My Writing A-Z … M is for MSLEXIA

Mslexia 001M is for MSLEXIA (‘for women who write’).

I really like this magazine and have a subscription to it (ahem, please note photo of the last issue, received at least a fortnight ago, still in its plastic wrapper, because I’m waiting for that elusive chunk of time so I can enjoy reading it from cover to cover…).

There’s plenty of free stuff (including writing exercises) on the website, if you want to take a look and I don’t think the internet will be able to tell if you’re a MAN!

You see, in every class I’ve ever taught, there’s always a man who takes umbrage when I tell them Mslexia competitions are only open to women and that they only accept submissions by.. you’ve guessed it: ‘laydeez’.

Is that right or wrong? I’m not sure (you tell me!) but there’s always a ‘game chap’ in my class who suggests he should enter one of the Mslexia competitions under a pseudonym!

‘Go ahead!’ I say. But at £10 a go, for the short story competition, for example, he might want to save his money. If he’s shortlisted – or actually wins – he’ll have to lie and disguise his voice on the phone and also possibly dress up as a woman to go to the meeting with an agent and the writer’s retreat, that are usually part of the prize. (The ‘game chap’ usually goes pretty quiet at that point).

N is for NOVELICIOUS (‘for readers and writers of women’s fiction’). I really like this website. It’s full of interesting ‘writers’ tips‘, book reviews, goody giveaways and ‘how I did it’ interviews with authors and they have a great ‘writing advice column‘ and well, if you want to ‘relax’ (ie: procrastinate), I think it’s the perfect choice. Don’t say I didn’t warn you…

N is also for NANOWRIMO which I wrote about here.

November will soon be upon us (sorry – after the summer, of course!) and I haven’t yet decided whether I’m going to do it or not. I may do, as I’m planning to free up some more time after the summer. Watch this space…!

O is for OTHELLO – which I went to see at the RSC on Saturday night. It was really good (but hot!) and the most interesting part of the play for me was how Iago upstaged the hero.

He has almost a third of the play’s lines (Othello only has a quarter) and although he’s an out-and-out baddie, he was funny and witty and the audience (not just me!) loved him.

Apparently, it’s a common problem for actors playing Othello and Olivier wouldn’t play the part (in the film) unless he was guaranteed a ‘charisma-free Iago’! It made me think about ‘minor’ characters and how they can sometimes upstage the hero or heroine.

O is also for OPTIMISM.

I truly believe that you have to be an optimist if you want to be published because, as well as talent and hard work, there’s definitely an element of luck in it.

A new lady to my class last week, was complaining about a workshop she’d attended in which the tutor said it was practically impossible to be published and she’d let that discouraging comment put her off even trying for years.

“There are so many talented writers out there,” she said, “so I do wonder what chance I’d stand.”

I couldn’t think of a good response at the time but now that I’ve mulled it over, I think: a) you’ll never know unless you try and b) the thing about writing is, you have to love it, you have to want to do it and publication should perhaps be an added bonus, not an end in itself. Most successful writers didn’t set out to be rich and famous, after all: they just wanted to write.

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My Writing A-Z … J is for JEALOUSY

greenJ is for JEALOUSY

Someone reads out a piece in your writing class. It’s fantastic – but you can’t bring yourself to say so; you read the winning short story in a competition and dismiss it as ‘rubbish!’ Or an acquaintance tells you she’s got a book deal and you feel a twist of displeasure… Recognise any of these feelings?

That’s the introduction to an article I wrote for Writing magazine on the touchy subject of ‘jealousy amongst writers’.

It’s ugly, isn’t it? (Not my writing! Jealousy!) but I reckon most of us, whether we’re ‘wannabes’ or prize-winning, published writers, can’t avoid the green-eyed monster from time-to-time.

The best way to get over it is, in my experience, to turn your angry loathing and shameful resentment into.. admiration! Or, at least, try to turn those negative feelings into positive ones.

If someone else has achieved what you want, find out more about how they did it. Perhaps you can learn from them? Follow their blog, buy their book, read – and analyse – their winning short story, congratulate them when they announce their successes (sounds tricky that one, but it’s amazingly liberating and cathartic!).

But another tip, in all seriousness, is to switch off social media, or limit your time on it. It’s very ‘boasty-boasty’ (to use Marian Keyes’ expression). Sometimes scrolling through Facebook or Twitter feels like I’m reading a list of everyone else’s book sales, publishing contracts, story acceptances and generally perfect lives. (I stopped looking at ‘Friends Reunited‘ for the same reason).

If you’re not feeling 100% wonderful about yourself and your writing, it can be a bit depressing! Remember Roosevelt’s wise words: “Comparison is the thief of joy.”


The kitchen. Messy but warm...

The kitchen. Messy but warm…

Now, even though I am supposed to write in The Cave, I can usually be found here, at this (currently sun-drenched) table in the kitchen (especially in the winter, as it’s next to the Aga and therefore is toasty warm!).

As you can see, it’s a bit lot of a mess! I am not a tidy, organised person, in case you hadn’t already worked that out. But apparently, having a messy desk helps you to think more creatively.

I don’t think the kettle needs any explanation (white, no sugar for me please).

L – is for LAUREATE

I was the Poet Laureate for Warwick District from 2006 – 7.

I am telling you this, not to be boasty-boasty but because a) no-one was more surprised than me when it happened and b) it opened lots of doors for me, so it’s something I can heartily recommend, if you ever get the chance to take up an honourary writing position of any kind.

There are more and more opportunities for regional poet laureates and ‘writers-in-residence’. Mostly, you won’t be paid but you might receive commissions on the back of your ‘title’, or be asked to teach workshops or creative writing classes or compere/introduce open mic poetry events. I did all of those things as a direct result of becoming the Warwick Poet Laureate (and as well as all that, it’s really good fun!)


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My Writing A-Z … G is for ‘GRIT-LIT’

evil laughG is for ‘GRIT-LIT’

What do I mean by ‘grit-lit’? It may not be a genre you’re familiar with but, in my definition at least, it’s writing (both fiction and non-fiction) that focuses on unrelenting misery. It’s confessional-style, ‘gritty’, dealing with hard truths and dark and morbid themes. I’ve also seen it described as ‘writing that bites’ and ‘words that bleed’ (ugh!)

If you want to read more about ‘grit lit’ have a look at the Goodreads site here or the Grit Lit website here.

I suppose ‘GRIT-LIT’ is the antithesis of the short stories I write for women’s magazines, which need to be gentle, hopeful, amusing and uplifting…

And I have absolutely no desire to either read it or write it.

I’ve just read a novel that was recommended to me by an avid reader (she reads about 80 books a year). She’s read it twice, she urged me to read it, she said it was one of the best books she’s ever read, so on her recommendation I put it forward as the next choice for our Book Club and read it myself. The name of this masterpiece? Burial Rites by Hannah Kent.

It’s set in Iceland in the 1800s and it’s about a woman accused of murder and condemned to death (based incidentally, on a true story). I couldn’t fault the writing – it’s beautiful (a first novel too – aaagh!) and certainly, it was gripping. BUT (there’s always a but, isn’t there?) without giving too much away, I have to say I class this novel as ‘GRIT-LIT’, so however much I admired the writing and felt caught up in the story, there were aspects of it – cruelty to animals, mainly – that I will never be able to get out of my mind, so I would never re-read it and I would never recommend it. To anyone. There you go. Maybe I’m just too sensitive but GRIT LIT is not for me.

H is for HUMOUR in writing.

Now, here’s a funny story for you: my Creative Writing students love to set me new challenges – mainly to ensure that I spend hours each week preparing for the class – and this Thursday they want me to talk to them about ‘humour in writing’. ie: how to do it!

Er…right. So, I thought I’d throw the question over to you, dear readers. What constitutes humour in writing? Which authors do you find funny (or not! And by that, I mean writers who are meant to be funny. Not GRIT LIT authors). Do you ever set out to write something humorous – and if so, how do you do it?

I find some chick-lit authors funny. I have laughed out loud and often, at Marian Keyes, Sophie Kinsella, Jilly Cooper and Helen Fielding for example. But I also know and accept, that those passages that had me giggling, often left my friends cold. It’s a very personal thing, humour, isn’t it?

As for men, Bill Bryson makes me laugh and so too does Nick Hornby, Roddy Doyle and John O’ Farrell. When a writer makes me laugh I adore them, for being so clever and so on-the-same-wavelength-as-me, so please tell me the Funniest Book You Have Ever Read, so I can fall in love some more.

I won the Chudleigh Phoenix short story competition a couple of years ago (I may have mentioned this before) with a short story called ‘The Normal Course of Events’ which was meant to be amusing and did, I know make some people laugh. It’s here but I’m not holding this up as anything other than ‘a story which some people found funny’ because you will probably read it with a straight face and then throw your computer across the room (please don’t send me the bill).

The one thing I do remember though, when I wrote it (and read bits out to my partner), is that I laughed. And he laughed. And we thought ‘oh sod it- even if no-one else finds this funny, we like it’. So, perhaps that’s the key to ‘writing funny’. If it makes you and maybe a couple of others laugh, as you write it, then someone else, somewhere will probably laugh at it too.

Just not everyone.

Here’s a ‘writing character comedy’ exercise that you might like to try:

Watch a whole morning of daytime telly*. Look out for an interesting character and then try and write a sketch about them. Don’t try to parody the shows you have watched, just try to find a persona and then put them into a real life situation.
Many of the Little Britain characters were created this way.

*or you could just do the first part and ‘watch a whole morning of daytime telly’. Say it’s a) research or b) that I told you to.


The internet is a wonderful thing. Thank you Tim Berners-Lee.

Without it, I wouldn’t have this blog, of course. I wouldn’t belong to a Facebook writers group (or two), I wouldn’t be able to waste hours on Twitter and on the various forums that I belong to. I wouldn’t be able to check BBC News and Weather several times a day, or look at the blogs of all my virtual friends and write comments and send emails and .. yes, I admit it, I am ADDICTED to the internet and it is bad news for my writing.

I have a new ‘rule': I try, every day, not to check emails until 4pm (I’ve managed it today! It’s 4.25pm and I haven’t looked once!). That way, a clever person once told me, if there’s anything urgent that needs a response, you can still get back to the person who sent you the email within the working day.

I am always much more productive if I can stay off the internet. It’s not just the waste of time: I seem to go into a bit of a trance when I’m on it (I know. I need help, don’ t I?). It’s an information storm and I get caught up in it. “Ooh, I’ll just have a look at that – ” I say, when I see a juicy headline or a link to a competition on Twitter, or a link from someone’s blog .. and before you know it, two hours have gone by and, perhaps even worse, my head is all over the place, full of ‘rubbish’ and not clear enough for me to actually write anything.

I read a great quote the other day (guess where?!) which went something like this…

If you want to be a writer:
Get a writing buddy; TURN OFF THE INTERNET; do Morning Pages; TURN OFF THE INTERNET; sign up for a class; TURN OFF THE INTERNET; read lots; TURN OFF THE INTERNET… (come on, what are you doing reading this? TURN OFF THE INTERNET..!!!)

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My Writing A-Z continues… D is for DIARY

D is For DIARY

D is for Diary

D is for Diary

‘Keep a diary..’ so the saying goes, ‘and one day the diary will keep you.’ Hmm, if you’re Posh Spice, maybe or Sepp Blatter. It’s a nice idea but I’m not sure that anyone’s really going to want to read my life story.. !

6th June 1975: Today at school we had a referendum in our class. 31 children voted ‘yes’ and 4 voted ‘no’. The conclusion of the real referendum is to stay in the Common Market. (Ooh, get me with my politics. I’m sure I didn’t have a clue about any of that but it makes me sounds like a future Kirsty Wark, doesn’t it?).

But then it gets decidedly more mundane…

6th June 1983 Walking with Bernie past the bus stop, she dropped a bottle of ink, which smashed everywhere! How embarrassing.

6th June 1997: Dropped a can on my foot this morning. Really hurt! Thought I’d broken my toe or something.

6th June 2002: Didn’t leave work until 6.30pm. Another boring meeting.

See what I mean?

I kept a diary from the age of 12 until I was in my mid thirties, when I just suddenly lost interest in writing down all the trials and tribulations of the jobs that I hated with a passion and useless men! But it’s fun to look back on them, particularly when I write about things and people (Bernie?! Who was she?) of which I have absolutely no recollection now!

I don’t keep a diary any more but I do write my morning pages, which is a similar kind of thing.

And if you’re interested in reading a dog diary and comparing it to a cat diary.. (we did this in my class) have a look here.

It certainly made us smile.

E is for EMOTION.

If you write stories for the women’s magazines, they do like a good dollop of emotion but, to be honest, I think it’s pretty important in most writing.

I encourage my students to practice ‘writing from the heart’ by writing ‘a letter to‘ (‘the letter you always wanted to write’), just like those they publish each Saturday in The Guardian.

Now don’t laugh at this, but when I’ve written a story that I want my chap to critique (he’s getting quite good at it!), I either read it out to him or I start to tell him about it and if my voice cracks or I start to cry (!) then we both start laughing because we know that means it’s a ‘good ‘un’!

F is for FAILURE.

Eek, that’s not a word we writers like to bandy about, is it? But I’ve just watched J K Rowling‘s Commencement Address to Harvard in 2008 and it’s a subject she tackles. Ultimately, she says, we have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure and she makes a pretty good case for how failure can actually do you a lot of good.

Some people never send their work out because they’re frightened of rejection (or ‘failure’ as they see it) but as JK says, you can’t possibly go through life without failing. Rejection, or failing, is part of the process of becoming a writer.

I’m better at rejections now. I don’t take them quite so personally as I used to because I’ve had lots and lots of them now and my skin’s got tougher!


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My Writing A – Z

ABCSometimes, I admit it, I’m stuck for things to write about on this blog.

I know, it’s unbelievable but after 457 posts and four and a half years, it gets harder….

But today, a lightbulb moment! Lightbulb

I’ve seen other bloggers write ‘The A to Z of me’ so I’ve taken that idea and turned it into:
‘The A – Z of My Writing’, starting, of course, with A, B C….. (and erm, I’ll worry about X, Y and Z when I get to them..):

A is for ADJECTIVES and ADVERBS. I’ve got a thing about them (about not having too many, I mean). Especially in poetry. Edit them out as much as you can! The ones I overuse are ‘suddenly’ and ‘really’.

A good tip is, when you’ve written something in Word, use the ‘search’ button for ‘ly’ and it will highlight most of your adverbs (most of them end in ‘ly’). Then you can ask yourself if you need them. (Usually you don’t!)

A is also for the catchily-named ASPARAWRITINGFESTIVAL which starts next weekend. I’m going to one of the workshops and if you live in or around Evesham, Worcestershire, you might want to check it out too.

B is for BELLA, the first magazine in which I had a short story published (a long time ago!). They ran a competition and my story was one of the runners-up. As well as publication in the magazine (for which I was paid), I won a murder mystery weekend in Wells and an all-expenses-paid winners’ lunch, at Rules restaurant in London (when the cabbie dropped me off he told me it was one of the best restaurants in London. It certainly claims to be the oldest. It dates back to 1798!). Author (and one of the judges), Simon Brett, was guest of honour. Wow! And in case you’re wondering, the winner of the first prize, won a cruise down the Nile!

Of course, Bella is still going but, sadly, they don’t include fiction in the magazine any more. :(

B is also for BONNIE of course, a major distraction from my writing! She was clipped today and now she looks like a little black lamb, bless.

Bonnie the lamb

Bonnie the lamb

C is for the COTSWOLDS. We moved here 3 years ago and you would think, surrounded by all this lovely countryside – and peace – and with access to my lovely CAVE, I’d be able to write more than ever! Sadly, that hasn’t proved to be the case. There are just as many distractions (tea shops, dog-walking, pubs, visitors…) here as anywhere else.

What are your writing A, B, Cs? (See if you can just come up with one for each letter – I cheated a bit!)

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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 …

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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 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