Thinking About Non-Fiction Writing

thinking-clipart-as5814Most writers – including me – want to write, well.. stories. We live half our lives in an imaginary world, populated by made-up people and places, dreaming of the day when our name’s on the cover of a novel. Right?

But, as I’m always telling my students, you’re much more likely to have non-fiction published, than fiction. You probably already knew that. There’s less competition because there are so many more openings and opportunities, from letters in magazines, to articles in print or on-line, reviews, blogs, travel and opinion pieces, life writing.. and so it goes on.

Just stand in WH Smiths and gaze at all the magazines they stock (and that’s not even all the magazines published in the UK). There are many subscription-only and specialised magazines too. (Check out the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook for a comprehensive list) and all of them – and their accompanying websites – need copy and you might be just the person to supply it.

I’ve been thinking about non-fiction recently because I’m finding it more and more difficult to read long fiction (ie: anything longer than a short story!). I put down more books than I finish. The writing has to grab me in the first couple of pages. I have to like – or at least be interested in – the main character and there has to be sufficient tension for me to keep turning the pages, to want to find out what happens next.

And what of the novels I keep giving up on? It’s not, honestly, because I think I can do better. I know how hard it is to write good fiction. But there’s a world of books out there, waiting to be read and I’ve become book-intolerant: life’s too short to read anything that’s not unputdownable.

I’ve just (last night) started reading ‘H is for Hawk‘ by Helen Macdonald, a memoir which won both the 2014 Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction and the 2014 Costa Book of the Year Award. And, as I’d thought and hoped it would be – it’s excellent. I don’t think I’ll be giving up on this one! (Hurrah!)

So, if, like me, you’re turning your thoughts a little more to ‘non-fiction’ these days, you might be interested in these (free!) travel writing competitions on the Bradt Travel Guides website:

To Oldly Go‘ – over 60 with a tale to tell? There’s a call out for true stories from silver travellers, to go into a new book. c/d 14th June and it’s open to anyone (including those who live outside the UK).

The Bradt Travel Writing competition, in conjunction with the Independent on Sunday has got some wonderful travel-related prizes and there’s even a category for ‘Unpublished Writer’ and ‘Best Young Writer’. You’ve got until 30th June to submit your true travel piece on the theme ‘Serendipity’. This one is only open to UK residents, sorry!

If you live in Dumfries and Galloway, Dorset ; North Devon and Exmoor , Cornwall or Northumberland or you know these areas well, this could be for you. There’s a competition for each area, asking for 500 words describing your ‘Perfect Day In Dorset’.. (or Cornwall or North Devon, etc). There are breaks for two to be won and the closing date for all the competitions is 30th June.

Bear in mind that: “The judge will consider a combination of factors including originality of idea, quality of writing, adherence to theme and creativity.”

Writing fiction is just one side of being a writer and getting published and if you’re interested in opportunities for writing non-fiction, I can do no better than to point you in the direction of Alex Gazzola’s excellent blog ‘Mistakes Writers Make‘ which is positively teeming with tips, advice and markets for non-fiction writers.

And on that subject, I have three articles to write for Writing magazine, so I’d better make a start on one of them …

Posted in Competitions, Novels | Tagged | 7 Comments

Reality TV As ‘Research’ For Writers

girl swimmerNow I don’t watch much tele’, honestly, but when I indulge, I do like a bit of reality TV (it’s research! And gives you ideas – as I said last year in this post, point 4). So, last Friday night we found ourselves watching BBC3’s ‘Don’t Tell The Bride‘.

This, if you don’t already know, is a programme in which a hapless groom is given a budget of £12,000 and put in sole charge of arranging and organising his wedding – including the wedding dress, eek – in just three weeks (oh, and his fiancée, just to add to the pressure, is usually a bit of a bridezilla – the sort of girl who’s been planning her Big Day since she was in junior school).

Perhaps, when this show first started, the weddings were all fairly ‘normal’ but now they’ve got more and more extreme. In the episode I watched, the bride, Hayley, was a former champion swimmer and very sporty but she was also very ‘girly’ (we saw her having her nails done, swanning around in her dream dress which was about as wide as the lounge and then walzing down the aisle of a quaint church, hoping and praying this was going to be The Venue for her wedding to Ian).

Meanwhile, Ian was organising an underwater ceremony.. his logic being that, as Hayley is ‘a mermaid’ and taught him to swim, holding their wedding in the public swimming pool where she used to work (and which had a handy spectator gallery around the poolside), would be the perfect romantic gesture. (He was, incidentally, also quite scared of water.. ).

Eek, there were so many things that could go wrong! :(

And on the morning of the wedding, we viewers watched as poor, unsuspecting Hayley spent four hours having her hair and make-up done, slipped into the white wedding dress chosen by Ian (and which had, amazingly, passed muster) and confirmed to the camera that she’d ‘never felt prettier’.. only then to be driven to the public pool for, well, a potential soaking.

It was hilarious and heartbreaking all at the same time but it was also completely compelling. If that had been fiction, I doubt whether you’d have been able to stop reading. The TV producers ramped up the tension at every opportunity (the mother was on the war path, the bridesmaids were rebelling and there was still that question hanging in the air – would she go through with it and, if she did, would they still be on speaking terms by the end?).

It was a complete masterclass in giving your heroine problems, dilemmas and conflicts and then seeing her deal with them. Brilliant.

I won’t spoil the ending – just in case you feel so inclined to watch it – suffice to say that one of my favourite moments was when the bridesmaids, after several tantrums, had clearly thought ‘sod it!’ and ran out of the changing rooms in the pink swimsuits they’d been supplied by the groom and dived straight into the pool!

Writers & Artists Yearbook: Crime & Thriller Competition

And as a thank you for indulging me in that bit of TV tat… here’s news of a brand new, free competition for you, being run by those nice people at Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook.

To enter, you have to email the first 2,000 words of a crime/thriller manuscript (for adults) to crimecomp@bloomsbury.com with “Killer fiction competition” as the subject line. It’s free and open to anyone, anywhere and it’s being judged by a literary agent BUT first prize is a pair of tickets to their Writing Crime & Thriller Fiction event on Saturday 19th September 2015 in London, so make sure you can get there before you enter. It would be galling to win and then not be able to take up your prize.

More details on the website here.

Posted in Competitions, Television | Tagged | 6 Comments

Write Your Diary On 12th May!

Any idea what this is?!

Any idea what this is?!

The Mass Observation Archive, based at Sussex University, is inviting people living in the UK to write and submit an anonymous diary of their day on 12th May (ie: this Tuesday). Who knows, your diary could be read by people researching how we lived in 2015, in hundreds of years’ time!

“Write as much as you can about what you do, who you meet, what you talk about, what you eat and drink, what you buy or sell, what you are working on, the places you visit, the people you meet, the things you read, see and hear around you, how you are feeling and of course what you yourself think.”

There are more details – and information on how to email your diary – on the website.

Some of the 258 diary submissions that they received in 2010 are on the website here and, even though it was only five years ago, they’re make interesting reading (lots of comments about the last election!) but what struck me was how most people started their diaries with the morning and what they had for breakfast. Was that really the most important or significant part of their day? If you’re going to have a go at this (ahem, she says, in her best Creative Writing tutor voice), pick out the interesting bits: conversations you had, or observations you made. By all means, tell us the title of that book you’re reading or the TV programmes you watched (detail is all!), but we probably don’t need to know too much about what you had for breakfast unless it was something extraordinary! (3 Shredded Wheat?!)

Do any of you write a diary normally? (And if so, would you like to give me a comment about why, how long, how it’s helped your writing, given you ideas – or anything? I’m writing an article about keeping a diary, so it would be great to have some quotes!)

Thanks!

And in other news:

Please, if you have five minutes, could you vote for The Friendship Project in the AVIVA Community Awards? It’s the children’s charity that I work for and we are trying to raise more funds. Thank you!

Yesterday I went to ‘Singalonga Frozen‘ with my friend and goddaughter, in Redditch. I am still recovering.. !

STOP PRESS: Thanks to Lynne, we have realised that the ‘deadly nightshade’ is probably not, after all. Aah. We have to break the news to our neighbours that the pretty purple-and-yellow flowering plant creeping over our wall from their garden is, in fact, Deadly Nightshade! Yes, that’s it in the photo above. The poisonous berries will be formed once the flowers die. EEEK!

And I have a story in this week’s People’s Friend, called ‘The Open Road’. The picture from the magazine is below. Sweet, isn’t it?

It’s the first one of mine in that magazine for a long time. I find them very tricky to write for and I take my hat off to writer friends such as Samantha Tonge and Wendy Clarke, who have written dozens of stories for them!

The Open Road

Posted in Good Causes, Magazines, Short Stories, Successes | Tagged | 17 Comments

Elevator Pitches And Other Stuff..

ElevatorI promised to tell you more about one of the writing workshops I attended at ChipLitFest last weekend, so here goes…

I went to a workshop on ‘Creating Tension’, run by Lucy Atkins and Emily Barr, who’ve both written scary books.

Tips that I picked up in the hour-long session (too short!):

1. A book with no tension = a bored reader.
2. You need tension in every kind of novel or story – not just a thriller.
3. One way of creating tension is to raise questions, which you don’t immediately answer.
4. If you understand how to create tension you’ll have a strong narrative and a reader who can’t help but keep turning the page.
5. You can generate a lot of tension from setting (eg: a remote place or somewhere claustrophobic).
6. Secrets build tension, so do obsessions and obsessive behaviour.
7. Journeys can add tension. What is the character going to find/discover when they arrive?
8. Time pressure is a good way of building tension into a story. Think about your ‘ticking clocks’.
9. Don’t spell things out. ‘Show, don’t tell’, as the mantra goes. If you bring the reader into the setting, they are much more involved and engaged and you can generate more tension that way.
10.Think about including ‘cliff-hangers’ or questions at the end of chapters or sections.

The Elevator Pitch

One of the exercises they set us to do, was to work on our ‘elevator’ pitches.

You’ve heard of those, I’m sure. Imagine you find yourself in a lift with an agent or a publisher (or Gaynor Davies from Woman’s Weekly, if, say, you’ve gone on one of their fiction writing workshops).

“Tell me what your book (or serials)’s about,” the person-you-want-to-impress says, pressing the button for the sixth floor. You’ve got as long as it takes for the lift to reach the floor (no more than 30 seconds) – at which point the agent-or-publisher will get out and you’ve lost her – to answer that question. You don’t have time to waffle so, whether it’s a novel you’ve written or maybe even a short story or serial, you should have your elevator pitch ready.

In an ‘elevator pitch’ you boil your story down to just a couple of lines – and, specifically, to where the tension is.

I’m not sure if this is what Emily Barr used as hers – and I think you’re allowed a few more words than this (I’ve heard ’25’ quoted)- but I noticed the ‘strap line’ on her novel ‘The Sleeper‘ is:

‘Two strangers meet on a train. Only one gets off.’

Ooh, that’s good, isn’t it?

There’s a little more about the ‘elevator pitch’ on the Writers’ & Artists‘ website here.

I heard another quote about elevators and writers recently, by the way.

An author was asked “So, how do you write your novels?”

And he answered, “Well, I just get into the elevator and press the button for the basement.. ” In other words, he just keeps going down and down, deeper and deeper into the characters.

I rather like that..

Posted in Cotswolds, Novels | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Selling (Writing) Dreams…

Chipping Norton Literary FestivalAs I was driving into Oxfordshire this morning, heading for the Chipping Norton Literary Festival (exciting!), they played one of my favourite songs on the radio – Jessie by Joshua Kadison (OK, I know it’s a bit cheesy and Joshua really could do with a haircut but it’s in my top ten, so there!).

One of the lines (ahem, not that I know them all off by heart, or anything..) is “Jessie, you can always sell any dream to me.”

And it made me think: as much as I love literary festivals, that’s precisely what they’re doing: selling dreams.

Now, of course, lots of ‘readers’ (as opposed to ‘reader-writers’), attend festivals, to hear their favourite authors speak and to meet them at the obligatory post-talk book signing. I’ve done that too, dozens of times and that’s all fair enough. That’s not really what I mean. Literary festivals appeal to writers too (most festivals offer writing workshops these days) and that’s where the ‘selling dreams’ bit comes in.

I went to two workshops today: ‘Creating Tension’ and ‘Write Great Dialogue’. I’ll tell you more about them in my next post (see what I did there?!).

They were good, I enjoyed them and learned something, as I always do. They were well attended too – probably 20 people in each – and when we did some 5 minute writing exercises, people (mostly men, I noticed!) were clamouring to read out their work.

The writer-tutors were gushing and enthusiastic in their praise. “Fantastic!” “Brilliant! “Really well done!”

Those writers – or wannabe writers – probably went home feeling ten feet tall and the writer-authors were also probably pretty pleased with themselves at the end of the session. After all, they’d been admired, they’d sat at the front of the class, delivering their words of wisdom and the subtext was, “Follow our advice and you, too, could be published authors like us.”

Everyone felt good. A win-win situation.

But as I sat there, I couldn’t help but imagine all the wannabe writers who hadn’t taken the day off to enjoy themselves at a festival. Who were, at that very moment, sitting at their computers, or in front of a notepad, actually writing, the hard way. The way it really is: alone, with no-one on the sidelines, cheering you on. And for longer than five minutes…

PS: In case you were wondering, the winner of my Poldark book giveaway was Sherri Turner.

Posted in Cotswolds | Tagged | 13 Comments

All Rise…

stepper

Hysteria Writing Competition 2015

The prize money in the Hysteria short story competition has just gone up to a very tasty £400 for the first prize and £200 for the flash fiction and poetry winners (all thanks to a new sponsor), so if you haven’t already thought of entering, that might tempt you.

The competition is open to female writers of any nationality writing in English (sorry guys!). Details are here and the closing date’s 31st August 2015.

RIP Laminator

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before (members of my writing class know!) but I have a bit of a ‘thing’ for laminating. Well, this morning, disaster struck! My laminator died – by eating 2 of my published short stories, that I’d just fed into its mouth.

Warning: do not leave your laminator unattended!

I left mine for all of 30 seconds, while I went into another room to get more laminating sheets and when I came back, there was no sign of the sheet that I’d left chugging its way through the machine. I thought I was going mad. I looked everywhere. I even accused the dog of doing something terrible to the sheet, perhaps, as it floated to the floor. Then smoke started to come out of the laminator and when I peered into the slot, I could see the crunched up remains of my two stories in there. I expected the laminator to burp. Aagh.

Protect Your Back – And Get Fit!

And finally, you must read this post by Belinda Pollard (which my writing buddy Sally first alerted me to, via Twitter) – it’s all about protecting your health and specifically your back when you write (and let’s face it, we’re probably all guilty of slouching or not having our desk/chair at the right height). When you spend hours (and hours, as we all do, of course!) sitting, it’s really important to think about posture.

I dare you to read the section on ‘back care’ and not sit up straighter/put your feet on the floor and sttrrettchhh…

I don’t like to scare-monger – after all you don’t read this blog to be worried or stressed, do you – but it’s been in the news lately about how too much sitting is bad for you. Maybe we should all write standing up (like Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf and Ernest Hemingway, amongst others)? Or lying down in bed (like Truman Capote and Edith Wharton)?

These are the tips on the NHS website, for adults aged 19 to 64:

Adults aged 19 to 64 are advised to try to sit down less throughout the day, including at work, when travelling and at home.

Tips to reduce sitting time:

* stand on the train or bus
* take the stairs and walk up escalators
* set a reminder to get up every 30 minutes
* alternate working while seated with standing
* place a laptop on a box or similar to work standing
* stand or walk around while on the phone
* take a walk break every time you take a coffee or tea break
* walk to a co-worker’s desk instead of emailing or calling
* swap some TV time for more active tasks or hobbies

I must admit, when I first read that novelists Kath McGurl and Cally Taylor were getting a ‘stepper’ and a treadmill-with-laptop-tray, respectively, so they could stand and exercise while they wrote, I thought they were .. well, a bit mad! (Struck me as being like that patting your head and rubbing your tummy exercise. Too much to think about!) but now, well, Ladies, I salute you. It’s the right thing to do!

Maybe, instead of a new laminator, I need to get a different kind of exercise machine! What d’you think? Exercise bike with laptop tray, anyone…?

Posted in Competitions | Tagged | 9 Comments

I Need A Hero… ! (+ here comes a giveaway!)

PoldarkI admit it. I am a laggard.

I’m talking about those classifications to help explain how new ideas and technology spread through cultures. You know the ones: there are the ‘innovators’ (those annoying people who have to have the latest gadget before it’s come off the production line) and then there are the slightly more circumspect but still very up-to-the-minute, ‘early adopters’.. and so it goes on, until you get to the last group of people. Those who are the very last to catch on to anything. Well, they’re the laggards.

You see, the BBC Sunday night Poldark TV series is nearly at an end and I’ve just realised how good it is.

I’m one of those saddos who can remember the first Poldark series, back.. ahem, in the ’70s (I watched it from my cot) and there was a little part of me that thought ‘Nah, it can’t be as good as that’ but I’m writing something that needs a HERO and I wasn’t feeling very inspired and everyone seems to be swooning over Aidan Turner, who plays Ross Poldark, so purely for research purposes you understand, I watched Part I yesterday and Part II tonight and yes… I am hooked.

If you are intrigued – or if, like most of the (female) population, you’ve been watching it since episode one – then you might be interested in Kim Fleet’s fascinating post on what Poldark can teach us writers!

And there’s a great interview with Poldark screenwriter Debbie Horsfield, on the BBC Writers Room website here.

One of my favourite authors, Marian Keyes, has even come up with a Poldark bingo card, which you can use for the last two episodes!

Book Giveaway

And finally, to celebrate my coming into the fold-that-is-Poldark, I’m giving away a brand new copy of the first book in the 12-book series: the appropriately-named ‘Ross Poldark‘ by Winston Graham.

Just leave a Poldark or hero-related comment under this post by 9pm on Sunday 19th April 2015 and you’ll be entered into the random draw. Are you watching it? Do you hate it?! (gasp!) or why do you think Ross Poldark is such a good hero?! (Or who’s written a better one?)

Posted in Books, Men, Research, Television | Tagged | 12 Comments