Saturday, 24 November 2012

The best of 2012

It's that time of year when the media start to churn out the reviews of the best books, films, songs, etc. The Guardian kicked it off yesterday with their best books of the year chosen by authors and I haven't read hardly any of the titles they mentioned. So this set me to wondering why and I realised it's because I don't often read books as soon as they are published. So then I sat and thought about the books that I had read this year and there are a few that I read as they came out.

The first one was Rook by Jane Rusbridge, which I was lucky enough to go to the launch of at Bloomsbury publishing house in July. This is Jane's second novel and just like her first, The Devil's Music, it's a multi-layered tale of family secrets, which is my favourite kind of story. Her writing is so evocative and transports you completely to the Sussex coast, while her characters are so real that you feel an instant affinity with them. Jane's Rook wins my vote for the best novel published in 2012 that I've read.

My second choice is by a writer that I discovered for the first time this year, Fiona Robyn. Her latest novel, The Most Beautiful Thing, was my first introduction to her work and it prompted me to read all of her back catalogue. It tells the story of two episodes in the life of Joe, first as a teenage boy then 15 years later as a grown man, and she captured his voice so well. It was very sad but had a vein of hope running through it too, which is what I aspire to in my writing. This came a close second in my favourite reads list for this year.

In the world of my writing I have been working on some short stories, thinking about the editing of my first novel (but not actually doing it!) and starting to write some scenes and a plot outline for the second. I've also launched the Retreat West Short Story Competition and will be taking my first foray into self-publishing at the end of 2013 when I publish an anthology of the winning and runner-up stories. I've got lots of great judges lined up for it, including Jane Rusbridge, so all of you readers who are also writers I hope you will enter. 

So, tell me, what have been your favourite reads of 2012? I'm always looking for recommendations and introductions to authors that I haven't read before.
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Tuesday, 9 October 2012

It's all short: retreats and stories

My blogs have been a bit sporadic and a bit last minute for a while now as I've been distracted from my writing by setting up new one-day writing retreats. Now that I've made a trip to the Urban Writer's Retreat completely unfeasible by moving 200 miles away, I had no choice. Retreats really work for me and I need time away from home to get on and write.

So starting this month, as long as I can get ongoing bookings, I will be running Retreat West so that not just mine but hopefully lots of other West Country writers' word counts can go up. To celebrate I'm giving away two free places as a prize in the competition. So if you're in my neck of the woods I hope to see you there sometime.

Apart from setting this up I've also been working on some short stories for my OU module and the workshop that I'm doing with Shaun Levin. Hopefully I am learning to contain myself - time will tell. I've been reading lots of short stories in an attempt to master them myself and two that have really stood out for me have been James Joyce's The Boarding House and Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club. Both have the same sense of dislocation about them and of trying to make sense of a world that ultimately baffles you.

What about you? What short stories have you loved?
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Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Writing retreats, social ventures and Exmoor Ponies

In my 3rd guest blog for Exmoor Magazine I've been busy - there's writing retreats, mentoring and volunteering on the cards. Read the blog to find out more and expect to hear a lot more about them all in the coming months. I bet you can't wait! 

My latest OU module has just started as well and over the next 9 months I will be writing fiction (no change there then), poetry (feeling daunted) and memoir (watch out relatives!) and I'm really looking forward to getting stuck in.

I started a short story course as well earlier this month and the first story that I sent in came back with the feedback that it's not a short story but an extract from a longer piece. This is the reason I signed up for this class as I know that I turn everything I write into a novel - I just cannot seem to contain myself!

So, before I really get going today I'm off. Just one more thing - my new retreat website will be live later this week but if you are in the West Country and want some info now then email me at and I'll send it over.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Festival of Writing - intense, emotional, drunken

University of York: View from beneath the Cent...
University of York: View from beneath the Central Hall building across the lake. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I'm just about getting over my first ever Festival of Writing, which took place at the University of York's beautiful campus last weekend. I originally booked to go when I was still living in London so thought the journey would be a mere two hour train trip and very simple. But as most of you know, I moved to Exmoor at the start of August and the trip was a bit longer than anticipated. Four and a half hours longer to be precise. It was great reading and writing time though and I was very lucky to have friendly and interesting seat partners in both directions. But it’s not the journey that I need to recover from - I had no idea that the event would be so intense, emotional and drunken. 

The meetings that I had with the agent, Jane Judd, and book doctor, Shelley Harris, left me with mixed emotions. Daunted by how far I still have to go and slightly annoyed by the fact that I changed the POV and tense from what I started it in and completed the whole first draft, only to be told that it would have been better in its original format. But mainly I was inspired and motivated to continue by the comments that said some of my writing was really strong, and because neither of them told me to give up but instead to up my game.

What I learnt in the workshops means I feel much better equipped to up my game; and I can also now see how my first draft really is the bare bones that I have to build on rather than the nearly completed product I was wrongly assuming it to be. The Psychic Distance presentation from Debi Alper (aka the Flame-Haired Demi-God) was making complete sense and I was having an “A-ha” moment when I had to leave for my 1-1 but she has kindly sent me the slides so I can at least have some idea of what I missed. But nothing beats the enthusiasm and passion of the live delivery.

This was what most impressed me about all of the speakers I was lucky enough to see over the weekend – their generosity in sharing what they know, their willingness to talk about their own rocky routes to publication and their strategies for dealing with the self-doubt and rejection that goes hand-in-hand with being a writer. What really surprised me though was my complete re-think about self-publishing as I have always been such a traditional girl at heart. Changed my mind was though by the professionalism of two self-publishers: David Gaughran and Talli Roland – who made me realise that it doesn’t have to be the poor relation I'd always assumed it to be.

As well as buying books by everyone whose workshops I went to (any excuse), I learnt a lot, made lovely new friends, got tipsy, met several virtual friends in the flesh for the first time, and came home very tired but more inspired and determined than ever to make my writing work; and to finding both the time and the money to make the Festival of Writing an annual fixture in my calendar.

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Thursday, 23 August 2012

Reviews, submissions and rural dreams

I can't believe it has been a month since my last post but that's what happens when you move to the country and it takes three weeks for the broadband to be connected. I had to resort to using a dongle, which was like going back to 1999 online, so could only do the vital things like work when I could get connected. 

Image credit: Help I Need a Publisher
I managed to get everything done that I needed to for my customers but in the world of what I like to call my "proper writing", I also had the synopsis of my novel reviewed by Nicola Morgan. She wrote the best-selling How to Write a Great Synopsis so I was feeling pretty daunted by what she might have to say but, on the whole, it was a pretty painless experience and it made the world of difference to my confused and confusing synopsis. It has now been re-written again for the umpteenth time and although I know it still needs work, it really is a vast improvement.

The Festival of Writing in York is just two short weeks away now and I managed to get my submissions for the one-to-one's with an agent and book doctor in on time and featuring the shiny new synopsis. I'm really looking forward to the weekend as everyone who will be there will be into reading and writing just as much as I am and I can talk about books for 48 hours. I know...I'm obsessed. Getting more feedback on the first chapter and the planned structure of the novel will also be invaluable too, and you never know I might even win one of the competitions. I live in hope!

(Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)
My latest post for the Exmoor Magazine blog has also been published telling of these first couple of weeks in the country. You can read all about it in the blog so all I'll say here is, I'm liking it and so far all my rural dreams are coming true, now I just have to find one of those wild Exmoor ponies.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Maybe it's because I was a Londoner (briefly)

After spending a few years in London now that I'm leaving I keep thinking about all the good bits about it - rose-tinted glasses, I have a habit of donning them when it's time to move on. I've also been thinking about novels in which a city features almost as much as the characters, probably because I'm currently re-reading Graham Greene's A Quiet American and Saigon is just as much a part of the narrative as Fowler and Pyle. But in honour of the city that I have called home for almost three years (which is the longest I have lived anywhere in over a decade), today's blog is dedicated to two very different novels featuring good old London town.

The Book of Dave, Will Self
Cover of "The Book of Dave: A Novel"It's been a good while since I read this and although the language (Self's invented Mokni dialect, which is a mixture of cockney, text speak and various other bits and bobs pulled in from all sort of places) made it difficult to get into, it was worth the perseverance and this novel has stayed with me for a long time. Told in two parts - the present day of Dave and an unspecified time in the future - it is a parody of religious faith and the human race's willingness to blindly follow edicts written in ancient tomes. Dave is a taxi driver and he drives around the city bemoaning his fate that has seen his wife leave him for another man and take his son with her. He is mad and depressed and he hates everyone who doesn't know the streets of London and whose only idea of the city's layout comes from the tube map. He writes his rants in the Book of Dave and in the future society is living by the laws they have created from them, and singing hymns that are actually extracts from 'The Knowledge' (for you overseas readers, that's a test that London cabbies have to pass). It's funny, sad and oh so clever. Read it, you won't regret it.

The Hand that First Held Mine, Maggie O'Farrell
This latest novel from Maggie O'Farrell perfectly captured the bohemian vibe of Soho in that brief time when it was the place to be for writers, artists, musicians and actors as London recovered from the war years and headed for the swinging sixties. Flicking between Lexie's story in the late 1950s as she arrives in the city from rural Cornwall, and Elina and Ted's as they become parents for the first time in present day London, the sense of place in this book is one of its core strengths. As always with stories from Maggie O'Farrell its a real tear jerker and it deals with issues of identity and self, and how easy it is to forget who you really are.

Next up on my list of London-based books to read is Hanif Kureshi's The Buddha of Suburbia. Have you got any recommendations for me?

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Guest blogs and book launches

As I prepare for the move to the wilds of Exmoor, I've got myself a monthly guest column on the Exmoor magazine blog. The first installment of 'The Urban Gypsy goes Rural' has been published on the blog today - the next one will be post move, when the realisation that we're not on holiday will probably just about be sinking in.

In preparation for a new life in the country I am making the most of the city's offerings over the next couple of weeks. I'm going to two book launches at Bloomsbury publishers (hoping to get talent spotted while I'm there of course) and have many nights out with friends planned. I'm also hoping to squeeze in a visit to the National Portrait Gallery as I've been meaning to go there for the past few years that we've been living in London.

The first book launch is next week and its for Brand Anarchy by Stephen Waddington, of interest for my day job, and the second is on the 26th July for the launch of Rook by Jane Rusbridge, her second novel. This is the one I'm looking forward to the most. Firstly because I really enjoyed Jane's debut novel, The Devil's Music, which I was chuffed to win a signed copy of in the competition that she ran earlier this year. Secondly, because I'm also going to get to meet some of the writers I speak to on Twitter in person. Oh, and did I mention I'm also hoping to get myself an agent and a publishing deal while I'm there? I'm not giving up you know. 

Monday, 9 July 2012

How to Get Published

I went to a one-day conference last Saturday run by the Writer's and Artist's Yearbook team, and the focus of the day was to show aspiring authors how they can get published. Despite some truly depressing statistics about the state of the publishing industry (and there was me thinking my book buying habit was keeping it going almost single-handedly) and the amount of submissions agents receive compared to how many new clients they take on each year, I came away feeling strangely optimistic. To give you an idea of how deluded this optimism probably is, the stats were this bad:
  • paperback book sales down 11% each year for the past few years
  • agent Lucy Luck, who is on my list of agents to submit to, gets around 50 submissions a week and takes on three new authors a year
  • if you do get lucky and get taken on by an agent advances have been slashed
But on a brighter note, ebook sales are rising 10% a year and all of the presenters from the industry said that the cream tends to rise to the top of the slush pile so if you've really got it, you'll make it. I live in hope that my writing is double creamy with cherries on top. 

Then of course there is the self-publishing route. Call me old fashioned if you like but my dream has always been to go through a traditional publishing house, ending up with proper copies of my book that I can look at on my shelves, but it is good to know that there are now more options than ever before for getting published. To show any doubting Thomases about how well the self-publishing route can work, author Kerry Wilkinson was there talking about the success he has enjoyed. His crime novels have sold over 300,000 ebooks on Amazon and he's just signed a six book deal with Pan MacMillan. 

For me though, the inspirational story of the day was Suzanne Joinson's. Her debut novel, A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar, was published last week - in hardback, which really is impressive. I'm reading it at the moment and although I am only a little way in I am really enjoying it so far. It was her tale of discovery through winning a writing competition and the relationship she has developed with her agent, Rachel Calder of The Sayle Agency, who seems to be a slave-driver of the nicest possible kind when it comes to revisions, that really made me believe it could be me sometime in the future.

I've also taken to heart the advice from Cressida Downing's session, which highlighted the importance of not rushing to submit. I am so impatient for it all to happen for me that I am chomping at the bit to get the book out there. But I do know in my heart that it isn't ready yet.

In the meantime, I am moving to Exmoor on August 1st and know that I will have much more time and headspace to concentrate on my writing once I am there. Oh, and I'm going to be blogging about being an urbanite transferring to the wilds for Exmoor magazine so you can keep up to date with how that goes here.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

I won an award!

A huge thanks to one of my lovely blog followers, P.C. Zick who has awarded me the Versatile Blogger Award today, you can find out more about the award here.

As part of it I have to tell the person who nominated me seven things about myself and nominate other blogs for the award, it's supposed to be 15 but I'm not that good at keeping up with lots of blogs so my list is a bit shorter than that, but here it is and they are all really great blogs:

I told you it was short! 

Now, seven things about me:

  • In the past 14 years I have lived in 9 different towns/cities (two of them twice) in two different countries and our friends call me and my husband, John, "urban gypsies"
  • We are just about to move again - from London to North Devon (had enough of the expensive, crowded and grimy city life)
  • I really like baking cakes (especially carrot cakes and ginger cakes, num nums) but hardly ever get enough time to do it
  • I have a ginger and white cat called Rusty
  • I've always wanted a dog but never had one, yet
  • I climbed a mountain - Mount Lodestone in New Zealand
  • One day I plan on learning to play the piano  

That's it. Now I'd like you all like to tell me seven things about yourselves as I'd love to know, because I'm really very nosy! 

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Landscapes in Literature

After emerging from weeks of studying for my exam for the Reading & Studying Literature module of my Open University degree, on my first free Saturday in ages I went to an exhibition at the British Library. I am obviously obsessed. 

Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands is all about the influence that the landscape has had on British writers, and it is a really great exhibition. Little frissons of excitement buzzed through me when I read handwritten first drafts and notes from the likes of Graham Greene, Kazuo Ishiguro and George Orwell, while the short film from Robert MacFarlane and Simon Armitage about their travel writing and poetry, and how it has been formed by their relationship with the land they live on, was truly inspirational. 

Separated into six separate kinds of landscape: Rural Dreams, Dark Satanic Mills, Wild Places, Beyond the City, Cockney Visions and Waterlands, the literature it looks at ranges from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales to J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, and so much inbetween. It set me to thinking about the landscapes that I've lived in and visited, and the influence they've had on my writing, and I realised it has been huge.

In the novel that I am currently working on many of the places I have lived in also feature in my character's life and I can see that what happens to her state of mind when she's in them is a reflection of how I feel when I am in the city, the wilds and the suburbs. Recently I spent a blissful week in a Fisherman's Hut in the peace and tranquility of Southwold in Suffolk, and the story ideas were flowing fast when my mind was freed from all of the stuff that clutters it up in my day-to-day life in London, all of them inspired by what I could see, smell and feel all around me. 

So, with that in mind, I do believe it's time to put the city life behind me and get myself back to a world of natural beauty, to start living some rural dreams and spending a lot more time in wild places.  

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Pitching, Panicking and the Big Boys and Girls in Publishing

This week I had my first ever guest blog on writeanovelintenminutesflat, a blog belonging to the lovely Cathy Dreyer - a friend I have made in tweetland, blogosphere and all those other virtual places that writers hang out trying to get an audience, agent and publishing deal. 

You can read the post, Pitching, Panicking and the Big Boys and Girls in Publishing, which is all about my first foray into the big wide world of 'the industry' over on Cathy's blog - where you should really sign up as a follower too, as its great.

Friday, 11 May 2012

Old, but not forgotten

Well, its been a while as I was so blogged out by the April challenge that I've been unable to write one since. Until today that is. Doing the challenge was fun and I liked having to think of new subjects to write about each time rather than just rambling about me and my writing. So I thought I'd try and keep it up. The Y post looked at voices of young narrators in novels and as I am currently reading a novel (The Blue Handbag by Fiona Robyn) that features a narrator in his 60s (not that old I know, in fact now that I'm approaching 40 it seems positively young) I thought I would feature voices of the older generations today. 

So, in no particular order, here are a few novels I've enjoyed with older narrators.

Water for Elephants, Sarah Gruen
I loved this story of Jacob who ran away and joined the circus after being orphaned at the age of 23. He hadn't meant to join the circus but after leaving college and suffering from a breakdown after his parents' death he jumped a train at night and discovered it belonged to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. The tale is told through the memories of the 93 year old Jacob as he unhappily resides in an old people's care home, waiting for his family to visit and take him to the circus that has come to town. The circus heyday, when it was a truly spectacular event, is captured well, as is the drabness and despair of depression-era America and the growing danger as Jacob gets involved with people he really shouldn't.

Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro
This was a fascinating insight into the psyche of a man who had dedicated himself to service and taken British stiff upper lip emotional repression to a whole new level. Stevens has worked as a butler in an old English house for important men doing important things in important times. By extension his work is important too. So important that he can't take time to mourn for his father nor to acknowledge his feelings towards his colleague, Miss Kenton. When he is nearing the end of his career the house that he has worked at for all of his adult life changes hands, while the old customs are all falling by the wayside, Stevens goes on a holiday and the tale is told through his old eyes reflecting on his younger self. I found this book desperately sad and it stayed with me for a long time. 

Half Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan
Narrated by Sid as an old man in 1990 and flashing back to his memories as a young man in war-torn Europe in 1940, it's the story of a band and the trumpet player who was arrested by the Nazis and never seen again. Its also the story of a friendship ruined by jealousy and a life tormented by guilt. Themes of loyalty, remorse, resentment and redemption run through this novel but what I mostly took away from it was all about friendship. The things we do to the people we're supposed to love, and also the things we accept from them when others think we're mad to do so. But more than anything I loved the expressive language in it and Sid's voice was engaging, you cared about him despite his obvious flaws. And he said one of my favourite lines in a book ever: 'Even with his face falling apart he still hands-down the nattiest thing in my house.'

What books do you like that have old narrators?

Monday, 30 April 2012

The power of the zenith

It's the final day and I have reached my zenith of the A-Z Challenge. Zenith in this instance meaning the time at which I am at my most powerful or successful. No need to worry though, I haven't developed super powers over night and hatched an evil plan to take over the world. I'm just going to share some writing from my novel, which is the zenith of my fiction writing attempts to date. I have the kind of personality that loves to start new things but loses interest and finds it hard to finish and see things through to the end. So the fact that I have stuck with it and completed a first draft of almost 55,000 words is, in my eyes, a huge achievement and a sign that this is definitely what I should be doing! I hope you like this extract.

Sheila finally opens the door wider and walks away back into the house. She doesn’t say anything but we take this as an invite and go inside and follow her in. She’s like a pudding as she waddles down the hall in front of me. Soft and rolling, so deceptive. She looks like someone you see when they show old footage of women scrubbing their stoops. Salt of the earth, keeping this country great. But she’s not. She’s vicious and vindictive and as I remember all the hateful things she’s said over the years I just want to turn and run. But I want to find out what’s happened to Jimmy more so I don’t, I go into the dark and overcrowded room and sit down on the sofa without being asked. Jules sits down next to me and looks round in horror. The already small room has been made minute by being stuffed to the gills with large, dark wooden furniture – cabinets mainly, which in turn are overflowing with dreadful china ornaments. Babies’ faces with one tear on one cheek. Ladies with parasols and flowing gowns. Teddies, cats, bears, birds, elephants. Plates, mugs, bells. It’s overwhelming.

‘Well what do you want then?’ Sheila says as she brings her pudding frame to rest in an oversized armchair in a slightly lighter shade of brown than the cabinets.

‘Is Alan here?’

‘He’s in bed. Not that it’s any of your business.’

‘We’re here to talk about Jimmy, obviously. How can you not be worried that he’s gone missing? Do you know where he is?’

I hadn’t meant to blurt it out like that and I can feel Jules’s surprise next to me and Sheila’s hackles rise even further opposite me.

‘Like we told the police, no we don’t know where he is. But we’re sure he’s fine. You wouldn’t know Missy as you never come to visit, not that we want you to, but we have lots of talks round here. Our Jimmy should never have married you in the first place and we’ve been telling him that all along. Hopefully he’s finally taken some notice.’

‘So, what, he’s left me? Is that what you’re saying? Did he tell you he was going to?’

She looks smug. Her eyes are gleaming with the power she perceives this situation to give her over me.

‘No, he didn’t tell me. But that’s what I reckon he’s done. Me and Alan’ll be seeing him before long I’m sure.’

‘How can you be so sure? He wouldn’t be leaving me. We were happy. And even if he was, why would he do it like this, why wouldn’t he just talk to me about it?’

I am shouting by the end of this sentence and Sheila is just gearing up to start shouting back at me when Alan comes bursting through the door in just his pants.

‘Oi. What the hell’s going on? What are you doing here shouting your mouth off? He pushes my arm as he goes to stand guard by his precious mother. As if she needs protecting from anything or anyone.

‘Don’t you think you can come here and talk to mum like that.’

Jules jumps to her feet then, my guard dog it seems.

‘She didn’t talk to her like anything. You two are the ones that are bloody rude. Kate’s husband, your brother and son,’ she jabs her right index finger at them both then, ‘has been missing for three days and I think she’s quite entitled to come here and find out why you two don’t seem to be bothered.’

It’s just descending into a shouting match and I can’t deal with it. I think I believe them that they don’t know where Jimmy is but I don’t believe he’s left me. I don’t believe he’ll be in touch with them in a few days. The reason they don’t seem bothered is because they aren’t. They don’t care about Jimmy, never have, and I have always been able to see that even if Jimmy couldn’t. The only thing they care about is themselves and each other. It’s weird the two of them living here together, spending most of their time together and Alan a grown man of thirty-five never having left home.

‘Come on Jules, let’s go.’ 

I grab her arm and she follows me out.

Alan follows, his pasty white gut hanging over the waistband of his pink panther boxer shorts.

‘And make sure you don’t come back.’

His voice is cut off as Jules slams the door behind us and we hurry away from the madness that is the rude family house.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

The voice of the young

Youth, mine is fading fast on the outside but still going strong in my head. Instead of mourning my lost youth though, today's post is dedicated to books that I have loved in which the main protagonist is a child or young adult.

The Little Friend, Donna Tartt
Telling the story from 12 year old Harriet's point of view as she sets out to find out who murdered her baby brother, the writing in this book is truly evocative. I was there in small town America, where I could feel the heat, the dust catching in my throat and the eyes of the neighbourhood boring into the back of my head. The pace is slow and indolent just like the long summer days it takes place over, and as Harriet sets her sights on local junkie, Danny, as being the likely suspect the tension builds as the reader can see the danger she’s creating whereas she has no idea.

The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver
Not just one but four young girls share the narrative in this tale of a 1950s Baptist preacher from the US of A who transports his family to the Congo, where he is blind to the devastation that their presence, and his attempts to convert the locals they live amongst, wreaks. Not just an incredible story, this book is an incredible writing achievement to create four voices that are so authentic and so different to each other. Spanning the sisters’ childhood into adulthood, it is the young voices from those early days in Africa that linger in the mind.

The Book Thief, Markus Zusak
Set in Germany during WW2, this is nine year old Liesel’s tale but told from Death’s point of view. Liesel lives with a foster family, as her parents have disappeared into the concentration camps, where she first learns to read then about the fate of the Jews. Telling the tale of ordinary German people in the war, despite the subject matter, this book ultimately leaves you with a sense of hope about the beauty of human nature at its best. Both lovely and harrowing at the same time, it lives with you long after the last page has been read.

There are many more but I will stop there so you can tell me the books with child narrators that you have loved. 

Friday, 27 April 2012

X was for Xenotransplantation

I am running out of blogging steam as we approach the end of the challenge and for today's post I was going to write a 50 word flash about Xenotransplantation, which is using animal parts in humans. But, as you probably guessed already, I didn't. 

So instead I went and found some X words that I didn't know but like, which is probably a good thing as I did a quiz to find out how large my vocabulary was yesterday and it was decidedly average. So I have now expanded it by another five great words.

Xanthippe - ill tempered woman

Xat - a carved totem pole in the Native American culture

Xeme - a fork tailed gull

Xenodocheionology - a love of hotels (my personal favourite purely for the fact that there is even a word to describe this!)

Xenogomy - cross fertilisation of plants

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Words Matter

Welcome and thanks to my last guest of the challenge, Cathy Dreyer, the award-winning story writer who blogs about all things writing at writeanovelin10minutesflat. This post is a dedication to the tools of the writer's trade - words. 

Words matter. This was never more clear to me than when I was trying to learn Spanish. About 15 years ago, I went to Guatemala, to its beautiful second city, Antigua, and took lessons. I’ve always felt I had an affinity for learning languages. So after just a few days I was striding around town flashing my new words like wads of dollars.

‘I’m feeling a little bit ill today,’ I said to my landlord. 

He looked a bit puzzled for a few seconds, then nodded and looked sympathetic. A few days later, I realised I’d told him I was a small illness.

When two friends joined me for a while, they were gratifyingly impressed with my new skills. In restaurants I would order their food and drink very much to the lingo born.

‘They fear your water may upset their stomachs,’ I explained to one waiter. ‘They do not want any ice in their Coca-Cola.’ 

That puzzled look again. And again, the realisation, a few days later, that I’d asked the poor man not to put ice-cream in the fizzy drinks.

Being on a Creative Writing course (at Oxford University’s Department of Continuing Education) I’ve learnt to consider not just the precise meanings of words, but also their sound and how that relates to meaning and storytelling. The poet Andrew Philip has a wonderful extended essay on rhyme on his website which goes into illuminating and erudite detail about how writers can use sounds.

Using linguistics, he examines the positioning of tongue and lips and the passage of air in making sounds which are words. I have found his stuff invaluable in considering my own work. I am not just talking about poetry. When I started to think about literature, about what it is, I quickly ran up against the arguments that it is what we say it is; that its definition simply reflects current cultural and political power; that it is not possible to define. I think that’s probably true. Cleverer, more educated people say it’s true anyway.

I’m not that interested in academic definitions. I like writing which ‘gets me there’. That’s my short-hand for text that I find enjoyable, text which delivers some kind of sensual experience. (For anyone who is interested the novelist and critic James Wood discusses this in his book How Fiction Works which I almost know off by heart.)

My internal short-hand for literature is writing that comes from playing with words, from people who enjoy playing with words, who like putting them in interesting sound or page or narrative patterns, even if only at a very subtle level. It seems to me the more games and patterns and general embellishing there is on a text, the more admired it is for its literary qualities.     I am really not talking about anything esoteric or overly academic. Anyone who uses alliteration is playing with words, surely. On this definition, AA Milne counts.

In her 1982 bestseller, Brother of the More Famous Jack, Barbara Trapido clearly uses sound to reinforce meaning, to get readers there, as I would have it. Early on in the novel, Trapido writes about a heavily pregnant character. The text becomes full of the  soft, not to say gestational, ‘g’ so stretchily redolent of the late stages of pregnancy, including the words ‘bulge’ (twice), ‘engages’, ‘hugely’, ‘strong’, ‘pyjama’, and ‘Burne-Jones’.

This is a novel which definitely got me there and still does when I regularly re-read it. Writers also think about the derivation of words. Some writers, notably Seamus Heaney, have made an effort to use words from our Anglo-Saxon past which tend to be more gutteral and back-of-throat, compared with the Latinate front-of-mouth language of the Norman Conquest.

There’s a suggestion that Anglo-Saxon is more authentic, less elitist and closer to the way language originally formed, possibly with words which sounded like what they were. Say the word ‘dig’, for example, and your tongue digs into the bit of your mouth before your teeth and then expels the air your mouth is holding like a spadeful of earth thrown out of the way.

Heaney’s poem Bone Dreams has been taken to be explicitly about this. He sets his wonderful phrase ‘scop’s twang’ against ‘Elizabethan devices, Norman canopies.’ Say the words out loud, see what you think. If you’re interested in further reading then I found Stephen Dobbyns’ next word, better word, the craft of writing poetry (Palgrave Macmillan) rewarding.

Meanwhile back in Guatelama I had all this and more to learn. What happened when I made the common mistake of telling a group of young jungle guides that I was ‘on heat’, when I was just feeling Guatemala’s punishing sun, is a story for another day.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Verity's Vignette

A vignette is a short, usually descriptive literary sketch so today I am posting up a piece I wrote for a workshop about Verity and Alison's backpacking trip. This story keeps coming back into my mind so now that I have finished the first draft of my novel and can think about other things again, I am going to work on this and the piece I posted up for the A post, Alexandrine Tinne: Lady Explorer, and see if I can develop them both into short stories to submit to the Bridport Prize competition. I hope you enjoy this vignette of Verity's story.

As the boy signalled for me to get on the back of his moped my stomach lurched in a momentary pang of fear. Was I going to end up as just one of those statistics in the newspaper? “English woman aged 22 disappears while on holiday in Sri Lanka”. As I said though, the pang was momentary and the boy, who had one tooth missing in the bottom row of his otherwise perfectly white, perfectly straight teeth, didn’t look like a kidnapper or murderer. I gave Alison a reassuring grin. 

'Verity, are you sure about this?' she said with a restraining hand on my arm as I swung my leg over the saddle of the moped. 

I laughed and nodded, convinced with the unshakeable belief of the young and invincible that I would be fine. My bum had barely touched the seat before my little grinning friend sped off. Within moments, the sanitised Sri Lanka of the tourist resorts was behind us and the wind was blowing in my face as the little moped whizzed through dense foliage on what could best be described as a hiking trail. Despite the fact that I couldn’t see any signs of life nearby we came to an abrupt halt after about five minutes on this track. My cash was taken and stuffed in a grubby shorts pocket, while I was ushered into a bush and told to wait. Then the moped spirited my money, and the only person in the world who knew exactly where I was, away.

Time ticked slowly by in the bush and I started to get paranoid about insects. Surely there must be millions of them all around me. It was quite dark despite the blazing sun I knew was high in the sky somewhere above me. I became convinced that strange creepy crawlies were making their determined way towards me. I started to spin round in the confined space, my breath loud, panting, trying to catch sight of them all before they got me. I couldn’t see anything though so I burst out of the bush on to the path, flailing my arms around in the air and whimpering pathetically. The relatively open space now surrounding me calmed me down quickly though and then I just stood there waiting, hot and annoyed, hoping that the boy would return soon. I heard the moped before I saw it, then it came spinning round a corner. The boy’s mouth dropped open when he saw me waiting on the path.

‘You wait in bush I said.’

I shrugged. ‘I heard you coming so I got out.’

He gave a fearful glance behind him and motioned for me to get on quickly. As I sat down behind him he stuffed a carrier bag in my hands.

‘Put it in your bag.’

The trip back to the beach was taken at an even faster speed than the outward journey. When we got there I was deposited back to Alison, who was still standing in the exact same spot where I’d left her, and the boy zoomed off shouting back over his shoulder that when I wanted more he’d be around. Back in our hotel room I pulled out the biggest bag of weed I’ve ever seen in my life from my backpack and dropped it on the bed. Alison and I just looked at each other then burst into semi-hysterical laughter – we only had ten days of our time in Sri Lanka left and even if we got stoned all day every day, we’d need to stay for at least a month, probably two, to get through a bag this size. Oh well, we decided to give it our best shot by tucking straight in and if we couldn’t quite manage it, we’d just donate it to someone when we left. It had only cost a fiver after all.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Destination Unknown

Another flash fiction for today's U post and quite a tenuous link...chosen because one of the words in the title starts with a U!

Destination Unknown

As the woman plonked herself down on the seat next to him Jacob looked up and smiled. Surprisingly she grinned back  at him before rummaging through the bag on her lap and pulling out a pre-packed sandwich.

‘Good idea to eat before you get on the plane,’ Jacob said as she bit into her BLT, ‘the food is always awful isn’t it?’

The woman nodded as she chewed then swallowed the mouthful she had.

‘God yes. I spend loads of time on planes as well so have really had enough of it.’

‘Oh, bit of a jetsetter are you?’ Jacob joked.

‘Hardly. It’s for my job, which is not very glamorous I’m afraid. I’m going to a factory in Poland today.’

She wrinkled her nose at that.

‘That’s not so bad really is it? At least you get to see different places and meet new people.’ Jacob said.

‘I suppose so. No, you’re right. I have seen some beautiful places actually and met lots of really nice people.’ She looked pleased with this realisation and Jacob was glad he’d made her feel better about her job.

‘What about you, where are you off to?' She asked.

Jacob gazed off into the distance with a dreamy smile.

‘I’m going to a beautiful tropical island called Aitutaki, my sister lives there.’

'Oh how lovely.’

The woman glanced up at the departure board then gathered her bags together and stood up.

‘Well have a great time. I’ve got to board now so, bye.’ She gave a little wave then walked away.

Jacob sat there for a moment longer before standing up too. Then he walked into the supermarket opposite and went through the staff door, where he hung his jacket up and grabbed the trolley of food he needed to stack onto the shelves. He’d put this lot out then have a look and see which ready meal he’d take home to have for his tea later.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Let's get traditional

Today's T post is about an old English tradition called Wassailing, with an extra bit of Mummers and Morris traditions thrown in for good measure. Thanks to my lovely husband, John Saint, for the great photos that go along with the article I wrote about it. Which I didn't try and sell, I must stop doing that!

We are Wassailing

“We’ll all have some cake in a minute but the trees will have some first.” Not something you would usually expect to hear a grown woman say, unless that is you are attending a Wassailing ceremony on a cold January night in East Sussex.

Wassailing is an old English custom that blesses the orchard trees to drive out evil spirits and try and ensure a good crop of cider apples at the next harvest, and it is still alive and well in many communities across the south of England. At Middle Farm just outside Lewes, an ancient town a few miles inland between the popular seaside resorts of Brighton and Eastbourne, Morris dancing troupes, bonfire societies and generations of families gather every January to celebrate this pagan rite that has been a part of English custom since as far back as the Norman conquests in 1066, and maybe even further.

For me Morris dancing has always brought to mind friendly-looking men dressed all in white with a few rainbow ribbons thrown in for good measure, and although some of the troupes did have a similar look to this, the night was led by the Hunter’s Moon troupe. Black-painted faces, long black and silver cloaks, top hats with an array of bizarre objects added to them, along with their whoops and yelps when dancing, combined to make an intimidating sight, soon broken however by their welcoming smiles and friendly chat.

In a hall decorated with straw bales, apples and leaves, smelling of hot and spicy cider, Twig told me about how the Morris troupes and bonfire societies are all interlinked. Visiting from the Hastings Bonfire Society, wearing a hat she had decorated specifically for the Wassail, adorned with pheasant feathers, a black feather mask and a cardboard beak, she explained: “The year kicks off with Wassailing and then culminates with Guy Fawkes in November. Everybody travels around going to all the other society’s events, they take their families. It’s all very relaxed with a lot of drinking, dancing and singing going on. Mainly these are events are all very noisy.”
Starting with dancing from the many different Morris troupes, the evening was helped along by the cider, or apple juice for the drivers, local ales and hog roast. The drummers are an important part of the night and when the time came for the procession, the deep booming from their drums reverberated through the night, and down through me from the top of my head to the tips of my toes. Led by the Hunter’s Moon Morris, who lit the way with fire torches, to the beat of the drums everyone made their muddy way to the orchard for the Wassail ceremony.

Once everyone was gathered around the bonfire site, it was lit, several firecrackers were thrown in, so Twig was right about it being very noisy, and Jan from the Hunter’s Moon Morris sang the Wassail. The Wassail cup was taken around the trees and cider was poured onto their roots. We then all joined in with the Wassail chant, ending with joyful cries of “Wassail” and much banging of the drums and throwing of firecrackers. After that the trees were fed some of the delicious Wassail cake before everyone had a small piece along with a small shot of cider to complete the ceremony.  

The festivities continued with another old custom back in the hall, a Mummers’ Play. Four men dressed in masks and an array of colourful strips of fabric performed a short play in which a doctor of dubious credentials revived a man using magical powers. Then it was back to the dancing with a vengeance, the Morris troupes all did another turn before the band started playing and the dancing responsibilities were handed over to the audience. The free flowing cider ensured that the not very complicated clapping and whirling instructions from the stage were not that easy for the merry dancers to follow and as we made our way home, there was a lot of banging, crashing and laughing going on. We can’t wait to go to our next traditional celebration.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Stories Start Surprisingly

Today's S post is courtesy of my guest, the lovely Shaun Levin, author and creative writing teacher. Thanks to Shaun for this great post about the inspiration for his writing.

Stories Start Surprisingly
by Shaun Levin

See, stories shape silent sensual seconds. Stories start silently, subconsciously, setting savoured scenes, stone-like, shimmering. And then we must write. It nags at us, it wants to be written, that thing, that line, that word, a scene, that moment when we’re cycling to work along the park and the kid on his bike who's bunking off school looks at us and says: I'll race you. And there's something about that look in his eyes that will haunt us for days, like a dream we can't get rid of, or a memory. And we're not sure why it's haunting us, what it wants us to do with it, that look, that moment in the middle of the day when we and the kid were cycling alongside each other, about to race to the edge of the park, or not. His look is like a punch in the gut. That's a cliché, but it was a bit like that. We remember it. A ton of bricks. A truck. An epiphany. All of that. And we thought: he just wants a dad to play with him. He doesn't like school, doesn't need school at this time in his life, the way we didn't need it when we were that age, close to sixteen. All we wanted was the sea, to be on the beach, to think about sex.

And yes, it's something I've noticed about my writing over the years, S features a lot. The letter S, and maybe not just because it's the start of my name, the beginning of a snake's hiss, the moment of temptation in the garden, the turning point, the end of Eden, danger, or the beginning of the sound that tells others to be quiet, the voices in our head, to let us write. Sh.

I didn't race the kid in the end. I'd seen him do that thing of balancing on one pedal, balanced on the side of his bike as it moved down the street, like an acrobat on one side of the horse, the circus crowd waiting for him to propel himself over to the other side. I’d dared the kid to do that, to jump from one pedal to the other, and he’d looked at me and said, I can’t do that. There was a note of sadness in his voice, an echo of disappointment. He wanted to impress someone.

The story has become an exploration of fathers and acrobatics (I did gymnastics in primary school) and how we learn to do stuff with our bodies. I'd just been watching a documentary about three guys who run across the Sahara, from Senegal to the Red Sea, and I longed to go running again, a long run, miles and miles, which made me think of my dad, of being a son, and although I never liked running with him, I’ve always loved to run, to jog, the farther the better. The story’s still simmering. Some stories stalk you, snatch your sleeve: Say something! Speak! And we must submit to them, be the shadow to their scent. Say si.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Retreat - the best command ever

Today's R post is dedicated to retreats, of which there are many types, but the ones I refer to are writing retreats. I go to the Urban Writer's Retreat regularly, one Sunday a month a short tube ride away but takes me to a different place completely. One where I don't sit and write for customers all week and the cat doesn't come and sit on the keyboard and meow in my face, repeatedly.

For the first time ever, I have just been to a longer retreat. I have had the absolute pleasure of spending the past four nights at Retreats for You in lovely North Devon, where the even lovelier Deborah and Bob welcomed me into their home and spoilt me rotten. Their rambling thatched cottage in a sleepy little village is the perfect place to get away from real life and immerse yourself in the one you are creating. As has been proved by my writing almost 22,000 words in my short stay there. It was like staying with friends, the best type that leave to your own devices but provide you with lovely home-cooked meals and good conversation whenever you venture out of your cosy room.

But the best thing about retreats is that I have learnt they work for me and my writing. I don't write that much inbetween them but I mull the story over a lot. So by the time I get to the retreat and have been removed from all distractions and every day life, the story comes out of me really fast. So it seems the best thing would be for someone to give me loads of money so I can just go to retreats all the time and write loads of books. Loads.