All Change!

The weather’s gone funny, don’t you think? We had a proper cold winter, followed by a proper hot summer and now the weather doesn’t know what to do with itself.

We turned the heating on and now we’re sweltering and have turned it off again.

I realised yesterday that (probably because they were early and took me by surprise), I didn’t pick any blackberries this year. ☹

And yes, to reflect the time of year, I’ve changed the header to something ‘leafy’.

National Poetry Day

It’s National Poetry Day this week – on Thursday 4th October, to be precise.

The theme this year is ‘change’, which is really wide-ranging and could almost encompass anything:

A physical change (from a caterpillar to a butterfly, say, or from a girl to a woman), changing seasons, change of cultures (holidays or migration), changing your hairstyle, a change of career, moving house or jobs, swapping partners or schools, changing trains, changes in society (suffragettes, the end of slavery, a new president).. and I’m sure you can think of many more.

If you want to find out more about National Poetry Day (and/or get some inspiration for your own writing), there’s plenty of info on the website, including a list of events, poems on the theme of change (by everyone from Shakespeare to Rudyard Kipling) and resources for teachers.

If you prefer writing fiction to poetry, then remember that a moment of change is always a good place to start a story:

Think about Harry Potter, when Hagrid comes to tell him he’s got magical powers and that he’s off to Hogwarts to learn to be a wizard. That’s certainly a change from living under the stairs at the Dursleys!

If you’re a fan of Robert Galbraith (aka J K Rowling), as I am, you’ll remember the first novel in her Cormoran Strike series starts when Robin arrives to start working as a temp for Strike – something that immediately changes both their lives.

Bodyguard, the TV series I mentioned in the last post, starts with a change, when David Budd is assigned as protection officer to the luscious Home Secretary, Julia Montague.

And in Kafka’s novella Die Verwandlung (The Metamorphosis), Gregor Samsa wakes up to find he’s been transformed into a giant insect. (If you want to hear Benedict Cumberbatch read it – in English! – it’s here).

If you’re ever stuck for a story idea – or how to begin – think about a moment of change and see where it takes you.

The Friendship Project for Children

Something that made a change for me recently, was writing my first article for The People’s Friend magazine. I wrote about a favourite topic of mine – the Friendship Project – the Warwickshire-based charity that I used to work for and it appeared in last week’s issue.

But here’s a little look, in case you missed it!

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Posted in Books, Events, Good Causes, Poetry, The People's Friend, West Midlands | Tagged , , | 8 Comments

Time for TV!

Jed Mercurio is certainly the ‘man of the moment’ (and if you don’t know who he is, where’ve you been?!). He’s the writer of Bodyguard – THAT BBC 1 drama (10.4 million people watched the final episode last Sunday!).

It’s been credited with a return to the ‘good old days’ of TV, when we all watched the same programmes (because we didn’t have box-sets or the choice of a million channels). And certainly, over the past few weeks, my experience was, if you asked people “Are you watching Bodyguard?” they’d all say “Ooh yes!” Even my ex-police officer neighbour, who hates most police dramas because they’re so unrealistic, was gripped.

I’ve been a fan of the writer Jed Mercurio (with his amazing, Shakespearean-sounding name), ever since I watched Line of Duty, which he also writes. He’s one of the few TV/script writers that actually gets some recognition and isn’t just a faceless name lost in the credits.

He’s also something of a ‘whizz kid’. He’s a qualified doctor – oh and a former RAF officer (it doesn’t seem fair, does it, that someone can not only save lives and fly planes but is also a brilliant writer?) and he only got into writing when he answered an advertisement in the British Medical Journal and got involved in writing his first TV drama, Cardiac Arrest.

Here’s an interview with him, talking about Bodyguard – on the BBC Writers Room.

I’ve probably mentioned the BBC Writers Room website before.

It’s a great resource of information and opportunities for anyone wanting to write TV drama, radio, comedy, children’s programmes – and more.

For example, at certain times of the year, the BBC has ‘submission windows’ when they will accept and read unsolicited scripts. They next ‘window’ is likely to be for drama and towards the end of this year. Good news, then! They are actively looking for new ideas and new writers!

The website also has a script library, which is fascinating. Bodyguard isn’t on there (yet!) but all 4 series of Line of Duty are – and plenty of others, if you’re interested.

And if you’re missing Bodyguard… here’s another TV tip from me.. Killing Eve is brilliant!

Posted in Television | Tagged , | 7 Comments

Obeying the Dice!

Right, before anyone moans, I’ve checked and these days, you can use ‘dice’ for both the plural and singular forms of ‘cubes with numbers on them’! Who knew?

The New Oxford Dictionary of English says,”In modern standard English, the singular die (rather than dice) is uncommon. Dice is used for both the singular and the plural.”

Right, now we’ve cleared that up, off we go.

Sometimes, when I’m procrastinating and can’t seem to settle down to do anything (I know, it’s hard to believe that ever happens), I write a list of 6 things that I’ve got to – or want to – do, all of which would take about an hour (or you could do it for half hour slots, if you prefer).

A typical list might be:

1. Read a book! 🙂
2. Polish up a story and submit to Writers Forum competition
3. Write a blog post
4. Work on magazine short story
5. Take the dog for a walk
6 Do the ironing & hoovering

As you can see, depending on my mood (and the weather), these are a mixture of ‘treats’ and ‘chores’. And then – I bet you’re ahead of me here – I throw a dice and whichever number comes up, that dictates how I HAVE to spend the next hour.

It’s like a ‘boss’ telling me my next task and when the decision is taken away from me, it’s much easier to just get on and do it. And the idea is, of course, that if I start early enough in the day, all 6 tasks will eventually be done. (Erm, in theory, anyway).

It stops me from procrastinating and putting off tasks (I usually leave the thing I want to do least until the end of the day and end up doing it at midnight, which makes the whole thing more of a chore than it would have been if I’d done it when I wasn’t tired and had plenty of time!).

It’s also a kind of rough plan for the day. If I know that, at some point, I’m going to be working on a short story, when I’m doing one of the other tasks (like taking the dog for a walk), I’ll automatically start thinking about that story. Hopefully, then, when I come to sit and write it, I’ll already be half way there.

Of course, the roll of the dice could instruct me to spend a lovely hour reading, which is something I probably wouldn’t normally ‘allow’ myself to do during the day as it feels like such an extravagance. But if the dice tells me that’s what I have to do, I have no choice but to obey! (Is this starting to sound like some kind of weird Doctor Who episode?)

If you are a decisive and organised person, you are probably shaking your head in despair but all I can say is, it works for me and it’s kind of fun, not knowing what order I’ll be doing all my jobs for the day. (And of course, you could make it even more exciting by using 2 dice and 12 different tasks….!)

BBC National Short Story Award
On a different – and much less frivolous note – the shortlisted entries in the BBC National Short Story Award were announced a few days ago. This is not something I enter, I hasten to add because I feel it’s for the ‘big boys and girls’ but maybe one day….

There were nearly 800 entries and, apparently for the fifth time in the Awards’ history, the “shortlist consists of all female writers”. Hmm, I’m not sure what I think about that. Does it matter? Is it even relevant? Perhaps – I hope – it shows that the judges weren’t concerned with who had written the stories and therefore weren’t trying to be ‘balanced’ or ‘politically correct’ in their choices – they were just focussing on choosing the best five stories. If those happened to be written by women, so what?
Because – as someone who entered the competition has pointed out on Twitter – this competition wasn’t necessarily judged anonymously.

In the rules, it states: “Judges are encouraged to read the longlisted stories anonymously; however, they are not required to do so. The whole panel will be provided with the name of the author of each longlisted story ahead of shortlisting to ensure all judges are party to the same information when making their decisions.”

That seems odd to me and I hope most judges did decide to read the stories without knowing who’d written them. Most writing competitions are judged anonymously, after all and that seems only fair.

And if you’re interested in listening to the shortlisted stories (something to do, perhaps, if number 6 pops up on the dice and I end up ironing..) they’re all on the BBC Radio i-player here.

Evesham Festival of Words Competition
And talking of competitions, The Evesham Festival of Words Short Story competition will be launched on 1st November. One of my shiny new jobs, as a member of the Steering Committee, will be to select a shortlist (anonymously!), in conjunction with another ‘reader’. I’m really looking forward to it! The shortlisted entries will then be passed on to the main judge, Vanessa Gebbie (anonymously!) for her final decision.

Vanessa Gebbie, who knows a bit about writing competitions, as she’s won and judged several, is, incidentally, running a workshop in Evesham next month (Saturday 27th October), giving tips on entering short story competitions, so if you want the inside track on what she might be looking for, come along! It’s only £10 a ticket. More details (second event down) on the website here.

Posted in Competitions, Short Stories, West Midlands | Tagged | 14 Comments

Writing for ‘Exposure’

I write this sitting in the dog basket. (To paraphrase ‘I Capture The Castle’).

Actually, that’s not true BUT I could, if I wanted to, for Bonnie’s bed is empty.

DON’T PANIC!

She’s at the dog sitter’s, a day earlier than she really needed to go, due to ‘logistics’. So, OH is away, golfing and I’m home alone, which feels weird. Even though a dog doesn’t talk (really, they don’t), it’s like having a furry person with you, they’re such good company. When I laugh, for example (which I do, often, when I look at stuff on Twitter), she jumps up, as though she wants to join in with the fun.

Now, a new short story competition (‘Very Short Story Award’) has popped up on the Love Reading website.

At first sight, it seemed rather promising: there’s no entry fee and it’s open to everyone, anywhere, published or unpublished. But, the ‘prize’ is publication on the website and the opportunity to have your story read by an actor. No actual prize then, as such.

I got myself into a little ‘debate’ with someone on Twitter who’d retweeted the competition. The ‘exposure’ she assured me, would be really valuable. Hmm, maybe. But you’ve only got 600 – 1000 words to ‘wow’ the readers of ‘Love Reading’ (those who actually bother to look at the winning story).

Let’s face it, ‘exposure’ is just a posh word for ‘free’ because unless you have a book to promote or there’s some other reason why you might want to get your name out there, it’s hard to say what you’ll really gain from ‘exposure’. You can’t take ‘exposure’ to Tesco’s and do your weekly shop with it, can you?

In the past, I’ve sent one or two pitches to magazines and websites that liked my idea but couldn’t pay me anything. (But, they promised, I’d get a ‘by-line’. ie: my name on the piece! Yippee doo!) I turned them down, by the way. If it’s a good enough idea, my theory is, someone, somewhere, will be prepared to pay for that article.

I know there are some literary festivals that expect writers to make an appearance without a fee (for the ‘exposure’ and because they can ‘sell books’). In 2016, Philip Pullman famously resigned as patron of Oxford Literary Festival because they refused to pay writers an appearance fee (something they’ve now changed).

I’ve recently joined the Steering Committee of Evesham Festival of Words (get me!) and I’m pleased to say that we do pay writers for workshops and talks. Some waive or donate their fees, which is always very welcome of course, but no-one is expected to work for nothing.

But back to short stories. I’m not saying you should never write for free. I write for free sometimes (this blog!) but there are plenty of short story competitions that offer good prizes (as well as ‘exposure’) and if I’d written a good short story, I’d be sending it to one of those, rather than a competition without a proper prize.

For example, the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook is running their annual short story competition which is FREE to enter (and has a great prize of an Arvon writing retreat) and which closes in February 2019. (There’s a children’s fiction one on there too, which closes at the end of this month).

OR, for a modest fee of £6, there’s the chance to win £500 (or other, smaller, amounts), in the H.E Bates short story competition. Head Judge this year is none other than Julia Thorley, a frequent and welcome visitor to this blog.

What do you think? Should we all just be writing ‘for the fun/love of it’? Is money a dirty word because this is ART we’re talking about? Or are we allowed to try to earn some cash (dare I say it, a living wage?) from writing?

Posted in Blogging, Bonnie, Books, Competitions | Tagged , | 12 Comments

Just in Time!

I have been absent for a little while from the blog because I was desperately trying to finish my novel manuscript (second draft) to send to the Romantic Novelists’ Association’s New Writers’ Scheme (phew, that’s a mouthful! Hope I got my apostrophes right!).

The deadline was midnight on Friday 31st August and, typical me, I was still beavering away until the last minute (I spent 9.5 hours ‘at it’ on Friday! Eek.I was boss-eyed!). I do not, by the way, recommend this as a way to write but it seems to be the only way that I can do it!

If you’re the sort of (sensible) person who completes tasks a few days ahead, my ‘method’ probably sounds like a nightmare but apparently, ‘some people thrive on the pressure and stress of a looming deadline’. And unfortunately, I’m one of them!

So, anyway, I zapped it off just in time. And breathe…

The RNA offers a limited number of ‘New Writer’ memberships each year. In 2018 it was 300. To qualify as a ‘new writer’ you must not have had a full-length novel (or long serial) published and to become a member of the NWS, you have to nab one of the limited places (and pay for it, of course!) by pressing ‘send’ on your email as soon as possible on the 1st or 2nd January (or whenever they announce that the NWS will be accepting applications for that year). As part of your membership fee, you can submit a full-length novel manuscript for a critique, as long as you send it by 31st August.

It’s too late to apply for this year, obviously, but if you’re interested in applying next year (and do bear in mind you can only submit a romance novel for critique!), then keep an eye on the RNA website for more details over the next few months.

Before I pressed ‘send’ I did a quick search on the document for some of my favourite, much-used words. I am a devil for using ‘just’. (A lot!) I reckon I’d used it on every page.

Here is one (particularly bad) example:
“But we’ve just had a sale, got rid of a lot of stock and there just wasn’t anything quite right.”

I use qualifiers like ‘quite’, ‘really’, ‘very’ and ‘suddenly’ a fair bit too BUT nowhere near as often as I use ‘just’, so I went through some of the document, changing some justs to ‘only’ or ‘merely’ or ‘exactly’ or ‘recently’ or ‘simply’ – or taking them out altogether.

But there are still a lot lurking in the manuscript, which I’ll have to weed out in the next draft.

By coincidence, I read a tweet recently in which women were urged to stop using the word ‘just’, particularly in the workplace. Why? Because it sounds like an apology.

“Can I just borrow you for a second?”
“I was just wondering if you’d had chance to read that report yet?”
“I just wanted to know if you …”

This is not a new idea. There were articles about how women use ‘just’ in the workplace much more than men, back in 2015 but I must admit, they passed me by.

As Ellen Lease, a former Google employee says, in an article referenced here, it’s a ‘permission’ word, ‘a warm-up to a request, an apology for interrupting, a shy knock on a door before asking “Can I get something I need from you?”

Ooh yes, she’s right! I think I’ve been guilty of using this four letter word! (and not only in the novel). I will try to stop.

Did anyone else love ‘Just Good Friends’?! Ah, Vince and Penny. That was one of my favourite TV programmes! (and it was a romance, of course!)

Posted in Blogging | Tagged | 15 Comments

Courage, Mon Brave!

Everywhere I look at the moment – on-line, at least – people are being incredibly open and honest and I admire them for it.

Out there in the blogosphere, Wendy Clarke is admitting that it’s hard (and guilt-inducing) to write short stories as well as a novel (so say all of us!), so her shorts are having to take a back seat, just for a little while.

Jo Derrick has admitted in her recent blog post that it’s lonely, being a writer and, also, she doesn’t believe she’s been true to herself.

Best-selling novelist Samantha Tonge has recently opened up for the first time about her alcohol addiction.

And in a Facebook group I belong to, for ‘womag’ (women’s magazine) short story writers, a few brave souls are admitting that they will be signing the new Woman’s Weekly contract that will give the magazine ‘all rights’ to their stories because, as much as they’d like to support the many writers who are boycotting the magazine, they can’t afford to do otherwise.

Whatever your reasons for baring your soul on-line, I think most readers respond favourably when someone is brave enough to admit to mistakes or weaknesses or worries.

My post in which I admitted that I wasn’t sure I really wanted to be a published novelist (I know, I should be so lucky!), seemed to strike a chord, as did my earlier post about feeling stressed.

We all know you have to be brave to write ‘from the heart’, about the things that matter to you. If you stop playing it safe and put the ‘real you’ out there, it’s exposing.

Nobel Laureate author V S Naipaul, who died recently, once said, “An autobiography can distort; facts can be realigned. But fiction never lies: it reveals the writer totally.”

Eeek!

OK, let’s practice. If you could go back, what three things would you tell your younger self?

I started this a few times and I chickened out. I’m not brave enough to put the real ones on here but the not-so-serious ones would be:

#1 Start writing NOW!
#2 Eat more fruit and veg
#3 If a job is boring, it’s not the right job.

Novelist Joanna Cannon has just brought out a free e-book “Three Things I’d Tell My Younger Self” which has quotes from all kinds of people. It makes you think. You can download it here.

And if you’d like to comment with the 3 things you’d tell your younger self, feel free! Go on – I dare you!

Posted in Blogging | Tagged , | 11 Comments

How to Be More Creative

Last night, I was driving home quite late. It was actually dark – yes, that late. But still hot, of course. I stopped at a supermarket at 9pm and when I came out, it was almost surreal, how the heat just hit me. It was like being in a foreign country.

Anyway, as I drove home, I listened to Radio 4 and the ‘Bringing Up Britain’ programme came on, which I’ve never listened to before but ooh, very interesting because this episode was about CREATIVITY and principally how we can foster it in children, as, “by 2020, it’s estimated that creativity will be in the top 3 most important skills for future jobs.”

But they also talked about how, as an adult, you can increase/improve your creativity. They had a couple of very learned and wise professor-type men on the programme, spouting their words of wisdom and… steps back in amazement, they were basically saying the same as Julia Cameron said, over 25 years ago in her book ‘The Artist’s Way’ (and which, ahem, I have quoted on this blog several times).

So, what did the wise men advise, in order to become more creative?

Well, every day, we should take 15 minutes of ‘unfocussed time’, when we’re not looking at a screen of any kind, or listening/speaking to anyone. It’s time to get back inside your own head, without the distractions of external media (and yes, being in the bath or shower count, as that’s often when people get good ideas, isn’t it?).

So, I was thinking, this is all very much like Morning Pages, which I think of as a word-doodle-brain dump-meditation and which Simon Whaley has written about here.

On a weekly basis, we should try to ensure we have new experiences and gain new knowledge, as ‘research shows that changes to your routine will increase your creativity’ (and it can be as small as ‘pressing a different button on the vending machine each day’). Hmm, is this not just like going on an Artist’s Date?


I wrote an article for Writing magazine a few years ago, entitled ‘Be Curious’ and now seems as good a time as any to publish it here:

Be Curious

As writers, we’re always striving to be original and to find that new angle but how can we keep our minds open and our ideas fresh?

One way of boosting creativity is to keep your ‘inner child’ alive. In short, by being curious.

We were all children once. We lived in the moment, continually asking questions and pushing the boundaries of our world through play and daily new experiences but as adults, most of us lose that child-like curiosity and lack of self-consciousness. As we get older, we’re far less likely to try new things and ifs easy to get stuck in a routine.

You can help reverse that trend and boost your creativity at the same time, by practising being curious.

Start by doing something different as often as possible. It can be the smallest thing, such as drinking your tea out of a different mug or taking an alternative route to work. If you’ve always wondered what’s down that road or over that hill, wonder no more — go and find out!

Part of being curious is to value each day as different and full of possibilities. I do that each morning by changing the date on my calendar in the kitchen, to signify a new start.

Try speaking to people you might not ordinarily engage with. Chat when you’re at the supermarket check-out or the hairdresser’s, even if your usual inclination is to be quiet. Ask questions. You might just get an idea for a story, a character or a subject for an interview.

If you always write or read fiction, try writing some poetry. Got a good idea for a story? Why not try writing it as a poem first? In my classes I urge new writers to be open-minded about trying genres they might not otherwise have considered. This way, people who were very dismissive of one type of writing often end up loving it.

You can literally look at the world in a different way by moving the furniture around in the place where you write. Instead of gazing out of the window, why not turn your desk to face a blank wall (which is what Stephen King advocates in his respected work, On Writing)? Or write at the kitchen table for once, instead of your study upstairs.

Author Henry James urged would-be writers to, ‘Be one of those on whom nothing is lost,’ and being curious is not just about having new experiences: do things differently and you’ll pay more attention. And if you’re noticing new things, you’ll almost certainly get some new ideas.

So, if you always use a laptop, try writing instead with a paper and pen. If you have a regular list of things to do each day or week, try doing them in a different order or at a different time. Going to the shops when the schools are emptying and it’s dusk will, for example, be a very different experience from shopping at ten in the morning.

New experiences will stimulate and free your creativity, so resist the urge to live your life by a timetable.

Many of us like routine because it makes us feel secure but sometimes, as writers, it does us good to get out of that comfort zone.

Eleanor Roosevelt famously said, ‘Do one thing every day that scares you.’ This doesn’t mean you have to do a parachute jump or ride a rollercoaster. the scary thing could be submitting your work to a competition or phoning an editor to follow up a pitch (or even rescuing a spider from the bath, instead of asking someone else to do it!).

Try being curious for a month. Keep a list of all the different and ‘scary’ things you do each day and write down how you feel at the time too. The results could be intriguing.

Being curious: things to try:

• Accept invitations you might normally turn down (poet Ian McMillan famously says ‘yes’ to everything! That’s why he’s on the radio so much).
• Make contact with someone you haven’t been in touch with for a while.
• Get up or go to bed at a different time.
• Tune into a different TV programme or radio station; read a different paper. Don’t dismiss any of them as rubbish or boring until you’ve at least tried them.
•Try new recipes and resist the urge to always have the same meal when you go out to a restaurant.
• Don’t do the usual and take your notebook to a coffee shop to write. Why not try looking at the world differently by writing in a laundrette, an art gallery or a busy shopping centre?

PS: We went to the sunflower fields the other night, hence the new (temporary) header. We got a bit carried away with our picking and the house is now full of sunflower heads (and lots of yellow pollen and leaves everywhere). But lovely. 🙂

Posted in Artist's Dates | Tagged , | 9 Comments