Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Which Fictional Character to Run Off with?

Harper Impulse posed a very difficult question in my author questionnaire last week: which fictional character would you run off with into the sunset? 
Plenty of actors came to mind, Jean Dujardin mainly, Brad Pitt obviously... But a fictional character?  After much deliberation I consulted one of my oldest friends.
"I think you're taking it a bit too seriously," she said. She then reminded me of the man we'd both spent our youth watching emerge from a lake in a wet, white shirt. Who? You ask? Mr Darcy, of course! Specifically Mr Darcy played by Colin Firth in BBC's 1995 six episode version of Pride and Prejudice. I have only stopped watching it on repeat because I no longer have a VHS player.
It was an obvious choice and yet I wasn't sure. I had not forgotten my crush on the ruggedly handsome Aragorn. He really knew how to push open a big door in a sexy manner.

Curious to know who other people would run off with, I put the same question to my facebook group. "Alice in Wonderland," someone said. I felt a bit ashamed then. How predictable of me to be racking my brain for handsome men. Still, I wouldn't choose Alice. She'd only be fun until the withdrawal symptoms kicked in and she stopped seeing white bunny rabbits drinking tea.

My list of two increased after watching Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. No, not Ewen McGregor's character, but the visionary Sheikh Muhammed joined Darcy and Aragorn on my list. Three men and only one I could ride off with into the sunset. I decided to analyse their strengths and weaknesses to help me make my decision. These are the results:

Mr Darcy
Sheikh Muhammed
Good on a horse (2/3)
Excellent on a horse (3/3)
Good on a horse and most likely better on a camel than the other two (3/3)
Washes once a week (1/3)

Washes once a month (0/3)
Washes every day (3/3)
No previous girlfriends. One disgruntled 'betrothed'  too sick to make a fuss  (2/3)

An immortal ex - girlfriend (1/3)
'Many' wives (0/3)
Very rich (3/3)
Fighting for his riches (1/3)
Ridiculously Rich (downside, he does silly things with his money like introducing Salmon to the Yemen). (2/3)
 "Tall person, handsome features, noble mien" (3/3)
 - lean, dark and tall, with shaggy dark hair "flecked with grey", grey eyes, and a stern pale face (2/3)

(Looks based on description) Unavailable (0/3)
Awkward in bed (0/3)
Confident in bed (3/3)
Tired in bed, due to having many wives to satisfy (0/3)
Family - wouldn't approve of my immigrant / Welsh / Catholic background.  Upside, a friendly sister. (1/3)

Total: 12
Family - mostly killed off but I'm sensing they'd prefer a human descendant to an elf one. (2/3)

Total: 12
Family - unlikely to approve of me being a wine guzzling Catholic 

Total: 9
As you can see Mr Darcy and Aragorn are neck and neck... but who would you choose?


Friday, 11 April 2014

Games of the Imagination - do you still play?

I might look like I'm getting dressed as normal but actually I've just been dropped in the middle of the antarctic. I'm on a secret mission. Trouble is I'm naked and if I don't get my socks on within the next 5 seconds frostbite will set in.

1, 2 , 3, 4 ...

Phew. Socks are on. I hear a sigh of relief in my headset. But I'm not out of danger yet. 

Knickers are essential. Not just to keep my bottom from freezing off, but for my dignity. I'm a special agent after all.

Jeans. Where are they? Without their protective layering pneumonia is a certainty.  There'll be no chance of recovery either. There's no medical team where I am. It's just snow and ice for miles and the cold whisper of death blowing down my neck.

My jeans aren't where they should be... oh god... I'm going to die if I don't find them... I can hear them panicking back at base, they're blaming each other, bringing up past special agents who didn't make it. The heat is retreating to my core organs, I won't be able to feel my legs soon...

FOUND THEM! Panic over! Bra, t-shirt, jumper, fingerless gloves! I'm going to survive!

Okay. So I've never really been dropped in the north pole. That's just a little mind game I play on cold mornings, which being in England, is most of them. To the naked eye, I'm just getting dressed.

Thinking about my own mind games made me wonder what other people are imagining when they're doing mundane things. 

Writers are often stealing characters from real life. But although we can copy mannerisms and dialogue, I doubt we can ever really know the narrative of another person's thoughts. The good thing is, with so many different mental narratives, whatever we make up in fiction, it's bound to resonate with someone.

Come on, I can't be the only one being dropped in the antarctic in the mornings or the jungle for the washing up... tell me, where do you go?


Tuesday, 1 April 2014

My First Publishing Lunch with Harper Impulse

Fiona and me feeling happy post lunch!

It was a pinch yourself moment walking into the offices of Harper Collins. I had just met up with my agent, Fiona Barrows, and we were now in reception waiting to meet Harper Impulse editors Kimberley Young, Charlotte Ledger, and the intern who had originally picked up my submission and got excited about it, Marine Debray. My default state on a normal day is of nervous excitement, so I had to keep reminding myself to keep my feet on the floor. 

They say authors don't get taken out for lunch these days, but I'm living proof it can still happen! It wasn't boozy as everyone had to get back to work after, but I had a glass of wine because it seemed rude not to. 

The meal began with everyone saying they'd be 'good' then ordering fries on the side, which was a relief. I reckon you can trust women who eat chips. Later we all said 'no, no, no, actually yes please' to pudding. I'm not a sweet tooth but warm pecan pie with banana malt ice cream, anyone? The answer is always yes. 

It was a 'getting to know each other' lunch and I still don't know exactly how much work I have to do on Spray Painted Bananas. What I do know is that the title will probably change as they aren't keen on it. They think it doesn't say enough about the book. I was expecting to feel a strong reaction when they said that, but I didn't. Instead it occurred to me that if they changed the title, it would feel like I'd written a new novel! 

They're the experts in this field so I'm going to listen to their suggestions. They also emphasised it being a collaborative process and that they wouldn't do anything I'm not happy with. That'll matter a lot when they start showing me book covers! 

This lunch felt like a significant step in my career. I know like many steps in the past, it will soon feel normal, so I should savour it while I can. 

My husband, a firm believer in celebrating important moments, bought me a beautiful leather Huber and Lerner notebook. Luckily I can slide my own paper in it so it won't run out within the month, because I've a lot of writing ahead of me. In fact, that's probably enough savouring for now, I've got two novels to hand in this year and it's already April!


Wednesday, 19 March 2014

My 1st New Year Visualisation comes true - a 2 book deal with Harper Impulse!

The first of my 5 New Year Visualisations has come true! No, not the seven figure bit, just the publishing deal. No, not just the publishing deal. That sounds like I'm not jumping up and down letting off party poppers. I'm not, but that's only because I can't multi-task. Have you ever tried letting off party poppers and typing at the same time? 

If you read my February post, Lessons from the Writing Journey, then you'll know that after three months and 75,000 words written, my agent had told me she didn't like the book I'd been working on. Demoralising is an understatement. I felt like I was back to square one. My romantic comedy Spray Painted Bananas hadn't been bought and now I didn't even have a new book to work on. 

I needed a new idea which wouldn't come while I was stressing about needing a new idea. So I spent a week reading books and clearing up. Writers complain about housework getting in the way of writing, but my best work can happen while I'm scrubbing. The physical activity relaxes my mind and solutions to plot problems rise up and surprise me. 

I was washing dishes when a new idea came. It was for a new romantic comedy called #PleaseRetweet. I wrote the synopsis in two hours and without thinking too much, sent it straight off to the agent. Well I didn't see the point in mulling over it. Either I was on the right track or I wasn't. 

"Yes!" my agent replied. "We really like this! This is what you should be writing!" 

I decided to spend the rest of February making notes about the characters and plot. I needed a bit of a break before I wrote Chapter One again. 

It was while I was making notes, a few days after I'd sent the synopsis off, that I got a call from my agent.

"Hello," she said. "I've got some good news." 

"No..." I said. I'd given up hope of my beloved Spray Painted Bananas being picked up. There'd been so many positive comments but nothing worth celebrating. "Really?" 

"I've had an offer..." It turned out that Harper Collin's digital first imprint Harper Impulse not only wanted Spray Painted Bananas, they'd also read the synopsis for my new idea and wanted that too! 

I'd be lying if I said I cracked open a bottle of fizz there and then. It really didn't sink in for a couple of days after. My husband didn't know what was wrong with me. Nor did I. I rang my Mum to find out. 

"Mum, why am I not happier?" 

And then the tears came bubbling up. It had been a rollercoaster ride. A week before I'd felt like giving up writing and now it looked like my dream was coming true. I was shocked, and so relieved.  After the tears, came the happiness. 

THANK YOU readers, for all your support over the years. You don't know how often I've daydreamed about writing the acknowledgment page... although if I put the name down of everyone who has ever encouraged me over the years that page would be longer than the novel!


Monday, 3 March 2014

I don't want to make a fuss but... it's Benet!

 My Grandfather, Rosendo Benet, and 'Elizabeth Bennett'
The chair of a panel once introduced me as Emily Benetton. I didn't want to come across as difficult so I let it pass. Benetton isn't too far off my real name anyway; just a case of you say po-tay-to, I say po-tah-to. Being referred to as Joan however, by a fellow panelist, was more like you say po-tay-to, I say detached bungalow in Aberystwyth. But I didn't correct them either. 

The experience got me thinking about whether I should start setting the record straight about how my name is actually pronounced. Most people assume it is like Bennett, as in Elizabeth Bennett of Pride and Prejudice, which sounds like BEN-IT. Other people think it's French and opt for calling me BEN-EY. The thing is, it is neither Bennett or Beney. Neither English nor French. My surname is Catalan, passed on to me by the great Antonio Benet Pujol aka my Dad, passed on to him by the great Rosendo Benet Boixedras (pictured above). 

How do you pronounce it? Well, imagine you're half way saying But... then decide to say Net. Now put the emphasis on Net. Buh-NET. Oh dear, I don't think that's very clear. I'll have to make a recording and then you'll think I'm really self-obsessed. 

You see, that's why I never bother correcting people when they pronounce my name wrong. Does it matter? Well, it is my name and I have had it for 30 years. I just think if I don't started correcting people now, it'll be too late. But you know, if it's too much trouble, I suppose Joan Benetton will do.

NB. My Mum has just informed me she used to explain it like this: 'it's like cigar, cigarette... bun, bunette!'


Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Tips & Games for Reading Helpers

Last year I became a reading helper for Beanstalk, a charity which works at improving literacy in primary schools. The seed was sown three years previous when I read about the Evening Standard's literacy campaign. 

At the time I felt the required minimum of three hours a week sounded too much. In my post Emily and the Beanstalk I share my reasons for finally going ahead with volunteering.

I read with three children aged 9 and 10 years old. At first I felt I needed to prepare before every session, but now I'm much more confident and trust our box of materials to find stimulating reading and plenty to talk about.

Over the course of my first couple of terms, I've discovered a few things that work with the children I'm helping. I thought I'd share them:

A Game for the Distracted Reader

One of the children I read with was always distracted and none of the books held her interest. To be honest, I didn't blame her. So many of the books were dull and some quite depressing. Suspecting that she was quite clever, and only fidgeting because she wasn't being motivated enough, I devised a game that, to my surprise and delight, she instantly loved.

What you need: Scrabble letters, dice (optional), timer (optional)

I wrote a list of 12 challenges e.g. Find a synonym of angry, Name an Animal beginning with D, Give me an adjective to describe a bedroom, An adverb to describe how Mr Johnson ran... 

Then she would roll the dice, I would read out the challenge and she had to come up with a word and spell it out in scrabble letters. She loved trying to think of the word which would use the most letters. When the pieces had run out and she was left with lots of random words, she then had to make up a silly story using those words as she returned the letters to the scrabble bag.

A Book for the Upset Reader

I rotate the reading sessions and do my best to avoid taking the children out of sports or dance, or anything they might love. Unfortunately one day I didn't have much choice. The child was quite upset and I felt awful. Luckily I'd picked up a joke book from the last Beanstalk Book Swap and so I started reading that to her. 

Soon enough she took the book from me and started reading them out herself. She even started telling me jokes from memory. It was a relief to see her smile. 

It's a mistake to think reading only counts when there's a 'proper book' involved. Whether it's Top Trump cards, the back of a cereal box or The Hobbit it all counts as reading.

A Play for the Reluctant Reader

If a child's not very interested in reading books then I've found plays are the way forward. You can download them at

At first the child looked unimpressed when I brought out A Gift from Winklesea. She chose the parts she would read and we began. When I put on an exaggerated voice, she followed suit and we really got into the story. We read for fifteen solid minutes without taking a break and I was so chuffed when she said, 'that was fun!' The good thing about reading plays together is the child has to keep focused so they don't miss their part. We shouldn't be afraid to be a bit silly sometimes!

Popular Books

I was quite shocked at how many miserable books there were for 9-10 year olds in my box of books. I expect they are written so that kids learn about the 'real' world. Well, when I read novels, I want to be transported into a different world, to imagine, to savour, to laugh... Here are just some that have done that for the kids I've been reading with. 


To find out more about Beanstalk, visit their website. 


Monday, 17 February 2014

Lessons from the Writing Journey: Chill Out

After three months working on a novel, with 75,000 words already written, the agent phones up to say she doesn't like it. 

I'm on reception, temping at an osteopathic clinic. It seems inappropriate to sob in front of the waiting patients so I schedule a breakdown for any time after 5.30pm. As breakdowns go it's a quiet one. Just a couple of beers and a bath filled with my own tears.             

On the scale of things, three months isn't all that long to spend on a novel. That I contemplated giving up writing altogether probably sounds like an overreaction. But of course I wasn't focusing on the last three month, was I? I was looking back at 19 years of wanting to make it as a novelist. I was thinking of the three other novels stored on my computer which had never seen the light of day. The mind is very good at turning a slight obstacle into a mountain of epic proportions.
Despite my inner turmoil, I couldn't help thinking that I'd invested too much effort and energy to just give it up. I was also worried that if I did I'd always feel like I'd failed. What I needed to do was dig into my reserve of stamina and charge ahead. If other writers had managed to get published and make half a living out of doing what they loved then so could I.
By the following day I'd given up the idea of giving up and was focused on trying to come up with a new idea. But I was so anxious about not having an idea that I couldn't possibly think of one. I felt sick to my stomach. Having stamina is a fat lot of good if you've got no decent ideas.
When I met the assistant agent for a coffee and a debrief, I had nothing concrete to tell her. 
"Apart from writing, how have you been?" she said brightly.
That drew a blank. Apart from writing... what had I done?
It was a bit of a wake up call. What was I supposed to write about if all I did was write? I had to enjoy myself a bit more. I had to go out and see things.
As soon as I relaxed, two things happened.
First, I got a new idea.
Second, I got sick.
Our bodies are very clever, aren't they? I think mine just wanted to make sure I stayed away from the computer so the idea could germinate a little longer. I'm excited about it now, but to save me some grief I'm going to wait until I hear my agent's thoughts. 

In the mean time, I won't be stressing. As soon as the next triangle of sunshine falls across the living room carpet, I'm going to stretch out across it and pretend I'm on holiday.