Whether the weather be fine*…

The weather’s been weird today. This morning we had a strange red sun, sand from the Sahara on our cars and an end-of-the-world sepia light. It felt like an eclipse (the woman in the post office told me all her hens had ‘gone back to bed’!).

And now it’s very windy of course because former Hurricane – and now Storm, Ophelia – is passing through. How was it with you? (As an aside, did you know that hurricanes with female names are deadlier than those with male names because they’re not taken so seriously? True fact!)

It’s also the 30 year anniversary of the ‘Great Storm’ of 1987, so I thought it might be pertinent to talk about the weather and writing.

‘Remember to get weather in your damn book. Weather is very important’ – so said Ernest Hemingway, who knew a thing or two about writing, after all.

I write mostly short stories so I don’t dwell too much on the weather (especially if the story’s set indoors!) but if you’re writing something longer, it can’t be ignored. It’s easy to take it for granted but weather affects everything: mood, health, what we wear, how we drive or walk, even, if it’s ‘big’ weather like storms, hurricanes or floods – our survival.

As well as adding conflict, tension or atmosphere, weather can also give you plot ideas. For example…

Rain & Wind
When I was putting together my serial for the People’s Friend I thought about all the different kinds of ‘conflict’ that I might use (‘man versus man’, ‘man versus nature’, ‘man versus himself’, ‘man versus God’.. and so on).

I considered the weather (that comes under ‘man versus nature’, of course) and how it might give my characters problems. I decided there should be a leaking roof in the main characters’ house and when one of the servants is sent up onto the roof – in the rain and wind – to fix it – he falls off and is badly injured.

More Rain
I had a story published in Woman’s Weekly recently called ‘Fifty Words For Rain’, which was set in Scotland, needless to say. The story was based around different Scottish words for rain (had a bit of help with that one from my OH who is Scottish and uses words like ‘dreich’ and ‘smirr’ with gay abandon).

Sun
One of my favourite books, the coming-of-age novel The Go Between by LP Hartley is set during the heatwave of 1900. The main character Leo is staying with an aristrocratic school friend and has brought the wrong clothes (a wool suit that’s too warm), which adds to his discomfort and feeling of alienation. It also gives another character an excuse to take him into town to buy him some more suitable clothing – and to get him ‘on side’, in order for him to become her ‘go between’.

It’s very tempting to resort to clichés when we’re describing the weather. eg: cloudless blue skies at the beach, rain at a funeral, so don’t go for the obvious – try turning weather clichés on their head. A character dies? Make the sun shine! A romantic picnic at the beach? Put in a hailstorm and see how your characters react. Instead of a ghost story set on a cold foggy night, try a hot sunny day as the setting. You might have to work a bit harder to conjure up the spooky atmosphere but it will certainly be original!

Cli-Fi, I have discovered recently, is actually ‘a thing’. It stands for ‘Climate Fiction’ – literature that deals with climate change and global warming (ie:‘ecological peril’). I asked my OH what he thought Cli-Fi stood for. His first answer was ‘cliffhanger fiction’? (not bad). His other suggestion was too rude to print.

If you’re interested, the Guardian has a list of the ‘5 best climate change novels’ here and there’s a call for submissions here (closing date 30th November) for a charity anthology which is looking for original, unpublished short stories and flash fiction (250 to 3,000 words) in the cli-fi genre. All submissions should be aimed at adult readers. Selected submissions will be published in the anthology.

* Here’s the whole rhyme, in case you’d forgotten it…

Whether the weather be fine,
Or whether the weather be not,
Whether the weather be cold,
Or whether the weather be hot,
We’ll weather the weather
Whatever the weather,
Whether we like it or not!

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Posted in Competitions | Tagged | 8 Comments

Learning Curves & Cotswold Gin

A couple of weeks ago I went to see a play (which shall be nameless but it was at the RSC) and afterwards I read an interview with the lead actor in which he boasted that he hadn’t attended drama school (and he didn’t regret it).

Hmm, I thought to myself, hmm. Because his performance was good.. OK, you know, but not brilliant, not entirely convincing. And perhaps, if he had gone to drama school, it would have been better.

Because there’s nothing wrong with learning from those who are more talented or more experienced than you, right? That’s why I still have tennis coaching and why, despite being a some-time tutor and occasionally-published writer, I still like to go to workshops and glean (ooh, good word) what I can from others.

So, last weekend, courtesy of my OH, I was at a writing workshop/retreat run by Alison May and Janet Gover, award-winning, published novelists and good teachers to boot (because, let’s face it, the two don’t automatically go together).

I wanted to find out more about writing a novel. I’ve tried a few times – NaNoWriMo and Mills and Boon and stuff like that – but I’ve never actually managed to make it to the end. And a novel without an ending is a bit like Strictly without the glitter, or the celebrity dancers: a half-thing in which no-one – especially anyone likely to publish or read it – is interested.

We had to submit the first 5000 words of our ‘novel’, a synopsis and a covering letter (to a potential agent), so all of that had spurred me on and in advance of the workshop I actually managed to write an 80,000 word first draft. Not quite cause for celebration because it’s all a bit of a mess (and apparently you write the first draft for yourself – one of the things I learned – because it always has tons of backstory, which you, as the writer, need to know, but that you don’t put in the novel!).

I have a lot of work to do. Most of my first 5000 words has got to be jettisoned! (or at least, put in later, not at the start) and my synopsis? Don’t get me started on that. It was 3 pages of waffle (I now realise), when it should have been 1 page of the main plot points only.

So, I’ve given myself a couple of days off and then I will make a start. I really couldn’t have done any writing today anyway because at 11am this morning we went on a tour of the Cotswolds Distillery and I was tipsy by 11.30am!

Whoops.

Tasting the gin and the whisky and the cream liqueur and the absinthe and so on…

Posted in Cotswolds, Finding Time To Write, Novels | 8 Comments

Mind Your Back!

I’ve never had any problems with my back – lucky me, I know – but a week ago I got up from the PC and must have twisted in a funny way. In just a couple of seconds I ‘did’ something to my back. Ouch! I had quite a pain for a while (although I still managed to play tennis, so it wasn’t that bad…) and then a dull ache for a few days afterwards.

So, I started doing some back exercises, found in the trusty Woman’s Weekly (taken from Lexie Williamson’s The Stretching Bible)

This is for ‘niggling lower backache’ which, apparently, just sometimes needs a few simple movements to ‘unlock muscular tension’. And the best thing about this exercise, is that you can do it in bed!

NB: if you’re experiencing lower back pain rather than a muscular ache, consult a medical professional before attempting any stretching. (I have to put that, so you don’t all end up in traction and try to sue me).

This is a double leg hug. You lie on your back and hug both legs into your stomach and rock a little from side to side across the lower back. Hold for 20 seconds.

Ah, it has really helped! My back is almost back to normal but it has made me think about protecting my back. Especially having read this nightmare from Belinda Pollard (scroll down to the bit about her back – although the rest is good reading too). All because she had bad posture and sat for too long…. and another writer, Elizabeth Spann Craig had a similar problem, which she writes about here.

She reports that, if you want to protect your back, “The best practice seems to be to sit with your feet on the floor and your laptop on a desk or a table of some kind. Sit with your back straight. And take frequent breaks.”

ANOTHER TIP: Apparently, when you sneeze, you can jar your back, so you should always bend your knees! (that sounds like the start of a poem..)

Anyone else got any back stories (good or bad?)). Or tips for keeping healthy as a writer?

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Inspired by Autumn

I am feeling rather pleased with some autumnal photos that I took on Saturday (bearing in mind I have a very basic little camera!), so here they are.

I was going to try to come up with a very creative writerly ‘acrostic’ using the letters of the word ‘autumn’ to go with them but …aah, sod it, I can’t do it (apart from ‘N’ for NaNoWriMo – time to start planning that if you’re thinking of doing it this year!).

Around here, in deepest Cotswold country, all the blasted pheasants have ‘sprung up’ (I suppose the word is actually ‘hatched’) ‘as one’ and are driving my dog Bonnie crazy, as she likes to sniff them out and chase them (don’t tell the gamekeeper).

On Saturday – just after these lovely shots were taken – she disappeared while ‘hunting’ (she doesn’t catch them, by the way – they fly off) and I couldn’t find her for a heart-stopping fifteen minutes.

She eventually returned, running, exhausted, up the field towards me, through a herd of very unconcerned cows and calves (eek, don’t tell the farmer, either) and it was all very stressful.

She’ll have to be on the lead for that part of the walk from now on!

Anyone know what this baby is?!

Hindsight is a wonderful thing and all that, but I doubt whether we’d have moved to this area if we’d known it was the middle of pheasant-shooting land. No, we don’t do it and we don’t like it but it’s big business for the landowners round here, who breed the pheasants especially for the ‘sport’. Boo, hiss and all that.

Writing Weekend

On a more cheery (and writing-related!) note, my OH has bought me a place on a novel writing weekend next month, for my birthday. It’s this one (the sold-out ‘Autumn Retreat’) to be exact, run by the lovely Alison May and Janet Gover. I’m really looking forward to it and I will be reporting back!

Posted in Bonnie, Cotswolds, Novels | 15 Comments

Results of the Whale/Kidney Random Word Competition

Here are the results of the random word/flash fiction competition – at last – and I can reveal that the ‘secret judge’ was Patsy Collins.

Patsy, is, I’m sure, known to many of you. She runs the womagwriter blog, which focuses on writing for the (sadly, rapidly shrinking) women’s magazine short story markets, as well as her own blog which has regular links to free-to-enter writing competitions.

Patsy is also co-author of From Story Idea to Reader – an accessible guide to writing fiction, which is available in paperback and on Kindle (and PS – she’s too modest to tell you this herself, but as she’s a novelist and had over 500 stories published, I reckon she probably knows what she’s talking about!).

Thank you very much to Patsy for agreeing to judge the shortlist, well done to the winners (I’ll be in touch about your prizes) and thank you to everyone who took part (if you want to read the winning stories, they’re in the post before this one. If you wanted to enter but couldn’t think of a way of using the words, the 5 shortlisted entries might fill you with inspiration for the next time…!)

When I get up to 800 followers, in a couple of months or so, hopefully (on 733 at the moment!), I’ll be running another one of these random word competitions. And I can give you a heads up now – I promise there will be no fish or offal/innards and one of the words will be EIGHT!

So, without further ado, here is Patsy’s report:

“Well done to the 41 people who successfully entered this competition. Getting the random words and a complete story or poem into such a tight word count isn’t at all easy. I was very impressed with the shortlisted stories and feel slightly mean not awarding five first prizes as they’re all very good. Unfortunately Helen’s prize fund won’t stretch to that, so I’ve had to make a decision.

1st place – Full House by Christine Cherry

This is an entirely believable, bittersweet story, which involves the reader. I could easily imagine the emotions of the characters – and how they’ll feel afterwards. The author has made great use of the word count. There’s no unnecessary description* as there are enough clues for us to build our own picture of the characters and location. This could probably be extended into a longer piece, which would have even greater emotional impact, yet doesn’t feel crammed into the tight word count required for the competition.

The gentle twist works well. Like Rita, I was initially misled about the nature of their relationship, yet when I learned the truth it seemed obvious that it was one-sided. She was the one making an effort with her appearance, saving a seat and sharing sweets. Peter is just naturally friendly and flirty – the wink and kiss the first time they meet show that and his jokey manner thereafter suggest that for him that’s all there is to it. Although I feel sympathy for her, I’m also pleased he at least has a happy ending.

Good, unforced use of the random words.

2nd Place – Don’t Say I Never Treat You by Maryanne Pike

This is an example of a story perfectly fitting the format used. The heavy use of slang and dialect would be hard going in a longer piece, but work very well here. It’s not too difficult to follow the meaning, yet the reader feels a certain satisfaction in having done so. It’s also a clever way to unobtrusively work in the random words.

In common with the winning story (and all those shortlisted) this one also provokes an emotional response in the reader. In this case I want to kick him and tell her to file for divorce!

In a longer piece the unlikeable and manipulative nature of the narrator would, I think, be unappealing but this is short enough that we can almost admire his deviousness and the success of his plan before we’ve lost all sympathy for him. Use of first person helps with that as we naturally feel closer to him.

Again there’s no description*, as again it’s not needed.

*I don’t want to suggest description is always unnecessary, just that it needs a purpose beyond simply adding to the word count. In the remaining shortlisted stories description is used to good effect.”

Posted in Blogging, Competitions, random word competition, Successes | Tagged | 5 Comments

‘Whale/Kidney’ Random Word Competition – Shortlist

Here is the shortlist of 5 stories, in alphabetical order by title and well done to all those who’ve reached this stage – and the longlist stage. It was very hard to whittle the entries down from 10 to 5, believe me!

The judge has had these 5 to choose from over the weekend (without knowing who wrote them) and he/she has chosen his/her winner and runner-up, so feel free to comment below and choose your favourite, if you so wish! (And if you’re late to the party – or you’ve forgotten – the 5 words that had to be used – in a max 100 word piece – were: whale, kidney, race, honey and seven).

Final results will be up in a day or so but in the meantime, if you want more ‘flash fiction’ competitions have a look here on Christopher Fielden’s website. (His very comprehensive list was only updated on 15th September).

As Pretty As – Stacey Taylor
Seven stone. You’re getting there in your quest for thinness. You can still feel the honey on your tongue, all heavy and sticky, coating your throat with calories. You had to have something so they’d leave you alone for a bit. No matter, only a small sidetrack, and at least you don’t look like a beached whale anymore.
The doctor comes back into the room.
‘Kidney damage.’
You hear the words, but they don’t sink in.
Then there’s another voice. ‘If you lose a bit of weight you’ll be as pretty as your sister.’
You smile. You’re winning the race.

Don’t Say I Never Treat You – Maryanne Pike
Trouble and strife’s on at me ‘bout taking ‘er out, says I don’t care. So I says, ‘Paint a smile on yer boat race, we’re going down the rub-a-dub for kidney-punch.
She eyes the roast but I’m short of the old bread ‘n honey and it’s only seven nicker for a pie and pint.
Me chinas were there for laughs. I told her beer washes out and ‘ad took air freshener for the jam tarts. I wouldn’t leave ‘til the match on the jelly finished, it were a whale of a time.
I’ll not have to take ‘er out again.

Full House – Christine Cherry
She spotted him, first day, at lunch club.
“Peter,” he said.
“Rita,” she said.
They laughed. The Bingo began.
‘What a honey,’ she thought. He winked, over steak and kidney pie.
“Had a whale of a time,” he kissed her.
Every week, hair set, saving his seat; sharing her sweets, and his jokes.
Then today-
“Got to tell you,” he sighed. “It’s love.”
Her heart raced, as she marked off her card.
“Getting married,” he whispered. ” You’ll love her, my Joan, can’t believe it.”
“Seven!” the call.
“Bingo!” His nudge, and that wink. “Well…aren’t you the lucky one, Rita?”

Mary, Mary Quite Contrary – Aly Rhodes
‘Blubber whale!’ The children’s taunts pursue Mary, waddling her way home.
Her heart races as she climbs the stairs to the seventh floor. One bulb stutters. On its death bed.
The tins of cat food clink against her thigh, leaving indentations. Mary thinks fondly of her beloved Honey. Her soul companion.
‘I’m home.’ The flat is sullen in its silence.
Where is she? Her beautiful Siamese?
On the lino lies gnawed at steak and kidney pie. Their tea.
‘PAY US RAN SUM’ is scribbled across the wall. Again.
Mary extracts a carving knife from the oven.
‘Lesson time.’ She purrs.

Whale Watching – Ciarán Parkes
Evenings, they’d lie in the kidney shaped pool, looking out for whales.
Their hillside folly had finally paid off. When the ocean flooded the town they didn’t have to join the race for higher ground.
‘Look!’, said Honey, ‘there’s a Minke’. Or maybe it was a Sperm Whale. Google Image Search was down. Permanently.
It was high tide. The spires of drowned churches stuck out of the heavy waves like switched off lighthouses. Seven of them. The whales floating above like unexpected miracles.

Posted in Competitions, random word competition, Short Stories | 6 Comments

Random Word Competition – Longlist

Thank you to everyone – all 41 of you (writers of 2 poems and 39 prose pieces) who entered my little competition.

I have to admit, I think it was hard this time. Some of you clearly struggled with ‘whale’ and ‘kidney’ (I would have struggled too!).

There were lots of steak-and-kidney pies and kidney-shaped pools and beached whales and people having a ‘whale of a time’ (12 entries used ‘whale of a time’, in fact). I was surprised more people didn’t use ‘whale’ as a surname. When I was a student I had a tutor called John Whale. Amongst the entries there was just one’Professor Whale’). There was only one ‘honeymoon’ (remember, you could add to a word) and a few ‘whalebones’, which I liked – oh, and a couple of ‘kidney beans’ amongst the entries.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised at the number of kidney transplant/medical stories. They couldn’t all make the longlist. When there are a few entries with a similar theme – no matter how well written – they tend to blur into one another and aren’t as memorable as they should be (there were also a few stories about people being poisoned). I’m not sure what the answer to that is, except, perhaps, don’t go with your first thought. Clearly, quite a few people saw ‘kidney’ and immediately thought of transplant or organ-selling.

Most people used the 5 required words (kidney, whale, honey, seven, race) correctly but I had to disqualify two entries (one of which had been on the longlist) because the writer had used ‘racing’ instead of ‘race’ or ‘raced’ (a third used ‘racing’ but also had ‘race’ in the story, so that was fine). You were allowed to add letters to the word but the original word had still be there.

If you’re not in the longlist, don’t be disheartened. You wrote something, you entered a competition – that’s all good. Read the shortlisted entries when they’re published here in a few days – and the judge’s report – and see what wins and why. That way, your hard work won’t have been wasted; you’ll have learned from the experience. Your story wasn’t chosen this time but next time… who knows?

Here, in alphabetical order, by title, are the 10 longlisted entries. If you’re on here – hurrah – but remember you need to remain anonymous until the ‘final judge’ has made his/her decision, so don’t reveal which is your story, for a few more days, if you don’t mind!

Longlist:

As Pretty As
Don’t Say I Never Treat You
Full House
Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary
Nasty Business
Post-Honeymoon Blues
Sea Fret
The Alien
Whale Watching
You Can Run

Posted in Competitions, random word competition | 9 Comments