What We Can Learn From ‘Car Share’

car-sharing-2One of my favourite TV programmes last year was the Bafta-award winning Peter Kay series, Car Share.

Only 6 episodes but each one a gem and if you didn’t see it, the premise is pretty simple: 2 supermarket colleagues (driver John and passenger Kayleigh) are thrown together by their company’s car share scheme.

Almost all the action takes place in the car, driving to and from work. And that’s it, in a nutshell. I think it works because it’s funny (of course), there’s great chemistry between the two actors (and characters) and it’s something we can all relate to.

The great news is that it’s coming back for a second series next year.

By chance, today I stumbled across a blog post by Tim Reid, co-creator and co-writer of Car Share, in which he talks about the ‘5 big lessons’ he learned when he was writing the series. And guess what number 4 is? ‘Act it out’! (remember, I talked about this in my last post).

He and his co-writer acted out the first few scenes, “in an imaginary car, made up of two kitchen chairs in a city centre apartment.” Not only did that make them laugh (always good when you’re trying to write comedy) but it made them consider what the characters might be doing in the car (think radio, mirrors, glove box), little details that they might have missed, had they just confined themselves to sitting at their laptops.

It’s worth a read, even if you’re not writing a comedy or a sit-com!

And in other news… I’ve had a couple of acceptances recently from Woman’s Weekly (one today – that’s why I like Mondays!). Most welcome, after a bit of a ‘dry’ summer on the acceptance front. Both stories were based on things that have happened to me but I’ll tell you more when they make it into print.

And last week something arrived here which is proving to be a major distraction (but a very good cure for ‘writer’s bottom’). Can you guess what it is?

It’s one of these:

table tennis table

All in the name of research, of course. Now where is that draft ‘ping pong’ story.. ?

Posted in Magazines, Television, Woman's Weekly | Tagged | 14 Comments

Acting It Out



When I was at Writers Holiday in Fishguard last month, we had a particularly illuminating session with Della Galton one day (on the ‘Writing With Emotion’ course), when she asked for 2 volunteers to act out a short scene.

Della had written an argument between two chararacters – no actions, just words – and it was really interesting to see ANGER (because that was the emotion we were examining) brought to life before our very eyes.

And a lot of the actions – invading personal space, jabbing fingers, sarcasm and people turning their backs on one another – were things that I probably wouldn’t have thought of including, had I been writing that scene without actually seeing it first.

We were all surprised and delighted by the result (obviously, the excellent acting helped! Well done Chris and Julie!). It was refreshing to hear Della also say that she’s a very ‘visual’ writer and she needs to see things, often, before she can write them. Oh, what a relief! So you don’t have to imagine everything! It is acceptable and even advisable, sometimes, to go and see things for yourself and to get ‘hands on’.

Linked to that, I’ve just come across this great article on the Scottish Book Trust blog (which I have recommended before), in which Emma Healey (author of Elizabeth is Missing, which won the Costa First Novel Award in 2015) talks about ‘Practical Ways to Bring Your Novel To Life.’

And the final point she makes is.. guess what? ‘Act Out Your Scenes’.

She talks about how she’s crouched in cupboards, picked blackberries, peeled moss of brick walls and even tried to persuade her boyfriend to try to push her part of the way down a bannister (he refused), all in the name of research and to really feel and experience those actions that she was trying to write about.

The message is, it’s OK to get up from your desk and MOVE! I’m going to give it a go.

Posted in Books, Ideas | Tagged | 10 Comments

Do Your Characters Need A Sex Change?

typewriterOn Friday night I went to see Cymbeline at the RSC in Stratford.

It’s not one of Shakespeare’s best-known plays and it was, at times, rather surreal (and long!) but one of the most interesting things for me about the production, was how they changed the sex of no less than four central characters (from men to women).

In Shakespeare’s original text, Cymbeline is a king but they turned ‘him’ into ‘her’ (Queen Cymbeline, with a Duke for a husband rather than a King with an evil stepmother-wife); a servant was changed from a man to a woman too and a prince to a princess.

It made me think about fiction and how you can make your story just that little bit more interesting (and it’s great for ‘twists’ too) by subverting expectations and making your character male, when the reader might be expecting a woman – and vice versa.

Most people would expect a nanny or a nurse or midwife, to be a woman, for example. But men can – and do – carry out those roles. Equally, a judge or a surgeon or an airline pilot tend to be male-dominated jobs but more and more women are doing them.

Here’s a news story about Royal Brunei’s first all-female flight crew landing in Saudi Arabia, for example (ironically, a country where women are still not allowed to drive a car).

And Glenda Young (who tweets as @flaming_nora) wrote recently on her blog about a story she had published in The People’s Friend. She got the idea as she was doing some housework and reflecting (excuse the pun) on how rarely you see a female window cleaner. So she wrote a story about one and PF liked it – probably, in part, because it was an original idea.

So, my top tip for today is: think about the sex of your characters (no, not that kind. Not unless you’re writing erotica!). Could you change the sex of one or more of them and make your story (and possibly also your character) just that little bit more interesting?

And in other news:

1. I’m delighted to be the ‘guest author’ at the People’s Friend’s forthcoming writing workshop, in Bristol on Wednesday 7th September. If you want to book a place (be quick – they soon fill up!) then you need to buy the latest issue of the magazine, for the booking form. Let me know if you’re coming along!

2. Stylist magazine, in conjunction with Virago, is running a free-to-enter short story competition and you can win an Arvon writing course worth over £600.

If that’s whetted your appetite, take a look here. They’re looking for a GOTHIC short story, max 2000 words by 14th September.

Posted in Competitions, Plays, Short Stories, The People's Friend | Tagged | 8 Comments

Awkward Moments (200 years apart)

by George Richmond, chalk, 1850

by George Richmond, chalk, 1850

I am recovering from my visit to Fishguard! Writers Holiday is fabulous but it’s a pretty ‘full on’ five days and the first thing I did when got home was…. go to sleep for two hours! Tee hee. I can’t take the pace.

In addition to 4 one-hour ‘after tea’ sessions, which I taught – and the quiz on the first night, which my friend Chris and I always run – we went to Della Galton’s 8-hour course on Writing with Emotion, which was really good fun and interesting and I’ve come back with a couple of half-finished stories to get on with.

My resolution for next year is to learn the Welsh National Anthem so I can sing along with the Cwmbach Male Voice choir who perform on the last night (and who sang it twice this time! You feel a bit of a berk, standing there, not being able to join in..!)

There was an embarrassing moment at the quiz when I was asking one of the teams to call out their score. Their name (it’s Welsh), was ‘Twp Toti’. It was an all-ladies team and in my haste to get the scores in (over the microphone, so no-one could miss my faux pas), I called them ‘Top Titty’! Yes, really. Ask Simon Whaley. He was there (and was one of the many laughing).

Free Writing Competition – c/d February 2017

The Writers & Artists Yearbook people have launched their latest competition. You’ve got until February next year for this one and this time, unusually, there’s no theme, so it’s 2000 words of your choice. More details on the website.

Charlotte Bronte

And on a different note, when I went to London a couple of weeks ago, in between the wining and dining, I did experience some culture: we went to the National Portrait Gallery to see the Charlotte Bronte exhibition, which is there, until 14th August, to celebrate the bicentenary of her birth this year. (It’s free and definitely worth a look if you’re in London over the next couple of weeks!).

One of the boards tells the story of how overwhelmed she was when she found herself at a dinner to which Thackeray had also been invited. She greatly admired him and was in awe of him (in fact, she dedicated the second edition of Jane Eyre to him). Apparently, she was so nervous that she could neither eat nor drink (not something that troubled me at Fishguard).

But I’ve read another article since then, which gives the reason for that. The dedication actually caused Thackeray great embarrassment because, unbeknown to Charlotte Bronte, Thackeray had a mentally-ill wife whom he was unable to divorce and who had been placed in an institution (parallels with the character Mr Rochester, of course).

The dedication also caused speculation that ‘Currer Bell’ (Charlotte’s pseudonym), had been a governess to Thackeray’s daughters (as the character Jane Eyre is a governess). Charlotte was embarrassed when she learned that her dedication had spread gossip about Thackeray rather than being complimentary and that’s the reason that, when she finally met him, she was too nervous to eat or speak.

Awkward, as they say.

Posted in Blogging, Competitions, Novels | Tagged | 5 Comments

Winner of The Random Word Writing Competition

winner-clipart-1Right, as promised, here are the final results of my little ‘random word’ competition (I’m going to have to think of a new format for the next one, aren’t I?).

The shortlist of 5 stories was very kindly judged by Fran Tracey, who’s been writing quirky/slice of life fiction for the women’s magazine market internationally for 14 years, has been published in various anthologies and has won a number of national competitions.

And the results are:

Winner: Treasure Hunt – by Alyson Faye
Runner-up: Deal or No Deal – by Linda Mallinson

This is what Fran had to say about her choices:

‘After a lot of deliberation – it was a tough decision, they were all really good stories – I’ve decided on Treasure Hunt as the winner. I thought the author had created so much atmosphere in so few words and it left you with so many questions, not least what happens next? There’s a really great sense of what these kids’ lives are like, and we can foresee that the nominally serendipitous discovery will have such a huge impact on their lives. I loved the last line – a twist to make your stomach lurch. The given words were woven into the story so well, too.

For runner up I liked Deal or No Deal. What a fabulous character study in just 100 words. I could hear Grandma’s voice so clearly. It made me smile at her wiliness, but I got a strong sense of the grandchild’s frustration too in the line ‘A little ray of sunshine, Grandma is not’. A great, deadpan line, including one of the given words.

I thought the manner in which each of the authors used the given words was very inventive, but these two stood out for me.’

Thank you, Fran, for doing such a great job of judging and well done to Alyson and Linda, who will be receiving emails from me very soon about their prizes!

I’m off to Writers Holiday in Fishguard in the morning. Really looking forward to it and, unbelievably, I am packed! (And now I’m worried that I must have forgotten something vital. I am never packed this ‘early’. It’s only 10pm!).

Let’s hope, as Fishguard is on the coast, it will be a bit cooler there! Anyone else finding it hard to sleep at night in this heat? (It doesn’t help that we’ve got a wasps nest in the eaves above the bed! They are sooo noisy at night – scratching, buzzing, crackling. I keep thinking a hole is going to appear and they’re all going to drop down on my face).

And on that lovely note, I shall wish you good night!

Night night. Don’t let the bed bugs bite! (or the wasps take flight).

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‘Skyscraper’ Random Word Competition – Shortlist

SkyscraperI bet you thought I’d forgotten, didn’t you? Well, it’s 11pm-ish so it is, strictly speaking, still Friday. Sorry, did mean to do this earlier but I got caught up with other stuff.

Anyway, here is the shortlist of 5 stories, with their authors.

If you’re new to this, the idea was to write a 100 (max) story or poem that included the words: vote, sunshine, frost, skyscraper and toy. Additions to the words (eg: ‘voted’ or ‘frostily’) were allowed.

If your story or poem didn’t get a mention this time around, don’t be too disheartened. I know it’s a really hard thing to do, in just 100 words (and I think the words were particularly tricky this time).

Two things I would say, for future reference:

(i) Use all the words you’re allowed!

You were allowed up to 100 words for this exercise and some people only used 40 or 50. It’s no coincidence that none of the shortlisted entries is that short. They’re all within the 97 – 100 word bracket because you need all those words to make your entry the very best it can be. A 50 word story is going to have to be pretty exceptional to beat a 100 worder.

(ii) I know you’ve heard this before but don’t go with your first thought.

Half the 32 entries used a skyscraper for their setting. After a while, all those skyscraper stories (and one poem) started to blend into one another. If you can be original and different, your story will make more of an impression on a judge. And 5 of the skyscraper stories were set in – or made reference to – New York. Most of us associate skyscrapers with New York but that’s a first thought, isn’t it? Why not The Shard or The Gherkin? No one set their story definitively in London or somewhere like the Burj Khalifa, which is the tallest building in the world. Just saying…

On Monday I’m off to Writers Holiday in Fishguard for (almost) a week, so the winners will be announced on here before then.

The judge has already made his/her decision, so if you’d like to comment on which is your favourite story, then feel free, as it won’t affect the final result and it’s always interesting to see who likes what!

1. A Little Learning – by Christine Cherry

They laughed in the factory when she told them. “You? College? Little Miss Bluestocking? Never!”
She’d left school at 14, but she’d read; she’d remembered; she’d dreamed. Endless facts- tallest skyscraper? Deepest ocean? First Prime Minister? When did women get the vote? Endless lists- monarchs; battle dates; famous lives.
But here now, a row of black-gowned crows facing her, she was shrinking. Words, knowledge deserting her. The day was warm but the room remained frosty. Forbidding.
“Try once more,” the voice barked. “War and Peace?”
“Was written by…” her head spun, “Leo…Toy Story.”
Outside, the sunshine disappeared.

2. Deal or No Deal – by Linda Mallinson

“Hi, Grandma.”
“It’s Thursday, why are you here?”
A little ray of sunshine, Grandma is not.
“I’ve come to take you out to vote.”
“Out in a boat? I hate water.”
Grandma was sitting, with three others, round a table looking at a toy train.
“These are the people waiting at the railway station,” said Grandma, waving a handful of matches.
Pointing, I asked, “Is that a skyscraper?”
“That’s a pile of matchboxes, obviously,” said Grandma frostily.
“See you Monday then?” said Grandma.
On my way out I heard cards being shuffled and Grandma saying “Is it my deal?”

3. The Possibilities Are Endless – by Kathy Schilbach

So tiny. I hold you in my arms, stroke my fingertips across your cheek, and think of your future.
Maybe you’ll be an architect and build bridges and skyscrapers. Or you’ll be a TV weather girl and forecast frost and hurricanes. Or will you be a designer, creating toys for the super-rich? Or an MP, voted in to champion the poor?
I blink away a tear. There were complications at your birth. They say you’ll have severe learning difficulties. But I look at your smile, like sunshine filling the room, filling my heart, and I think: ‘What do they know?’

4. Treasure Hunt – by Alyson Faye

Our little gang of scavengers always take a vote before we head out. We’re democratic that way.
That January day, the waste ground behind the newly built skyscraper won.
It was Billy who found the doll, lying in the frosty tipped grass. Weak sunshine gleamed on her glassy eyes.
Shoving it at me, Billy rubbed his hands on his denims, ‘Yuk, it’s slimy. Here Jem. You have it.’
None of us had toys, so this was real treasure. Grabbing the doll’s tiny hand, I instantly recognized it.
From the ‘Missing’ poster. The lost girl was holding it.

5. Unseen – by Julie Durdin

Frosty face; polished obsidian eyes; blackbird-winged hair, glossy with oil.
“Don’t toy with me.”
I wasn’t.
Punches, burns, vicious kicks to ankles – I suffer them all.
My nose mashed on the window. Outside, placards held aloft. I know what’s on them. Vote for Gilmour. That benign smile.
Don’t believe him, I silently scream. Know what he does to me up here in this skyscraper he built with your money. All this glass, but you don’t see me.
One day I’ll jump. You’ll see me then, head spread across the pavement, bright red blood glistening in the summer sunshine.

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Putting On The Ritz!

 We were in London last weekend for birthday celebrations! (his). We had dinner at The Ritz and afternoon tea at The Dukes Hotel in Mayfair. Get me! Yes, we were living the high life (although we did balance it out by staying at the very thrifty Premier Inn Hub on Brick Lane. More of that in a moment).

The first time we went to The Ritz (in 2008! I’ve still got the menus), I had a horrible headache, my man was hobbling due to a tennis injury and the next day, back home, he came down with pneumonia which necessitated a 999 call (nothing, I’m sure, to do with The Ritz but one remembers these things!).

This time, we assured ourselves, we would be ‘injury free’! But no – I am still bandaged up from my sprained ankle (tennis injury) and had to stop at the entrance of Green Park before we got to The Ritz, to slip off the tubi-grip – and the next day, due, I am sure, to all that champagne – and the London heatwave – I got another of my lovely ‘heads’. Anyway, we will have to go back again and hope it’s ‘third time lucky’.

You’re not supposed to take photos in The Ritz but we sneaked a few in at the bar and then, after dinner, when most people had gone home (and in fact, the cleaners were heading out with their Hoovers), we managed a few more. The Ritz is, in my humble opinion, quite perfect. (You can even have afternoon tea at 7.30pm!). It was opened in 1906 and Charlie Chaplin was a regular. It’s a little oasis of luxury and calm in a mad, mad world. I could quite happily have stayed there forever..

London 006

But no, after one more naughty cocktail at the bar, we jumped into a cab and went off to Brick Lane (immortalised of course, in the Monica Ali novel, which is one of my favourites). Brick Lane is famous for galleries, curry restaurants and markets, Spitalfields market is just down the road, as is Liverpool Street Station and I can highly recommend the Premier Inn Hub place.

We had a mooch around on Sunday morning and found a lovely book shop (which has a book club and a writing group, according to the website)..

book shop

AND this sign – which made me laugh and we had to take a photo.

London 009

If you read Writers Forum, you may have spotted the articles that Douglas McPherson has written about my People’s Friend serial and the process of writing it. The family that own the chocolate factory in the serial – the Allens – are Quakers, as were many of the chocolatiers of that time (Cadburys, Frys and Rowntrees). Somehow, during our telephone interview, Douglas and I got our wires crossed and in this month’s article, he states that I’m a Quaker. (That really made me laugh). Anyway, of course, there’s nothing wrong with it – in fact, some lovely people, like Judi Dench, are Quakers – but just for the record, I’m not one. Or at least, I wasn’t last time I looked.

Longlist: Random Words Writing Competition (Skyscraper, Vote, Frost, Sunshine, Toy)

I have appointed a judge for the random words writing competition and he/she is beavering away as I write, considering the (anonymous) shortlist.

But here, in the meantime is the long list of 10 entries, in alphabetical order by title:

• A Little Learning
• Battered by a Borzoi
• Deal or No Deal
• Life Changer
• The Most Unlikely Person To Enter A Beauty Pageant
• The Possibilities Are Endless
• Time To Go
• Treasure Hunt
• Unseen
• Window to Someone Else’s World

The shortlist will be published TOMORROW (Friday!) so make sure you come back then…!



Posted in Books, Magazines, The People's Friend | Tagged , | 7 Comments