I read a wonderful article this evening by Jacqui Lofthouse entitled 12 essential ingredients of a winning first chapterThere are, as you might imagine, 12 rather useful hints, but the one I’ve focused on in particular is number 4:

Begin at an interesting point in the narrative. We need to have a sense that ‘something is about to happen’ or ‘something needs to be resolved’. It must not be static.

My new novel, which is still very much in an early iteration, starts in an opulent London apartment and involves a potentially compromising situation. What could be better? (That’s a rhetorical question).

Check out the first few pages of Major Gifts here and see what you think…

“So it was £10,000 I said wasn’t it?” She looked over her shoulder, seemingly oblivious to the open curtains that silhouetted her semi-naked figure against the window from where I was sitting on the bed. 
I nodded.

“Who should I make it payable to? I know cheques are a little passe, but the bank sends such beautiful ones these days, and it feels much more real to sign my name in ink on this occasion. It means more.” She scribbled away with a Mont Blanc fountain pen as she spoke, and I swiftly put my clothes back on. Sara was making no move towards gathering her Paul Smith suit, or shirt or bra, but I could feel the draught from the window, and the paperwork we needed to do waiting.

I reached for my satchel and grabbed the short form she needed to complete. I walked over and slid it along the edge of the desk to her, brushing her arm gently.  I could see from the angle of her ears that she was smiling.

“I suppose you have others to see this morning?”

“I’m afraid so Sara, although none will be in such beautiful surroundings.” The mansion flat in Whitehall couldn’t be her only residence, but the opulence of it, the original artwork that wouldn’t be out of place in the Tate Modern and the clean lines of the furniture said a lot about the woman who spent time here.

Sara laughed.  “Perhaps. When are you next passing through?”

“Next week,” I said, and folded the proffered cheque, slipping it in my jacket pocket. I looked at my watch. I was late.

“You going to kiss me goodbye?” I smiled, bent, and gently kissed her. She smiled.

“Call me.” She said.

The air outside had warmed up. At 8.30am when I had emerged at Marylebone there had been a chill, but the April sun was beginning to warm Whitehall. I walked quickly towards the river and pulled out my mobile. “Hi Tom, it’s Cam, can you call Sir Hugh’s office and let them know I’m running late?”

“Did she give?” I could hear him rifling through papers on his desk as he spoke.

“Oh she really did.”

“God, I can hear your smirk down the phone. I said you had a soft spot for her. Stop laughing at me and spill.”

“Ten grand.”

“Woo, good start to the day.” There was a pause. “And?”

“Let’s go for a drink later sweetie.”

“So mean! Ok darling, give me a bell when you’re on the train. I’ll get in touch with Hughie.”

I plunged back down into the underground and tried hard to wipe the smile off my face. I knew it made me look stupid and wouldn’t play well with Sir Hugh. I emerged back into the sunshine and my phone bleeped.

//Meet Sir H at the restaurant, he’ll meet you there. I mean it – I want the gossip! T x//

I turned on my heels and walked towards the bistro we often met at. I was welcomed at the door by a young male Eastern European waiter.

“I’m here to meet Sir Hugh.” He nodded.

“He’s at his usual table.” He led me to a quiet corner, where Sir Hugh was pouring himself a generous glass of red wine.

“Ah, Miss Strawbank, how lovely to see you again.” He stood to shake my hand and kissed my cheek, his bushy silver moustache and beard tickling my face. “Lovely perfume my dear.” I smiled. I usually don’t wear perfume, so the only fragrance on me must have been the sophisticated scent that Sara was wearing earlier on. I felt my face redden at the memory.

“Sir Hugh, it’s a pleasure as always.” I sat down opposite him, and without asking he filled the huge wine glass that had appeared in front of me.

“Oh, just call me Hugh,” he said, as always. He put his hand into the inside pocket of his silk lined tweed jacked and pulled out an envelope. “There you are my dear. Now we can just have a nice lunch and dispense with the ugly talk of money.” I nodded my thanks and tucked the envelope into my own pocket, pretending that I wasn’t keen to see how many noughts were on the end this time. I took a mouthful of wine, satisfied that this had already been a successful day for my professionally, and let it warm the back of my throat as it went down.

Sir Hugh thoroughly recommended the duck so we both tucked into the rich and refined dish delicately daubed in a plum jus. It worked well with the wine, clouding the edges of my thoughts slightly, which was no bad thing as Sir Hugh was regaling me with tales of his time at Knighton University College Medical School. My thoughts drifted back to this morning, and the way Sara had greeted me at the door, coffee mug in hand.

“There’s still some in the pot – weapons grade strength or weak and feeble? You are Cameron Strawbank right? Fabulous name on a girl.” I smiled at her.

“Weapons grade please,” I said, “and I’m glad you like it. Most people expect me to be a guy. It’s a tradition in my family for the oldest daughter to have a male name.” I paused. “It could have been a lot worse – they could have called me Dave.”

Sara Lorenzo MP threw her head back in laughter, her bracelets jangling. She handed me a cup of strong coffee and she guided me to a room she described as her study. It was twice the size of my apartment.

“Well Cameron, I think we’re going to get on well. Take a seat and tell me about Knighton and how things are going there.”

Sir Hugh placed his hand on my wrist, bringing me back to his macabre story. “So I said to Nobby, it’s one thing scaring a fellow medic with an unexpected body part, but startling a poor young English undergraduate with a cadaver’s finger in her lunchbox is just not de rigeur.” I nodded, trying to hide my disgust, and taking another sip of my wine to overcome the queasiness I felt.

“Of course he’s one of the nation’s foremost minds on heart disease these days. But then I suppose medicine attracts that sort.” I was wondering what sort that was when Sir Hugh spoke again. “But now then, here’s me going on about me and my old college days. You weren’t even born then! Heavens. So dear, are you courting?”

“Not at the moment,” I said.

“Ah well, the right fellow will come along my dear. They just get a bit scared off by your type.”

“My type?”

“Well, you know, brainy, trouser-wearing, that kind of thing.” I smiled uncertainly, deciding that feminism may have passed Sir Hugh by. His cheque was warm in my pocket, and I was still basking in the glow of the morning too much to make any kind of witty comeback. “Anyway, I like you Miss Strawbank. I think you’re splendid.”

I wonder what he would have thought if he knew about what had happened with the MP for Mallington South.

The coffee Sara made was good, strong and smooth, with a hint of chocolate. It was as decadent as my surroundings, and I felt at ease. My meetings were variously formal, informal, convivial and awkward. If I was lucky they were friendly – as this one was starting to be. My job was to work out which version of Cameron to be – formal, relaxed, witty, quiet or outspoken. The better the meeting, the better the outcome.

“Are you here to ask me for money?” She asked quickly.

“Well, I won’t deny that the subject will come up. But first, I want to find out more about you, what you care about, what you think about Knighton, and how we might work together.”

“You and me?”

“Well us and the college.” Sara sipped her coffee.

“I see. Well here you go, I studied biochemistry and hated every minute of it. I should have studied English or Politics or some such, but I was under the misguided impression it would satisfy my mother’s desire for me to be a success.”

“I, er, so you didn’t enjoy your time at Knighton then?” I fingered my coffee mug.

“Oh I loved it. In spite of the course you see. I did everything, played tennis in the summer, hockey in the winter, took part in the debating society and set up a women’s group. It was all about freedom for me. It wasn’t the degree, it was the experience.”

I relaxed again, and started to work through possible projects in my mind. I crossed off academic scholarships and scientific research straight away, and stared to think more creatively.

“I just feel I was so lucky.” I nodded, urging her to continue. It was critical that she was allowed to just talk at this point. “I got a grant and was able to live on it without working in some dingy bar every night. My parents weren’t poor, but they weren’t rich either, but I was able to be financially independent.” A light went on in my head.

“Yes, things have changed so much, even since I was studying.”

“That can’t have been so long ago surely. How old are you?” It was one of the less personal questions I had been asked in the course of this job, so I just answered her.

“32. Old enough to have seen a change.” Sara smiled as if weighing something up. “Sadly, we know that lots of youngsters now decide against higher education because of the fear of debt.”

“It’s just so tragic.” Sara poured herself some more coffee and topped mine up without asking if I wanted more. I smiled my thanks and wondered what the caffeine would do to me – I always drank too much coffee on my London days.

“Well, we’ve decided we can do better,” I said, leaning forward in my seat, “and we’ve established grants for those from low income families who are on course for good results at A level.” Sara’s eyes lit up, and she caught my free hand, with which I had been gesticulating.

“Brilliant,” she said, “how much do you give them?”

“£2,000 a year.”

“You know, I voted against the top-up fees.” I nodded. I did know, it had been in the research file Tom had prepared for me that I had read on the train. She shook her head. “It breaks my heart to think of those poor kids in school desperate to get on.” She dropped my hand and looked up, making eye contact. “What did you study?”

I smiled, ready for the inevitable put down as I said “Media Studies”. But Sara remained serious.

“At Knighton?”

“No, I never would have got in. I studied in Yorkshire.”

“You’re too modest Cameron. I think you’ve got it all worked out.” I raised my eyebrows, not completely sure what she meant. “Will ten do?”

“Sorry?”

“Ten thousand pounds? That will help five students right?” This was big for a first gift and I was taken aback. I worked to keep my cool.

“Well six actually if you include Gift Aid. I must say, that’s very generous of you.” Sara took a sip from her coffee cup, smiling ruefully.

“Maybe it is generosity. But sometimes I wonder it isn’t to assuage my own guilt.” She gestured to the room around her.

 

 

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It’s been a while hasn’t it?

Writing has changed. It used to be one of many different things I did when I wasn’t doing my day job. Then, towards the end of 2013, my life changed. My daughter was born. To start with I thought my writing days may be over altogether, on the days when getting me, my wife and my daughter out of bed, washed, fed and sane was a full time task. It’s something all parents go through. Parenthood has a way of unceremoniously booting you from the self actualisation pinnacle of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs down to the life support foundation.

This isn’t a whinge at all. I always wanted to be a mum. And I knew things would change. You can of course never be ready for the reality of the situation.

I wrote the first draft of Four Movements in just two and a half months at a rate of something like 1,000 words per day. It was a massive achievement, and a couple of times since my daughter was born I’ve tried to emulate that. I’ve failed each time. I am now responsible for a whole other human being, and regardless of the value of literature, she tops my priority list.

In the last few months I have been quietly beavering away at a new manuscript. 1,000 words a day is simply not practical. I now try to get a quality 20 min writing break once a day. This works out as about 350-400 words per session. I don’t always manage it, but now I’m almost 18,000 words into my new novel, it is beginning to feel achievable.

For those interested… The working title of the new book is Major Gifts.

Just in case you missed it…

Sally Xerri-Brooks

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Following the publication of Four Movements, I thought you might want to gain an insight into my world, my writing and the inspiration behind it.

When did you start writing?

I suppose I’ve always written stories, ever since I was very young. I remember putting together my own little story books – grappling with giant staplers and sellotape, tongue inevitably stuck out to one side. In my early career I was a journalist, and I found it fascinating how much of life can be encapsulated in stories.

So would you call yourself a story teller?

Yes! I think so. If I am, I have to give credit to my late Grandmother, who used to fascinate me with family stories from the past. Her yarns would involve caravans on sand dunes, unexpected illness, long and eventful journeys – the stuff of true drama. Ultimately, in my mind, the best writers…

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2013 was a year of radical change for me, as many of you will know. I started a new job, Rachel and I moved house and had a baby. My daughter is now nearly four months old, and throughout our journey I kept a blog. You can see it at www.mamanotmummy.blogspot.co.uk

Unexpectedly this blog has proved really popular with other parents, both gay and straight. So, my next project is non-fiction. When I wrote Four Movements I embarked on a project called ‘May You Write Your Novel,’ inspired by author Sally Quilford. The idea was to write 1,000 words a day for 80 days starting on 1st May. It worked for me – by mid July I had the first draft completed. So, although it is not May, and ‘January You Write Your Novel’ doesn’t really have a ring to it, I will employ the same technique. See above my progress graph!

And to get an idea of the book itself – here is the pitch I am sharing with literary agents:

This book is the story of how me and my female partner went about getting pregnant, and our journey from identifying a sperm donor to giving birth. Book shops currently contain whole sections dedicated to guides for mums and dads-to-be, and even tomes for those adopting children. Yet, there is virtually nothing in this market that tackles the issue of becoming a mum, as I have, to a baby my wife gave birth to. While she is biologically Rachel’s daughter and legally I am her ‘other mother’, I have no genetic connection to her. I had to make it up as I went along, dealing with issues such as knowing my child wouldn’t inherit any of my skills and abilities by virtue of my DNA. I wasn’t a mum or a dad as society identifies, and I was faced with questions from others that I simply couldn’t answer.
This is an honest and sometimes light-hearted account of my experience and feelings, and the creation of a very specific parental role and confidence through the nine month pregnancy, and the subsequent birth.

Or so they say anyway…

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I watched the rather fantastic film, Argo, today. I was struck by how unrealistic it all seemed and yet it is based on a true story. Think of other such tales – the Sound of Music, We Bought a Zoo, the Great Escape. All are unbelievable but for the fact that we know them to be based in truth, which makes the stories that much more remarkable.

As a journalist many years ago I wrote a series of stories about a pair of scarecrows that were repeatedly kidnapped and found in various places in a local village, before finally being destroyed in a fire. If I were to place that story into a fictional account, it would sound far too twee and contrived. All of us are suckers for a true story though, aren’t we?

Early this year I started a blog, charting my experience as a parent to be, and subsequently as a parent to a new baby. I did it mostly for personal reasons, and yet it has proved really successful. I have a loyal and kind readership and have been contacted by a variety of journalists and researchers as a result. On the back of this, I have decided that my next book will be a non-fiction one, telling the story of how Rachel and I came to give birth to Gwyneth – it is slightly more complex than just stopping contraception, as I’m sure you can imagine!

Have a look at the blog if you fancy it! Www.mamanotmummy.blogspot.co.uk

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It is the day of the dead in Mexico, where families come together to celebrate, mourn and remember the dead. Does that sounds ghoulish to you? It shouldn’t. We are constantly in a state of life amidst death amidst life. This has never been more clear to me since I began working at a hospice. In a strange juxtaposition, I found out that I was going to become a mother just as I accepted the new job eight months ago. My daughter is now eight weeks old, and for six months I have spent my days among those working with people coming to the end of their lives, and by night preparing for the birth of new life.

Many people assume that working at a hospice is depressing. But I can tell you that this is far from the case. We work to ensure that those coming to the end are comfortable enough to continue with their lives. We all die, no escaping it. The only difference is how we live our lives. And, for the record, there are only two states of being – alive and dead. There is no ‘third’ state, which people sometimes refer to as ‘dying’. Life is to be enjoyed as much as possible, about creating stories, having experiences, loving and hurting.

In the first six weeks of work at the hospice I found myself remembering people I had lost, ruminating over losses. It was a safe place to talk about death without having to question whether the other person was comfortable with it. And that’s what it’s about – comfort. How many times have people spoken of someone they’ve lost, to be greeted with an awkward silence and a swift subject change? This is where I think we need to be more like the Mexicans. Let’s get it all out there – celebrate the ones we’ve lost, cry for them, mourn them. The fact that they left a gap in our lives is a good thing. It means they mattered.

25 years ago this Christmas I lost my grandfather. I was just 10 years old, and he just 61. Yet once my daughter was born, he was someone I found myself remembering – and missing. He would have loved meeting her, helping us with our house move, making things for her. So the gap is still there, brought into sharp relief by the beginning of a new life. It is from this gap that on Tuesday night we will invite friends to our home to celebrate fireworks night, an occasion he loved. He would spend a fortune on fireworks and invite the whole family round. Since then I have had a love of them myself, and will be thinking of both him and my new little girl as I set them off in our garden.

So, it is him, along with others, that I will be remembering and celebrating on fireworks night. My day of the dead.

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For the literary angels so loved Birmingham that they sent forth a library that loved the city in a way that bathed residents in a warm glow and attracted strangers from far and wide…

Yesterday I went to the new Library of Birmingham – a truly remarkable place. The handful of photos I took don’t do this magnificent creation justice, for it is more than just a building.

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It inspired me in a way that the old concrete building containing books never managed. I am already finding excuses to go back and discover more. The meagre hour I had didn’t do justice to the secrets and delights that don’t shout out, but wait to be discovered – just like a good book.

The secret garden is a joy to behold, offering an unlikely urban oasis, while the Shakespeare Room offers a slice of civic Birmingham’s history, encased in the extraordinary viewing platform inside which there was a genuine buzz from those inside. In one part of the library, we were asked to take pictures of a group of teenage boys on their mobile phones, something that I would wager they wouldn’t have done the in the old place.

The Library of Birmingham is cool – there, I’ve said it. But more than that, like Danny Boyle put it so effectively in the Olympic opening ceremony, it is for everyone.

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My daughter, Gwyneth, was born earlier this month and I am thrilled to be able to look ahead to a childhood that has such a marvellous resource in. And to those who fear that libraries are dead, and that ebooks are ruining the world, I say: come to Birmingham to visit a living, breathing community library.

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