the conclusion that this novel may be too ambitious – too many characters, too many stories. But because none of the stories is fully formed – and I know none of them will be until I actually start writing them – I’m not sure which of them to concentrate on. So, I will continue to do what I’m doing now, writing bits from difference viewpoints just to see what happens, what develops, and which of my four women ultimately pulls me into her world.

The Reading Bit

A brief review this week, because I’m still trying to keep my NaNoWriMo word count on track: My Perfect Silence by Penelope Evans starts with the powerful line ‘I was four when I killed my baby brother’. The story then goes on to show how this tragedy shaped the narrator’s life and  bonded her closely with her older brother Max, who becomes her protector.   Little more than a baby herself when the tragedy occurred, the narrator, Rose, doesn’t remember what happened and didn’t really grasp the magnitude of it until some years later, at which point she stops speaking.  Max continues to protect and speak for her, even when his bride-to-be is killed and Rose is considered the prime suspect. This certainly a page-turning read, and will probably appeal to Ruth Rendell and Lesley Glaister fans.

The Food Bit

I won’t be posting actual recipes during NaNoWriMo, but I thought it might be helpful for anyone stuck for veggie/vegan ideas to see what I’ve cooked for dinner each night. Some of these recipes will no doubt find their way onto this blog eventually – let me know if there’s anything in particular that appeals!

Saturday: Creamy mushroom tagliatelle with crusty bread

Sunday: Vegetable Chilli with rice and grated vegan cheese
Monday: My teaching night, so Vegan Husband cooked himself something with lentils while I had some prawn dumplings (reduced counter at Waitrose) and some stir-fried veg.
Tuesday: Spinach  and vegan cheese filo parcels, crushed new potatoes, tomato & onion salad
Wednesday: Olive and tomato penne, rocket, ciabatta rolls
Thursday: Soya mince with peppers, mushrooms, tomato, garlic, herbs and red wine, served with new potatoes and broccoli.
Friday: Friday night is usually either pasta night or curry night; tonight I think it’ll be curry – I have some aubergine, sweet potato  and chickpea curry in the freezer, so I’ll cook some basmati rice and knock up some sag aloo to go with it, then I’ll send VH down the road for some parathas or chapatis. Sorted!

Now entering the NaNoZone…

The Writing Bit

Ok, so everyone’s blogging about NaNoWriMo this week, and I’m not going to  try and be different  because frankly, that would be weird.  If you’ve never heard of NaNoWriMo, let me be the first  to welcome you to our planet.  NaNoWriMo is short for National Novel Writing Month, and it involves pledging to write 50,000 words of a novel in 30 days, the idea being that at the end of the 30 days, you have a rough draft or the bare bones of a novel. If you haven’t signed up yet, here’s the link doesn’t cost anything, it’s great fun and it fosters a wonderful sense of camaraderie among the participants.

With only a few days to go, I’m frantically trying to prepare. Unlike many other seriously impressive NaNo-ers, I have singularly failed to write an outline for my novel, or even to come up with a title. I’m not sure where the story will start, and I only have a rough idea how it will end. I do know the characters though, because they’ve been milling around in the foyer of my brain for several months. I also know one or two of the themes, and I have at least three dramatic events lined up.  That’s it, though. What I’m not sure about is, whether A is still pregnant or she’s already had the baby; whether B is still alive; whether A & B are still in contact with C; whether C has ever forgiven B and whether any of them really understand the impact on them all of what happened to  D all those years ago…

So basically, I haven’t a clue. But when I start writing my 1700 or so words a day, I now something will come out of it. I hope it’ll be at the bare bones of my next novel, but even if it doesn’t turn out to be a workable draft, at the very least I’ll have something to work on. It may well be crap, but crap but be rewritten and rethought and reshaped, whereas a blank page is just a blank page.

And in order to prepare for this short bout of insanity,  I’m doing some practical preparation by cooking great vats of vegetable chilli, curries and cassoulets to put in the freezer; I’m doing a mega shop to so that I won’t have to faff around going to the supermarket too often; I’m cleaning the house (a bit – don’t want to take this thing too far) and I’m attempting to get all my lesson planning done in advance.  I’m having some physio to try and sort out my RSI (not a great way to start NaNoWriMo!) And  I also intend to tidy my desk and study before Tuesday, though realistically, that may not actually happen.

Finally,  I intend to spend a few hours immersing myself in what I do know about the novel by going through my most recent notebooks (the ones in which I’ve jotted down my thoughts about this novel) with a highlighter pen so I can mark anything I can use.  Then, in the last hours before it all kicks off, I will be having a jolly good think about where to start.  I’ve done it before, so I can do it again – and so can you! See you in the NaNozone!
The Reading Bit
Blackmoor by Edward Hogan is set against the backdrop of a close-knit community forced to abandon the Derbyshire mining village in which their parents  and grandparents grew up. The main characters are the Cartwright family,  George, his albino wife Beth, and their son Vincent.  In the first chapter, we learn that Beth Cartwright jumped to her death in Blackmoor when Vincent was a baby. It’s clear when we meet Vincent as a young teenager that he’s unaware of the circumstances of his mother’s death, largely because George seems unable to even speak of his late wife, and is barely able to speak to his son. As the story flips back and forth between Vincent’s toddlerhood and teenage years, the sad truth of his mother’s life and death in Blackmoor is gradually revealed.

There’s a lot to like about this novel: the prose is simple but elegant, the switches from past to present and from one viewpoint to another are smoothly executed, and there’s a wonderful sense of place. I felt the blurb on the back cover was slightly misleading (though that’s not the author’s fault). The blurb mentions ‘a series of bizarre happenings’ in the village’ and tells us that a decade later, Vincent ‘stumbles towards the buried secrets of his mother’s life and death in the abandoned village.’ I expected the story to centre more around Beth, whose neighbours believe she is ‘an ill omen’, and her connection with the ‘bizarre happenings’, but instead I felt slightly distanced from Beth, and indeed from her husband George, although I think we are meant to feel distanced from him, perhaps so that we can better understand how Vincent feels shut out by his father. Vincent is a well-drawn and convincing character, and I enjoyed his sections the most. I did enjoy this novel, but I didn’t engage as closely and consistently with some of the characters as I’d hoped to, and the plot never quite gripped me in the way that I thought it would.  Having said that, I’m glad I read it and I would certainly read more by Edward Hogan.

The Food Bit
Ratatouille crumble – this is a versatile meal that can be easily adapted to suit vegans and non-vegans, kids and adults. (Basically, just use margarine and real cheese if you don’t want the vegan version, and if you’re making it for kids, just cut the vegetables into much smaller pieces). First, make the posh ratatouille: you need an aubergine, 2 courgette, one each red, green and yellow pepper, one red onion, two cloves garlic and one and a half tins chopped tomatoes. Slice the garlic and set aside. Cut all veg into largish chunks, toss in olive oil, grind some sea salt and black pepper over the top and roast in a hot oven for about 20 mins, then add the sliced garlic and roast for another 10 minutes. When cooked, add the chopped tomatoes. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary.

To make the topping: put about 50g vegan sunflower spread and about 50g flour into a blender, whizz for a few  seconds at a time until it resembles breadcrumbs. Set aside. Tear up a slice of bread and put into blender with some parsley if you have any, a handful of nuts (anything will do – I used pinenuts last night) and some grated vegan cheese. Add some salt and pepper, then whizz until the bread becomes crumbs and mix with the flour and fat. Spread the crumble topping over the ratatouille and cook in a medium oven for about 20 minutes or until nicely browned. Serve with mixed leaves if you’re feeling sophisticated, or baked beans if you want comfort food. This is enough for a family of four (or three big eaters).  I virtually guaranteethis will be a hit – let me know if you try it!

What makes a good query letter?

The Writing Bit

So, assuming your novel’s ready to go out into the world and you’ve identified the agents you want to approach,  (see last week’s Tips on finding an agent   you’ll need a query letter that’ll make them want to read your work. I’m not saying my way’s definitely the best way, but I had a response from every one of the fifteen agents I queried and three offers of representation,  so I must have done something right! For what it’s worth, here’s how I approached it:

Initially, I sent out five query letters by snail mail, asking if the agent would like to see the first three chapters and a synopsis. I didn’t send the chapters at this stage because I’d been advised that if the agent then said, yes, please send your work, it would no longer be ‘unsolicited’ and would be likely to  be read sooner than unsolicited submissions.  They all wanted to see the opening chapters, and all responded within five weeks of me sending the chapters – three ‘liked it but didn’t love it’ and two requested the whole novel. By the second round of queries, it was seeming like a bit off a faff, so I started sending the chapters with the query. The response was maybe a little slower, but not much.

So, the letter should be short, no more than a page. In that one page you’re selling your book and yourself.  Obviously you need to interest the agent in your story and characters, but you also need to demonstrate your professionalism and your writing ability.

Address the agent politely and formally, using both first and last names. Dear Jane Agent is more professional than ‘Hi Jane’, and it doesn’t run the risk of irritating her with it’s bezzy-mates assumption.  It shouldn’t need saying, but make sure you spell her name correctly.  

I started my queries by saying I’d  recently completed my novel as part of an MA. If I hadn’t only just completed the MA, I’d probably have simply included this information in my writing biography (see below). Then I let her know I’d done my homework by telling her I was approaching her because she represented an author I admired. So you could say something like, ‘I see that you represent Jane Author, a writer I admire enormously. I think my novel would appeal to a similar readership.’  Or if you’re lucky enough to have a recommendation, this is where you can say, ‘Jane Austen suggested I contact you.’

Say what genre your novel fits into. If it’s not as clear cut as ‘romance’, western’, ‘historical’, could it be ‘commercial literary fiction?’  Or ‘contemporary women’s fiction’? Then pitch your novel. You have a paragraph in which to do this, so you’re not looking at a full synopsis, but something similar to the blurb you read on the back cover of a book.  Ideally, you should say who the main characters are, what the main thread of the story is, and when and where the story is set.  If you’ve room, you could comment on the structure, e.g. ‘The two characters’ stories are intercut throughout the novel’.

Then comes your writing biography. If you have a writing MA or have done a few courses, say so. It doesn’t mean your novel will be brilliant, but it’ll tell the agent that you’re a serious writer. (That doesn’t mean  you’re not a serious writer if you don’t have an MA!) Include anything you’ve had published, and any competition placings. Even if your previously published work isn’t fiction, it shows that you can write, and it shows a level of professionalism.  If your publishing history takes up too much room in your query letter, put it on a separate sheet.  I’d written a number of non-fiction books and also had a few short story successes, so I listed these on a separate sheet and said on the letter, ‘I enclose a brief writing biography’ (brief being the important word!) 

I ended by asking if they’d like to see the opening section and a synopsis, (or ‘I enclose the first 50 pages’)and I told them the full novel was around 80,000 words.  You should always tell them if you’re approaching several agents at a time, something like,  ‘I am actively seeking representation and so am approaching a number of agents.’  Sign off with a simple  ‘yours sincerely’. Make sure you include full  contact details and a stamped, self-addressed envelope.  And then you wait…

This was my approach, and it seemed to work well  – what’s your experience?


The Reading Bit

I haven’t finished the book I’m reading this week yet, so will tell you instead about Amy Sackville’s The Still Point. Some weeks after finishing this novel, I’m still not sure. There are two stories here: a hundred years ago, Edward Mackley sets out for the North pole but then disappears, leaving his new bride Emily to wait in vain for his return. In the present day, Edward’s great-great niece, Julia, is archiving the family’s inherited belongings and in doing so, makes a discovery that shatters her somewhat idealistically romantic view of Edward and Emily’s relationship. The past story is engaging and beautifully written – exquisitely so in places. But I found the present day story of Julia and her husband Simon slow, ponderous and rather pointless. Julia and Simon’s marriage is fragile, though not quite broken. Not only were they distanced from each other, but I felt they were distanced from the reader as well, possibly because of the ubiquitous omniscient narrator, constantly reminding us that we are observing them from afar. I never felt close enough to Julia or Simon to care whether their marriage survived or failed. As I read, I kept waiting for something to happen, and I frequently considered abandoning the novel; and yet, somehow, I did keep picking it up, and when I finished it, I was glad that I’d read it. Also, I have found my thoughts returning to it even though I finished it weeks ago. A strange book, but I do recommend it – I think!

The Food Bit

This week, it’s going to be more of a vegan recommendation rather than a recipe. We recently had the fancies for ‘dirty food’ – you know, of the ‘burger and chips’ variety; the sort of thing you never admit to your friends. I should point out here that himself is a vegan mainly for  ethical reasons, not because he dislikes meat. Anyway, having found that most veggie burgers are either bean-based (not what we were after for this particular meal) or contain egg and are therefore not suitable for vegans, I discovered the Granose Burger Mix. You just mix it with water, leave for ten minutes, then form into burgers and fry for a minute or two each side.  I served them in wholemeal buns with a slice of soya cheese, dijon mustard (me) vegan mayo (him), plus sliced cucumber and tomatoes and some shredded lettuce.  I then whacked on a portion of oven chips and hey presto, guilt free ‘dirty food’. Just the thing on a weeknight when you’re trying not to drink wine! Even my son – and this is a young man who is no stranger to the Real Burger – said, ‘I’m quite impressed with those.’ Blimey!

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