And breathe….

I’ve been absent from the blogosphere for 16 days!

Where have I been?

Well, in a nutshell, I have been helping my parents downsize and move house (quite possibly the most stressful thing I’ve ever done, partly because, even up to the moment when we were sitting in the solicitor’s office to sign on the dotted line, my dad was still in two minds about the whole thing…) AND (because I like to pile it on), I’ve been frantically tieing up loose ends and doing a handover for my job, which I finally left today.

Oh and yesterday (because a bit of variety is good), I spent 6 hours at Burton hospital while my dad had various tests. The good part of that, though, was that I managed to read a whole book while I sat there, waiting, namely, Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl, based on The Taming of the Shrew and which I loved.

On Sunday, my friend Chris and I are heading West to Writers’ Holiday in Fishguard for our annual feast of: food (honestly, you eat so much that someone I know actually DIETS before she goes), writing workshops, lectures and the male voice choir on the last night.

Lots of laughter and fun guaranteed. We are running the quiz on the first night and I’m doing 4 workshops (ahem, still to be prepared…), so it will be busy but I’m REALLY looking forward to it and feel in need of a holiday. I don’t even care if it rains every day.

If anyone’s reading this who’s also going, don’t panic, yes, it actually starts on Monday but, for once, we are being organised, and going a day early…!

When I come back, it will be (almost) August and my new life as a full-time-no-excuses writer begins – at least for the rest of the summer and until I find something else to possibly pay the bills. I will keep you posted (because I might actually be able to blog a bit more regularly!)

One thing I’ve learned over the past couple of weeks, when, at times, I felt like I couldn’t cope, is that we are stronger than we think. And by coincidence, I’ve just read a piece by the fabulous writer Joanna Cannon on the same theme, here. It’s one of the things she learned from being published.

I enjoyed this article. Maybe you will too.

Posted in Blogging, Books | 12 Comments

Wine Required!

I was up early this morning, despite being really tired because I can’t sleep when it’s so light! Is it just me? I know I shouldn’t be moaning (it’s SUMMER!) but even with the blinds down, the sun sneaks through the gap in the window and prods me to get up! Oh, I’m sounding very John Donne! (Ahem, ‘The Sun Rising’ being one of my favourite poems, don’t you know…).

Since my last post, the Evesham Festival of Words has (mostly) taken place.

My pal Chris and I ran the Book Quiz last Thursday night. Major panic when we realised the venue, which has only just reopened after a fire, didn’t have any WINE! And over forty people were due to arrive any minute.

“Oh, do you think they’ll want wine?” the lady behind the bar asked.
“Erm, yes,” was the answer. We even offered to go to Lidl and buy some ourselves!
But, thankfully, someone else whizzed off in a van and came back bearing bottles and judging from the glasses on people’s tables, most of it was sold!

Putting on brave faces but actually, VERY stressed at the thought of no vino!


On Friday night, Chris and I went to the Prue Leith interview (as well as being a novelist and restauranteur and chef, of course, she’s a new judge on the Great British Bake-Off. I’m sure lots of people – like me – were hoping for some juicy goss about GBBO but she wasn’t allowed to talk about it! ☹)

The junior and adult winners of the Festival Short Story competition were announced on the same evening and presented with their prizes by Prue Leith. When I booked the tickets, a few months ago, I imagined that Chris and I – or at least one of us – might have been on the shortlist, which would of course have made the evening really exciting… but sadly, it was not to be. There’s always next year! And we consoled ourselves with a glass of rose…

On Sunday afternoon, I ran the first of two workshops (because the first one sold out) on ‘Writing Short Stories for the Women’s Magazines’. Of course, as we all know, the markets for short stories are much more limited than they were even just a few months ago (when Take a Break closed its doors to all but a selected few) BUT, as I point out in my workshop, The People’s Friend magazine publishes over 600 stories a year, Woman’s Weekly needs 20 stories a month for its Fiction Special and 2 stories a week for the weekly issue and… well, to find out the rest, you have to come to the workshop, of course! (Still a few places for this Sunday’s…!)

Luckily I had set off early because although Evesham is only 20 minutes from me, I encountered: a road block and diversion (because the fair was in town) which took me miles out of my way, queues of traffic, a full car park and slight palpitations when I thought I might be late! (I wasn’t). Eeek. If it hadn’t been the early afternoon, wine might have been required then too.

Short Story Competition – Win A Writing Retreat (closes Sept 2017)

And on a different note, here’s a lovely FREE writing competition, courtesy of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and Retreat West.. they’re looking for a 1000 word short story set on a beach. You can do that, can’t you? I happened to have one set on a beach and that’s never been published, so I’ve zapped it off already.

There are more fiction competitions on the Retreat West website. They’re not free to enter but might be worth checking out.

Posted in Books, Competitions, Events, Magazines, Short Stories, The People's Friend, West Midlands, Woman's Weekly | 2 Comments

Ten Tips for Editing Your Writing

As I may have mentioned before, I’m involved with an activity group for ‘seniors’ in Stratford these days, called Sunny Side Up – I take the Creative Writing Group – and a couple of weeks ago we looked at ‘editing your work.’

It’s something that new writers don’t realise (I’m sure I was the same!) but those first words you jot down on a piece of paper are only the start, the first draft of something hopefully much better. First drafts are supposed to be a bit rubbish, maybe even embarrassing and, as someone famous once said (Hemingway?): ‘all writing is rewriting’.

So here are the tips I passed on for editing. Please let me know what works for you!

1. Put your work away in a drawer for as long as possible!

2. Read the whole piece (ALOUD is best) and ask yourself:

(i) Have I started in the right place?
(ii) Is there a ‘hook’ for the reader?
(iii) Can I chop off the first sentence or two, for a snappier start? (Often we ‘write ourselves in’ to a piece or put in an introduction when it’s not necessary).

3. Is the middle ‘saggy’? Is the meaning clear to the reader? Have you repeated yourself (with actual words or ideas?).

4. Check point-of-view. Have you ‘head hopped’ unintentionally?

5. Check the tense you’ve used. Does it change, inexplicably half way through?

6. Is the ending satisfying or does the piece just peter out? Could you end the piece sooner? Is there too much anti-climax?

7. If you’re writing fiction, are all the characters necessary? Check that their names are not too similar (very confusing for the reader!).

8. Do you need to ‘kill’ any ‘darlings’?

9. Next, ‘copy editing’ Is the writing the best it can be? No overuse of adjectives or adverbs, is the dialogue sparkling, have you avoided clichés?

10. Finally, proof-reading. Check spelling, grammar and punctuation. (and if there’s time, put it in a drawer again for a few more days…)

When to stop? When you’re happy with the piece and feel that you’ve got it to where it needs to be. Remember, perfection isn’t achievable! Just try to write the best piece of writing you can, at this time.

NEWSFLASH: The first one has sold out but there’s still room on the workshop I’m running at Evesham Festival of Words on Sunday 9th July 2.30 – 4.30 (‘Writing Short Stories for Women’s Magazines). To register please email info@eveshamfestivalofwords.org

Posted in Events | 4 Comments

Do You Really Want to Be a Published Novelist?

Apparently, a major reason for not writing or finishing one’s novel, is FEAR.

Fear that you can’t do it, fear that it won’t be as good as you’ve imagined, fear that your mum will read the sex scenes, fear that people will think you’ve got ‘above yourself’, fear that’s it’s all been a complete waste of time (and you needn’t have given up Coronation Street), fear of success.. HOLD ON! ‘Fear of success’?

Funnily enough, last time I met up with my writing buddy, Sally, we talked about this (and got the giggles because it all sounded so silly). But what if you DO write an amazing first novel and you’re snapped up by an agent who sells it to a publisher for a rather respectable sum. What then?

I have to admit (even though I’m a long way from this ever happening..!) that it’s a rather scary thought. Because then, unless you’re going to be a ‘flash in the pan’ or a ‘one hit wonder’, you’d be expected to produce another amazing novel (chances are, if you get a book deal from a traditional publisher, it would be for more than one book). And what if you couldn’t do it? Pressure! And even if you did manage to write another one that wasn’t too awful, that’s it, you’re on the ‘novelist treadmill’, with your publisher wanting ‘more of the same’ and probably sooner than you’d really like.

I would really, really, love to hold in my hands (and stroke!) a physical book – a novel – that I’d written and was proud of.

But when I read the blogs of some published authors, it is a little bit off-putting…

Sam Tonge, for example, has just blogged about ‘The Five Unexpected Consequences of Getting Published’ and revealed not only that it’s ‘hard, hard, hard work’ but that she spends at least half of her working day on networking, social media and promotion. And no, she’s not self-published – that’s just what you’re expected to do these days!

Prolific writer Jane Holland (aka Victoria Lamb, Beth Good – and others!) blogged here about how sometimes ‘being a writer seems like the hardest thing in the world’.

While author Tim Lott says rather than a dream job, life as a writer is a ‘horror film’. Most novelists, he suggests, write because they’re driven to write but if he had the choice to be George Clooney instead – or a taxi driver – he would seriously contemplate it (although, to be fair, when he wrote that column, George Clooney hadn’t just had twin babies. He might not be so keen now!)

And then there’s the money. Forget the JK Rowlings of this world just for a minute. The average advance for a debut novelist is estimated to be less than £7,000. You’re going to have to write an awful lot of books or clinch a fabulous deal, to even think about giving up the day job.

What do you think? Too negative? Is writing full-time THE dream job or is it a case of:

Posted in Books, Novels | Tagged | 20 Comments

The Benefits of Keeping a Diary

I was listening to Saturday Live on Radio 4 yesterday and there was an interesting item on ‘diaries’ (a subject close to my heart. I wrote about it once on the blog here).

If you’re interested in diaries, there’s an exhibition running at Somerset House in London until 7th July 2017: ‘Dear Diary: A Celebration of Diaries and their Digital Descendants’ and one of the curators of the exhibition – Dr Clare Brant – was a guest on Saturday’s programme (27 minutes in, if you want to listen to it).

It sounds fascinating. Might I humbly suggest the exhibition would be a great venue for an artist’s date? I’m sure you’d get some writerly inspiration.

Something that appealed to me which was mentioned in the programme: you can donate your old diary to The Great Diary Project (they currently have 8000 diaries) and you can even put a closure notice on it when you send it in, expressing how many years it must remain closed (30 years, if you like!)

“The Project’s idea is to collect as many diaries as possible from now on for long-term preservation. In the future these diaries will be a precious indication of what life, in our own time, was really like.”

I’ve got a pile of diaries, dating back to when I was ten or eleven. I might donate them…!

I wrote an article about keeping a diary – and how it could help your writing – for Writing magazine a few years ago and I’m reproducing it here.

Let me know if you keep a diary now, or if you did once. If you’ve still got all those diaries stacked up or hidden away in drawers, what are you going to with them…?

‘Dear Diary…’

Many of us kept diaries or journals in our youth but something (self-consciousness perhaps, or a perceived lack of time), makes us stop as we reach adulthood. But are there benefits for writers in keeping a diary and if you’ve stopped, is it perhaps time to start again?

Author Ben Hatch, who wrote a diary when he was 21 (and which ultimately turned into the bones of his first novel, The P45 Diaries), suggests that recording real events and conversations ‘helps to give you an ear for dialogue.’ He also believes that ‘over time the diary will naturally describe the outline of a story. Before you know it – you’ve got a book.’

You may not be convinced that your life’s interesting enough to turn into a novel – or that the quote attributed to Mae West, ‘Keep a diary and someday it’ll keep you.’ – applies to you but nonetheless, keeping a diary could still help your writing.

For a start, it’s habit-forming. We all know the writer’s mantra: ‘write every day’. If you keep a diary, you can tick that off your ‘to do list’ right away. Virginia Woolf observed that writing for no audience – writing just for the sake of writing – is great practice because ‘it loosens the ligaments’.

You can use your diary to record everyday events, anecdotes and snippets of dialogue that you might otherwise forget. You may find it reassuring, to look back at past worries and difficult situations and see how you got through them. You may find you can use them later in your writing. Over time, your diary could turn into a valuable research tool.

If you have a stack of diaries written, say, in the ’70s or ’80s, they’ll contain all kinds of details from those decades. If you wrote diaries as a teenager, they’ll be invaluable if you want to recall how it felt, in order to write from a teenager’s point of view. I once heard a great example of the ‘teenage mind’ on the radio. A woman phoned in to talk about re-reading her diary from one day in July 1969. She’d written in great detail about her clothes and make-up on that day, the friends she’d spoken to and – most of all – the boys she fancied and then, at the very end, she’d added a cursory, “And a man landed on the moon.”

Most of us who look back at our teenage diaries will laugh, cry and cringe but there’s no denying, they can be fun to read. I spent two hours recently going through all my diaries and they gave me several ideas for stories and articles – not least, this one.

It’s been proven that keeping a diary can make you happier. Some people find it therapeutic, to write down their thoughts and certainly, keeping a journal can help to process worries and get things into perspective. But collecting positive memories can also help us to appreciate them. By keeping a diary and building an archive of memories, you’re producing a bank of instant ‘happy moments’ to relive in the future. It’s a kind of literary mindfulness.

I once took my 1975 diary to a family gathering and read out random extracts. None of us could remember the day my dad locked the dog (and car keys) in his Ford Capri or when the neighbours’ hamster went walkabout but those anecdotes produced howls of laughter all those years later and yes, made us happy.

You can even use your diary to practice your writing. Instead of describing your feelings, write descriptions and observations; forbid yourself from using the verb ‘to be’ – it will make your writing more interesting – and try experimenting with form. Keep a diary for a week using sentences of no more than 10 words (or only allow yourself to write one sentence for each day); instead of writing in the usual first person, try writing in the third person; experiment with stream-of-consciousness, or write in an accent, in broken English or in baby language for a week. Make a list entry – just using nouns to describe the day. These short exercises will enhance your powers of description and observation.

Most people’s diaries are private but you may wish to write one to pass on to your family. There’s never been such an interest in genealogy and your ancestors may one day treasure your diaries, if you’re writing them with one eye to the future.

Whatever your reason, it’s never too late to start writing a diary again. You don’t even have to wait until January 1st!

First published in Writing magazine, 2015.

Posted in Artist's Dates, Events | Tagged | 14 Comments

The Story Behind The Story: ‘Dinosaurs’

I have a story called ‘Dinosaurs’ in the current issue of Woman’s Weekly Fiction Special (out until around 5th June, after which, July’s edition will hit the shelves). Isn’t that a lovely illustration they’ve put with it?

I got the initial idea when I drove past a farm which had a sign up outside: ‘Emu eggs for sale’. That, I decided, needed to go into a story. But that was as far as I got. I jotted it down in my notebook and there it sat, for several months, before the ‘partner idea’ came to me. (I usually need two ideas to make a story – I’ve probably told you that before).

Waitrose has a free weekly newspaper and it often has interesting and useful articles in it (other supermarkets – and newspapers – are available!). Back in March, they had a feature on a producer of quails’ eggs and that was it. As I read about the quirky little birds, who live in polytunnels and are ‘little princesses’ with lots of character, I got the idea for a poultry farmer and a girl who’s a reluctant rep’ for an animal feed company.

It took me a long time to write it and I had to do a bit of research on emus but the end result was a bit different, I like to think – at least, in terms of setting and subject matter – and perhaps that was what clinched the sale.

If you want to know why it’s called ‘dinosaurs’, you’ll have to buy the magazine and read it (or stand in WH Smiths and flick through, very quickly!).

Woman’s Weekly Fiction Special June 2017

And still on the subject of ‘wildlife’, we currently have 2 sets of bees nesting in our garden. Not sure if ‘nesting’ is the right word but the first lot – and they are tree bumblebees, we have worked out – are definitely nesting, because they’re in our (old, un-used and cobwebby) bird box.

Here are Bertie, Bella and Branwell Bee! Up to 500 bees can live in a bird box, so only another 497 to name.

I suspect we might have so many because, completely by chance, we have 2 of the top plants for bees in our garden – wisteria and cotoneaster – both currently in flower.

We also have buddleia, which is in their top 5 too but that won’t flower until later in the summer. If you look very closely at the photo, you can just see the gingery fronts of 3 of the bees. I had to get quite close to take that shot but according to Friends of the Earth, they are ‘very docile and will only sting you if you grab them in your hand’. Well, I’ll try not to put that to the test.

The second lot of bees are in the eaves of our garage and we can’t get quite near enough to decide what they are. Anyway, they’re a bumblebee of some kind too, which means, as they’re not honeybees, we won’t be getting any kind beekeeper to come and take them away to his/her hives. Hmm… I can feel a story idea taking shape…

Bees’ favourite: wisteria

Posted in Magazines, Short Stories, Successes, Woman's Weekly | Tagged , | 12 Comments

Ditching The Distractions = Get More Writing Done!

You could say that I’ve taken my own advice to an extreme: on Monday I resigned from my ‘day job’ (part-time but increasingly filling the hours and headspace that I need for my writing) and I’m not actually recommending that you do that.

Work is a distraction, true, but a necessary one for most of us and I will be stepping onto the hamster wheel again at some point…!

But since Monday, the ‘Universe’ seems to be telling me that I might just have done the right thing, in taking a small ‘break’:

• The short story workshop that I’m running at Evesham Festival of Words sold out on Tuesday
• My ‘flash comp’ entry (an extract from a ‘longer work’ that I’m trying to write), was a runner-up in Tuesday’s Writer’s Forum
• On Wednesday I won the Tamworth Literary Festival short story competition
• Today I had a story accepted by Woman’s Weekly

Coincidence? Probably. But I’m telling myself it means something! (because we writers have to hang onto any encouraging signs, don’t we?)

And now, because you seem to like them.. here’s another of my previously-published articles on writing subjects. This one’s got some tips on making more time to be creative. (If you have any other ideas, do please leave them in the comments!)

Ditching The Distractions

As writers, the call of the ‘real world’ is difficult to ignore. Sometimes it’s just an excuse to procrastinate but often, not being able to ‘retreat’ – either mentally and physically – is a real barrier to writing.

Research has shown it can take up to 15 minutes to regain focus after a distraction, so how can we stay focussed and also find time and space to write?

Some distractions are unavoidable, so concentrate on controlling those that you can, for example:

* Use an answer phone
* Only check emails twice daily (or do what I try to do and resist checking emails or social media until 4pm. The idea of that being, that there’s still an hour or so of the ‘working day’ left, if you need to reply urgently to someone).
* Re-think those household tasks. If you worked in an office, you wouldn’t be able to mow the lawn in the middle of the day, so why waste your precious writing time? Whenever you have an overwhelming urge to complete another task when you ‘should’ be writing, ask yourself whether it really needs to be done, now? Writer Carole Matthews recognised when she was procrastinating and used to tie her leg to the desk, to prevent herself ‘wandering off to do the ironing’!

Novelist Zadie Smith famously disables the internet using Freedom© and SelfControl© – computer programmes specifically designed to help writers – when she’s at work.

Charles Dickens – like many of us – needed absolute quiet in order to write. In one of his houses, an extra door had to be installed in his study to block out noise.

Renovating your home is probably not practical but if you need silence to write, try using ear plugs – or even ear defenders. Many writers play music through headphones or listen to CDs of ‘white noise’ – such as crashing waves or falling rain.

If the view from your writing room window is too tempting, then you could follow Stephen King’s advice (in his seminal book ‘On Writing’) and turn your desk to face a blank wall, or adopt the technique of American novelist Jonathan Franzen: he wears a blindfold and relies on his ability to touch-type.

Most writers need solitude but if you find that difficult, then being with others who are also writing – whether ‘virtually’ or in reality – might help.

‘One day writing retreats’ are becoming more available. For a small fee you can leave housework, TV and other distractions behind and go to a centre for a few hours of uninterrupted writing. Most organisers encourage you to set goals in advance and provide refreshments and ‘time and space’ away from the real world.

Why not organise a ‘power hour’ with a writer friend or Facebook group? Agree on a start time and at the end of the hour, get in touch via Twitter or Facebook and compare achievements.

Victor Hugo, author of Les Misérables, allegedly asked his valet to hide his clothes and wrote in the nude, so he couldn’t go outside but many writers find it easier to leave the house, to write.

Novelist Clare Morrall has written most of her books away from home. “I write in a room in a friend’s house, and I like the sense of isolation that comes from leaving my home environment, shutting the door on everyday life.”

If you don’t mind some background noise, then there are plenty of coffee shops to choose from. But if you want that coffee shop ‘buzz’ without spending a fortune on lattes, the Coffitivity website will provide the same noise and you don’t even need to leave your desk.

Or what about writing in your local library? Warm, quiet (ish) and most of them have desks these days.

Friends and family, however well-meaning, can be a major distraction. They often don’t understand our need for peace and quiet.

Jane Austen knew all about the ‘casual interruptions’ of family life. She never lived alone or experienced any solitude in her daily life, yet she still managed to write and made the most of her family by reading out her work-in-progress to them in the evenings.

Perhaps that’s the answer: try to use your distractions to your benefit. Writer Wendy Clarke admits that she never gets any writing done when her husband’s home but he’s a great proof-reader, when she’s finished a story!

Other ways to ditch the distractions:

* Use a kitchen timer. Try setting it for 30 minutes or an hour and don’t do anything but write. When the bell goes off, allow yourself a short break, then set it again. Keep going until you’ve finished.
* Beware of telling friends when you’re at home ‘writing’. They’ll often interpret that to mean you’re ‘available’ (for lunch and coffee and stuff, which is lovely BUT…)
* Do one thing at a time. It’s been proven that multi-tasking doesn’t actually save time and it can cause stress!
* Try clearing your head through yoga, mindfulness, meditation or Morning Pages/journalling.
* Clutter is very distracting. Make sure you have a clear desk or room and space in which to write.
* Invest in a ‘do not disturb’ sign.

Based on an article originally published in Writing magazine in 2014

Posted in Books, Finding Time To Write, Successes, Woman's Weekly | Tagged , | 16 Comments