The stories only you can tell

M Mahal

Writing a novel is hard. I’ve had surgery less painful, taught teens less tricky. It’s hard because it asks for everything you’ve got. Like trying to catch the world with a net: a lovely idea but daunting to know where to begin.

18 months ago I began writing a mystery set in Madrid. In January, I thought I’d done it. I closed the program, wrote a synopsis and sent it all to a publisher who had shown interest in my work at a Writer’s Festival .

I waited a month. No answer. I scanned through blogs which said ‘don’t nag editors and agents’ so I didn’t. Unwilling to take the rejection personally,  I thought, ‘Oh well, editors are  busy’, or ‘perhaps my novel isn’t up to much’. I worked elsewhere, convinced myself that once done, my book shouldn’t be revisited, after all I’d given it my best shot.

And then something strange started happening. Driving, teaching, chatting with friends, I couldn’t stop thinking about my story.  Not the plot (that’s a different problem!) but the thing I wanted to say, what’s mine.

I remembered the author Neil Gaiman said:

‘Start telling the stories that only you can tell, because there’ll always be better writers than you and there’ll always be smarter writers than you. There will always be people who are much better at doing this or doing that – but you are the only you.’

And then I twigged. As much as I didn’t relish revisiting the novel I had put months of work into, I had no choice but to return to it if I wanted to air its story.

‘I’ve always felt you unearth story, like you’re on an archaeological dig’ wrote Stephen King in his seminal work, ‘On Writing’.

My story kept glinting from the earth, would not leave me alone. I couldn’t not write it.

So one morning last week, into my kindle,  like a kind of miracle arrived ‘Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart: Nail Your Novel’ by Roz Morris, a guide so comprehensive that by the end of it I knew technically what I needed to do. I had a plan, a decision to go back to ground level, unearth the fossil of my tale and make it matter to a reader.

Writing a novel is hard, I’ve had surgery less painful, taught teens less tricky, but the alternative is keeping something inside that only I am in a position to share. My story.

What would you do?



Three tips to survive the Gulf heat

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Heat has enveloped the city. We are caught in its embrace.  The children I teach insist on cool blasts of air-con, non-stop during class. Donning skinny jeans and retro trainers, they hide in hoodies like adolescents anywhere. Except that here midday hits 40 degrees with ease and not a soul walks down the street.

By the time I step into the light after work, I am shivering from the fridge-like indoors. The steering wheel of my car has all the appeal of gripping a burning torch and I realise it may be possible to brew a cup of tea with the water inside the bottle on the passenger side.

So while Muscat’s barometers have sent even the mosquitoes packing, I have decided not to flee to the UK this summer. My survival strategy for the extreme heat follows:

*As I can no longer exercise outside (read: barely walk out of the front door), I have joined a gym. It’s cool inside and  I get to hear the PTs putting people through their pre-Ramadan paces.

*Driving is improved by a) parking in the shade whenever possible b) Tinted windows (which might look gangsta but help) c) Wearing sandals and cotton (which don’t look gangsta but help) .

*Deciding to enjoy what is. In this part of the world, as well as searing temperatures, May/June means date season: nature’s sticky cakes with a stone are fab with a cup of tea, a few minutes of sunshine, when I can bear it, almost feels refreshing after so much time spent indoors.

Occasionally, in the early morning as I close the front door and leave for work, the faintest scent of the sea reaches the air, birds caw, the heat hasn’t yet found the day. For a moment at least, I’ve forgotten it’s there.

Live somewhere hot? What are your recommendations to survive the summer?

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King Fu Dining

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You have to go in first, then give me five minutes and I’ll follow.’ 

My husband’s plan sounds complicated.

There’s a small takeaway, it looks ordinary but to the right is a door. Ask if you can enter. You’ll see some creaky stairs. Head for the upper storey.’

In a city of large malls and chain stores we are entering somewhere unusual. Chinese restaurants are rare in Muscat and this one, more like a living room for those in the know. I sit alone waiting for my husband. Dressed in Omani gear he is concerned they won’t let him in.

‘That’s ridiculous,’ I protest, but as I look around the underwhelming interior I notice that I am the only person who is not Chinese.

I am reminded of capital cities in the West with their exclusive nightclubs and restaurants, doormen and pass codes. Strangely, subtly this restaurant seems to be doing the same. It’s hidden behind the facade of a take away. As the woman who owns the place hands me a menu I feel a frisson of apprehension.

Muscat houses neither Dubai’s glitz nor Abu Dhabi’s up and coming status. It has beautiful scenery, easygoing people and a cautious political neutrality. Muscat’s social scene is far from exclusive.

I choose some dishes. Listen for creaks on the stair. What if my husband isn’t allowed in? The waiter brings steaming won ton soup, dim sum. I start to tuck in. Am transported to a country I have never visited by the vowels and chatter from the tables nearby.

Dishes arrive from the hands of the owner and when my husband eventually makes it up the secret staircase it seems that he and the owner already know one another. She had worked in the Chinese restaurant of a palatial hotel located in the mountains and quit when the management changed hands.

There is care in the way she describes dishes, handles her customers, the type of knowing which comes from learning the business then setting up from scratch. It’s wonderful to be part of a culinary secret but something tells me it won’t stay that way for long.

Kung Fu “Authentic Chinese Restaurant” is located next to Fun Zone in Al Qurum Street, Muscat 

(Be prepared to use the secret door…)

Anyone in Muscat have unusual restaurant recommendations?  Feel free to post below…




I will write about this one day


‘Beginnings are difficult,’ I remember some years ago a friend from Bavaria trying to cheer me up. I was battling at the start of a secondary school teaching post. It did get better, mainly because I learnt to don invisible armour each morning along with my sword of triple-strength coffee and shield of practiced one-liners.

Beginnings are difficult but so are endings. I just finished reading the wonderful Me before You by Jo Jo Moyes and was dawdling so long on the final pages that my kindle almost switched itself off.

I’m reaching the end of editing my first novel. The final process has felt like fashioning a table from wood, carving each detail, then flinging it via mortar to the stars. The publishing world can be brutal. Agents take on few authors each year. Many publishers won’t accept manuscripts without an agent involved. ‘Have you thought of self-publishing?’ a writer-relative asked me recently. We exchanged a series of emails confirming that I will probably persist with the traditional route.

After the first three chapters have been sent, they say that waiting can be the trickiest part. ‘Start working on something else!’ chorus the writer blogs.

Elizabeth Gilbert in her book, Big Magic describes how she thinks up new stories. Her view is that ideas are floating about looking for someone to grab them and commit them to language. I’m not sure I would give them this level of agency but her attitude to making novels is life-affirming and contagious.

And if an idea doesn’t come soon? There is always the writer Clive James’ approach (again from Gilbert’s book, abridged):

Following a commercial failure in the West End…

James’ young daughters[ …]asked him if he would please do something to make their shabby old secondhand bicycles look nicer[…], he hauled himself up off the couch and took on the project….The girls grew impatient for him to finish but James found that he could not stop painting stars [on the bikes]. It was incredibly satisfying work. When at last he was done, his daughters pedaled off on their magical new bikes, thrilled with the effect…The next day, his daughters brought home another little girl from the neighbourhood, who asked if Mr James might please paint stars on her bicycle…as he did so, something was coming back to life. Clive James at last had this thought, I will write about this one day. And in that moment he was free, failure had departed, the creator had returned.

I love Elizabeth Gilbert’s assertion that in doing something else we are freeing up the channels of creativity because the pressure is off. ‘Einstein called this tactic “combinatory play” – the act of opening up one mental channel by dabbling in another.’ Beginnings are still difficult, but somehow less so when starting out is couched as play.

Is creativity its own reward? What is your experience of writing/making art/music and posting it off for publication? I’d love to hear from you below...

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The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins: Book Review


There is something of the revenge tragedy in Paula Hawkins’ novel, The Girl on the Train. A renaissance play, The White Devil, springs to mind. The grim relentlessness of the plot, working like tiny wheels over a dirty track. The constant shifting of how we view the story’s lovers.

You might decide, as I did, that you don’t want to get off at the next station. The doors back into the world may be jammed by the thrill of being held page after page as gripped as The White Devil’s heroes staring at a skull; you simply, morbidly, cannot look away.

I read this novel for my monthly book club. Its rave reviews and bestseller status (over a million copies sold in the UK alone) had ensured I would pick it up at some point but when a book is this hyped (Harry Potter, Dan Brown, 50 shades) I tend to feel a nudge of dread, as though I’m being nagged into submission by an overzealous media.

But in this case, my dread was unfounded. The media have a point.

The Girl on the Train’s greatest strengths are plot and place. There was a brief moment a fifth of the way through when I thought, ‘Oh no, I’ve figured it out,’  but I was joyously wrong. It is in fact, a classic whodunit without a detective in the main frame. The nearest we get is Rachel – appropriately surnamed Watson – not sleuth or formal suspect, like her namesake, she sits on the periphery of the investigation, neither vital nor entirely superfluous.

That she finds herself on the edge of the plot’s platform staring in at the main action for much of the novel is the grist of the book’s emotional centre. For Rachel has cast herself as outsider and though we may read many references to the flutter in her heart, its beating, its racing, it is her mind that has truly taken over, leading her further and further into the very territory from which she has been ousted. Like a child picking at a scab on her knees from a fall, she wants to see what’s underneath. Part of her wanting it to heal and the other, still frozen, in the past, by its cause.

The story goes something like this (look away now if even a plot is a spoiler!): A woman disappears. Another woman (Rachel) who has never met her, gets involved. Rachel sits daily on a train from the suburbs to Euston and allows her mind to play a game of What If.

Rachel is probably the closest we get to empathizing with any of the characters and this, I feel, is only because we know her a little better. As in Webster’s play, Hawkins’ characters are hard to love. Not necessarily a bad thing, in a crime thriller. Better by far than to experience what the novelist Imogen Robertson describes as characters ‘too good to be true.’  No risk of that here.

Hawkins’ trains and platforms, trackside back gardens and fetid underpasses are glorious in their grit and mundane British detail. If setting can be seen as almost another person in the novel’s world, then the writer seems to know this character best of all. It is this sense of place which underpins every sordid action that follows, allows the reader to believe entirely in the premise. Girl comes first in the title but Train is her ever-present co-star with its staring, alienating commuters pushing Rachel further into an exile of her own making.

Like many thrillers, TGOTT is a book about memory. It has echoes of Before I go to Sleep (Watson again. SJ). Recall – or its lack – make us vulnerable, as open as a wound to contamination. But the premise here is very different. Where better to explore its power than with one whose work is almost entirely built on the way we frame the past – a therapist.

The author, Paula Hawkins, is far from straightforward in her handling of Dr Abcic, a character who is both pivotal to the plot and a potential for good. But Hawkins deftly sidesteps the predictable path of moralizing or even redeeming each of her characters’ failings. Every one of them is flawed. They all have a past. A temper even. It’s just a question of degree, or perhaps, circumstance.

It is the women’s voices that we read. The men are seen through female lenses and it is in the subtleties of romantic relationship, the interplays of power, control and their antidote, love, that Hawkins’ writing excels. To be fair, there isn’t much love floating about for, just like in Webster’s work, its innocence is short lived. A darkening plot rolls on occasionally pausing, mainly gathering momentum towards…

Actually, I can’t say where this particular train is heading because that would spoil the suspense. What I will say is that if you happen to be commuting to London, Euston even, from about an hour away, you’ll probably get through it in one return trip.

And if you do see anything from the train window in the rare moments that you look up across the platform and into the houses beyond, please don’t be alarmed if your thoughts get carried away. We need more books like this. Built on the power of imagining, of taking a premise, putting it on a locomotive and seeing how far it can go.

Have you read this novel? Your views as always are welcome…

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Waltzing still


Walls in White Cotton are witnessing
A slow and measured waltz
with whom?

She knows, my grandmother

Shelves of conscientious buys,
carefree sprees,
To a whole and icing sugar-dusted life

Bone china serene in
smooth Swedish cupboards
She chose
Before it all went South.


She fell,
One giant thud that did not extinguish her light.
How could it, when from all those sewing machines,
hotels she front (and back) of housed,
bold blue bibles, torahs, the book of proverbs robed in their spines,
It shines.

A duster draped, covers
hairspray in golden, seventies can,
Five kinds of clingfilm
To wrap is to preserve she said,
Besides which she could afford the luxury

Too late, though, to protect the child who toiled
With trays of steaming bread from
East end bakery,
Crisp coins for a frowning mother’s hand.

Six of everything she has –
My grandmother –
As though excess ever cancelled loss.
Now she looks upon her garden
Still in her chair


Back then,
Eighteen to the dozen, a hundred fine-boned words a minute
Knit one purl one, You’re lovely darling, (did I not know?)

In her chair
The sigh, the closing of lids
waltzing still
A grip on all this – with worked-out hands,
Holding it’s age old thrill.

You who sparks the sunset

This is the first post I wrote on my first blog 5 years ago …

You who sparks the sunset


Try to make a mountain. Create a sky the same as the one you see. Form a tree with your bare hands, scattering each flaming leaf at the appointed hour. Mold a globe, not just any but, this one, this emerald basking in blue, this feat never before seen, this astonishing entity winking at infinity. Roll up your sleeves, go on. The tree is too big, you say, the sky too far, the globe too perfectly round and the mountain? Too high?

Then try to make a man. Mold his soul with your hands, make it lighter than air, make it soar.

Make a woman. Form her drumming with destiny; strong like sunlight.

Then you can say it is only you who makes the waves return each time, lapping and whispering. You who sparks the sunset, washes the grass over with faultless ink, dyes the flowers that dark magenta.

Of course you know that you are one part weak to five parts strength, diluted by the fact you breathe, you see, you know. Fragile in your surest stride. With your body whose cells were designed to forget. Sometimes when you awake you remember snippets of another world and it is a world magnificent. A body which knows but cannot find the words, is mute before such glory.

Try to make a life instead, your life. Try to find your path. For you did not make the mountain. You didn’t paint the grass or raise the sun. You are not sky nor flower nor sun. You are of matter and bone and soul and heart, can soar can break, can choose and remember, can choose to forget. You are of many and you are absolutely one. Roll up your sleeves, go on, make a life.

Walking therapy

About five years ago I briefly swapped coffee shop meet-ups with friends for walks around the city. This was in Cambridge. A place which in the warmer months is lovely to traverse by foot or bike. Wandering the streets with others – as an alternative to sitting in a house or a cafe – had a relaxed intimacy, gained – who knows – from the air, or the greenery, the reddish antique bricks or the interweaving of visitors from around the globe.


Yesterday I rediscovered the same pleasure but for a different purpose. I was told three weeks ago by my surgeon to walk.

‘It’s good for healing,’ she asserted.

I started walking slowly around the apartment, dodging the sofas, picking up the odd sock, re-arranging a bookshelf as I went. Clearing up is great if the place actually needs it but there are limits to the powers of recuperation found indoors. So I ventured out.


We live on a stretch of land still under construction. The noise from brick being smashed and cranes wielding their mighty clamour had initially put me off opening the outer door.

But then I saw that there were birds. They look different here, wings watercoloured with streaks in fancy shades. They hang out in groups of twenty, rising like dust when their seating areas are disturbed. They perch on the roof, cooing in idiom.


There were cats too. Beautiful perhaps, but the neighbour’s rescue wadi-cat is not popular in our household. (He enjoys nothing more than to sidle onto the balcony and greet our female cat with cobra-like hisses and territorial spraying.) Each week he wears a new collar, the previous one most likely lost in a brawl.


I watched his brief stand-off with a black and white tom. Camera-happy I tried to catch his feline form in a natural pose. Grudgingly he acquiesced, snarling unrepeatables beneath fine whiskers.

I realised that to walk is to have freedom. That in movement there is a gradual shaking out from one’s self.

The communal back garden is not large but it has hills and greenery. On a clear day the contour of the mountains which surround half of the city of Muscat can be seen.


When I walk, all that feels strange and unsure realigns. Treading on grass has its own rhythm, a balance, connecting the earth with the flats of my feet, facing the vast skies.

With each breath, nature appeases pain. Miles of emerald grass distract, display their brightest shades. Step by step, the hand-hold that is nature supports. It heals.

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Madrid in a hurry: 3 highlights


Budget flying has its own special magic. Stansted Airport at dawn resembled Burger King on a rowdy English Saturday night. Gangs of excited hens and stags preparing to take Europe by storm. The shops weren’t selling bottled water in normal sizes, only the flavoured kind which leaves the mouth like a pot pourri of aspartame and imitation peach. My 36hr trip to Madrid was already running 2 hours late.

Once you enter the parallel reality of the cheap European flight, count nothing as given. If they could, they’d put a slot machine by the airplane loo. The surprise freebie was the leg room at the front of the aircraft: a perk after the organised fight for a seat. The airline’s extreme economy also appeared to apply to runway metrage. When the plane touched down in Spain, it seemed to halt in under a minute, the braking so hard, we were all pushed forward like crash test dummies, stomachs in mouths.

But the destination more than made up for it, Spain’s capital: a great old smokey melting pot with a pulsing centre. Even the metro map resembles a heart, with veins leading off into the suburbs. The view as we landed reminded me of a film where Penelope Cruz, I think, and a newborn baby, traverse the capital on a bus. She holds him up to the skyline so the city is the first thing he sees. ‘Look!’ she exclaims in her beguiling accent,’Madrid!’


I am in the middle of writing a novel set in the city and my trip was mainly to see if its tree-lined thoroughfares had changed since I was last there. Madrid has its own vibrancy. The directness of daily interaction which years ago felt brusque, had softened. Perhaps it was the searing temperatures, streets sizzling like fresh croquetas. Everyone seemed to have time for a chat.

Here are my three faves in the heart of a city which doesn’t stop beating:

Authentic local dishes: Despite being miles from the coast, Madrid houses the freshest seafood in Spain. They say an ancient route from La Coruña ferries it in regularly, ostensibly for the king. I certainly felt I was eating like one! The tapas too: raciones, pinchos (still struggling to differentiate the size margins) patatas bravas, alioli, beans, every type of paella – with its own special menu in some places – and efficient no-nonsense castillian service.


Amazing art:
As in many capitals, diverse barrios sit cheek by jowl. I was staying in colourful Atocha. Turn the corner and you’re on Paseo del Prado, an avenue of huge plain trees, grand arches and three astonishing art galleries. I made a beeline for the Thyssen, my favourite of the three. On its pink walls in a series of subtly lit spaces, it houses a private collection spanning Belgian portraiture, old lit up scenes of Venice by Canaletto and into cubism. I had gone to view a painting I hoped was in the same place: the magnetic stillness of Rothko. It was.


The noise of it all: The city speaks in sounds that form a symphony to the city’s occupations. Wait at a traffic light and a bird will coo from the lamp-post telling you when to cross. The s’s of madrileños are thick in sentences which end with a frank up and down. In the metro, the announcers are a duet of recorded voices, ‘Proxima Estacion:’ says the man, with a woman naming the station in a commentary that changes with the city above. Buskers range from the lone saxophonist to Peruvian panpipes and even an organ grinder transporting the pedestrian zone to the 19th century.


It truly sinks in that I’m leaving Madrid’s unique cacophany when, waiting to re-board the budget delight, I sit at our gate listening to the announcement. First, the emotion of hurried Castillian: ‘Su vuelo puede sufrir cambios,’ (Your flight may suffer changes). Then a plummy English gent in restrained Anglo-Saxon: ‘Your flight may be modified.’ I’m heading home.


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Mopping up the Java

It was a surreal, nerve-inducing moment. ‘Like a weird doctor’s surgery,’ someone said. ‘Or speed-dating.’

I thought: We’re subs at a league game. Waiting on the side, half scared of being called, but hoping for the chance to play.


There we sat, poised to to meet publishers and agents, next to a hall at The University of Winchester’s Writers’ Festival set out like a school parents’ evening. In the corridor, a pensive string of writers waiting to discuss our word-babies.

Nobody spoke much. I tried to chat with the guy next to me. He looked faintly ill.


‘Ok, everyone, next wave,’ said an administrator, and we entered the hall like birds migrating to the sun.

As I sat down, my bag nudged the publishing director’s coffee cup, pouring thick brown liquid over her business cards, the table, her person. I was mortified. She was gracious. ‘Just talk me through your novel while we’re clearing up,’ she said.

Over lunch she had read the first chapter, synopsis and the A4 sheet stating my interest in her publishing company. I said: I like that it’s small, established, independent. I thought: I can still see a chocolate-coloured pool beneath your papers.

She handed the chapter back and told me what she liked, what needed work. Her comments were more promising than I had braced myself to expect.

‘Finish writing your novel and then send it to me. I’d like to read all of it.’

It felt like a goal from fifty yards. I won’t be celebrating with a coffee.


As always, please feel free to comment 🙂

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