The Story Behind The Story: ‘Dinosaurs’

I have a story called ‘Dinosaurs’ in the current issue of Woman’s Weekly Fiction Special (out until around 5th June, after which, July’s edition will hit the shelves). Isn’t that a lovely illustration they’ve put with it?

I got the initial idea when I drove past a farm which had a sign up outside: ‘Emu eggs for sale’. That, I decided, needed to go into a story. But that was as far as I got. I jotted it down in my notebook and there it sat, for several months, before the ‘partner idea’ came to me. (I usually need two ideas to make a story – I’ve probably told you that before).

Waitrose has a free weekly newspaper and it often has interesting and useful articles in it (other supermarkets – and newspapers – are available!). Back in March, they had a feature on a producer of quails’ eggs and that was it. As I read about the quirky little birds, who live in polytunnels and are ‘little princesses’ with lots of character, I got the idea for a poultry farmer and a girl who’s a reluctant rep’ for an animal feed company.

It took me a long time to write it and I had to do a bit of research on emus but the end result was a bit different, I like to think – at least, in terms of setting and subject matter – and perhaps that was what clinched the sale.

If you want to know why it’s called ‘dinosaurs’, you’ll have to buy the magazine and read it (or stand in WH Smiths and flick through, very quickly!).

Woman’s Weekly Fiction Special June 2017

And still on the subject of ‘wildlife’, we currently have 2 sets of bees nesting in our garden. Not sure if ‘nesting’ is the right word but the first lot – and they are tree bumblebees, we have worked out – are definitely nesting, because they’re in our (old, un-used and cobwebby) bird box.

Here are Bertie, Bella and Branwell Bee! Up to 500 bees can live in a bird box, so only another 497 to name.

I suspect we might have so many because, completely by chance, we have 2 of the top plants for bees in our garden – wisteria and cotoneaster – both currently in flower.

We also have buddleia, which is in their top 5 too but that won’t flower until later in the summer. If you look very closely at the photo, you can just see the gingery fronts of 3 of the bees. I had to get quite close to take that shot but according to Friends of the Earth, they are ‘very docile and will only sting you if you grab them in your hand’. Well, I’ll try not to put that to the test.

The second lot of bees are in the eaves of our garage and we can’t get quite near enough to decide what they are. Anyway, they’re a bumblebee of some kind too, which means, as they’re not honeybees, we won’t be getting any kind beekeeper to come and take them away to his/her hives. Hmm… I can feel a story idea taking shape…

Bees’ favourite: wisteria

Posted in Magazines, Short Stories, Successes, Woman's Weekly | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Ditching The Distractions = Get More Writing Done!

You could say that I’ve taken my own advice to an extreme: on Monday I resigned from my ‘day job’ (part-time but increasingly filling the hours and headspace that I need for my writing) and I’m not actually recommending that you do that.

Work is a distraction, true, but a necessary one for most of us and I will be stepping onto the hamster wheel again at some point…!

But since Monday, the ‘Universe’ seems to be telling me that I might just have done the right thing, in taking a small ‘break’:

• The short story workshop that I’m running at Evesham Festival of Words sold out on Tuesday
• My ‘flash comp’ entry (an extract from a ‘longer work’ that I’m trying to write), was a runner-up in Tuesday’s Writer’s Forum
• On Wednesday I won the Tamworth Literary Festival short story competition
• Today I had a story accepted by Woman’s Weekly

Coincidence? Probably. But I’m telling myself it means something! (because we writers have to hang onto any encouraging signs, don’t we?)

And now, because you seem to like them.. here’s another of my previously-published articles on writing subjects. This one’s got some tips on making more time to be creative. (If you have any other ideas, do please leave them in the comments!)

Ditching The Distractions

As writers, the call of the ‘real world’ is difficult to ignore. Sometimes it’s just an excuse to procrastinate but often, not being able to ‘retreat’ – either mentally and physically – is a real barrier to writing.

Research has shown it can take up to 15 minutes to regain focus after a distraction, so how can we stay focussed and also find time and space to write?

Some distractions are unavoidable, so concentrate on controlling those that you can, for example:

* Use an answer phone
* Only check emails twice daily (or do what I try to do and resist checking emails or social media until 4pm. The idea of that being, that there’s still an hour or so of the ‘working day’ left, if you need to reply urgently to someone).
* Re-think those household tasks. If you worked in an office, you wouldn’t be able to mow the lawn in the middle of the day, so why waste your precious writing time? Whenever you have an overwhelming urge to complete another task when you ‘should’ be writing, ask yourself whether it really needs to be done, now? Writer Carole Matthews recognised when she was procrastinating and used to tie her leg to the desk, to prevent herself ‘wandering off to do the ironing’!

Novelist Zadie Smith famously disables the internet using Freedom© and SelfControl© – computer programmes specifically designed to help writers – when she’s at work.

Charles Dickens – like many of us – needed absolute quiet in order to write. In one of his houses, an extra door had to be installed in his study to block out noise.

Renovating your home is probably not practical but if you need silence to write, try using ear plugs – or even ear defenders. Many writers play music through headphones or listen to CDs of ‘white noise’ – such as crashing waves or falling rain.

If the view from your writing room window is too tempting, then you could follow Stephen King’s advice (in his seminal book ‘On Writing’) and turn your desk to face a blank wall, or adopt the technique of American novelist Jonathan Franzen: he wears a blindfold and relies on his ability to touch-type.

Most writers need solitude but if you find that difficult, then being with others who are also writing – whether ‘virtually’ or in reality – might help.

‘One day writing retreats’ are becoming more available. For a small fee you can leave housework, TV and other distractions behind and go to a centre for a few hours of uninterrupted writing. Most organisers encourage you to set goals in advance and provide refreshments and ‘time and space’ away from the real world.

Why not organise a ‘power hour’ with a writer friend or Facebook group? Agree on a start time and at the end of the hour, get in touch via Twitter or Facebook and compare achievements.

Victor Hugo, author of Les Misérables, allegedly asked his valet to hide his clothes and wrote in the nude, so he couldn’t go outside but many writers find it easier to leave the house, to write.

Novelist Clare Morrall has written most of her books away from home. “I write in a room in a friend’s house, and I like the sense of isolation that comes from leaving my home environment, shutting the door on everyday life.”

If you don’t mind some background noise, then there are plenty of coffee shops to choose from. But if you want that coffee shop ‘buzz’ without spending a fortune on lattes, the Coffitivity website will provide the same noise and you don’t even need to leave your desk.

Or what about writing in your local library? Warm, quiet (ish) and most of them have desks these days.

Friends and family, however well-meaning, can be a major distraction. They often don’t understand our need for peace and quiet.

Jane Austen knew all about the ‘casual interruptions’ of family life. She never lived alone or experienced any solitude in her daily life, yet she still managed to write and made the most of her family by reading out her work-in-progress to them in the evenings.

Perhaps that’s the answer: try to use your distractions to your benefit. Writer Wendy Clarke admits that she never gets any writing done when her husband’s home but he’s a great proof-reader, when she’s finished a story!

Other ways to ditch the distractions:

* Use a kitchen timer. Try setting it for 30 minutes or an hour and don’t do anything but write. When the bell goes off, allow yourself a short break, then set it again. Keep going until you’ve finished.
* Beware of telling friends when you’re at home ‘writing’. They’ll often interpret that to mean you’re ‘available’ (for lunch and coffee and stuff, which is lovely BUT…)
* Do one thing at a time. It’s been proven that multi-tasking doesn’t actually save time and it can cause stress!
* Try clearing your head through yoga, mindfulness, meditation or Morning Pages/journalling.
* Clutter is very distracting. Make sure you have a clear desk or room and space in which to write.
* Invest in a ‘do not disturb’ sign.

Based on an article originally published in Writing magazine in 2014

Posted in Books, Finding Time To Write, Successes, Woman's Weekly | Tagged , | 15 Comments

May The Force Be With You

This was supposed to be written and posted yesterday but I’m afraid I didn’t manage it because I had to watch the BBC programme about stress last night, instead (go figure, as they say).

Who was it – Douglas Adams, I think – who said “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by…”?

Anyway, I didn’t realise the significance of yesterday’s date until the afternoon, when I was walking the dog near Broadway Tower and an American tourist, camcorder held high, boomed (presumably for the benefit of the folks back home), “MAY THE FOURTH – BROADWAY TOWER!” It sounded like he was saying ‘May the force…’ and of course, all the Star Wars stuff I’d heard on the radio earlier, suddenly made sense.

It made me think (*slightly tenuous link alert*) about a writer’s ‘force’. I reckon it’s inspiration. Without that, we’re stuffed. And two recent experiences have been a source of inspiration for me:

Firstly, last week I went to several events at Stratford Literary Festival.

I’m lucky enough to have 4 great literary festivals (Stratford, Chipping Norton, Chipping Campden and Evesham) within half an hour’s drive. (I’ve only linked to the last two because the others are over for this year).

The first three are all held in April and May (practically back-to-back), so there just isn’t time to go to everything but last week I binged at Stratford and managed to see (amongst others), a poet and a novelist who are favourites of mine but whom I’ve never seen speak before – poet Simon Armitage and fabulous novelist, Tracy Chevalier.

Someone I once taught was very dismissive of literary festivals. When I encouraged my class to go to events, he said he put them in the same category as writing magazines – a waste of time, a form of procrastination, when he should have been writing! (erm, actually he didn’t do a huge amount of writing, but that’s beside the point..) but I find them the opposite. I find listening to authors or poets that I admire and being with other, like-minded people in the audience, buying books, taking time out from the everyday to indulge my passion for reading and writing, isn’t a waste of time at all: it’s rejuvenating and inspiring.

Listening to Simon Armitage read his poem about Poundland, for example, was liberating. Yes! I thought, it’s OK to use the everyday, the mundane, the humorous, in ‘serious’ poetry (his Poundland poem is actually based on a section in Homer’s ‘Odyssey’, so it’s clever stuff).

Tracy Chevalier was great too. Remember my post about Margaret Atwood and her Tempest-based novel? Tracy has also been approached by the Hogarth Shakespeare Project and she chose Othello and has written a novel (‘New Boy’) based on the play. (I’m still waiting to be ‘approached’ by the way. They’d better hurry up or the only plays left to ‘re-imagine’ will be the odd ones that no-one else wants, like Timon of Athens or Pericles).

Her latest novel (she was only 6000 words ‘in’ last week and had been writing it on the train on her way to Stratford!), is set in Winchester Cathedral in the 1930s and you can read about it here.

So, in a nutshell, literary festivals = inspiration. There are soo many now, that there must be one local to you. Have a look on the website and see what you can find!

And my second recent source of inspiration? Someone who posted on Facebook, “Just surfacing. I’ve written 5000 words today!”

What do you think of that? There are lots of possible reactions but I found it inspiring. Wow! I thought.. then a little stab of doubt hit me – I NEVER write that much (in a week, never mind a day!). But then, a little voice said, ‘But could you?’ and then it turned into ‘You could!’ and I started to think how I might manage it, if I planned well in advance and had a day specifically set aside. I haven’t done it yet but the idea’s there.

I’ve been inspired.

What, or who inspires you? Do tell – it might help us all!

Posted in Books, Cotswolds, Events, Ideas, Novels, Plays, Poetry, Television, West Midlands | Tagged | 2 Comments

In Which I Confess to Two Misdemeanours

I belong to a poetry group (that’s not one of the misdemeanours, by the way).

We take it in turn to host the meeting in our homes, once a month, (just drinks and biccies to be provided) and I can heartily recommend it as a ‘model’ if you want to set up any kind of writers’ group.

The idea of ours is that we write a couple of poems and read them out at the meeting, for feedback from the others. There are usually 7 or 8 of us and there are some very good poets in the group (better than me but that’s no bad thing, because I learn from them!) and invariably, because I don’t find writing poetry easy, I am beavering away into the early hours or even on the morning of the meeting itself.

Last time, just before Easter, everyone came to my house. This wasn’t stressful at all.

The dog jumped up on the first lady to arrive and made her trousers dirty (eek!) and then, when I went to make her a coffee, to soothe her, the flippin’ Tassimo machine – which had been perfectly OK the day before – decided not to function. It was apparently telling me, with its flashing red lights, that it needed a new filter but I didn’t have time to find out how to do that, so I yanked out my trusty old coffee machine from the back of a cupboard and opened the bit where you put the coffee in – only to find the remnants of the last time we’d used it (January!) ie: mouldy coffee grounds, so I had to quickly wash it out, hoping no-one would notice a) the mould or b) my panic and all the while, other poets were arriving and I was trying to be a cool, calm hostess and get them drinks.

Luckily my friend Chris arrived and helped me. (She didn’t know about the mould. But she does now. Whoops – sorry, but you had tea, so you were safe).

Anyway, it was a bit of a mad start but it reflected the sort of week I’d been having. Namely, a strange one. But it had given me an idea for a poem and here it is:

The Near Miss

I come out of the supermarket
to find my car has disappeared.
Stolen! But who would want it, really?
A hundred thousand miles on the clock and paintwork
faded to pink.
Oh! There it is!
What is it doing there on the other side of the car park,
lined up, dead straight against the kerb?
I march over,
inspect it for bumps.
There are none.
Nor is there an irate driver with a damaged wing mirror
a flattened old lady on the ground
an injured dog or child…
Oh, God.
The car wash men ignore me
other shoppers’ vehicles cruise in and out.
Nothing happens.
I slip into the driver’s seat
pull the handbrake on,
hard.
Take it off again, start the engine.
All the way home my driving is steady,
my mind, racing.

Everyone laughed when I read it out and then realisation hit them. They popped their heads up to check their cars on the drive.

“Erm… so, did that really happen?”

I had to admit that (for the first – and hopefully, last – time in my life) I didn’t put the handbrake on when I went to the supermarket and my car, somehow, (it’s still a mystery to me), snaked its way slowly – and safely – across the car park and parked itself neatly against a metal barrier.

As I finished telling the sorry tale, my friend Chris looked at me. “I’m driving to Fishguard,” she said.

Which brings me on nicely to Writers Holiday in Fishguard, where we go every year and will, hopefully be there again this year (cars and handbrakes permitting).

If you’re looking for a writing holiday where the emphasis is just as much on the holiday (food, drink and general relaxation) as the writing – and you don’t mind a trek to Pembrokeshire – then this could be the one for you!

Have a look at the programme here (they call it a ‘conference’ but honestly, it’s much more informal than that). Famous people like Della Galton, Simon Whaley and Kate Walker are running courses (plus you can do poetry, painting or crime – that’s crime writing, not the real thing – amongst others) and because it’s not huge (unlike some other writing holidays, mentioning no names), Fishguard is much more personal and you’ll get more attention and chance to read out your work and ask questions.

Chris and I run the book quiz on the first night, which is a bit of an ‘ice breaker’ and I’ll also be running a few ‘after tea’ workshops (subjects still to be decided!). If you live within driving distance, you can attend as a day delegate for a reduced rate.

Let me know if you’re going to be there, so I can say hello!

Grazia First Chapter Writing Competition

And on a different note, here are details of the Grazia first chapter competition – submit by 5th May, free to enter and you could win £1000 and a trip to the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Award night!

Puts me off rather that they want your date of birth AND a photo but them’s the rules, as they say, so it’s up to you if you want to give it a go…

Fishguard Bay Hotel. Richard Burton has stayed here (while filming Under Milkwood)

Posted in Bonnie, Competitions, Events, Poetry | Tagged | Leave a comment

A Full House, a Full Cupboard & a Free Writing Webinar

Of course, the guests did bring some lovely chocolate with them too…

I looked back on the blog just now, to see what I was doing this time last year and, what do you know, I was starting a ‘writer’s retreat’ as my partner had gone away to Turkey to play golf…and the same is happening this year – he’s off in the morning!

I must admit, as much as I will miss him (honest!), I am looking forward to a bit of peace and quiet because from Wednesday to Sunday last week, we had no less than 17 different visitors (some of whom stayed over) and it was all a bit exhausting and ‘full on’.

Even Bonnie the dog (a good time girl, if ever there was one), is worn out (because it’s hard work, being fussed over by that many people). She’s lying in her bed, gazing up at me with a ‘please no more!’ look in her eyes.

If you’re an extrovert – which means, in a nutshell, that you derive your energy from other people – then you’d have thrived here, in the last few days but if, like me, you have some introvert tendencies (we get our energy from being alone), then after a while, you start to CRAVE solitude and silence. It’s nothing to do with being shy or antisocial, it’s just too draining, being with so many people for so long – and apparently it’s to do with how our brains are wired.

I wrote about extroverts versus introverts a while ago, here.

I’m writing an article about whether being introverted or extroverted is best for writers and I’d love to hear your views – and which one you consider yourself to be!

Free Plotting Webinar

On a different note entirely, someone kind has just let me know about a free writing webinar ‘What Happened Next? Plotting a Story’ from 6pm – 7pm (UK time) today, Monday 17th April, courtesy of Penguin/Random House’s The Writer’s Academy.

UPDATE: this is available now here on YouTube – so you haven’t missed out!

I have registered – eek, it looks a bit ‘technical’ (and I am not technical. I am the person whose i-phone is STILL IN THE BOX since she received it as a birthday present last October) but I might have a go as it looks interesting and there’s even a Q&A session at the end. If you can’t make it live, they are inviting you to ‘register anyway and we’ll send you the recording and slides’.

There are more details here.

If anyone’s done one of these before and can give advice (er, preferably before 6pm tonight!) please do comment!

Thanks – and Happy Easter Monday, everyone!

Posted in Blogging, Bonnie | Tagged , | 5 Comments

Getting Inspiration from Sport

It’s been rather a sporty weekend (I don’t mean me! Unless 5 minutes of table tennis counts). First there was the Grand National – which you couldn’t have missed – and the US Masters was also on (that one might have passed you by but if you live in a golf-centric household like me, believe me, you’d have noticed).

It’s made me think. Whether or not you’re interested in sport, as writers, we’re interested in people, right? And there are always great ‘human interest’ stories around big sporting events.

Take this year’s Grand National. One of the favourites was called ‘Definitly Red’ (yes, written that way because the person who registered him couldn’t spell it. But ‘definitely’ is, apparently, the most misspellt word in the English language. I had a colleague who used to reply positively to emails with ‘Yes, defiantly!’ which always made me smile).

Anyway, Danny Cook, who rode ‘Definitly Red’ in Saturday’s National, comes from a family of electricians and landscape gardeners, didn’t start riding until he was 16, once rode a race with a broken leg, has taken the wrong course on a racetrack three times and been banned for taking drugs. Not the likeliest of jockeys! (And quite a character…).

Another story: the two women who’ve been friends since school – Belinda McClung and Deborah Thomson – who own the horse that was the winner on Saturday – ‘One for Arthur’. They bought him because they wanted an activity that they could enjoy while their partners played golf. Apparently, you have to have a partnership name, so they came up with ‘Two Golf Widows’ (hmm, if I had several thousand pounds to spare, I could have been in that club too).

And talking of golf, yesterday’s winner of the US Masters, the Spanish golfer Sergio Garcia has taken 18 years – and 73 previous attempts – to win a major. Lots of people thought he’d never do it (‘the habitual bridesmaid’) because although he’s a fine golfer, he can’t take the pressure of big events.

Five years ago, he said this, “I’m not good enough. I don’t have the thing I need to have. I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to play for second or third place.” Ah, bless, we’ve all been there.

Yesterday, when he won, would have been his mentor Seve Ballasteros’ 60th birthday. The stars were aligned. He did it. The BBC called it possibly ‘the perfect sporting story’.

Aw, I love it.

I wrote a story set during a swimming race, once. It did rather well – two shortlistings and, finally, third place in the Wells Festival Short story competition. I suspect part of the reason if found favour with the judges was because it was a bit ‘different’. Being original, finding an unusual subject matter or angle is, I think, half the battle when you’re entering a short story competition.

So, if you’re wondering what to write about, perhaps you could write about sport? Those freezing days out on the hockey pitch, getting whacked on the ankles. Or did you play rugby or something more unusual, like lacrosse? (or is that only in Enid Blyton books?) or hopscotch or belly dancing?

Here are 10 tips on writing about sport, to get you started.

On your marks, get set… GO!

Posted in Competitions, Ideas, Short Stories, Successes, Television | Tagged | 10 Comments

What’s Your Definition of ‘Writing Success’?

What’s your definition of writing ‘success’ and ‘failure’?

I ask because last Saturday’s Guardian (it was 1st April but I don’t think it was a joke) contained an interesting ‘What I’m Really Thinking’ piece (they’re always interesting, imo but this one is particularly so, because it’s writing-related).

It was called: ‘What I’m Really Thinking.. The Failed Novelist’.

UPDATE: There’s an interesting reply to the ‘What I’m Really Thinking..’ piece in The Guardian, telling the would-be novelist that she’s not a ‘failure’, she’s ‘a quitter’!

It’s a well-known fact that most people’s first novels don’t get published. And usually for a very good reason: they’re not very good. Writing a novel is a learning process. You get better with each one you write, or at least, that’s the theory. The author of the Guardian piece feels she has ‘failed’ because the two novels she’s written haven’t found a publisher.

Hold on a minute! Two novels written (actually finished, not just talked about!) AND an agent took her on so they must have had some considerable merit? I think that’s impressive. I don’t call that ‘failure’ – I call that ‘possibly-giving-up-just-when-you-were-on-the-verge-of-success’!

Perhaps the next novel she writes WILL find a publisher because everything she’s learned from the first two, will help to make the third that much ‘better’. And if not, there’s always self-publishing or diversifying or getting feedback or a mentor and going back to the drawing board and working on the two novels until someone does decide they are good enough to publish.

This ‘feeling like a failure if work is unpublished’ isn’t limited to novelists. I belong to a couple of Facebook groups for writers who target the women’s magazine fiction market (small and getting smaller by the day! The market, not the writers) and oh dearie me, there’s a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth in those!

Whatever happened to writing for fun? Or simply writing because you HAVE TO! (Regardless of whether it ever sees the light of day or anyone else ever reads it?).

As the writer of one of the comments underneath Saturday’s Guardian piece says, “We’re constantly told that we can do anything if we try hard enough, if we believe, if we really go for it” but that’s not actually true, is it? Not everyone can be an Olympic Gold medallist, not everyone is good enough to appear on X Factor and (gasp!) perhaps not everyone can be a published writer.

Part of the reason I blog is because it’s a way of publishing my work. I don’t get any money from it but I get the satisfaction of writing what I want to write and seeing it ‘published’. Being published is not a ‘right’ and if other people are to judge our work and pay for it, then being published is not entirely within our control. There’s an element of luck involved, sure but there’s also a lot of hard work and.. dare I say it.. talent?

What do you think? How do you define your ‘success’ (or otherwise) as a writer?

Posted in Newspapers, Novels, Successes | Tagged | 17 Comments