May The Force Be With You

This was supposed to be written and posted yesterday but I’m afraid I didn’t manage it because I had to watch the BBC programme about stress last night, instead (go figure, as they say).

Who was it – Douglas Adams, I think – who said “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by…”?

Anyway, I didn’t realise the significance of yesterday’s date until the afternoon, when I was walking the dog near Broadway Tower and an American tourist, camcorder held high, boomed (presumably for the benefit of the folks back home), “MAY THE FOURTH – BROADWAY TOWER!” It sounded like he was saying ‘May the force…’ and of course, all the Star Wars stuff I’d heard on the radio earlier, suddenly made sense.

It made me think (*slightly tenuous link alert*) about a writer’s ‘force’. I reckon it’s inspiration. Without that, we’re stuffed. And two recent experiences have been a source of inspiration for me:

Firstly, last week I went to several events at Stratford Literary Festival.

I’m lucky enough to have 4 great literary festivals (Stratford, Chipping Norton, Chipping Campden and Evesham) within half an hour’s drive. (I’ve only linked to the last two because the others are over for this year).

The first three are all held in April and May (practically back-to-back), so there just isn’t time to go to everything but last week I binged at Stratford and managed to see (amongst others), a poet and a novelist who are favourites of mine but whom I’ve never seen speak before – poet Simon Armitage and fabulous novelist, Tracy Chevalier.

Someone I once taught was very dismissive of literary festivals. When I encouraged my class to go to events, he said he put them in the same category as writing magazines – a waste of time, a form of procrastination, when he should have been writing! (erm, actually he didn’t do a huge amount of writing, but that’s beside the point..) but I find them the opposite. I find listening to authors or poets that I admire and being with other, like-minded people in the audience, buying books, taking time out from the everyday to indulge my passion for reading and writing, isn’t a waste of time at all: it’s rejuvenating and inspiring.

Listening to Simon Armitage read his poem about Poundland, for example, was liberating. Yes! I thought, it’s OK to use the everyday, the mundane, the humorous, in ‘serious’ poetry (his Poundland poem is actually based on a section in Homer’s ‘Odyssey’, so it’s clever stuff).

Tracy Chevalier was great too. Remember my post about Margaret Atwood and her Tempest-based novel? Tracy has also been approached by the Hogarth Shakespeare Project and she chose Othello and has written a novel (‘New Boy’) based on the play. (I’m still waiting to be ‘approached’ by the way. They’d better hurry up or the only plays left to ‘re-imagine’ will be the odd ones that no-one else wants, like Timon of Athens or Pericles).

Her latest novel (she was only 6000 words ‘in’ last week and had been writing it on the train on her way to Stratford!), is set in Winchester Cathedral in the 1930s and you can read about it here.

So, in a nutshell, literary festivals = inspiration. There are soo many now, that there must be one local to you. Have a look on the website and see what you can find!

And my second recent source of inspiration? Someone who posted on Facebook, “Just surfacing. I’ve written 5000 words today!”

What do you think of that? There are lots of possible reactions but I found it inspiring. Wow! I thought.. then a little stab of doubt hit me – I NEVER write that much (in a week, never mind a day!). But then, a little voice said, ‘But could you?’ and then it turned into ‘You could!’ and I started to think how I might manage it, if I planned well in advance and had a day specifically set aside. I haven’t done it yet but the idea’s there.

I’ve been inspired.

What, or who inspires you? Do tell – it might help us all!

Posted in Books, Cotswolds, Events, Ideas, Novels, Plays, Poetry, Television, West Midlands | Tagged | 2 Comments

In Which I Confess to Two Misdemeanours

I belong to a poetry group (that’s not one of the misdemeanours, by the way).

We take it in turn to host the meeting in our homes, once a month, (just drinks and biccies to be provided) and I can heartily recommend it as a ‘model’ if you want to set up any kind of writers’ group.

The idea of ours is that we write a couple of poems and read them out at the meeting, for feedback from the others. There are usually 7 or 8 of us and there are some very good poets in the group (better than me but that’s no bad thing, because I learn from them!) and invariably, because I don’t find writing poetry easy, I am beavering away into the early hours or even on the morning of the meeting itself.

Last time, just before Easter, everyone came to my house. This wasn’t stressful at all.

The dog jumped up on the first lady to arrive and made her trousers dirty (eek!) and then, when I went to make her a coffee, to soothe her, the flippin’ Tassimo machine – which had been perfectly OK the day before – decided not to function. It was apparently telling me, with its flashing red lights, that it needed a new filter but I didn’t have time to find out how to do that, so I yanked out my trusty old coffee machine from the back of a cupboard and opened the bit where you put the coffee in – only to find the remnants of the last time we’d used it (January!) ie: mouldy coffee grounds, so I had to quickly wash it out, hoping no-one would notice a) the mould or b) my panic and all the while, other poets were arriving and I was trying to be a cool, calm hostess and get them drinks.

Luckily my friend Chris arrived and helped me. (She didn’t know about the mould. But she does now. Whoops – sorry, but you had tea, so you were safe).

Anyway, it was a bit of a mad start but it reflected the sort of week I’d been having. Namely, a strange one. But it had given me an idea for a poem and here it is:

The Near Miss

I come out of the supermarket
to find my car has disappeared.
Stolen! But who would want it, really?
A hundred thousand miles on the clock and paintwork
faded to pink.
Oh! There it is!
What is it doing there on the other side of the car park,
lined up, dead straight against the kerb?
I march over,
inspect it for bumps.
There are none.
Nor is there an irate driver with a damaged wing mirror
a flattened old lady on the ground
an injured dog or child…
Oh, God.
The car wash men ignore me
other shoppers’ vehicles cruise in and out.
Nothing happens.
I slip into the driver’s seat
pull the handbrake on,
Take it off again, start the engine.
All the way home my driving is steady,
my mind, racing.

Everyone laughed when I read it out and then realisation hit them. They popped their heads up to check their cars on the drive.

“Erm… so, did that really happen?”

I had to admit that (for the first – and hopefully, last – time in my life) I didn’t put the handbrake on when I went to the supermarket and my car, somehow, (it’s still a mystery to me), snaked its way slowly – and safely – across the car park and parked itself neatly against a metal barrier.

As I finished telling the sorry tale, my friend Chris looked at me. “I’m driving to Fishguard,” she said.

Which brings me on nicely to Writers Holiday in Fishguard, where we go every year and will, hopefully be there again this year (cars and handbrakes permitting).

If you’re looking for a writing holiday where the emphasis is just as much on the holiday (food, drink and general relaxation) as the writing – and you don’t mind a trek to Pembrokeshire – then this could be the one for you!

Have a look at the programme here (they call it a ‘conference’ but honestly, it’s much more informal than that). Famous people like Della Galton, Simon Whaley and Kate Walker are running courses (plus you can do poetry, painting or crime – that’s crime writing, not the real thing – amongst others) and because it’s not huge (unlike some other writing holidays, mentioning no names), Fishguard is much more personal and you’ll get more attention and chance to read out your work and ask questions.

Chris and I run the book quiz on the first night, which is a bit of an ‘ice breaker’ and I’ll also be running a few ‘after tea’ workshops (subjects still to be decided!). If you live within driving distance, you can attend as a day delegate for a reduced rate.

Let me know if you’re going to be there, so I can say hello!

Grazia First Chapter Writing Competition

And on a different note, here are details of the Grazia first chapter competition – submit by 5th May, free to enter and you could win £1000 and a trip to the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Award night!

Puts me off rather that they want your date of birth AND a photo but them’s the rules, as they say, so it’s up to you if you want to give it a go…

Fishguard Bay Hotel. Richard Burton has stayed here (while filming Under Milkwood)

Posted in Bonnie, Competitions, Events, Poetry | Tagged | Leave a comment

A Full House, a Full Cupboard & a Free Writing Webinar

Of course, the guests did bring some lovely chocolate with them too…

I looked back on the blog just now, to see what I was doing this time last year and, what do you know, I was starting a ‘writer’s retreat’ as my partner had gone away to Turkey to play golf…and the same is happening this year – he’s off in the morning!

I must admit, as much as I will miss him (honest!), I am looking forward to a bit of peace and quiet because from Wednesday to Sunday last week, we had no less than 17 different visitors (some of whom stayed over) and it was all a bit exhausting and ‘full on’.

Even Bonnie the dog (a good time girl, if ever there was one), is worn out (because it’s hard work, being fussed over by that many people). She’s lying in her bed, gazing up at me with a ‘please no more!’ look in her eyes.

If you’re an extrovert – which means, in a nutshell, that you derive your energy from other people – then you’d have thrived here, in the last few days but if, like me, you have some introvert tendencies (we get our energy from being alone), then after a while, you start to CRAVE solitude and silence. It’s nothing to do with being shy or antisocial, it’s just too draining, being with so many people for so long – and apparently it’s to do with how our brains are wired.

I wrote about extroverts versus introverts a while ago, here.

I’m writing an article about whether being introverted or extroverted is best for writers and I’d love to hear your views – and which one you consider yourself to be!

Free Plotting Webinar

On a different note entirely, someone kind has just let me know about a free writing webinar ‘What Happened Next? Plotting a Story’ from 6pm – 7pm (UK time) today, Monday 17th April, courtesy of Penguin/Random House’s The Writer’s Academy.

UPDATE: this is available now here on YouTube – so you haven’t missed out!

I have registered – eek, it looks a bit ‘technical’ (and I am not technical. I am the person whose i-phone is STILL IN THE BOX since she received it as a birthday present last October) but I might have a go as it looks interesting and there’s even a Q&A session at the end. If you can’t make it live, they are inviting you to ‘register anyway and we’ll send you the recording and slides’.

There are more details here.

If anyone’s done one of these before and can give advice (er, preferably before 6pm tonight!) please do comment!

Thanks – and Happy Easter Monday, everyone!

Posted in Blogging, Bonnie | Tagged , | 5 Comments

Getting Inspiration from Sport

It’s been rather a sporty weekend (I don’t mean me! Unless 5 minutes of table tennis counts). First there was the Grand National – which you couldn’t have missed – and the US Masters was also on (that one might have passed you by but if you live in a golf-centric household like me, believe me, you’d have noticed).

It’s made me think. Whether or not you’re interested in sport, as writers, we’re interested in people, right? And there are always great ‘human interest’ stories around big sporting events.

Take this year’s Grand National. One of the favourites was called ‘Definitly Red’ (yes, written that way because the person who registered him couldn’t spell it. But ‘definitely’ is, apparently, the most misspellt word in the English language. I had a colleague who used to reply positively to emails with ‘Yes, defiantly!’ which always made me smile).

Anyway, Danny Cook, who rode ‘Definitly Red’ in Saturday’s National, comes from a family of electricians and landscape gardeners, didn’t start riding until he was 16, once rode a race with a broken leg, has taken the wrong course on a racetrack three times and been banned for taking drugs. Not the likeliest of jockeys! (And quite a character…).

Another story: the two women who’ve been friends since school – Belinda McClung and Deborah Thomson – who own the horse that was the winner on Saturday – ‘One for Arthur’. They bought him because they wanted an activity that they could enjoy while their partners played golf. Apparently, you have to have a partnership name, so they came up with ‘Two Golf Widows’ (hmm, if I had several thousand pounds to spare, I could have been in that club too).

And talking of golf, yesterday’s winner of the US Masters, the Spanish golfer Sergio Garcia has taken 18 years – and 73 previous attempts – to win a major. Lots of people thought he’d never do it (‘the habitual bridesmaid’) because although he’s a fine golfer, he can’t take the pressure of big events.

Five years ago, he said this, “I’m not good enough. I don’t have the thing I need to have. I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to play for second or third place.” Ah, bless, we’ve all been there.

Yesterday, when he won, would have been his mentor Seve Ballasteros’ 60th birthday. The stars were aligned. He did it. The BBC called it possibly ‘the perfect sporting story’.

Aw, I love it.

I wrote a story set during a swimming race, once. It did rather well – two shortlistings and, finally, third place in the Wells Festival Short story competition. I suspect part of the reason if found favour with the judges was because it was a bit ‘different’. Being original, finding an unusual subject matter or angle is, I think, half the battle when you’re entering a short story competition.

So, if you’re wondering what to write about, perhaps you could write about sport? Those freezing days out on the hockey pitch, getting whacked on the ankles. Or did you play rugby or something more unusual, like lacrosse? (or is that only in Enid Blyton books?) or hopscotch or belly dancing?

Here are 10 tips on writing about sport, to get you started.

On your marks, get set… GO!

Posted in Competitions, Ideas, Short Stories, Successes, Television | Tagged | 10 Comments

What’s Your Definition of ‘Writing Success’?

What’s your definition of writing ‘success’ and ‘failure’?

I ask because last Saturday’s Guardian (it was 1st April but I don’t think it was a joke) contained an interesting ‘What I’m Really Thinking’ piece (they’re always interesting, imo but this one is particularly so, because it’s writing-related).

It was called: ‘What I’m Really Thinking.. The Failed Novelist’.

UPDATE: There’s an interesting reply to the ‘What I’m Really Thinking..’ piece in The Guardian, telling the would-be novelist that she’s not a ‘failure’, she’s ‘a quitter’!

It’s a well-known fact that most people’s first novels don’t get published. And usually for a very good reason: they’re not very good. Writing a novel is a learning process. You get better with each one you write, or at least, that’s the theory. The author of the Guardian piece feels she has ‘failed’ because the two novels she’s written haven’t found a publisher.

Hold on a minute! Two novels written (actually finished, not just talked about!) AND an agent took her on so they must have had some considerable merit? I think that’s impressive. I don’t call that ‘failure’ – I call that ‘possibly-giving-up-just-when-you-were-on-the-verge-of-success’!

Perhaps the next novel she writes WILL find a publisher because everything she’s learned from the first two, will help to make the third that much ‘better’. And if not, there’s always self-publishing or diversifying or getting feedback or a mentor and going back to the drawing board and working on the two novels until someone does decide they are good enough to publish.

This ‘feeling like a failure if work is unpublished’ isn’t limited to novelists. I belong to a couple of Facebook groups for writers who target the women’s magazine fiction market (small and getting smaller by the day! The market, not the writers) and oh dearie me, there’s a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth in those!

Whatever happened to writing for fun? Or simply writing because you HAVE TO! (Regardless of whether it ever sees the light of day or anyone else ever reads it?).

As the writer of one of the comments underneath Saturday’s Guardian piece says, “We’re constantly told that we can do anything if we try hard enough, if we believe, if we really go for it” but that’s not actually true, is it? Not everyone can be an Olympic Gold medallist, not everyone is good enough to appear on X Factor and (gasp!) perhaps not everyone can be a published writer.

Part of the reason I blog is because it’s a way of publishing my work. I don’t get any money from it but I get the satisfaction of writing what I want to write and seeing it ‘published’. Being published is not a ‘right’ and if other people are to judge our work and pay for it, then being published is not entirely within our control. There’s an element of luck involved, sure but there’s also a lot of hard work and.. dare I say it.. talent?

What do you think? How do you define your ‘success’ (or otherwise) as a writer?

Posted in Newspapers, Novels, Successes | Tagged | 17 Comments

The PC or The Pen: Which is Best?

Do you prefer the pen? (or quill?!)

I do most of my writing straight onto the PC. (With the exception of my ‘Morning Pages’ which I do by hand but which, I must admit, have gone by the by just lately..! Note to self: start them again!)

But many writers prefer to write their first drafts using a good old-fashioned paper and pen.

Writing by hand slows down the process and allows for thinking.

Writing guru Julia Cameron compares hand-writing verus typing straight onto the PC, as the difference between driving at 60mph and 80mph. At the slower speed, you notice yourself and your surroundings more. She believes that ‘we get a truer connection – to ourselves and our deepest thoughts – when we actually put pen to page.’

But for others, writing by hand is too messy and laborious. A handwritten page will never look quite as professional – or as ‘finished’ – as a neat page of Times New Roman 12 point.

But which is best?

It may of course, depend on what you’re writing and whether you can touch type.

Linda Lewis makes the distinction between fiction and non-fiction. If she’s working on a short story, then she writes by hand first and then types it up (as a first edit) but for non fiction, she goes straight to her PC.

“I find that writing fiction requires more fluidity. Non fiction is more structured. I know what I want to say and just say it. Stories are different. Organic, if you like. I often start with one thing and end up somewhere else entirely.”

Or do you prefer a screen, to a page?

Novelist Samantha Tonge, on the other hand, swears by the PC and her touch typing skills. She used to hand write but when she changed she felt ‘it was a relief to be able to edit, without crossing through, and not have to type up at the end of the day.’

Samantha also admits that, like many of us, since she learned to touch type her writing has degenerated anyway and it’s just so much quicker to type.

Of course, many argue that it’s easy to lose work on a computer. There’s always the risk of power cuts, corrupted files, forgetting to back up files or even – as happened to novelist Louis de Bernieres – having your laptop stolen. (His contained four chapters of a new novel and he didn’t have copies. He said, at the time, “I never make disk copies of my work because I am not a computer boffin. I prefer just to do print-outs on paper after I have finished each chapter. But I had not been doing that because I had been writing in the summerhouse and the printer was indoors.” The thieves stole his laptop from the summer house…).

But equally, notebooks can be lost or stolen too and you’re even less likely to have a copy of those.

Certainly, though, one advantage of hand-writing, is that it’s ‘portable’. Most of us can manage to tuck a notebook and pen into a bag or pocket, ready to be whipped out whenever we have a spare moment or a flash of inspiration.

It’s not quite so easy to do that with a laptop and indeed, if you’ve ‘trained’ yourself only to write when you’re sitting in front of your PC, you could be missing out on lots of writing opportunities.

Director Quentin Tarantino never uses a keyboard: he writes all his own screenplays by hand. “It’s a ceremony. I go to a stationery store and buy a notebook — and I don’t buy 10. I just buy one and then fill it up.”

Of course, for many writers, the actual process of writing is a deeply pleasurable one, linked to choosing just the right pen or pencil and the perfect notebook (lined, or plain? A4 or A5?).

Writing by hand is certainly a great excuse to indulge a love for stationery.

But there are other options. Barbara Cartland famously dictated her hundreds of romance novels to a secretary, as she inclined on the sofa!

Not many of us could afford such luxury – or, if we’re honest, have the ability to verbalise our thoughts instantaneously – but if you like the idea of ‘speaking’ your writing, you can buy speech recognition programmes for your PC that will type up your words as you dictate them (has anyone ever tried one of those?).

If you’re still typing with two fingers, why not set yourself the challenge of learning to touch type and speed up your accuracy and typing skills? It’s not difficult (I managed it!) – it just takes a little practice – and there are plenty of free on-line courses on the internet eg: Typing Club here.

But beware of the overriding danger of typing up the first draft of anything: it looks finished. You’re likely to be more reluctant to start tweaking a piece of work when it looks so polished, whereas, a rough draft on paper, complete with crossings-out, scribbles and notes in the margin, looks like a first draft and you won’t be so resistant to changing it.

So, PC or pen? Which is best? At some point, your work will almost certainly need to be typed up, so the temptation to go straight to the screen is always there.

But don’t neglect writing by hand. You may find it liberating. And it’s a reminder to all of us, that writing is, after all, a craft.

Based on an article first published in Writing magazine, 2013.

Posted in Magazines | Tagged | 13 Comments

‘Defining Moments’ & a Writing Competition

The American writer, Paul Auster, has got a new book coming out, 4321 (it’s 900 pages long!).

I must admit, although I’ve heard of him, I’ve not (yet!) read anything by Mr Auster but I was fascinated by an interview with him on the BBC, in which he talked about the inspiration for the book (his first for 7 years).

When he was 14, he experienced the ‘single most important moment of his life’ (no, it’s not that). Something very tragic, actually, something that he thinks about every day of his life; something that made him realise, that ‘anything can happen to anybody, at any time’.

When he was 14 and at summer camp, a boy just inches away from him was struck by lightning and killed.

It made me think about something that happened when I was a first year student and that I often reflect on. It wasn’t as immediate, or as personal as Paul Auster’s experience but a fellow first year, in the same hall of residence as me (but in the next door ‘house’, home to around 100 students), was killed when a tree fell onto the car in which he was a passenger, just as they were parking, to go into lectures.

I didn’t know him. Apart from seeing him once in the Students’ Union, when he greeted my friend, I hadn’t even crossed paths with him but, thirty years on, I can still see his face, still remember that shy way he said ‘Hello’ and whenever I hear ‘Loughborough’ mentioned, I think of him because that’s where he came from.

Paul Auster has used that ‘defining moment’ in his life as the basis for a 900 page novel. Is there anything like that in your life – something perhaps you think about every day – that you could write about?

Stylist Writing Competition

Hmm, on a more cheery note (because it is the weekend, after all!), Stylist magazine is running a free-to-enter writing competition and you’ve got until 2nd April to get your entry in! (They want the first 3000 words, a 300 synopsis AND it must feature a strong, female protagonist). Easy peasy!

There are prizes for the top 10 – the overall winner gets a ‘three month agency mentoring programme’ (this doesn’t mean they’ll publish your novel but they’ll help you get it into a publishable state – or at least, that’s how I read it), plus an Arvon course (worth over £600) and publication of your extract on the Stylist website.

The 9 runners-up ‘will be provided with short, personal feedback from Janklow & Nesbit UK (the literary agency that’s partnering Stylist in the competition), to help them develop their book idea’.

More details here.

Posted in Books, Competitions | Tagged | 3 Comments