What Twitter Has Taught Me This Week

Two things have caught my eye on Twitter in the past week (well, lots of things actually but 2 things about writing and not puppies or food and that might also be of interest to you), namely, an interview with Stephen King in which he talks, amongst other things, about endless editing of your work as being like ‘picking a scab’.

Yuck, I know. But come on, we all did it when we were children with permanently scabby knees and elbows.. erm, didn’t we? OK, just me then.

Anyway, in answer to the question ‘does he ever make himself deliberately write more slowly?’, King answered with a resounding NO. “Poke along and obsessively polish? No.You keep picking a scab, you’re gonna make it bleed instead of heal.”

Oh, this is so true! And this is what I do. I fiddle and tweak and change names and amend, which results in my taking ages to write anything! I must stop it! Leave that scab alone!

Another wise person on the Twitters – writer Anne Brooke advised (re Writer’s Block) that if you’re stuck “maybe you’re trying to control the story. Trust it to reveal itself to you. It will!”

Now this is a bit like tennis, if I may talk about sport for a moment. Sometimes, in tennis, you try to ‘steer’ the ball with your shot – and 9 times out of 10, when you do that, the ball lands in the bottom of the net. It’s almost like you’re trying too hard. Anne’s comment reminded me of that and also of another person that I worked for once, on a ‘spoken word’ project. When I expressed surprise (and pleasure!) that everyone’s performances on ‘the night’ were so much better than in rehearsal, she explained that that always happened and it was a case of ‘trusting the process’.

Muting

And still on the subject of Twitter, I like muting words on there. It’s very satisfying to know that I won’t get any messages that include the word ‘Trump’ or ‘Brexit’, for example (because I go on Twitter for a bit of light relief, not to get depressed by the news).

I’ve muted loads. In fact, soon, the only words left will be: ‘Marian Keyes’, ‘dogs’ and ‘writing’. But today, was a first for me: I muted ‘Christmas’. Hurrah. I’m sorry if you’ve got a Christmas-Lit book coming out and you’ve started to go on about it promote it but I really, really, really don’t want to think about Christmas yet. I’m not completely miserable: I will be unmuting the word ‘Christmas’ on 1st December. (erm… if I remember).

The Testaments

Unless you’ve been cut off from the news for the past few days, you’ll probably know that Margaret Atwood’s much-anticipated sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale – ‘The Testaments’ – has just been published. Ooh, that green cover! I’d buy it just for that. It’s just about my favourite colour!

I have decided I should re-read the original before I allow myself to read the new one. I didn’t watch the TV series and it’s been a long time since I read The Handmaid’s Tale (in fact, so long that my paperback copy was priced at £4.99!) and I can’t remember exactly what happened.

Interestingly, I don’t often keep books once I’ve read them. I pass them on to friends or give them to charity shops and I know lots of you will be horrified by this but they just take up too much room! And if I’m not going to read them again, I don’t really see the point. BUT I did keep my copy of The Handmaid’s Tale and of course, now I’m very pleased that I did.

Margaret Atwood, one of my favourite authors (whom I saw speak at Stratford three years ago, you may remember), has admitted that thieves tried to steal the manuscript of The Testaments and her publishers had to devise all kinds of cunning ways to stop the book getting book-napped or copied before its release date.

It’s a story almost worthy of a novel in itself…

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Posted in Books | Tagged , | 3 Comments

A Confession

As you may remember, I left you on something of a cliff-hanger in my last post:

I had a novel submission to get off to the RNA by midnight last Friday and I still had to prepare my 4 workshops for the NAWG Fest 2019, which was also starting on Friday.

Would I do it? Or would I …

Reader, I failed.

Now, I was going to lie. Or at least, ‘omit’ to tell you that I didn’t send off my novel manuscript because, quite frankly, I am ashamed and embarrassed. (And kicking myself at a lost opportunity and a lost £135 because that’s what I paid to re-join the New Writers’ Scheme in January and I principally joined for the manuscript critique. Ha! *gives hollow laugh*).

I also feel bad because I effectively wasted a place on that scheme that someone else (someone organised, who could have benefitted from it!), could have taken. Sorry, if that was you.

Anyway, it’s water under the bridge now, so I’m not going to bore you with all the details harp on about it. Suffice to say, I thought I should ‘fess up’ because it’s easy to show an edited ‘golden’ version of your writing life on social media and blogs (i.e.: just the good times and the successes) and I think it’s only fair to show the bad bits too. Because we all have them.

NAWGFest 2019

On a more positive note, I DID prepare my 4 workshops for NAWG Fest in good time, they were all really well attended and seemed to be well received and I had a great time and met lots of lovely people.

The guest speakers at the Gala Dinner on Saturday night, were husband-and-wife crime writing duo Sean French and Nicky Gerrard, who write as ‘Nicci French’ and guess what… I sat next to them at dinner! I felt very honoured and it was lovely to be able to chat to them both before they stood up at the end of the meal to give their (excellent) talk.

NAWG, in case you’re wondering (and it does sound a bit like you’ve got an adenoid problem when you say it), stands for ‘National Association of Writers’ Groups’.

You can join as a writing group, obviously or also as an individual and they run several writing competitions a year, which you can enter for free as part of your membership (plus, as a member, you get a discount on the annual Festival).

But you can attend all or part of the Festival, for a slightly higher fee, even if you’re not a member of the Association, which was something I hadn’t realised. All the deets, as they say, are on their website, PLUS, if you’re interested, they’ve got an open short story competition with a theme of Betrayal, which closes on 30th November.

It was strange to be back at Warwick University for NAWGFest, as I used to work there 8 or 9 years ago. I was actually teaching my short story workshops in the Humanities building, just yards away from my old office and old department. But in those days, I was part of the admin team (ahem, you’ll know this if you’ve ever worked at a University – unless you are at the very least a lecturer, you’re a nobody, regardless of how many degrees or qualifications you’ve got).

This time, I was there as a teacher, with my own class. As I strolled down the corridors, enjoying myself a million times more than I ever did when I worked there, I had a little swagger in my step, I must admit.

Me, with my winning envelope!

Another bit of good news: over the weekend I won a Writers Bureau course in the raffle!

I used to work for the Writers Bureau, as a poetry tutor, so that’s another example of things coming ‘full circle’: now, instead of being a tutor, I’m going to be one of their students.

I will keep you posted on which course I decide to choose but maybe ‘Writing Articles’. I do write the odd (very odd!) article but I’ve never really spread my wings (it’s only ever been for one or two publications) and perhaps this will be the push I need to start getting my work out there a little more.

Posted in Competitions, Events, Short Stories | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

Phew what a scorcher!

Raspberry entries in the village fete (one entrant was told off for taking the stalks off..)

It’s been boiling today (33 degrees, according to my car temperature gauge. Eek!).

I think the heat has befuddled my brain, so apologies for a slightly all-over-the-place post coming up.

I have got a busy week ahead ‘writing-wise’ and it starts tomorrow.

I’ve got to prepare the 4 short story workshops I’m going to be delivering next weekend at the NAWG Festival (which starts on Friday at Warwick University) and .. just a little thing this, I have to send my manuscript to the RNA (Romantic Novelists’ Association)’s New Writers’ Scheme by midnight on 31st August, which also happens to be Friday.

I always do this. I start with good intentions and then life takes over and I run out of time. I shall just do my best! (*she says, pretending to be calm*).

Yesterday it was the ‘Flower Show’ in our village and I took my mum along (mistake! She kept saying things like “That’s a terrible one!” in a loud voice).

Anyway, it was so much more than just a flower show. There were prizes for potatoes grown in a bucket (who knew that was even a thing?) and (always a favourite) an award for mis-shapen vegetables. (As you can see from the photo, the winner of that category was the little tomato with the… erm, nose-shaped protuberance).

It was all very strict and the notes from the judges were worth a read, too. Someone’s arty ‘trug’ filled with 5 different vegetables was criticised because the cucumber ‘was not crisp’ and the winners and the highly-commended in the scones section were, curiously all baked by men. The judge had commented that ‘it was good to see the chaps taking part this year.’

I must admit my competitive spirit did get slightly stirred when I saw they had a category for QUICHES (or, as they called them ‘savoury flans’) because (I may have mentioned this before), I am a bit of a dab hand at a quiche. I told my OH that I will be entering next year and he looked very worried. (But I probably won’t. I’ll do my usual and leave it all too late…!)

And if, like me, you’re immersed in novel writing (or at least, you’re thinking about it!) at the moment, then you might be interested in this book, which I’ve just read on the subject – Save The Cat! Writes a Novel – by Jessica Brody. I liked the tips it gave you on structuring – it was good.

And I found this post by Sophie Hannah*, on how she plans her novels, interesting and helpful. You might too.

Enjoy the Bank Holiday!

*Interesting fact about Sophie Hannah. Many, many years ago, before she turned her hand to novel-writing, she came to the little adult ed. writing class that I attended in Birmingham, as a ‘guest writer’ and read some of her poetry to us. Yes, I knew her before she was famous…..

Posted in Novels | Tagged | 6 Comments

Once More Unto The Beach, dear Friends!

Life’s a beach!

Hello there! Whoops, two whole weeks since my last post but I hope you can forgive me because I’ve been on my holibobs/honeymoon in beautiful, sunny, North Norfolk. And beach bum Bonnie came too!

As you can probably see from the photos, even though it was the height of summer, there were still miles and miles of empty beaches. Bliss!

B.E.A.C.H Best Escape Anyone Can Have

Since my return, though, terrible things have happened: I’ve heard the weather referred to as ‘Warm November’; I’ve seen Christmas cards.. shelves and shelves of them.. in the Card Factory (*shudders*), there are ‘Back to School’ adverts everywhere and apparently, in Scotland (poor Scotland), today is The Last Day of The Summer Holidays.

Noooo! This can’t be true! There are still weeks and weeks of the summer left, surely!? Or am I just in denial? Anyway, I know there are some of you out there who still have to take your summer hols, or are on them now (Chris, in Devon?!) so enjoy and I hope the sun shines for you!

Anyway, not much writing’s been done while I’ve been away (in fact, none) but I did manage to read a few books, namely: Big Sky by Kate Atkinson. It’s the latest in her detective Jackson Brodie series and was good (although it’s made me want to read all the earlier ‘Jackson Brodies’ now and I can’t let myself because I don’t have time).

I also read Rachel’s Holiday by Marian Keyes, which I’ve tried to read in the past and couldn’t get into but this time it grabbed me from the first page and I loved it.

If you haven’t read any of her books, don’t dismiss MK as ‘chick lit’ (eek, horrible expression). Amongst the silliness and the fun, she always deals with serious issues too and in Rachel’s Holiday it’s drug addiction and rehab and it gets quite dark at times (and is, I suspect, partly-autobiographical as MK spent time in rehab herself, many moons ago).

And finally … not quite on holiday but within 24 hours of returning, I read Joanna Cannon’s medical memoir ‘Breaking and Mending’, which was waiting for me on my return. It doesn’t actually come out until next month but.. ahem..*stands a little taller*… my ‘friend’ Jo (OK, I interviewed her in June, so maybe we’re not quite besties…yet) sent me a proof and signed it, which was lovely jubbly.

And it was brilliant, I should add (the book). My only complaint… I’d have liked it to be about ten times longer!

There was a ‘thing’ on Twitter yesterday, which was fun (and yes, wasted an hour or so). Writer Adam Sharp who likes to makes lists, came up with a list of 10 words that he was ‘petitioning’ to have banned. These included:

1.‘Hols/holibobs’ (guilty as charged! See above)
2. ‘Hubby/wifey’ (we have resisted that so far…)
3. ‘Fur babies’ (hmm, I don’t say that but as someone who calls their dog ‘Baby Ange’, I’m not far off! And yes, as my friend said, it does sound like a character from East Enders!)
4. ‘Literally’ (because lots of people use that literally all the time).
5. ‘Feels’ (as in ‘all the feels’. That’s a young person’s thing. Must admit I’ve only just come across it and I don’t use it. Hurrah!)

Are there any words you’d like to ban or put into a virtual Room 101?

Letting her hair (fur) down!

Take nothing but memories, leave nothing but pawprints

Posted in Bonnie, Books | Tagged | 16 Comments

‘Read Aloud’ Button on Word + a Monologue-Writing Competition (free!)

Boasty-Boasty Corner

I’ve had a little success since I last wrote: my entry in the TamLitFest short story competition came second! Hurrah.

It’s only a £50 prize (still very welcome!) and the story will probably be going into an anthology and might also be recorded for local radio. It’s encouraging and motivating to have one’s work ‘recognised’, albeit in a very small way (and one of the main reasons I occasionally get organised enough to enter writing competitions!).

Also, this week, an article of mine has appeared in the September (September!?) issue of Writing Magazine. I called it ‘It’s All Been Done Before’, they changed it to ‘Lacks Originality?’ (hmm) but anyway, it’s there, on page 54.

I’d completely forgotten what I’d written, as I submitted it to them back in February (once I’d got the ‘OK’ from the editor to actually write it. Never send a whole article ‘on spec’, always send a pitch first. I’m sure you know that!).

It had been so long since I’d written it, that I was able to read the article as though it was by someone else. My conclusion? Not bad!

That Extra Wedding Guest

There was an extra guest at our wedding earlier this month. Someone who didn’t need a seat, or their own room or even any food or drink. My husband’s great-niece (as it turned out! No-one knew if his niece was expecting a boy or a girl), was born yesterday and is called Penelope!

Unusual/’old fashioned’ names are making a comeback, aren’t they? (And, just as an aside, growing up in Ireland, my mum had never come across the name, so when she read about a character called Penelope in a book, she assumed it was pronounced ‘Penny-lope’). Anyway, we were very grateful that little Penelope – all 8lb 8oz of her – didn’t decide to make an early entrance and steal our thunder on the day!

‘Read Aloud’

I’ve just discovered the ‘Read Aloud’ button on the review screen of Word (or at least, on my version. They might not all have it, I suppose).

You can write a story and then press the button, sit back and let the computer read it to you (in a robotic male voice that gets the intonation wrong quite a lot of the time!). It’s not perfect but it’s not bad.

A story that I wrote without a lump in the throat, actually brought tears to my eye when I listened to it (and no, not because the reading out was so awful). Anyway, have a go yourself, if you can find the tab/button (and if you want to stop it, you just press the tab again).

Lancaster One Minute Monologue Competition – Free to Enter c/d 31st August

And finally, if you like writing monologues – or think you might like to – there’s a competition here asking for monologues of 1 minute, which is free to enter.

You can submit up to 4 monologues and some of the entries will be performed at Lancaster library on 23rd November. There are some examples on the website (recordings of monologues performed last year). ‘Families’ is a really interesting one. Just one word! Repeated in different ways and with different facial expressions and stresses. (So that’s all about the performance, rather than the words) and I thought ‘Thirty Five Years Ago’ was good too (and is performed with no script! Eek!)

The best written monologue will win a £50 prize. The top 30 monologues will be read at the live event (you don’t have to be there – they will nominate someone to read your monologue if necessary) and the one judged by the audience to be the best will also win a £50 prize.

If you live in the Lancaster area, you might also like to go along to the (free) workshop they’re holding on August 16th at the Toll House Hotel 2pm – 4pm. Book your place at Eventbrite.

Good luck! I might have a go at this myself – it looks like fun!

The most famous Penelope of them all? Ms Pitstop herself.

Posted in Competitions, Magazines, Successes | Tagged | 8 Comments

Morning Pages v. 750 words … and lots of other stuff!

Do you remember, back in March, I told you about ‘750 words’?

The plan was, I was going to try it for a month (because it’s free for a month!) and I think I promised to report back.

Well, the truth is, I gave up after a couple of weeks. It’s just not the same as doing Morning Pages by hand, in my humble opinion. It was too fast and too ‘computer-ish’ and it felt like cheating.

Morning Pages takes me between 25 and 30 minutes (depending on whether the dog’s jumping on me) and it’s much more ‘mentally soothing’ and methodical – it’s much more of a process. I have at least 6 (probably more like 10) A4-sized notepads filled with Morning Pages which I’m going to read through this week.

When I do my MPS, if I come up with a story or article idea, I mark the spot in the margin with a big asterix, so when I go back to my jottings, months, or even years later, they’re easy to pick out. It’s going to be interesting to see what (if any!) ‘treasure’ is in those books!

Wedding Pics
We’ve had our wedding pictures back from the photographer. Over 400 of them! Don’t panic, I won’t bore you with any more! (It’s tempting though. The one of my new brother-in-law, strolling across the lawn in his dressing gown, coming from the spa, is a bit of a classic but I don’t suppose he’d thank me for sharing it).

BUT, I’m sure you’ll approve when I tell you that the guests had to WRITE when they sat down for the wedding breakfast! Before they got any food, in fact (Just little cards, in which they gave us their ‘advice’!). And I do feel at liberty to post a couple of those pics.

Cathy’s Comps & Calls
If you’re interested in submitting your work and entering competitions, have a look at Cathy’s Comps and Calls.

Everything that Cathy Bryant posts is free to enter and can be entered on-line, so it’s a great resource. She’s also written a book about entering writing competitions and making money.

You can subscribe to Comps and Calls to get a notification email whenever a new monthly listing appears.

NAWGFest 2019
And on a completely different note, is anyone going to NAWGFest at Warwick University, at the end of August? (NAWG stands for the ‘National Association of Writers’ Groups’ if you wondered).

Many moons ago, I was signed up as one of the tutors and I can’t believe the time has almost come! I’ll be teaching 4 workshops on short stories and serials, so if you’re going to be there, do come and say hello (even if you choose other courses instead of mine. I won’t take offence!).

Members of NAWG get a discounted rate at the conference but it’s open to anyone and you can attend for the whole weekend or just a day, if that suits.

It’s the first time I’ve been to this event and I’m really looking forward to it!

And if you’re looking for a writing group to join, there’s a very handy directory on the NAWG website here.

Posted in Competitions, Events, West Midlands | Tagged , , | 11 Comments

Judging Short Stories (and Happy Endings….)

Now that Evesham Festival is over and the names of the winners of the short story competition have been announced, I can give you some feedback on my experience as a judge.

Another reader and I read all 126 stories and whittled them down (anonymously) to a longlist of 15, which were then sent to Vanessa Gebbie, the main judge.

It’s quite an eye-opener, reading that many competition entries and I learned a lot about what makes a good short story (and what doesn’t!), so it’s time to share my findings:

THE TITLE
A good title really lifts your story and can entice the reader to read it. Many entrants clearly hadn’t given much thought to their titles (there were several one word titles and clichés, even amongst the longlisted 15). Not important? But the title is the first impression a judge has of your story and your writing. Plus, if a judge can’t decide between two stories, the title could be a deciding factor.

The stories that took first and second place in the Evesham competition this year both had good titles (‘Heavy Traffick Trilogy’ by Alwyn Bathan and ‘Trudy North. Righteous Soul’ by Marcia Mackey).

IS IT A SHORT STORY?
If you’re entering a short story competition, ask yourself whether what you’re submitting fits the bill. It doesn’t matter how good it is: if it isn’t a short story, it won’t win.

We had monologues, a short play, character studies, autobiographical pieces and entries that were very well-written but that were clearly extracts from a novel.

In a short story, something has to happen (several entries fell down here). Even if the ‘something happening’ is only that the main character changes his/her mind. The hero must be changed in some way and shouldn’t be the same at the end of the story as at the beginning.

THE ‘HOOK’ AND THE TWIST
Lots of entrants clearly knew that your first line or two should act as a ‘hook’ and grab the reader but think ‘intriguing’ rather than ‘shocking’. There were quite a few shocking first lines, which then proved to be a hard act to follow (and which seemed too gimmicky and contrived).

Ditto twist-in-the-tale endings. I know there’s a school a thought that short stories should end with a twist (they really don’t have to) but twist stories are hard to pull off. If they don’t work, then the whole story just reads like a long joke, leading to a punchline.

SPELLING/GRAMMAR
Watch for typos and grammatical mistakes. Proof read your story carefully before you submit it; ask someone else to read it; read it aloud. Most entrants didn’t have any problems with this but a spelling mistake on the second line of a story (this happened) is off-putting and made me wonder how much care had gone into crafting and polishing that story.

CHARACTER
Short stories are essentially about character and it was no coincidence that most of the 15 stories that we long-listed had a strong central character, undergoing some kind of conflict or problem.

A short story is not a saga; there simply isn’t room for lot of characters (it’s confusing for the reader and we don’t know who we’re rooting for). Ask yourself, ‘Whose story is this?’ and focus on that character.

EMOTIONAL RESPONSE
Only a handful of stories brought a tear to my eye, or made me laugh or feel shocked and those were the stories that rose to the top of the pile. Your story needs to stand out from the crowd; it needs to be memorable.

Many were perfectly nice, well-written stories but they were also rather bland (and I know I’m guilty of this myself, when I’ve entered competitions in the past. This is what I mean when I say I’ve learned from this process!).

I got to the end of many stories and thought ‘So what?’ That’s what you want to avoid: the ‘So what?’ response from the judge. And by ‘emotional response’ I don’t mean by murdering someone in the first paragraph because I won’t care about any of the characters at that stage. That emotional response will only come by creating a convincing scenario and compelling characters and yes, I know, that’s not easy in 2000 or so words.

When she ran a short story workshop for us last October, the judge Vanessa Gebbie urged everyone to be brave and to take risks with their writing and that’s certainly what you need to do, to make your story stand out. A particular judge may not like it, of course but I think it’s true to say that no judge will choose a bland (or ‘safe’) story as a winner.

THE ENDING
I’ve come to the conclusion (ha! Pun intended), that when it comes to a competition entry, your ending is actually more important than your beginning.

This is because most judges worth their salt will plough on through the story, even if the start is not that gripping. A good ending can lift an otherwise ‘OK’ story but a poor ending – as I witnessed several times (and oh, it was so frustrating) – can ruin an otherwise fabulous story. So many stories just fizzled out at the end, as though the writer had run out of steam, or word count, or ideas. So many endings were a cop-out, or confusing or just plain dull. There were 5 or 6 stories that were in contention for the longlist but their disappointing endings let them down.

You don’t have to tie everything up, there doesn’t (as I said earlier), have to be a twist – or even a happy ending. But the ending does have to be ‘satisfying’ for the reader (and that’s part of your challenge, as a writer, to work out what ‘satisfying’ might be!).

And in other news…

I got married last Saturday! Wheee! Kept that all a bit quiet, didn’t I? That’s only because I didn’t want to jinx things. Turns out I’m really superstitious!

Here are a few little pics of the day, if you’d like to see them:

Posted in Competitions, Cotswolds, Short Stories | Tagged | 41 Comments