My Writing A – Z … V is for VACATION

Rhossili Beach, The Gower © Alan Stevenson

Rhossili Beach, The Gower © Alan Stevenson

V is for VACATION

Whoops, I’ve been away for a little while! Apologies for the lack of blog posts but I’ve been on my VACATION! I know that’s American but it fits the bill nicely for ‘V’.

Last week I was at the Writers Holiday in Pembrokeshire. The weather was lovely, I ate too much and relaxed lots too (which is another way of saying I didn’t actually do any writing). I’m back now, feeling very refreshed and raring to go! Simon Whaley was there too and he writes about the workshops he attended here which, I must admit, made me wish I’d done a bit more work too but you know, sometimes, you just need to STOP?

V is for VOICE

What do we mean by ‘voice’ and ‘finding your voice’ as a writer? (answers on a postcard please…)

I remember someone telling me that you just have to write, write, write and your voice will come through naturally. Meg Rosoff, who’s a writer I admire, since reading her best-selling YA novel, How I Live Now, has written a very erudite and thought-provoking article here about voice, what it is and how, possibly to ‘find’ it.

Her conclusion is, “Stop thinking about your voice. Think about your life instead. Live. Take risks. Seek wisdom. Confront the unconfrontable. Find out who you are. Let your voice gain power as you go.” Sounds easy if you put it like that…

W is for WALES, where (I think I’ve said!) I’ve been for the last week. On our way home yesterday, I managed to get to a place I’ve always wanted to visit, since discovering, from more than one source, that it’s ‘one of the best beaches in the country’ (or even, depending on whose opinion you’re reading, The World!)

It’s Rhossili beach on the Gower and just around the corner is Worm’s Head, which you can walk across to, when the tide’s out.

Worms Head Rhossili © Alan Stevenson

Worms Head Rhossili
© Alan Stevenson

W is also for WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, who was born just down the road from me, near Stratford-upon-Avon.

Do you know what the following books have in common?

• Brave New World (Aldous Huxley)
• The Sound And The Fury (William Faulkner)
• Under The Greenwood Tree (Thomas Hardy)
• Band of Brothers (Stephen E Ambrose)
• The Fault In Our Stars (John Green)

Bet you got it. Their titles are all taken from lines by Shakespeare. So, if you’re looking for an inspiring title for your novel or poem, flicking through ‘The Complete Works’ of Mr S might not be a bad place to start…

X is for eXtra

Let’s face it, writing is hard work and I’ve come to the conclusion that, unless you’re eX-tremely talented and eX-tremely lucky, half measures won’t do. In fact, you have to give it everything – that eXtra something – if you want to do well (your ‘doing well’ might be different to mine, which is why I haven’t been specific).

For example, on the odd occasion when I’ve submitted a story with a kind of ‘hmm-not-sure-about-that-one-but-it-will-have-to-do’ attitude, guess what? It’s come winging back to me with a big fat rejection note shortly after.

Only our best will do: we have to go that eXtra mile!

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My Writing A-Z… S is for SAND

S is for SAND

OK, that’s just an excuse to use this photo of gorgeous Old Hunstanton beach in Norfolk, which looked like this ‘on the ground':

Old Hunstanton Beach, Norfolk.

Old Hunstanton Beach, Norfolk.

and like this:

Old Hunstanton Beach from the cliffs

Old Hunstanton Beach from the cliffs

from the top of the cliffs.

We were there for 4 days last week and it was really perfect: sunny and sooo dog-friendly.

S is also for SUMMER

Some of my blogging buddies – for example, Wendy – have been writing about how difficult it is to knuckle down and write in the summer! There’s so much to do outside and less of an urge to hibernate! Winter is much more condusive to writing, I suppose. But bear in mind that if you’re sending work to the women’s magazines, they probably have fewer submissions during the summer months..! Just saying!

T is for TARGETS

Some of my writing students are very ‘anti’ targets. They had targets when they were at work, they tell me and they don’t want any more now! Or, they say, writing is ‘just a hobby’ and they don’t want to force themselves to write. They write, they say when they’re ‘in the mood’.

And that’s all fine. I understand. But if you do have an aspiration or a goal – whether it’s to enter a short story competition or complete a novel – then targets, I think, are important, even if they’re ‘loose’ ones – and sometimes ‘the mood’ has to be encouraged, coerced, even.

I often have to force myself to sit down to write, really not feeling like it but then, after a few minutes, when I’ve warmed up, it’s fine and I’m glad I made the effort to start. Time has a nasty habit of slipping away and unless you try to pin your goals down (with time slots, appointments to write and deadlines to meet) they just won’t happen.

T is also for TWITTER

I like Twitter but lots of people tell me they don’t ‘get’ it.

My writing buddy, Sally, says it feels like ‘lots of people shouting’ and I think that’s a pretty good description. It can be like that but I think it depends who you follow. If I follow anyone – individual or organisation – that just keeps telling me about their latest book or offer that I might like to BUY, BUY, BUY . then I’m afraid I just ‘unfollow’ them (ah, the power of that ‘unfollow’ button!).

T is also for TEACHING.

If anyone’s interested in setting up their own class or teaching creative writing in any context (eg: for the U3A, perhaps), then look out for a NEW non-fiction e-book that I’m launching this summer! (erm, she says optimistically! No, it’s mostly written, but still got to ‘fine tune’ it!).

My class has finished for the summer and I am still in two minds about whether to start it up again in September, for lots of reasons. I do enjoy teaching but it’s very time consuming. Last term I was spending the equivalent of one working day on each class (including preparation, delivery, homework marking and various emails…), which is crazy.

I know some people would say – don’t spend so much time preparing, don’t take in homework, don’t answer emails – but I can’t do that. If I’m going to do something, then I like to do it properly, or not at all. (*gets off soap box*)

U is for UMBRAGE as in ‘taking umbrage’

I was ‘umming’ (ooh, there’s one) and ahhing about what to choose for ‘U’ but then an email popped into my inbox and eureka, I had it!

The title of the email was: RE: QUARTERLY SHORT STORY COMPETITION ENTRY (SUBSCRIBER).

It flashed through my mind that perhaps I’d WON the latest Scribble magazine short story competition that, as a subscriber, I have free access to! First time I’d entered, too…

I clicked on the email and read, “… I regret to advise you that this item has not been accepted for publication. I am sorry you have not been successful this time, however, I am always pleased to receive good quality short fiction and I would be very interested in seeing any further material you think may be suitable….”

Ah, so my story wasn’t ‘good quality short fiction’!

I must admit, for a few moments I ‘took umbrage’! How dare they! Who are they and what do they know anyway?! I wanted to email back and ask ‘what was wrong with it?’ But then I calmed down and that thick skin, in which a little chink had just appeared, sealed over again (urgh, I sound like a lizard).

You can’t afford to ‘take umbrage’ when you’re a writer, right? You just have to shake yourself off, remember it’s only one person’s opinion and get on with it.

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Guest Blog: Catherine Horlick – editor of Pennyshorts

penny_shorts_full_logo_final (1)Catherine Horlick is the editor of a new short story website Pennyshorts
which is for readers and (hurrah!) for writers, of short stories.

I’ve got two stories on there already (!) and I asked Cathy to tell us a little more about herself and how she got the idea for Pennyshorts – and, importantly, how it works! (If you have any further questions, post them as a comment and Cathy will answer you!)

WHAT IS PENNYSHORTS?

www.pennyshorts.com is a website which makes short stories of all genres available for sale, directly to a reading device or email address.

Short stories are a very neglected art form and the site connects readers to talented writers of short fiction. Writers have an opportunity to showcase their work and readers can enjoy bite-sized fiction whenever they want it.

The stories are all carefully vetted, edited and proofread, so are free of the typos and other errors which plague so much e-published content. A pennyshorts app will soon be available.

HOW MANY STORIES ARE ON THE SITE?

Currently there are just over 100 stories of all genres on the site (July 2015), and more are being added all the time.

WHAT KIND OF STORIES ARE INCLUDED?

All genres, except writing for children. Funny stories are always welcome, as are snappy crime, thrillers, sci-fi and unconventional romances. I enjoy good ghost, fantasy and horror stories too, but tend to steer clear of anything nauseating. A good Coming of Age story is always a pleasure to read and I’ve also included Life Writing and Memoir.

There’s a lot of variety, but the stories are all engagingly written, self-contained pieces with great characters able to transport you to a different world over your morning coffee, and can liven up a bus ride or train journey.

SO HOW DOES IT WORK?

Browsers can pick a genre, and can also see a story sample, either the first paragraph or first half page.They can also see the author’s picture and biography, which often includes links to other work.They can choose a story by word-count, how recently it has been added to the site and can also check a story’s reviews.

A reader can either download an individual story for 50p, or can choose one of three pre-payment packages, e.g. 3 stories for £1. For each story chosen, the reader is emailed 3 files:a PDF, a MOBI or an EPUB file, depending on whether they wish to read the story on screen or on their reading device. Pre-paid stories can be downloaded anytime within a year, and each reader can maintain a library, which is visible on ‘My Pennyshorts’. Readers’ ratings and reviews are very welcome but are monitored for spoilers.

WHAT ARE YOUR SUBMISSION REQUIREMENTS?

A minimum of 1,000 words, sent as a word document to editor@pennyshorts.com. I’m fine with simultaneous submissions and also accept reprints, as long as the story isn’t available elsewhere online for free.

CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT THE STORIES YOU REJECT?

I’m not keen on gross-out stories, so it was a definite ‘No’ to the man-eating spiders. I rejected an incredibly well-written story about a dog being beaten to death as it was deeply traumatic and haunted me for days. I reject anything tired, predictable and clichéd: the standard must be high, to justify charging.I’ve had no shortage of submissions, so far the acceptance rate is c. 15-20%.

DO YOU PAY AUTHORS?

Yes! Authors accrue 50% of each pay per click download, and a pro-rata share of the prepayment packages each time their story is chosen by a reader. Payment isn’t the only author benefit:reputable agents and publishers can access the site for free. Authors are also welcome to include links in their biographies, either to other work or to their websites. Many of my authors are highly successful and published already, but it would be fantastic if a previously unpublished author were to be discovered thanks to pennyshorts.

About Catherine:

Catherine Horlick comes from a family of bookworms and she’s been writing prose and poetry since she was at school. Her first novel, ‘The Wrong’un’ will be published later this year and one of her short stories, ‘By George’ appears on the site.

She has an MA in Creative Writing, and over the past 10 years has been a member of various creative groups. Over that time she’s come across so many wonderful short stories with no outlet which, as she says, “are mouldering away on hard drives”… and that’s what gave her the idea for Pennyshorts.

Follow Pennyshorts on Facebook here and on Twitter: @pennyshorts

And if you’re interested in short stories, do think about supporting Catherine in her new venture – not just by submitting stories but maybe even by buying a few too…! (*lecture over*)

Posted in E publishing, Short Stories | Tagged | 4 Comments

My Writing A-Z … P is for (not) PULLING PUNCHES

Reading is good for you!

Reading is good for you!

P is for PAPERCHASE & OTHER STORIES (what else?), the e-book of 12 of my short stories that I self-published a few months ago.

Morgen Bailey has just reviewed it over on her website here.

If you haven’t heard of Morgen (where have you been?!), have a look at her blog.

She posts writing prompts and reviews, competition details and loads more and as well as teaching lots of writing courses in Northamptonshire, she offers a critique and editing service. Phew! There must be more than one of her, surely!?

Anyway, I think she knows her stuff, which is why I asked her to review my short stories and I think she’s done a thorough – and fair – job BUT she hasn’t PULLED any PUNCHES (there are two more ‘P’s for you), as she points out a few flaws in her review, such as too many ‘lip bitings’ (!). Now, I didn’t know I did that (write it so much, I mean, not do it. Isn’t that what the heroine does in ’50 Shades’? Eek! I’ll be writing ‘Oh my…’ on every page before you know it).

P is also for PEMBROKESHIRE. I’m off to Writers Holiday in Fishguard later this month and looking forward to it. Last year the weather was fab-u-lous, so I’m hoping for a repeat of that and for some lovely, relaxing ‘Pembrokeshire time’!

P is also for POOR. Why does everything come at once? My car failed its MOT today and cost hundreds to get fixed; my annual car insurance and breakdown cover are also both due this month as is my annual fee for the swimming pool. I need to sell loads of short stories to pay for that lot. Aaagh.

Q is for the BOOK QUIZ that my friend and I will be running at Writers Holiday! The quiz is half written. Despite ‘P is for POOR’ I’m afraid I’m not open to bribes, if you’re planning to be there!

Q is also for QUOTES about writing, which I love and find inspiring. A couple of my favourites are:

Kurt Vonnegut: Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
Stephen King: If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.

R is for R&R and READING .

I was delighted to discover that research has shown that reading is ‘the ultimate relaxation’ because sometimes I feel guilty when I read a book (because I should be writing, I should be … doing a million other things..)

It feels like an indulgence when time is short, don’t you think? But Stephen King himself has said I must do it, so read I will. I’ve just finished reading Ruth Downie’s ‘Medicus‘, the first in a series of novels set in Roman Britain, featuring a Roman doctor, which I thoroughly enjoyed and -hurrah – there are another 5 in the series…!

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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 in 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.”

K is for KITCHEN and KETTLE

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!)

Kettle

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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.

I is for INTERNET

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..!!!)

Posted in Finding Time To Write, Novels | Tagged , , , | 9 Comments