Wednesday, 11 December 2013

A Place to Call Home

Image: Courtesy of John Saint
In the last 15 years, since I met my husband, we have lived in 20 different houses in 10 different cities, towns and villages. A part of the reason is that we are nomadic and we like to experience new places and new things. But for the past seven years it's been because we have been at the mercy of unreliable landlords and subjected to noisy neighbours. But we also came to realise it's because we didn't have a home we could call our own.

So when Sally Swingewood and Debi Alper called for writers to donate stories to a charity anthology to raise money for Shelter, it seemed like a subject very close to my heart and the story I wrote for it just came pouring out. Surprisingly it had nothing to do with the physical bricks and mortar of home but in finding your way back to your home when life has knocked you off course. I was so thrilled to be accepted and even more so when I read the stories that mine sits alongside. The quality and diversity is incredible.

So please buy a copy, or more, this Christmas as all proceeds go to Shelter and they need the money to help all of those people who don't have a home. There's more of them than you probably realise and a shocking statistic is that every two minutes someone in the UK faces losing their home.

You can buy Stories for Homes on Amazon as a big fat paperback or for your Kindle; and so far we've raised over £1000. I’m very proud to be a part of this brilliant project.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Am I living the dream?

Time has flown by and I've been living on the canal boat for over two months now. It's taken me a lot longer than I anticipated to write the first blog once we actually moved on board as life has been pretty full-on and hectic ever since!

Hindsight is a wonderful thing and we now realise that we should have reigned our excitement in a bit and not set off on our travels as soon as we did. And that we should have figured out how we were going to stop and moor up before we did, as it suddenly dawned on us an hour into our first journey that we didn't have a clue how to do it. But we figured it out, sort of. The first time involved me leaping from the boat and pulling it to a stop with the ropes! We've now discovered that we do it in a much easier and more sedate manner, which will also stop me developing a body builder look.

Despite my pre-move worries about Rusty the cat she hasn't got lost once but has taken regular dips in the canal. So regular that we've come to believe she actually likes it and jumps in.

As well as having to learn loads (you have to turn a pump on to get water to come out of the taps, for example, which took us 4 days to figure out!) we have met some incredibly lovely and helpful people, seen places we would never have discovered otherwise and spent a lot of time surrounded by stunning landscapes and wildlife. All went swimmingly for the first few weeks and it was everything we'd dreamed it would be.

Then the engine broke. And it wouldn't start again. And we were stranded on the towpath for over two weeks with no lights and power. We've had a lot of candlelit dinners, which was nice for a few days then just a pain as you couldn't see what you were doing when cooking them or eating them.
But the power of social media as a good thing then came into full force when a friend I'd made on Twitter, Brian, who also lives on a canal boat, came to our rescue.

Someone must have been smiling on us as we broke down close to where his permanent mooring is and he not only spent a whole day trying to get the engine started for us, he also gave us lifts in his car to get shopping, he lent us a battery powered lamp and then he towed us for three days back to the boatyard we’d originally started out at. Without him and his lovely wife, Jean, we would have been well and truly buggered and without Twitter I would never have known them.

So, we've been back at the marina for a few weeks now and our new engine was installed yesterday. When we moved the boat from the workshop area back to our mooring yesterday afternoon it was the first time that she moved in over a month without us pulling her by the ropes or someone towing us. It felt good. Really good. And it sounded even better. We now realise how bad the original engine was as we can have a conversation without shouting when this new one is running!
So am I living the dream? It's getting there. I had no idea it would be as hard as these first couple of months have been but I'm sure things will get better. We're staying put until after Christmas to get lots of DIY done and have a little rest. And when it's all calmed down again I'll be getting back on with my writing, as that agent that I met at York will not wait forever to read my novel.

So what's everyone else been up to while I've been stranded on the canal?

Thursday, 19 September 2013

From One York to Another

What a difference a year makes. Last weekend I went to my second Festival of Writing in York. I spent the year in between working on what the book doctors told me last year, completing the Open University's Creative Writing module, and realising that my novel needed to have a dual narrative written in. So I'm writing it now and it's not too far from completion.

This time around at York I had my 1-1s with literary agents and the feedback I got was excellent and very encouraging. But what I learnt in the workshops, particularly Characterisation with Nelle Andrew and Plotting and Structure with Jeremy Sheldon, made me realise that I can, and must, make everything so much better. But rather than feeling daunted by this, I feel inspired and motivated to edit and edit again to make it the best that it can be. I can't wait to get started.

But wait I have had to. As a year has made a huge difference in my life in other ways too. This week I moved onto a canal narrow boat and have been busy realising that I have a lot to learn about that as well. But I'm taking each day as it comes and everything is starting to make more sense. So, Monday is when the writing and editing begins in earnest.

Luckily I have also started a new business venture that's all about creative writing and in the coming year I'll be running a series of writing retreats that also feature author-led workshops on different aspects of creative writing. So I'll be learning more and improving all the time. And my new life travelling the waterways of the UK means I'll be experiencing new places, people and sensations to inform my writing too. Things can only get better.

So by the time the next York rolls around, as it has a place on my calendar every year now, hopefully I'll have some really good novel news to announce. Watch this space for regular news about the novel's progress to final completion and submission stage; and life on the canal waves as it happens.

Friday, 5 July 2013


Today's post also comes from a writing prompt on Morgen Bailey's Writing Blog, which I only discovered this week. I'm very glad I did as there are loads of tips, prompts and exercises to get your writing flowing. I really enjoyed writing Dirty Old Ashtray from another of Morgen's prompts so thought I'd go back there today to find another one.

Today's exercise is a sentence starter: The bus trundled for over an hour...

...through the clogged up streets of Ljubljana then once it hit the open road the driver put his foot down. Right down. Karen clung onto the seat in front of her as the bus hurtled round a sharp bend then grabbed hold of Dougie's arm to stop herself from falling off the seat.

'Let's swap sides,' he said, 'you come in here by the window. Looks like we're in for a bumpy ride.'

As Karen went to slip her flip-flops back on the bus suddenly came to a screeching halt and they went flying along the floor to the other end of the bus.

'He's a maniac!' Dougie said but his eyes were shiny and she could see he was quite excited by it really.

As Karen went to collect her flip-flops she passed a little old lady, who was surrounded by bags of vegetables, doing that thing that Catholics do - the cross thing - and muttering to herself. Shit, things must be bad if the locals have started praying.

'At least we'll get back in time for dinner now.' Karen said when she sat back down next to Dougie.

He smirked. 'If we get there at all.'

After an hour of being flung around as the bus shot through the windy roads as if it was a rally car, it finally stopped in the main square of Piran. Karen's legs shook as she walked down the steps. Thank God that was over. It had seemed quite funny when it started but at a couple of points she really had wondered if it was the end for them, especially when they'd been flying along the coast road with just a sheer drop to the sea to the side of them. Even Dougie had looked a bit pale. She looked over at him as he stepped on to the pavement beside her.

'Bloody hell,' he said, 'that was mental!'

Relief flooded through Karen and with it came a bubble of laughter. They'd made it. They hadn't died. She grabbed Dougie's arm then they were both laughing hysterically.

Time's up! Another fun 15 minutes of writing. And just like with the other piece I wrote from Morgen's prompt, I'm wondering what's going to happen next so it looks like I'm creating lots of new stories with legs in this challenge.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Marvellous Mazzie

Today's writing prompt comes from the Writing Things map from Writing Maps: write about a car you've owned or driven in often. As soon as I saw this exercise I just knew I had to write about Mazzie.

Me having breakfast after a night sleeping in Mazzie
Both my husband, John, and I were late starters when it came to driving. I didn't pass my driving test until I was 34 and it took me seven attempts, but that's a whole other story. John passed when he was 29, just a few months before we went to live in New Zealand. Mazzie was the first car we owned and we bought her as soon as we arrived in Nelson, the first place we lived in NZ. She was gold, she didn't like hills and it was impossible to tell how much petrol she had as the gage went up and down erratically depending on the roads you were driving on. But we loved her. We folded her seats down and camped in the back of her in an endless array of stunning and deserted places, and once in the middle of a town, Fox Glacier, on New Years Eve.

Mazzie was so much more than just a car. She was our trusty companion on our road trip adventures (see my blog about finally getting the road trip bug), she never broke down, she never needed any major repair work, and she gave us the freedom to go wherever we wanted whenever we wanted. Her boot was a permanent home to our trangia stove, cooking pots, fold away chairs and sleeping mats; and on summer weekends we'd sling our pillows and quilt from our bed in there too and just go. From January 2003 until September 2004, Mazzie, John and I visited most of the South Island. We had moved to Christchurch after a year living in Nelson and then, after nine months of braving the winds coming up from the Antarctic, we packed up Mazzie with all our belongings and got the ferry to the North Island. We then drove right up the middle of it to Auckland, which had seemed so sleepy when we'd first landed there from England almost two years before, but now seemed like a buzzing metropolis after the emptiness of the South Island.

The plan was to spend a while in Auckland and get our permanent residency, but like all good plans things came along to change them. Homesickness came along and it wouldn't go away. So after just a few months in Auckland we had to say goodbye to Mazzie, as we were flying home to England. But we've never forgotten her. I even remember her registration number: PE 306.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Dirty Old Ashtray

Today's blog comes from a prompt on Morgen Bailey's Writing Blog. Write for 15 minutes and use these words: innocent, much, smoky, neighbours, food. 

'Innocent until proven guilty! That's what our justice system is supposed to mean!'

Craig rubbed his ear and glared at the man that had just bellowed in it. The man glared back, waved his placard at Craig and shouted again, directly in his face this time. It really was too much. Not only did he have to run the gauntlet of protesters most days when he came to work, once he got inside he had Smoky Sue to contend with. Luckily she couldn't smoke in the building anymore but she still stank like a dirty old ashtray. And her breath when she bossed him about in her gravelly voice was deathly. He didn't get paid enough for this.

The door to the courthouse swung shut behind him and dulled the shouts of the protesters. Craig fished his security pass out of his bag and then sauntered down the corridor, nodding hellos and good mornings to the cleaners he passed. He liked to get in early and get stuck in before Sue arrived with all her demands. But as he approached the door to his office he could hear someone moving about in there. He pasted a smile in place - best to get the day off to a good start.

'Morning, Sue, how...' Craig's voice trailed off as instead of his fag-loving boss there was a man in the office. A man who was moving all the junk off the desk next to Craig's and putting it all in a box. A man that looked like he might be moving into the office with them. What the hell's going on?

The man put the bundle of old papers he had in his arms back on the desk and held his hand out to Craig.

'Hello there. I'm Mike.'

Craig shook hands with him. 'Craig, hi. Are you moving in?'

Mike nodded. 'I am indeed,' he gestured at the cluttered desk he was clearing, 'we're going to be desk neighbours.'

'Oh right. No-one mentioned it.'

'Yes, well it's all a bit last minute. Apparently the desk I was supposed to have has been commandeered by someone else. So here I am.' 

Mike smiled and Craig supposed it could be good to have him there. His conversation couldn't be any more boring than Sue's, could it?

'Ah, I see. Well, welcome. Has anyone shown you around yet?'

'No, I just got dumped here with this box and left to it.'

Craig put his bag down on his desk then rubbed his hands together. 'Well, first things first. Food. Let me show you where the canteen is and we can get some breakfast and a coffee.'

That's it my 15 minutes are up. That was fun and I'm really getting into this writing from prompts every day. I may well carry on once the blog challenge is over! As always, would love to hear what you think. If you'd also like to write to the same challenge post up a link to your blog so we can read it too. 

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

A trip to the supermarket

Today's writing exercise comes from The Creative Writing Handbook from my Open University course: write about a trip to the supermarket. So here's what I came up with...

Once she’d finally managed to park after several tours of the car park, Ellie cursed the millions of people who chose to live in London, always making everything so difficult. Then the reality hit her of what it would be like inside. Not a carefree float down spacious aisles perusing delicious delights at her leisure. Oh no, it would be heaving on a Friday evening. People crashing into her trolley, pushing past her without even acknowledging that she exists, and then the endless queues in endless traffic jams on the way home. This is why she gets the shopping delivered. This is also why she should move out of London. This is why it is very annoying that Nan has turned up out of the blue for an ‘at least a couple of nights’ stay.
The slam of the car door was so loud that lots of shoppers glanced over quickly before looking away again even faster. Ellie stomped towards the door then grabbed a big trolley and, for the first time in several months, walked into the big Waitrose. Her shoulders inched higher with every step as the glow of the strip lighting welcomed her in. But then she realised that it wasn’t so bad. Not as busy as you’d expect considering the car park fiasco. As the perfectly formed fresh fruit and veg appeared before her, Ellie’s shoulders retreated, just slightly, back the way they had just came. She wouldn’t let it get to her; she would make the most of this. Convenient as online shopping is, to feel and smell things then choose the fresh food herself, was a rare treat. Ignoring the Friday frenzy going on around her, Ellie headed straight to the fish counter. No point starting with the veg as what she needed to get there would be dictated by what it needed to go with. But as she approached Ellie could see the big queue and an already depleted fish counter. Deep breaths. This is a treat.
She went back to the pre-packed fish instead. Not brilliant but then Nan wouldn’t appreciate it anyway. Even if it’s been cooked perfectly and seasoned like fish has never been seasoned before, Nan will just shovel it in then say it was OK, a bit dry. She thinks I should have taken on board everything she taught me about cooking when I was growing up: boil it all until all flavour has departed; then got myself a husband, a mortgage and a couple of kids, instead of these fancy pants ideas above my station I’ve ended up with. Ellie shook her head; she couldn’t believe she was letting it happen so quickly. So what if Nan doesn’t like the way she lives her life. She stopped caring whether she did or not a long time ago. Still, she’d get really nice ingredients and wine to go along with the cod to make up for it being from a packet. Bruce will appreciate the food after all and she needs to make it up to him.

Grabbing a packet of raw king prawns and a salmon steak, Ellie decided that a fish pie was in order. Tasty, comforting and needs a fairly lengthy time in the kitchen. Nan will be happy in front of the TV for a couple of hours and Bruce and I can drink some delicious wine while we cook . By the time we have to sit down and endure the meal accompanied by a healthy dose of Nan’s always happy and uplifting news we’ll be floating on a calm sea of white that even she won’t be able to stir.

' Can I get to that shelf?'

Ellie’s hackles rose at the man’s tone but she just moved off without even looking. No point. Even if she said sorry it wouldn’t make any difference. She’d annoyed him by lingering around thinking for too long. She did it to people all the time. She didn’t move fast enough for London, even after all these years. Funny that she could work so quickly when she needed to, thrived on it really, but then so slow the rest of the time. Head in the clouds is what Grandad had always said, then ruffled her hair and smiled at her in a way that told her that was the best way to be.

Do let me know what you think of it! Or if you have any prompts for me to write to tomorrow.

Monday, 1 July 2013

The Ultimate Blog Challenge

Seeing as I didn't make it through to the end of the A-Z Challenge in April, I've decided to go for the Ultimate Blog Challenge this month. This means posting a blog every day. Rather than making a big plan and having a theme, which is out of the question anyway as I only signed up today, I'm just going to respond to writing prompts and exercises, or write about things that have caught my attention recently.

Not only is this an easy way to make sure I post every day, it's a great way of making sure I write something new everyday. And it would be great if some of you readers that are also writers posted some of your responses to the prompts too. No pressure though!

So today I'm starting off with a prompt based on 'Transferring the Ordinary' that came from Cathie Hartigan's Friday Writing Group, which I go to every fortnight. It was to take the view from my window and write about it in different ways.

Daylight - The sun chases its shadow across the field. The new leaves on the trees gleam brightly for a moment then its the river's turn to sparkle as the rays catch the water tumbling over the rocks on the way to the sea.

Dusk - The colours are fading now. The clumps of moor grass are turning into menacing little creatures. They're getting ready to pounce.

Night - Once you get a few feet from the fire the blackness is absolute. On the wall of the stone barn strange faces appear in the cracks and crevices as the flames flicker and the light seeks out new places to shine.

Snow - The blue tinge to the light tells me what I will see before I open the blind. When I do the world is white. The trees in the wood have been transformed into skeletons, the snow clinging to their branches turning them into fresh new bones.

Under water -  As the tears fill my eyes the woods on the other side of the river disappear in a shimmer, kind of like the heat waves we used to get back in the days when had hot summers.

Kaleidoscope - A square of tree-trunk-brown crashes against a shard of meadow-grass-green. Triangles of blue that have fallen from the sky scatter across it all.

What interested me about this is that although the view from my window is tranquil and beautiful, a couple of these responses have a slightly dark and sinister edge to them. Something I'm discovering quite often comes through in my writing.

Anyone else want to share the view from their window with us?

Sunday, 30 June 2013

My first short story publication

Things have been going quite well with the writing recently and I've been feeling pretty chuffed. First an extract from my novel was included in an anthology, Collages, which went to print this week and will be available in paperback from September. Then I got a short story accepted for the Stories for Homes anthology, which will be available as an e-book in July, with a paperback and audio book to follow. And then today, my flash fiction, Playing Nurses, was published in the online literary journal, Number Eleven Magazine. I'm starting to feel  like I might be getting somewhere with this dream.

The success I've had with the short stories also makes me feel a bit better about the fact that I've abandoned the novel for the past month or so. Well, I say abandoned as I haven't done any of the editing but I have made a big decision about it. So big that I've been frightened to admit it. But, I've finally accepted that it's what needs to be done. So I'm doing it...I'm writing in a dual narrative from another character's POV to tell her story. As it's actually a very important part of the main character's story too and there was just no way it could be told as it currently is - in memories and through third-party reporting. So, my self-imposed deadline of being submission-ready by August has had to fall by the wayside but you have to do what you have to do to make the book right. 

So, now I'm off to write my first piece of Laura's story in her voice. Wish me luck! 

Monday, 17 June 2013

Reading and Me

Last week's post about why I write revealed that it's mainly because I read. So today's post is all about reading and me.

Silence. This was the rule of my house when I was little. With elder sisters who didn’t want to play games with me – that decade between us meant we had little in common – and a mother that worked nights, it seemed that if I had to be in the house my job was to be as quiet as possible. Ideally also remaining still for lengthy periods so that I wouldn’t disturb with my footsteps either. What was a girl to do on those long, wet and dark winter days when being outside was not an option and playing with dolls was as dull as the weather? Read – that’s was this girl found to do.

My earliest reading memories are of the mainly wonderful but sometimes frightening
worlds at the top of The Magic Faraway Tree and the delights of the exploding toffee pop sweets – I felt the aftershocks in my own mouth as I lay on my bed and the rain lashed down. I read the books in this series over and over again. Re-reading is a habit that I started early and one that has stayed with me to this day. From those earliest reading days I have a vague recollection of a summer holiday tale featuring a stuffed dog called Shrewsbury and another where a girl who liked ballet and her two brothers were orphaned and sent to live with their aunt and uncle in house called Dunroamin, a reference that meant little to me at the time. But the memories of these stories are vague and I can’t quite grasp them, make them more solid.

Charlie and his Chocolate Factory, along with James and his Giant Peach, kept me company through many school holidays, as did the christening gift from my grandparents - an illustrated collection of Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tales and another of Aesop’s Fables. My teenage years started out with the books of Judy Blume, who introduced me to periods in Are you there God, it’s me Margaret, and death and sex in Forever, long before any of these things appeared in my life for real 

I had a precocious friend at school and she got me reading Harold Robbins when I must have only been about thirteen or fourteen – 74 Park Avenue alerted me to the world of high-class prostitution and Goodbye, Janette to sado-masochism. A little put off by the seediness of these novels, and the fact that this friend had underlined all of the really graphic sexual parts in each of them, I found some new friends, both real and literary, and spent some time with Gerald Durrell, George Orwell, Daphne du Maurier and John Steinbeck, while also dipping into the wholesome world of Sweet Valley High when I didn’t want to think too much.

My late teens was the start of the horror era and many nights would see me cowering in my brightly lit bedroom unable to switch off the lights as a whole array of Stephen King’s books, from The Shining and Misery through to Insomnia and The Stand, scared me witless. These were backed up by a few James Herbert novels and a couple of Dean Koontz’s then I went back in time to Margaret Mitchell’s tale of the Deep South and I stayed there for ages.
I’ve discovered that my reading sometimes has literary themes and over the years I have had periods where I’ve only read novels about certain things for a few months at a time. I’ve had World War Two time and the book that has stayed with me most from then is Rachel Seffert’s The Dark Room, closely followed by Anne Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces. The Vietnam war as told through the eyes of Graham Greene’s Fowler in The Quiet American and Joseph Conrad’s Marlow in The Heart of Darkness – a late addition to my favourites in this era is Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn. The colonisation of Australia, the star of the show Kate Grenville’s Secret River; anything and everything about China but particularly the Mao regime and especially Jung Chang’s Wild Swans, which is truly amazing and a book that I have read about four times, so far. 

I’ve always had a hankering for post-apocalyptic/dystopian tales in the genre that is termed speculative fiction, and many of the tales that I like the most in this category are from Margaret Atwood – The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood. But then I also like her other work too, Alias Grace standing out for me and inspiring me to want to take a real life character and fictionalise her story myself. The woman I chose is Amelia Dyer, one of the forty-one women hanged in Britain, who was known as the Reading Baby Farmer and lived in a house opposite a flat I used to live in on the River Thames in Reading. I have reams of notes and have done many hours of research into Amelia but don’t quite know how to approach her story so I’ve parked that project for another day.

Essentially, I just can’t get enough of reading and there are writers who I read a lot of their work: David Mitchell, Helen Dunmore, Maggie O’Farrell, Peter Carey, Linda Grant, Kazuo Ishiguro, Karin Altvegen, and R.J. Ellory, to name just a few. I really enjoy if not all then the vast majority of the stories these authors tell. Then there are the stand alone books from writers that I have only met the once so far, Property by Valerie Martin and Snowdrops by A.D. Miller are just two that spring to mind as they swept me away completely into another world.

Sadly, this is something that happens less and less as I write more myself and also study literature. I find myself analysing technique and thinking about how I can apply that to my writing instead of just getting lost in the story the way I used to do. I’m not sure if that’s a good or a bad thing, maybe it’s both, but I do know that the quiet and the stillness drilled into me at a young age have stayed with me, and to sit in silence and read for hours on end is my absolute favourite thing to do. I also love to just sit and look at my many books on their many shelves and think about when and where I read them and what was happening in my life at the time. Is that weird?

What impact has reading had on your life? Tell me all about the books that matter to you.

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Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Why I Write

Today's post has been prompted by an online writing group that I'm a member of, The Write Post. They have Thursday blog hops every week and this is the first time I have taken part. The reason why I'm doing it now is because I have made myself a vow to stop procrastinating and spending hours and hours every week on social media and reading blogs and other articles. I am going to limit myself to half an hour in the morning and another half an hour in the evening. 

The rest of the time I am going to write for customers, write for me, read, bake and walk. I really am going to do this - although regular readers of this blog will be forgiven for thinking they may have heard me make such declarations before! 

So to the blog itself and the reason why I write. It's because I read and always have done.
Reading has been a huge part of my life - the many novels I have read have taught me so much about humanity, history, psychology, sociology, and me. To write my own stories and touch other people's lives in the way so many writers touched mine was always what I wanted to do. Although I didn't tell anyone and just wrote occasionally in secret for many years. 

Once I started writing fiction in earnest and ventured out into the creative writing world through classes and workshops, I discovered I just couldn't stop. Those voices, sentences and paragraphs that had been roaming around in my head for so long were finally getting put to paper and it felt good. Really good. Reading my work aloud in a writing workshop for the first time was one of the scariest things I have ever done though. I couldn't eat all day before the class and hid behind the pieces of paper while my voice quavered as I shared my words for the first time. 

But now, several years down the line I'm no longer scared of reading my work - I can't wait to see how people react to it. So that I can continue to learn from the feedback I get and also because, until I get published, this is the only way I have of touching people's lives with my writing. On that note, I'm thrilled to be able to say that one of my short stories has been accepted for publication in an anthology! My very first publication of my fiction outside this blog. When I heard I had been accepted it felt truly amazing and that is why I write. 
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Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Getting shorter

Everyone says you get shorter as you get older and I've discovered it to be true. I turned 40 and suddenly I'm writing short stories that really are short stories. For ages I just couldn't master this form and, although I could write flash fictions, every time the word count got above 400 or so everything started seeming like the beginning of something bigger.

But now I've completed a short story, Probation, for my OU Creative Writing module and got my highest marks ever. The feedback I got from the tutor was excellent and she said it just needed a bit of work and it would then be of a publishable standard. So I polished it, and then I polished it again, and then I submitted it to the Yeovil Literary Prize. I doubt it will get anywhere but the sense of achievement in doing it is more than enough for me.

I've been so inspired by my new found ability to write short stories that I'm working on another to submit for the Stories for Homes anthology that Sally Swingewood is putting together to raise money for the homeless charity, Shelter. I have 10 days left to polish it and I reckon it's going to end up at around 2000 words (the word limit is 3000 so I really am doing well!). And I know what I want to fit in the 1200 or so I have left to fill, and I think I know how to use them sparingly to just say what I need to say and not leave the reader with lots of unanswered questions that need a novel to answer them. I think I know this. The proof will be in the end result, so we'll see.

So how come I can suddenly do it? Well, it's not so sudden really. Although I have always read them it used to be fairly infrequently but I have spent the past 9 months or so reading lots and lots of short stories by very different writers. The ones that really stood out for me were Flannery O'Connor, Raymond Carver, William Trevor and Anita Desai. I'm currently reading Stuart Nadler's The Book of Life, it's great, and I have Alison Moore's The Pre-War House next on the TBR pile. And I also read the brilliant book from Vanessa Gebbie - Short Circuit: A Guide to the Art of the Short Story

But I think what helped me the most in my quest to master this form was the advice I received from author and creative writing teacher, Shaun Levin, to just 'stick with a moment in time' and the critiquing at every stage of Probation's creation from my writing partner, Jen Squire. A huge thank you to them both for helping me do this. And then there's the Retreat West short story competition that I launched at the beginning of the year. Reading all the entries and choosing the shortlists has made me think much harder and deeper about what makes a short story work, and what doesn't. So my thanks also go to everyone that has entered so far - you've all helped to make me a better short story writer. 

What short story writers do you enjoy and recommend I read next?
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Saturday, 27 April 2013

Lighthouses, Rooks and Wedding Cake Trees

Even though I should still be posting up my character blogs for the A-Z challenge, I'm afraid it is over for me. As much as I was enjoying writing them, I got distracted by arranging writing retreats for my new venture, Retreat West, which I started late last year after moving to Exmoor.

The one-day writing retreats in Exeter are how it all began, then came the short story competition, now there are workshops and residential retreats/writing holidays planned. The last two weeks have been consumed with planning a series of three Walk & Write events. These will offer retreat space and time for writers to immerse themselves in their writing with no distractions but will also feature workshops on using landscape and setting in fiction, and walking tours with more writing exercises. Although I suppose the name might have given that away already!

I'm very excited to have some great authors lined up for these events. The first is going to be held in October this year in a lighthouse cottage on the cliffs not far from where I live and will have, Alison Moore, whose debut novel, The Lighthouse, was shortlisted for the Booker prize last year, doing a half day workshop about place in fiction. The guided tour will be by local author, Melanie Hudson, who has the Exmoor landscape as a big part of her debut novel, The Wedding Cake Tree.

The second one will be in March 2014 in a beach house on West Wittering beach in Sussex, which is the setting for Jane Rusbridge's novels, The Devil's Music and Rook. She will be doing a workshop and a walking tour of the beach and village that inspired her work.

Event three is still in very early planning stages but will be in London and look at using urban landscapes in fiction.

Hopefully these will just be the start of an ongoing series of Walk & Write events, and there will also be Just Write retreats and Cook & Write retreats with workshops on using food in fiction. Where would you like to see them happen and what authors would make these events exciting for you?

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Tuesday, 23 April 2013

S is for Stella

Oops, I missed a few days. Life got in the way of my Q and R posts and today I'm back with a guest post for S. My guest is Jenny Squire (picture here), who also made an appearance here in last year's A-Z

You can find Jen's brand new blog here, where she's going to be writing about writing, reading and music. Jen and I have been writing together for a few years now and even though I'm not allowed to say the 'N' word in her presence, I do believe she may actually be writing one! 

So my thanks go to Jen for today's post and for being my writing partner.

I remember reading My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin, keen to understand more about
the author who established the most prestigious literary award in Australia. As with most
awards, many of the recipients have gone on to have strong careers, and some of the
decisions have been the subject of controversy and great debate. 

Until recently, a little too recently I must confess, I thought that Miles Franklin was a man.

Stella Maria Miles Franklin (1879 – 1954) was an Australian writer and feminist, and she was passionate about the survival of writers, literary magazines and writers’ organisations in Australia.

She wrote her famous novel, My Brilliant Career, as Miles Franklin, not wanting readers to
assume it was written by a woman. She was 21 years old in a time when women’s writing
wouldn’t be critiqued without bias. The novel went on to become an international success, and today is still regarded as an Australian classic.

Stella was a ‘real character’ who mixed with the Australian literary circle, worked in
women’s movements and progressive causes in Chicago and London, nursed Allied soldiers in the Balkans, and returned to Australia in the 1930s. She continued to write throughout, apparently often submitting work under pseudonyms, which were kept well hidden.

In the 1930s she returned to Australia, and continuing her passion for the development of
Australian literature, left terms in her will to establish the Miles Franklin Literary Award.

Recently a new award, the Stella Prize, was established by a collection of donors and
supporters to celebrate women’s contribution to Australian literature. Also worth $50,000,
the inaugural prize has just been awarded to Carrie Tiffany for Mateship with Birds.

Rather than perpetuate the current and lively debate on women’s awards and whether they legitimately have a place in the literary world, I think it’s worth celebrating the legacy of Stella Maria Miles Franklin, her dedication and her impact on many writers’ success. And if you listen to Carrie Tiffany’s acceptance speech I hope you’ll agree.
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Thursday, 18 April 2013

P is for Pagan

Cover of "Lace"
Cover of Lace
I first read Shirley Conran's Lace when I was a teenage girl and probably too young to do so. I found it exotic and exciting and because I knew I probably shouldn't have been reading it, I felt daring and naughty and oh so grown up. I longed to lead the kind of life portrayed in the book instead of the humdrum one I had going on in small-town England, and as Pagan was the English girl I found myself casting myself in her role, although of all the main characters she was probably the one who was the least in charge of her own destiny.

Often dismissed by the literary world as just raunchy chick-lit, I recently re-read Lace to see what I thought of it now that I'm (apparently) a grown-up. And I'd have to say that although it's definitely raunchy, it's too dark for chick-lit and it actually addresses a lot of the harrowing elements of life: abortion, adoption, rape, the sex industry and adultery, to name a few. And the girl doesn't always get the boy in the end either.

But what I ultimately took away from it is that it's a story about friendship, and love, and loyalty. And it's also a story about women making their own way in the world. Pagan comes from an old aristocratic family whose way of life is disappearing. She's been bred to be a wife and not much more and after finishing school, where all of the main characters meet at the start of the story, she drifts into marriage with the wrong man and is a bored society wife living the ex-pat life in Egypt. I chose her out of all of the characters in the book as for me she was the most real, the most loyal of all the friends, and the one that needed looking out for the most. 

Even though it was 25 years between readings, the story drew me in just as much the second time around, although this time I could recognise that its real message appeared to be that women deserved to have orgasms! 
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Wednesday, 17 April 2013

O was for Oscar but now it's orangutans

I'm flagging a bit. And as much as I love books I'm feeling a little jaded with all these character posts. So even though I really enjoyed Peter Carey's prize-winning novel, Oscar and Lucinda, I just can't bring myself to write about Oscar today. Sorry Oscar.

All I'll say is it's a great book, Oscar is a great character and you should definitely read it!

Instead I am dedicating today's post to orangutans. Because I like them, they are under threat and we share 96.4% of our DNA with them.

So here are some orangutan facts (courtesy of Sumatran Orangutan Society) and pictures for you...

Fact 1: There are two species of orangutan - the Bornean orangutan and the Sumatran orangutan.

Fact 2: In the wild, orangutans can live up to the age of 45 or more. The oldest captive orangutan was a male called "Guas" at the Philadelphia Zoo who lived until he was 58 years old.

Fact 3: The word orangutan comes from the Malay language and means 'person of the forest' - from the words ‘orang' meaning people and ‘hutan' meaning forest.

Fact 4: Orangutans have one baby at a time. The young orangutans stay with their mother and learn from her until they are 7 or 8 years old - this is longer than any other mammal except humans.

Fact 5: Orangutans are Great Apes - so are humans.

Fact 6: Just 100 years ago there were thought to be 315,000 orangutans in the wild. There are now less than 6,600 left in Sumatra, and less than 54,000 in Borneo. It is thought that Sumatran orangutans may be the first Great Apes to become extinct unless people help to protect them.

Find out how you can help the orangutans here
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Tuesday, 16 April 2013

N is for Nick

Today I am looking at a character that I didn't like but found his voice so compelling that I wanted to carry on reading: Nick in Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, which was nominated for the Women's Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize).

Debi Alper recommended I read it when she was teaching me on the Self-Editing Your Novel Course earlier this year as it is based on a wife who disappears, and my novel is about a husband that disappears. But that's where the similarities end I think, well hope, as I believe my main character is sympathetic and likable whereas Nick is anything but.

After Amy's disappearance a tale of a marriage in meltdown is revealed. Formerly the golden couple living the dream in New York, both Nick and Amy lost their jobs after the financial crisis and have been mainly living on handouts from Amy's wealthy parents back in small town Missouri where Nick hails from. Handouts that Nick has spent on buying a bar, which he runs with his sister, and that Amy thinks she is owed as her parents' wealth comes from writing a series of children's books based on her life as she grew up.

When foul play is suspected in Amy's disappearance Nick is the prime suspect. He admits to the reader right at the start that he is hiding something and lies to the police throughout but never reveals what he is lying about. At the same time as the narrative moves forward in Nick's voice from the time of the disappearance, there is a dual narrative from Amy's point of view telling the story of their relationship before it all went wrong. It's very clever and I don't want to give anything away but it ended up not being what I thought at all. 
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Monday, 15 April 2013

M is for Me

I'm having a little break from characters today and dedicating my blog to me - shameless, I know! A little while ago one of my readers nominated me for a Liebster blog award so I thought I'd use today's post to thank her, and respond to the actions that come with it. So thanks very much to Sharon Himsl whose blog, Shells, Tales and Sails, is well worth checking out too.

Sharon's questions for me:

  1. What is your favorite form of recreation? It has to be writing, closely followed by reading. But when it's not all about words I like to go out walking in beautiful places and I also like to bake.
  2. What kinds of books do you read? I read all sorts. Women's fiction, thrillers, crime, literary fiction, chick-lit, short stories - it all depends what kind of mood I'm in. Sometimes I go through phases where I read loads of books in a row all set in one time - the Vietnam War and WW2, have both been periods I was obsessed with for a bit! 
  3. Why did you start blogging? Mainly because I love to write and I'm always looking for a distraction from actually getting on and writing my novel! But also to connect with other readers and writers and talk endlessly about books.
  4. Do you read books on an e-reader or prefer printed books? Although I prefer printed books I do have a Kindle as I just don't have enough space to keep all the books I get through and I hate having to get rid of them.
  5. Name two actors or authors you admire. Actors - I'm a big fan of Lesley Manville and Timothy Spall, both of whom appear regularly in Mike Leigh's films and plays. Authors - I could go on for a long time but will limit myself to saying Margaret Atwood and David Mitchell.
  6. What makes you laugh? My husband, my cat, animals in general, Stewart Lee and currently the TV programme, The Mimic, has been making me chuckle a lot.
  7. Which do you prefer and why: dogs or cats? I can't choose - I love them both!
  8. When or where do you feel most creative? Much as it surprises me I am now definitely a morning person and getting away from everyday life to writing retreats and immersing myself in my writing really helps me to be at my most creative. I'd like to go to one for a week every month if I had the money! 
  9. What is your favorite fast food or snack? I have a real thing for Nairn's Cheese Oatcakes and eat them most days.
  10. Do you have a special place you go to relax? I'm lucky enough to live in a very beautiful part of the world - Exmoor National Park - and I go out walking on the moors, on the beaches, through the woods and on the coastal paths as often as I can.
  11. Do you have a favorite comic strip? Um,  no. When I was little I used to like the Love Is one though, and Snoopy.
  12. If you could travel back in time, where would you like to go? Kyoto, Japan, in the 1800s to see the Geishas and take part in a tea ceremony.

11 Random Facts About Me

  1. As much as I like elephants I wish everyone would stop giving me so many elephant-related gifts now!
  2. While my husband and I were backpacking in Fiji in 2000 there was a coup, the government was overthrown by rebels and martial law was declared.
  3. Even though I do all the things you should to prevent it I have bad circulation and always have cold hands.
  4. I love doing Bikram Yoga and really miss going to classes since moving to Devon.
  5. Cooking relaxes me.
  6. I play Scrabble on my phone too much.
  7. I'm a dreamer.
  8. I never watch the news or read the newspapers.
  9. Re-reading books I've enjoyed is one of my favourite things to do.
  10. When I discover new authors I like I always read lots of their books one after the other.
  11. I eavesdrop on conversations everywhere I go.

The blogs I nominate are:

Sorry, I couldn't get to 11 as I'm not that good at keeping up with lots of blogs but the first three are ones I have been reading for a long while now, and the second two I have discovered as part of the A-Z challenge this year.

My questions for the blog owners I have nominated are:

  1. What do you do to relax when you suffer from insomnia?
  2. What's the worst holiday you ever had?
  3. Where's your favourite place to write?
  4. If you could live anywhere in the world where would it be?
  5. White, dark or milk chocolate?
  6. What's your favourite thing to have on toast?
  7. Which book do you wish you'd written and why?
  8. Film adaptations of novels - love them or hate them?
  9. Do you think Al Pacino is overrated as an actor?
  10. Coffee or tea?
  11. Would you ever do a sky dive?

Liebster Award Rules:

  • Thank the blogger who presented you with the Liebster Award, and link back to his or her blog. 
  • Answer the 11 questions from the nominator; list 11 random facts about yourself, and create 11 questions for your nominees. 
  • Present the Liebster Award to 11 bloggers, who have blogs with 200 followers or less, whom you feel deserve to be noticed. Leave a comment on the blogs letting the owners know they have been chosen. (No tag backs.)
  • Upload the Liebster Award image to your blog.

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Saturday, 13 April 2013

L is for Lizzie

Writing all of these character blogs for this year's A-Z challenge I've realised how many of the novels I've included are debuts. And today's is no exception. Sworn Secret is the first novel from Amanda Jennings and it's very powerful indeed. With three narrators, John, Kate and Lizzie, the story tells of a family's grief, anger and confusion after the sudden death of a beloved daughter and sister. 

Lizzie is the teenage narrator who has lost her elder sister, Anna. The sister she always looked up to, the sister she is devastated to have lost, but also the sister she wants to leave behind in the past while she gets on with growing up. Lizzie has also lost her mother as she has been so caught up in her grief over Anna's death she has shown no interest in the daughter that she still has. Until secrets from Anna's life are revealed that tarnish the memories everyone has of her, and prompt Lizzie's parents into becoming smothering and over protective of her.

To escape from the misery of her home life Lizzie focuses all of her energies on the fact that she is falling in love for the first time. But she's falling in love with the wrong person and when her secret love affair is revealed it threatens to send the family even further off track. Despite everything that life throws at her, Lizzie blossoms into a confident and smart young woman who finally steps out from Anna's shadow without ever letting go of her love for her. Lizzie made me laugh, she made me cry, and I got angry on her behalf but she also made me wish I could have dealt with life so well at that age.