Writing Retreat Up For Grabs!

retreatLovely Author Jojo Moyes, who I wrote about here last year is offering her cottage in Suffolk for a week to a writer to “kick-start or even finish” their work.

This is the post she’s put on Facebook:

Are you a writer, and wish you had some peace in which to write? I know what it meant to me when I was trying to get published. To this end, we are offering our cottage, free of charge, for up to a week to a writer – published or unpublished – to kick-start, or even finish their work.
It is fully furnished, welcoming, and set near us in deep countryside on the Suffolk borders. The week must be taken before the end of this year. If you are on a limited income, we can also provide help with travel and food (UK only). (We will even remove the television and turn off the wifi if that helps…)
I can’t guarantee I’ll be around, but if I am I’ll be happy to have a coffee and offer any advice I can. Or you can just enjoy not having to speak to anyone at all!
To apply, simply email us at writerscottage1@gmail.com with no more than 500 words on why this would make a difference to you. All voices welcome.
Deadline: 30 September 2016.

What are you waiting for?! (and let me know if you’re successful!)

On a different note, there’s an interesting discussion over on the womagwriter blog at the moment, (partly caused by yours truly), as it has been ‘revealed’ – not that it was ever a secret – by Douglas McPherson, in one of the articles he’s written about my winning serial, that Shirley Blair, fiction editor of the People’s Friend, is also a writer herself (*gasp!*) and sometimes has stories and serials published in the magazine under a pseudonym.

Now, let’s all just calm down. Can/should we really get uppity about other people who choose to write – regardless of their ‘other’ job? It’s a free country, after all. I read the other day that Nadiya Hussein, winner of last year’s ‘Great British Bake-off’ has been contracted to write 3 contemporary women’s fiction novels for Harlequin…. everyone’s doing it!

Posted in Short Stories, The People's Friend | Tagged | 17 Comments

The People’s Friend Workshop in Bristol – 7th Sept 2016

photo: Shirley Blair

photo: Shirley Blair

I was going to start this post by saying ‘Sorry I’ve been away for longer than normal but I’ve been busy…’ but I listened to an interesting piece on Radio 4 today about how ‘being busy’ has become a badge of honour, a status symbol and a competition (and how we’re all so busy (!) boasting about how busy we are, that it’s actually affecting how well we work), that I’ve decided I’m never going to say it again.

Or at least, I’m going to try.

It’s true though, isn’t it? As they said on the programme, the stock response to “How are you?” used to be “Oh, I’m fine, thanks.” Now it’s…“Oh, you know… busy…”

So, let’s forget the ‘b’ word for the moment. In fact, the only B word I’m going to use is BRISTOL.

Last Wednesday I was the guest author at the People’s Friend writing workshop in Bristol, which was lead by the magazine’s Fiction Editor, Shirley Blair.

I wrote about the last workshop I went to, in London, back in March but then I was a delegate, rather than a ‘teacher’, so of course, it was quite a different experience (but still great fun!).

This time, I was tasked with leading two sessions – one on getting ideas and inspiration and the second, on ‘structuring your story’. I had my trusty (OK, as it turned out – useless) kitchen timer with me, for timing exercises (it looks cute but looks can be deceptive. It clicked away merrily – and rang intermittently – but when it got to the end it just stayed silent!)

It was a lively group of 14, including 3 chaps and as we went round the group and everyone introduced themselves, 3 of the ladies ‘admitted’ to being in their 70s. It was hard to believe and they were the perfect example of People’s Friend readers who might be classed as ‘senior citizens’ but who are certainly not ‘old’. They go to Zumba classes, they drive themselves across cities to get to workshops, they have smartphones and use laptops, they’re active and engaged. Forget out-dated images of senior citizens with shopping trollies, hair in buns, living in isolation in sheltered housing – that’s not your typical People’s Friend reader – and one of the first things that Shirley wanted to stress to the group.

What else did she (and I) say? Ah ha.. well, if you want to find out more, you need to get yourself booked onto a People’s Friend workshop! It would just spoil all the fun if I give too much away.

But I will just say that one of the areas I covered (very quickly!) was ‘Show Don’t Tell’, that writer’s mantra that is the source of much confusion, for novice writers, at least.

To demonstrate how ‘showing’ is much more vivid, involving and ultimately more satisfying for the reader, than simply ‘telling’ him/her what a character is like, I read out two different passages. I’m basically saying the same thing but in the first, I’m ‘telling’ and in the second, I’m (hopefully) ‘showing’:

1. Jean was painfully shy and she’d had a speech impediment since she was a child. She didn’t like to draw attention to herself and if anyone so much as spoke to her, she blushed scarlet and wished the ground would swallow her up.

2. Jean placed the basket on the counter and hugged herself as Mr Dobson rang through her goods.
“Will there be anything else?” he asked. Jean blushed and shook her head. She kept her head down as she counted out her money and passed it to him with a shaking hand.
“Hang about, that soup’s on special offer,” he added. “Two for one. Shall I fetch you another can?”
Jean eyed the door for a second. It would be rude just to nod but when she opened her mouth and tried to speak, nothing came out. She felt her chest tighten and her breath come fast. She managed a small, tight smile. “Y.. yes,” she said, finally.

When we’d looked at that example, I gave the group a piece of ‘telling’ and asked them to convert it into something that was much more ‘showing’.

Emma Darwin – whose blog ‘This Itch of Writing’ I can highly recommend, if you don’t already know it – writes expertly here about how both ‘showing’ and ‘telling’ (or ‘evoking’ and ‘informing’) have their place.

Kitchen timer: its end is nigh

Kitchen timer: its end is nigh

Posted in Blogging, Events, Magazines, Short Stories, The People's Friend | Tagged , | 8 Comments

Living The Dream?

Living the dreamWhat shall I write about? I pondered this morning and then – hey presto! – the postman arrived, with the latest issue of Writing magazine, in which I have an article (page 68). So, I shall write about that.

My article’s called ‘Living The Dream?’ and it’s about how much writers can really earn from writing, compared to how much the uninitiated think we earn.

I’ve written here about how a newbie in my class decided, within a term, that writing was going to be her ‘main source of income’. A flattering reflection on my teaching perhaps (I like to instil confidence!) or, more likely, bless her, a rather optimistic view of how much a new writer can expect to make.

What doesn’t help our cause, of course, is all the wannabees who will write for FREE! (and Lora Bishop’s written an article about that on page 69 of the magazine – opposite mine) and Alex Gazzola writes about it on his blog ‘Mistakes Writers Make’ here.

My own view on ‘writing for free’ is that it’s fine if you’re doing it for a charity, say or you’re a complete beginner, desperate for a few cuttings but after that, you’re doing all fellow writers a disservice if you continue to offer your writing to publications and websites without expecting payment. Because then they’ll expect us all to do the same, fees and rates will drop and drop until, in the end, it won’t actually be possible to earn any kind of living from writing. And we don’t want that, do we?

I was recently asked to judge a national short story competition (very exciting and something I’m more than happy to do). What is my fee? I was asked. That was very difficult. I didn’t want to price myself too highly and risk being told they couldn’t afford me (!) but equally, if I quoted a fee that was too low, not only was I doing myself out of valuable and much-needed funds, I was also lowering the organisers’ expectations of what they should be paying a judge. So, in effect, I was possibly spoiling things for my fellow writers.

In the end, I tried to gauge what they would be making from the competition (entrance fee x number of entries – they told me the number that entered last time – minus the cash prizes) and based my fee on this and also on how long I thought it would take me to read and judge the shortlisted stories and write a report. I was probably too cheap but as I say, not having any prior experience of being paid to judge a short story competition, it was a tricky one!

How do you feel about getting paid for your writing? Or are you so happy to see your work in print, that the money isn’t even a consideration?

PS: There are still spaces on the People’s Friend writing workshops in Bristol (featuring yours truly), Dundee, York and Manchester. More details here.

Writing Magazine

Posted in Magazines, The People's Friend | Tagged , | 23 Comments

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