And Relax…..

My novel draft (yes, the one I was working on here) was finally finished and zapped off (all 71k of it) for a critique last Monday.

Yes, I know, weeks later than it was promised but it wasn’t through lack of trying or laziness: it just took a heck of a lot longer than I expected.

What a relief, though! As a friend of mine said, it felt like the end of exams.

Of course, it will be winging its way back to me in a few weeks’ time and then I’ll have to start all over again, with the third draft and all the amends that I’m expecting to have to make but for now.. ah, sweet freedom!

It’s the first time I’ve ever actually written a novel from beginning to end and it’s quite a satisfying feeling. Not, I hasten to add, because I think it’s brilliant. I suspect the chances of it being published are slim. I’m looking on it more as a learning experience. No, the reason I’m feeling pleased with myself is that I’ve proved I can do it. I can write something that long. I never thought I could but I can. I can sit in a room on my own for hours on end, for days on end and conjure up something, from my imagination, that has a beginning, middle and end and actually isn’t gobbledygook.

And if I can do it once, I can do it again. Only better, next time. (And, hopefully, a bit quicker).

I gave myself last week ‘off’ as a reward but now I need to buckle down and get some short stories written. I haven’t written a new short story since December because (this is another thing I’ve learned!) I can’t write a novel and short stories at the same time. It has to be one or the other.

Something that people don’t realise (not you! I know you realise this!) is that when you’re writing a first novel, you don’t earn any money. So, for the past three months I haven’t been writing anything that I might be paid for. And I was hoping that my ALCS statement today would save my bacon – because it has for the past two years – but this time, it was a very paltry amount (only about 15% of what I got last time), so that’s not going to last very long!

Now that I’ve finished all that writing, I can do other things too: like use my soup maker, finally! (I’ve only had it for 6 months). I actually got as far as getting it out of the box today and reading the instructions. I felt fairly confident that I was going to be able to make broccoli and blue cheese soup but then.. disaster! My OH, who’d kindly done the shopping, had forgotten the celery! (It was on the list!).

So, the soup maker remains pristine and unused until I can get to the shops tomorrow. First World problems, I know.

I’ve also been able to start reading again! Yesterday I finished Joanna Cannon’s ‘Three Things About Elsie‘ which I loved (and which is on the longlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018).

New Writing Blog
On a completely different note, the lovely Paula Williams (who I met once at Writers Holiday in Caerleon although she probably doesn’t remember), has started a new writing blog.

She’s posting writing prompts on there (the one for today is “This is what happens when someone doesn’t listen properly”, which could be the first line of a story, couldn’t it?). Pop over and have a look! Tell her I sent you! (And don’t forget to come back…)

If you read ‘Elsie’, you must eat Battenberg at the same time.

Posted in Books, Finding Time To Write, Novels, Short Stories, Successes | Tagged | 17 Comments

A Dog’s Tale: The Story Behind the Story

As Crufts is on at the moment (I love it!), it’s rather appropriate that I’ve got a doggy story in the current Woman’s Weekly Fiction Special.

It’s called ‘Borrowing Billy’ and the idea came from something rather sad, so if you’re not in the mood for sad, perhaps you should skip this bit (and scroll down to the competition news).

Several years ago, my elderly Auntie Molly was very ill in hospital. In fact (I told you this was sad), she never came home again. When I went to visit her before she died, she was really distressed about the fact that she couldn’t see her little Yorkshire terrier, Tom. She’d have given anything, I think, to have had a few minutes cuddling him in her hospital bed.

Of course, dogs aren’t allowed in hospitals, unless they’re guide dogs or therapy dogs, so, as far as I know, she never got her final wish and that’s something I’ve never forgotten. I really regret not being able to help her. It’s too late now, of course but in my story ‘Borrowing Billy’, I put things right, albeit ‘only’ in fiction and well, you’ll have to read the story to find out what happens.

But it made me think: in fiction we can right wrongs, give good people the happy endings they deserve and, in a nutshell, make everything OK. Is there anything from your past that you could ‘put right’ in fiction?

Evesham Festival of Words – Short Story Competition closing 23rd March 2018

You’ve still got a couple of weeks to get your entry in for this short story competition, which closes on 23rd March. It’s open to all, published or unpublished, regardless of where in the world you live. Max 2,500 words, there’s no theme, entry fee is £5 and the judge is Lynne Hackles.

More details here.

Retreat West – Photo Flash Challenge

If you fancy flexing your writing muscles over the weekend (or anytime, in fact, up to 25th March), there’s a free flash fiction competition on the Retreat West website, closing on 25th March.

More details here.

There’s a photo that you have to use for your inspiration and they’re looking for a maximum of 300 words. You can even enter twice, if you feel so inclined.

Up to 5 shortlisted stories will be up for a ‘public vote’ and the winner will win a free entry (worth £8) to one of Retreat West’s quarterly flash fiction competitions.

Good luck!

My dog Bonnie & her best friend, Rosie

Posted in Bonnie, Competitions, Magazines, Short Stories, Successes, Woman's Weekly | Tagged | 9 Comments

‘Exuberant’ Random Word Competition: Result & Judge’s Report

It’s time to reveal the winner and runner-up of my latest ‘random word’ competition, which was kindly judged by Sally Zigmond.

These were the 5 shortlisted stories (if you want to read them in full, they’re on the previous post), this time with the authors names.

• Indulgence – Jan Halstead
• The Apprentice Dwarf – Keith Havers
• The Caretaker – Christine Cherry
• The Exuberant Miss Kettle – Pippa Gale
• What did I do? – Ninette Hartley

And here is Sally’s report, in which she reveals her choice of winner and runner-up:

“When Helen asked me to judge her latest Random Words competition, I was thrilled – until I realised what an impossble job it was. Thay were all such good stories! But, as they say, there can only be one winner.

I found choosing the short-list relatively easy because I had a (cunning?) plan. I looked for stories that used all the random words either ingeniously or so unobtrusively that I didn’t notice them. Two words were easy to hide. Order and Eight are both quiet words. On the other hand Exuberant and Naughty shouted. But Kettle – well let’s say it was a toughie.

Having picked my short-list, the next stage was a real struggle. In fact all ten long-listed entries were excellent with such variety. All the three stories that didn’t rise quite to the very top were worthy of winning.

In What did I do? we have a mother with the hangover from hell with a wise daughter. It made me smile as I remember my past! Whilst I don’t think all flash fiction should be funny, I felt the prompt words didn’t really lend themselves to doom and gloom. After all the bad news lately, we could all do with a laugh.

Alas it was with a heavy heart I said goodbye to The Apprentice Dwarf. Naming him ‘Naughty’ alerted me to the mood of the last line. So when it came, although I smiled, I wasn’t surprised.

Similarly The Exuberant Miss Kettle was an absolute delight. Its garrulous parrot was both funny and ingenious. The final twist was great, too. However it didn’t seem right that two of the random words were in the title. Taking the easy way out or sheer cleverness? In the end I went for the former. Sorry.

On the face of it, The Caretaker looked an unspectacular story. Then again, it was so very subtle. Neither characters were named but I’ve met them both over the years. Dialogue and action were sharp and witty. I loved the way the un-named caretaker was confident in his approach and similarly impressed by the way the ‘whistler’ changed from the male caretaker to the female teacher and I cheered when he got his come-uppance. And notice how none of the random words hit us in the face. A super runner-up.

And finally, my winner: Indulgence. Naturally, all entries were anonymous. And yet, someone ‘knew’ I have a soft spot for monks. Although the writer was one of two who went for Kettle crisps, it was in Indulgence where it hit the spot. In addition, both Brother Gregory and Father Ambrose were characters who immediately came alive in simple words. A winner worthy of a halo. Well done.

Finally, having entered many short story competitions over the years and judged a few, I have always found judging more traumatic than writing. A judge is in the spotlight, head above the parapet, a bull’s eye for rotten eggs. And with enough clichés to sink the Titanic, I’ll now jump overboard…”

Thank you, Sally for an excellent report and congratulations to Jan Halstead, the overall winner and Christine Cherry, runner-up. I’ll be in touch with you both by email very soon to send you your prizes.

Commiserations to the 3 whose stories were also in the shortlist. I’m sure you’re disappointed not to have won but I hope you feel pleased – as you should be – that you made it so far, out of over 40 entries. That’s no mean achievement.

When I get to 900 followers (!) I’ll be running another of these random word competitions, so if you enjoyed entering this time – or would like to have a go next time – keep your eyes peeled!

Posted in Blogging, Competitions, random word competition | 7 Comments

‘Order’ Random Word Competition – Shortlist

Here’s the shortlist of 5 stories (listed in alphabetical order by title) for the latest Random Word competition (and chosen anonymously by our judge Sally Zigmond):

• Indulgence
• The Apprentice Dwarf
• The Caretaker
• The Exuberant Miss Kettle
• What did I do?

Well done if your story’s on there! And ‘if you’ve just joined us’, the 5 words that had to be used in the 100 word story challenge, were: order, naughty, eight, kettle and exuberant.

The final results (winner + runner-up) and the judge’s report will be on here in the next few days. Feel free to give a ‘shout out’ to your favourite in the comments!

1. Indulgence
‘Kettle Chips, brother?’ Father Ambrose homed in on a fine dusting of crumbs on Brother Gregory’s habit. Not everyone was cut out for the self-denial of Holy Orders.
‘Only eight, father. Naughty, but nice.’
Was that a flicker of guilt, or was he … smiling? Guidance was required, thought Ambrose. But then, they’d had no new postulants for five years. Surely, to err was human, and to forgive …
Deciding that God must surely have a place for the exuberant, Father Ambrose rested his hand gently on Brother Gregory’s head.
The smile broadened. ‘Bless me, father, for I have binged.’

2. The Apprentice Dwarf
The kettle boiled. Snow White put eight mugs out in order. One lump for Doc and Sleepy. Two for Sneezy, Dopey, Bashful and Happy. Three for Grumpy. None for the new guy.
Meanwhile in the bathroom…
“Mirror, mirror, on the wall. Who is the naughtiest of them all?”
“Why, you are, oh mischievous one.”
Naughty smiled. The magic mirror, stolen from the wicked queen, always told the truth.
“You may want to get out though,” the mirror continued. “After you’ve laced the sugar, there’ll be a rush to get in soon.”
“That’ll stop all their exuberant singing. Hi ho.”

3. The Caretaker
Every night, he’d saunter into my classroom. Whistling.
“Kettle’s on,” he’d say.
“No thanks,” I’d say. Always.
Tonight he threw down his keys.
“Put me on the naughty step, Miss?” he leaned forward.
I moved back; carried on with my display.
“Alphabetical order: E,” he read. “Exuberant, exciting…See me.” He breathed.
I stapled an elephant. Bang.
“Over there please.” I passed him a box.
He winked. “Yes Miss!”
He strolled into my stockroom. Whistling.
Simple. I grabbed his keys, slammed the door, locked him in.
I’d be back eight o’clock, Monday morning.
Lights off, alarms set. I left.

4. The Exuberant Miss Kettle
Amongst the congregation, was Polly the green-winged Macaw, beloved companion of the late Miss Kettle.
The vicar strived to deliver the order of service in a dignified manner, hindered by interjections each time Polly heard mention of her dearly departed mistress.
‘Miss Kettle was a great supporter of our church’
‘Polly put the kettle on!’
‘A colourful character, loved by all’
‘Pieces of eight, pieces of eight!’
‘A wicked sense of humour’
‘Who’s a naughty boy?’
‘And a generous bequeathal to church funds.’
The condition of the windfall had the vicar ruffled. Reluctantly, he resigned himself to parrot keeping.

5. What did I do?
Emily flew into the kitchen.
‘Stop being so exuberant. It hurts,’ groaned Jane to her teenage daughter, ‘Oh, I wish we hadn’t ordered that eighth tequila shot last night.’
‘Eight! Wow, my mum’s been naughty on a girl’s night out. I’ll put the kettle on.’
Jane lifted her head from the table and glared at her daughter.
‘I’m a single mum, I need to let go sometimes. We did share the eight tequilas’
‘Did you meet anyone?’
‘Can’t remember.’
‘Can’t remember what?’ said the blonde Adonis from the kitchen door.
Jane’s jaw dropped.
‘Don’t worry mum, he’s mine.’ Emily laughed.

Posted in Competitions, random word competition | 6 Comments

‘Naughty’ Random Word Competition: Longlist

Thanks to everyone who took the time and trouble to enter my ‘naughty kettle’ (!) flash fiction competition!

There were 42 entries in total and my helper and I have drawn up a longlist of 10 entries, based on:

a) adhering to the rules (sadly there were a few stories that had spelling mistakes and/or mis-spelled the 5 required words and had to be eliminated. This included a couple that would otherwise have made the longlist, which was a real shame)
b) good use of the 5 required words
c) originality
d) entertainment value/’good writing’.

The longlist has been sent to Sally, the main judge – anonymously – and she’ll now whittle it down to her top 5, which I will print in full on here on Monday, so watch this space!

The longlist, by story title and in alphabetical order, is as follows:

Caught in the Act
Heart Wrecking
Keep the Receipt
Last Orders
The Apprentice Dwarf
The Caretaker
The Exuberant Miss Kettle
The Visits
What did I do?

Well done if you’re on the list but please don’t give the game away – it’s still all anonymous at this stage, remember – by leaving a comment saying how pleased you are or which story is yours! Mum’s the word for a little bit longer!

Have a great weekend, everyone!

Posted in Competitions, random word competition | 1 Comment

All Roads Lead to Leeds

All writing ground to a halt recently, as I went to Leeds from last Friday to Sunday with my friend.

Many, many years ago we were students at the Uni (that’s it there, on the left – the Parkinson Building, to be precise) and this was only the second time I’ve ever been back for a trip down memory lane! It was fun and amazingly, I didn’t feel too old.

It probably helped that we treated ourselves to lovely food (lunch at Whitelocks, the oldest pub in Leeds and a Thai dinner on Saturday night), Negroni cocktails, G&Ts and prosecco, a play at the West Yorkshire Playhouse (Still Alice, starring Sharon Small. Well worth seeing but do take your tissues..) and a swanky hotel (the Malmaison).

All those years ago, as skint students, we were lucky if we could manage a couple of halves of cider or, as a special treat, a bottle of Blue Nun between three of us. So, getting older does have its advantages!

As chance would have it, the RNA (Romantic Novelists’ Association) are holding their annual conference from 13 – 15th July in.. you’ve guessed it… Leeds this year.

It’s open to non-members, for a small additional fee although as I’m a member of the New Writers’ Scheme this year, I’m assuming that means I get members’ rates. If anyone else has been – and I know some of you reading this have – please let me know what it’s like! The programme hasn’t been published yet, so it’s difficult to know what happens over the weekend.

And finally, just a quick reminder that my Random Word Flash Fiction competition (42 entries so far), closes tonight, Monday 12th Feb at midnight (GMT). As I write, there are just 15 minutes left and I bet I still get one or two entries popping through the email…

The Malmaison, Leeds (formerly the City Tramways Office)

Posted in Competitions, Events, Plays, random word competition | Tagged | 12 Comments

Still Plugging Away…

The good news is… I finally made it to the Pilates class last week and I really enjoyed it, despite getting cramp in my foot at one point.

There were toys! Well, mats and bands and squidgy balls to put behind your back and little rests for those of us with tender necks, that needed support. Aah. There were also men in the class! (that’s not why I enjoyed it, I hasten to add!).

I also discovered that one side of my body – the left, in case you’re interested – is definitely much less supple than the right. Weird! Anyway, the plan is to go again in the morning and let’s see if it’s a bit easier this time. If you sit down a lot (which I have been – see below), it’s really love to s-t-r-e-t-c-h.

The bad news is… I still haven’t finished my draft of the novel! I have been excused by my critique-person, who is busy with her own stuff and is, quite rightly, not just hanging around waiting for my mine to ping into her inbox.

It’s not through want of trying and working hard. Last week I spent 28 hours on it! It’s just taking me much, much (much!) longer than I thought it would. There are so many scenes to write and revise (although I’m trying not to do too much revision) and I seem to have quite a complicated plot (why, why, why?) so it’s like fitting a jigsaw puzzle together. One of those 2000 piece, all-the-same-colour jigsaw puzzles.

My main character’s name keeps changing. She’s been Dee (Delia), Lou (Louise), Gen (short for Genevieve), Gail, Becky, Rachel… aaagh. And I still can’t decide. For reasons that I can’t reveal, it would be great if she had a name with some ‘poetic’ connection so if anyone can suggest one, I’d be grateful!

So, I’m getting there. Just…. slowly.

Writing Competitions

There’s still time to enter my random word writing competition if you want to have a go. I’ve had 20 entries so far but I usually get about 40, so I’m expecting a rush in the last week!

You’ve also got a week before the closing date of the Writers & Artists Yearbook free short story competition, which has no theme this time and an even better prize than mine – ie: an Arvon writing retreat. If you’ve got a 2000-word unpublished story hanging around doing nothing why not zap it off? What have you got to lose? (Only condition is that you register on the website before submitting your entry. Don’t forget to do that or your entry won’t count!).

Right, back to the grindstone…

Plugging away

Posted in Competitions, Finding Time To Write, Novels, Poetry, random word competition | 24 Comments