Staying in the Bubble

A new pilates class started last week in our village hall and yesterday my neighbour asked me, via our ‘message wall’* if I’d like to go with her tomorrow morning.

Ooh, I was so tempted. It’s actually one of my new year’s resolutions, to start pilates or yoga.

It’s only for an hour, I thought, plus travel time there and back (say another half an hour, to allow for chatting) but in the end, I saw sense and said no.

I will go with her once January’s over because I have got to get this second draft finished, I am waaaaay behind and I need to stay in my bubble.

When you’re writing a ‘longer piece’ – and this is definitely one of the tricky parts of it – you’re creating a whole world. And that imaginary world is fighting for time and space with the real world. The more time you spend in the real world, the harder it is to get back into the imaginary one. At least, that’s what I’m finding. I think that’s why writing gurus often dole out the advice to ‘write every day’. It’s about staying connected to the world you’re trying to create. I’ve just been to Center Parcs for four days (hence this post is late). And yes, the only bubble I connected with there, was the ‘subtropical paradise’, so trying to get back into writing today was hard work.

Stephen King advises writers to place their desk so it’s facing a blank wall (not even a window is allowed). Because you’re creating – you don’t want anything ‘real’ to distract you.

Marian Keyes gets into the writing zone by lighting a candle and telling herself ‘I’ll just do an hour’. (I’ve been trying this but I worry that I’ll burn the cave down).

I find it helps to: do my Morning Pages (which is like a writerly meditation. You could do yoga or actual mediation instead), stay off the internet until at least 4pm, avoid the tele’ until the evening and engage with the real world as little as possible.

I know I’m in the zone – inside that bubble – when the imaginary world I’m writing about starts to feel real. Perhaps, for that hour or so, it feels more real than the real world. Time flies – I don’t even notice it because I’m so absorbed in what I’m doing. It doesn’t happen as often as I’d like though, so I have to try to protect that feeling – that immersion – at all costs. And that means no pilates, for me. At least, not yet.

* The ‘message wall’ is state-of-the-art communication technology. You write a note by hand, stuff it in a plastic bag so it doesn’t get rained on and place it on the wall between your two houses, with a stone on it to weigh it down.

Other Stuff:

On a slightly different note, I’ve just (1 minute ago!) reached 800 followers so watch this space. In a couple of weeks time, hopefully, there’ll be a new random word competition, to celebrate!

Also – I always mention this so I’ll give it a little plug here – the Readers Digest 100 word writing competition (for UK residents only) is open for entries until 5pm on 19th February 2018.

It’s free to enter, there’s a top prize of £1000, you can enter as many times as you like, your title is in addition to the 100 words and for the first time they’ll be putting shortlisted entries into an anthology, which might appeal to you.

Just bear mind though, that – naughty, naughty – they take ‘worldwide copyright’ in all entries and can do whatever they like with your story (“We may use entries in all print and electronic media. Contributions become world copyright of Reader’s Digest.”). In the past, when they’ve published shortlisted entries in the magazine, they’ve paid the authors £60 or so but there’s nothing mentioned in the terms and conditions about paying entrants whose stories appear in the anthology.

The Center Parcs bubble

Posted in Competitions, Finding Time To Write, Novels, random word competition | Tagged , | 5 Comments

Writing a Novel: Cutting Out The B.S

The more I try to write a novel, the more I feel like I’m learning to write all over again.

I’ve got until the end of January to get the second draft done and sent off for a critique, so now I’m going through the first draft (which is as rough as a bear’s bum) and:

1. making a list of all the scenes (so many mad ideas! Some to be jettisoned, some to be expanded).
2. sorting out the ‘backstory’ and putting those pages into a pile of their own, clearly (and rather appropriately), labelled ‘BS’.

When I went on a novel-writing weekend last October, I was told in no uncertain terms, that my first 5000 words were (pah!) ‘backstory’ (ie: stuff that comes before the ‘narrative frame’ of the novel) and, it seems, that’s a typical rookie mistake.

Another delegate on the course confided that she’d had to cut the first 14,000 words of her first novel before anyone would consider publishing it (and it was successfully published), so at least I knew it wasn’t just me…

In the olden days, readers would trawl through pages of backstory until they got to the action because, well, they didn’t have Netflix or the internet, I suppose and they were happy with a ‘slow burner’ of a read. But today’s readers are impatient, so, as writers, we need to know our characters’ backstory – and some of it may get woven into the story later on – but if you put big dollops of it into the start of your story, it slows everything down and is boring for the reader.

I’ve been thinking a lot about backstory and trawling my many ‘how to write’ books and this is what I have learned about backstory and novel beginnings:

(i) Unless you’re telling the story of a character from the moment they’re born (and even then, I suppose, you could put in backstory about their conception, how their parents met… and so on), there’s going to be stuff-that-happened-before-the-action-of-the-novel. But how much of it does your reader need to know and when do they need to know it?

(ii) Strong novel openings are cinematic – ie: think film/movie. When you watch the start of a film, you don’t know the characters’ backstory. You can work out quite a lot of what’s happening just from the setting, dialogue and action. You find out the rest – or at least, what’s important – later on.

(iii) If you’re unsure of whether to put something in, ask yourself if the reader really needs to know this information about a character. If the answer is yes, do they need to know it NOW, in the first few pages or can it come later?

(iv) At the start of your novel, throw up some questions (why are the characters here, acting like they are?) but don’t answer them immediately. The answers will be revealed as the reader reads the book. Avoid the temptation to explain too much. Trust the reader to come with you on the ‘journey’.

Writer and teacher Emma Darwin, whose blog I can highly recommend, says, “I see many novels where the real story doesn’t start till Chapter 4: Chs 1-3 are all just trundling towards the starting grid.” (*guilty as charged*) but she goes on to say that it’s not a problem. It’s just a process of getting to know your characters and your story. All you have to do is chop out the first three chapters and you’re ready to go with the ‘front story’ (the ‘now’, rather than the ‘then’), which is what the reader is really interested in.

Simples, as they say on the meerkat adverts. I will go forth and try to follow all of that advice.

And in the meantime, I’m planning to enter the Good Housekeeping novel competition (closing 30th March) and I’ve successfully applied to join the Romantic Novelists’ Association’s New Writers’ Scheme, for the first time. (No skill involved, I just got lucky and was one of the first 300 to apply). Once I’ve sent them the joining fee, I’ve got until August to send them my manuscript for another critique.

Am I the only one who needs deadlines to keep focussed? Without them, I just wouldn’t do it.

Posted in Competitions, Novels | Tagged | 14 Comments

A Review of 2017

Happy New Year to you all, I hope you had a good Christmas, however you celebrated it.

We were in Rhossili Bay for New Year, staying in this little place with the dog, just down the road from a 3 mile sandy beach.

I know it looks a bit like a shed but it was, honestly, called a shepherd’s hut and it was cosy and warm (although it was so windy on all 3 nights, that we were rocked to sleep!). Fabulous but I must admit, as much as I enjoyed it this year, I always breathe a little sigh of relief when the kerfuffle of Christmas and New Year is over and we can all get back to ‘normal’!

I thought I would do a little review of 2017 – my writing and the blog (and those of you who are new followers may have missed some of these posts), so here goes:

January – I was a guest on Tracy’s blog talking about my self-published book on starting a creative writing class.

February I gave a talk at Evesham library, as part of the Festival’s Second Friday Stories, a free event for writers and readers.

Then, in February and March (I must have been short of time or ideas!) I posted a few of my articles that had originally appeared in Writing magazine:

1. Ideas – protecting them, acting on them, what about if someone ‘steals’ them?
2. Dreaming for writers.
3. Are you a lark, hummingbird or owl?
4. Which is best – PC or pen?

In April I wrote a post about getting inspiration from sport and, ahem, I also left the handbrake off my car – the first time I’ve ever done that! and I wrote a poem about it (and haven’t done it since – honest!)

In May I wrote about going to the Stratford Literary Festival, handed in my notice (I used to work part-time for a children’s charity. I need to find a new part-time job this year!) and won the Tamworth Literary Festival short story competition (they’re running another one, closing 31st March 2018, if you’re interested in entering, the details are here.
The prizes are CASH this time but when I won it was £100 of book tokens (very useful for Christmas presents!).

I published another of Writing magazine’s posts, this time about ‘Ditching the Distractions

And in June, I wrote about the benefits of keeping a diary.

I wondered whether being a published novelist is really all it’s cracked up to be and wrote a post on the Top Ten Tips for editing your work.

I also bid for – and won – a full manuscript critique from Alison May on the Authors for Grenfell site (which raised over £180k in total).

July was the Evesham Festival of Words. I ran two workshops on writing short stories and my friend Chris and I ran the Book Quiz for the second time.

The dates for the festival, if you’re interested, in 2018 – are Friday 29th June to Sunday 1st July. We’ll be running the quiz again (3 tables are already booked!) and I’ve also been asked to run a workshop on Writing Serials (so I’d better get moving on another one as I’ve only actually ever written one!).

There’s a short story competition linked to the festival too and the details are here (you’ve got until March 23rd to get your entry in).

In July I went to Writers Holiday in Fishguard which turned out (sadly) to be the last one. So in 2018, I have to find somewhere else to go for a summer writing holiday.

In August, to celebrate reaching 700 followers I launched a little ‘random word competition’ (and now that I’m just 12 off 800, there’ll be another one soon).

In September my restaurant review won first prize and £100 in the Writers Forum flash competition.

In October my blog was 7 years old and I got a bad back (the two things aren’t linked) and talked here about how to protect your back, as a writer.

I went on a novel writing weekend, to get some tips on my (very rough!) first draft. I now have until the end of January to get the second draft done and then send it off to Alison May for the critique. It was supposed to be with her by the end of the year but illness and Christmas have got in the way, so I have a ‘reprieve’!

In November I went to the library to write a few times (something I’m going to do more of this year) and I wrote here about how difficult I was finding it to write both short stories and longer novel type stuff.

Which brings us to December! I was ill for nearly the whole month! (that lurgy thing that’s been going around. The one that fools you into thinking it’s gone – and then comes back with a vengeance). It’s been busy like it always is in December and so, not much writing has been done.

I said a little while ago that this was a year when lots of things changed. And the final one was…I went to the dentist on 28th December and my lovely dentist, who I’ve been with for over 20 years, told me he’s selling the practice… noooooo! So I have to find a new dentist now and I’m not very happy about that.

Writing Review of the Year

* I submitted 48 short stories to women’s magazines (my target was 52).

* I wrote a first draft of a novel, which is further than I’ve ever got before, so that is GOOD. Although I’m aware that the really hard work starts in January, when I want to try to get the second draft done and sent off for a critique.

* I had my first short story translated into another language (Swedish), when Allas magazine bought my story about the Rome marathon (previously published in Take a Break).

* I didn’t have any guests on my blog in 2017! How did that happen?! I will rectify that in the new year, definitely. I already have one lined up for January!

* I didn’t have any articles or non-fiction pieces published last year either (I used to have a fairly steady record with Writing magazine). But I’ve come to the conclusion that I can’t do everything and there’s no point trying.

How was your writing year?

Posted in Blogging, Books, Competitions, E publishing | Tagged | 16 Comments

On Christmas Eve, a thought..

As it’s Christmas Eve, let me tell you a little story and leave you with a thought.

I entered a poetry competition a few months ago. It wasn’t a particularly prestigious competition – you probably won’t have heard of it – but it was local to me and it was raising money for good causes and I thought I’d have a go.

I didn’t come first, or even second but one of the 3 poems I entered was chosen as one of three runners-up and my prize was two poetry books (I told you it was only a small competition!).

I was pleased. I filled in my little spreadsheet with a ‘success’ and didn’t think any more about it.

But then I got this email, from one of the judges, a widely published and award-winning poet (who I’d better not name in case I get him/her into trouble) and this is what it said:

Helen, I hope you don’t mind me contacting you. I was one of the judges in X competition and as you will know the judging was a collaborative effort.
When I’ve judged before, I will sometimes contact a poet afterwards via the organisers and this time I am just dropping a line to you and one other poet. I only wanted to say that I was very taken with your poem X. I loved the bitter humour in it and the strength of the poetic voice. It was very impressive. So I wish you all success in your future writing, if X is anything to go by there is a collection in that voice. Happy Christmas.

Now, I never think I’m a very good poet. Even though I’ve been Poet Laureate for Warwick and won a couple of (small) poetry competitions, I honestly think I’m the worst poet in the little poetry group that I belong to. So that email gave me a real boost.

Oh, I’m not dashing off to put a collection together – I’m not that buoyed up – BUT the fact that someone who knows what they’re talking about, took the trouble to tell me they liked my poem, that it was good, is amazing and uplifting and confidence-giving.

So, the thought I want to leave you with (and I’m telling myself at the same time), is don’t be afraid to offer praise, if you think something’s good or someone’s done a good job (ahem, like a blog post, for example!).

Recently, my OH’s golfing partner was down in the dumps about his driving and he’s been having lessons and when they played last week, apparently he was much, much better. “And did you tell him?” I asked. “Erm… no,” came the answer.

But why not?! We need to tell each other. Be kind. Be generous with your praise. It doesn’t cost you anything. And it could change someone’s life.

Happy Christmas! x

PS: This is lovely – from another (real!) poet, Ian McMillan – on why he prefers Christmas Eve to Christmas Day. Tissues at the ready though. You have been warned.

Posted in Competitions, Poetry, Successes | Tagged , | 21 Comments

Could You Do Without Social Media?

Bonnie’s first time in the snow!

This time last week there was snow everywhere! And now it’s all gone. But I was rather pleased with some of the snowy photos that I took, so please bear with me, as I display them…

That little black blob is the dog!

Right, I’ve got that out of my system.

Now, social media. Do you indulge and could you live without it?

Author Joanna Cannon (whose second novel Three Things About Elsie is due to be published next month – can’t wait)
has blogged here today about how she gave up social media for 21 days. That’s three weeks.

I’m not sure if I could avoid Facebook or Twitter even for 3 days. But maybe I should try. For all the reasons that she writes about but specifically because a) it’s such a distraction and b) it can make you feel dissatisfied with your life.

When I am adhering to my ‘no internet until 4pm’ rule, then I don’t go on any social media until late afternoon and it’s amazing how my productivity goes up. But, just lately, that’s all gone by the by. (Like the snow, I’ve drifted).

One of the things Joanna Cannon says is that by indulging in too much social media you start to ‘think in Twitter’: “It’s snowing. I must take a pretty photograph. I must tell everyone.”

Tshuh! As if…

Posted in Bonnie | Tagged | 10 Comments

Up to Snow Good – Updated with details of Good Housekeeping Novel Writing Competition

Now, no one likes a whinger, right? So, let’s get it over with: I am still ill (and I’m going to claim that as a 2-word poem as it’s just about the only writing I’ve done for a week).

I’ve had to cancel a dentist’s appointment for tomorrow because I have so many cold sores that if I try to ‘open wide’ my whole face would crack.

It probably didn’t help that we’ve just been on a tennis weekend and I ran about in the freezing cold for two days (I know, I know).
It has given me a ‘relapse’ when I was getting better. (I doled out antiseptic hand gel to everyone I played with; that’s how guilty I felt).

Have you noticed that, just as ‘busy-ness’ has become a competition, so, at this time of year, does ‘illness’? We met friends for dinner on Friday night. And we were late, of course (because we are always late. Partly, this time, because the Victorian market in Stratford had made the traffic even worse than usual).

“Sorry we’re late!” we chimed, as we rushed into the restaurant, breathlessly. They wanted to greet us with a kiss on the cheek but we waved them away. “No, no – we’re ill!” we said, expecting sympathy and understanding for our tardiness but no. “Oh, we’re ill TOO!” they cried, the implication being, that everyone’s ill and THEY were actually ‘ill-er’ than us.

But enough of this. The lovely Jackie Sayle has passed on the information I was lacking regarding the Good Housekeeping Novel Writing Competition (I have 2 copies of the mag coming to me but due to the snow and the lurgie, I haven’t been able to pick them up from my mum yet). So, here it is (and NB: you need the entry form, so make sure you buy the magazine pronto, if you want to enter):


Competition opened at midnight on 28th Nov. 2017 and closes at midnight on March 30th 2018.

Unless you live in Northern Ireland, you must post your entry (5,000 words of your novel) + a full synopsis on no more than 2 A4 sheet + a 100-word mini biography of yourself + the completed entry form from the magazine to:

Good Housekeeping Novel Competition, Orion Books, Carmelite House, 50 Victoria Embankment, London EC4Y 0DZ.

If you live in NI, you can email your entry + synopsis, biography and a scanned copy of the entry form to:

Genre must be women’s fiction. M/s to be double-spaced, 12pt font, on A4. Only one entry per person.

To be eligible you must never have had any novel published by a publishing company or ever have been represented by a literary agent, although you can have self-published.

1st prize: £6,000 advance (paid in instalments) + publication of your book + representation by Amanda Preston, literary agent. Five short-listed contestants will get feedback from Clare Hey at Orion Fiction and will have the chance to be respresented by Amanda Preston. Two runners-up will receive an Acer Switch 3 tablet/laptop worth £449.99.

Judges are: Cathy Kelly (author), Amanda Preston (director of LBA Literary Agency), Clare Hey (publishing director for Womens’ Fiction at Orion Fiction), Michelle Hther (Executive Editor of Good Housekeeping), Joanne Finney (Books Editor at Good Housekeeping).

Although, of course, it doesn’t specifically say so (men, after all, can still write ‘women’s fiction’), I would guess this competition, like the magazine, is really aimed at ‘the ladeez’ so if you’re a chap – or you’re just interested in novel competitions, per se – then there are more novel writing competitions on Jessica Davidson’s blog here.


Have you got lots of snow?

I’ve waited over 4 years for our dog Bonnie to see snow. She’s nearly 5 and it has never snowed (not properly) in all the time we’ve had her. So, of course, it snowed Big Time this weekend while she was at the dog sitter and I didn’t see her first experience of snow! Aagh! Like a parent missing their child’s first step.

Anyway, she came back today and duly raced around the garden like a loony, as I had expected. I tried to take a photo but this was all I could manage… !

Tomorrow we are going to build a snowman and try taking the camera out again. And yes, I will wrap up warm!

Posted in Bonnie, Competitions, Magazines, Novels | Tagged , | 8 Comments

On the Hunt for Inspiration

Bah, I am poorly bad*.

It’s only a cold (which, strangely, when my OH had it last week, was man flu) but still – yuck.

I can’t be under the weather because this week my Christmas ‘outings’ start with a vengeance! Including, on Wednesday, a gathering of the poetry group that I belong to, which meets once a month. We are ‘supposed’ to bring 2 new poems to be read and critiqued and, as usual, I haven’t even started to write them (my friend – who is also a pantser like me, has just texted to say perhaps we could do a ‘joint’ poem? ‘Haiku are short!’ Yes, that would only be 7.5 syllables each!).

I must admit, that as much as I enjoy it as a ‘social’ event – everyone’s very nice and it’s great to get together with other writers (and we have nice biscuits) – sometimes I think ‘why am I writing poetry?’ when really, I should be spending the time on my fiction, either the short stories that (sometimes) pay the bills or the novel that I’m trying to finish. And then, the brilliant Emma Darwin, whom I’ve mentioned before, pops up with a relevant post, such as this, just last week, which reminds me that writing poetry is good for me and – heck, it’s fun (or should be!): 10 Reasons For A Prose Writer To Do A Poetry Course

On a different note, this morning, we took the dog for a walk to Broadway Tower, one of our favourite haunts and it was full of horses and hounds – the North Cotswold Hunt was there. Oooh! (I love horses).

Now, whatever your feelings about ‘hunting’ (remember, they’re not allowed to hunt foxes any more), dozens of horses and riders and big hounds (they are big!) is still an impressive sight.

Due to my poorliness, I sat in the café with my tissues, reading my book (If You Knew Her by Emily Elgar – very good!) next to a roaring log fire, while Bonnie went out for her walk with my chap and quite a few of the hunt followers were in there too, with their dogs and their loud jolly laughter.

I was waggling my ears of course because it was all good research (perhaps I will write a poem about the hunt?) and there were some very interesting characters. The hunt website is fascinating too. Did you know, for example, that if your horse is prone to kicking others, it should wear a red ribbon in its tail? And a note on ‘general etiquette’ made me smile: “It is surprising how many people leave their manners on the ground when they get on a horse… A smile and “good morning” to people on foot will help to dispel the myth that everyone on horseback is a snob and too good to talk to people on foot.”

I am normally a ‘person on foot’ and thought that was rather nice, although today of course, I was a ‘person in cafe’ and therefore wasn’t near enough to anyone to get a smile or a good morning.

I only need another 28 followers to get to 800 and then I’ll be running another random word competition. It would be nice to do that over Christmas, when, after the madness of Christmas Day itself, there might be time for a bit of writing? Anyway, it’s out of my hands but if you want to help things along, just put your email in the subscribe box. Thank you!

*do not feel that you have to commiserate. It’s only a cold, after all and half of you reading this have probably got one too!

Posted in Bonnie, Cotswolds, Poetry | Tagged | 4 Comments