Thursday, 29 October 2009

Just Say No


Apparently, over eight million viewers tuned in to watch this week’s Question Time and the appearance of Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party. This is an unprecedented number, particularly at a time when the public’s appetite to hear politicians say anything about anything is at an all time low.

I watched it eagerly myself, though I’m not sure why.
Griffin sat like an over ripe Brie, all round, sweaty and unpalatable, while the politicians around him postured with a worthiness of a student union debate circa 1985. Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, out, out, out.

Mr Griffin, it turns out, doesn’t much like Muslims, and gay people, and women. Oh, and journalists. He’s not very clever and isn’t an accomplished public speaker. I don’t agree with him, or anything he says.
But I already knew all that...

Of more interest and controversy were the arguments preceding the show and whether it should be aired at all.
The Welsh Secretary, Peter Haines voiced vociferous opposition to the BBC’s invitation to the BNP, as did Ken Livingstone and Jeremy Dear, the secretary of the National Union of Journalists. Griffin’s ideology, is so odious, the argument went, that the BBC should not be complicit in allowing him to publicise it.

The Beeb, however, stood firm, saying it was not for them to engage in censorship and the rest, as they say, is history, if not very historic.

The whole episode, however, has made me think very deeply about censorship generally. How, as writers we often hold a mirror up to society and what we reflect is not always very pretty. Sometimes we say things that people do not like or want to hear.

A quick goggle search reveals a host of books that have been banned at one time or another around the world. Lolita and Lady Chatterley’s Lover are famous examples, but did you know Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was banned in 1930s China for portraying animals acting like humans.
In Lebanon, The Da Vinci Code remains unpublishable ( no cracks please ).

For me, the whole question arises as to who should judge these things and upon what basis. I am uncomfortable with the notion of a ‘someone’ who decides such things. Ken Livingstone accused Auntie of losing her ‘moral compass’ in giving Nick Griffin a platform but who are they or he to decide what the public can or can’t hear, can or can’t read?

The subject matter of my third book is honour killings and forced marriages, and as I began researching it I realised that if I were to write a real story, one true to my own vision, I would have to say some uncomfortable things that might upset some people. I discussed the matter at length with my editor but ultimately we agreed that I should hold up my own moral compass, no-one elses.

When the book comes out, readers can decide for themselves if what I say is the truth or if I have offended.
I suppose that’s the same argument used by the sweaty cheese-man himself.
But ya know what, people aint dumb. They can work stuff out for themselves.


Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Guest Blog by James Bennett - Sexuality & Fiction: Chains That Bind?


Does sexuality govern how we write? As writers, do our preferences enslave us?

Our desires bend us in certain ways and every experience spills onto the page, coloured by our own personal wants.

Dreams really do shape reality.

This question popped into my head while writing Unrequited, this notion that while I was writing something personal (and no doubt, unmarketable) in terms of gay relationships, it was, at heart, only an unveiling of experience. Perhaps that’s all writing is, coaxed and prodded to within an nth of the make-believe, that capricious landscape that we call Fiction. But all Fiction has its roots in Truth. Would I have written graphic gay sex scenes if I were straight?

Doubtful. Or so I thought at the time.

If art reflects life, then it might explain why the majority of mainstream novels deal largely with straight experiences. How we, as humans, are rarely drawn to desires beyond our own, but as writers, how frequently we plumb the depths of passions unknown. The girl who grows up dreaming of Prince Charming is unlikely to generate the passion to write an account of Cinderella falling for an Ugly Sister instead, amusing as that might be. It’s improbable that the boy who grows up fantasising about the cheerleading team will write a boy-meets-boy coming of age tale. Generally speaking, of course. If the biggest sexual organ is the brain, then that surely stems from the imagination. Sexuality influences, if not governs, the imagination. It seems obvious, at least on the surface, but like every question – and please remember, it is a question, always a question – there is often more to it than a yes or no answer.

The answer I’m giving here today is that I think the whole idea is a myth. We do what we do from desire, more so than from design. Desire is strong enough to surpass our biology, our genetic framework to create life, and defy any ‘moral’ upbringing. The heart goes where it wants to and we come to learn – hopefully – that everybody has a right to love. We may have no choice in those desires, but they do not chain us, any more than a writer’s preferences chains them.

In contemporary literature, the evidence is all there, from Annie Proulx’s At Close Range (that later became the landmark movie Brokeback Mountain) to the gay MC in China Mieville’s Iron Council and likewise in Richard Morgan’s The Steel Remains, brilliant books that transcend the concept of preference-specific literature, let alone genre. Novelist Anne Brooke does a fine line in leading gay men. I can’t speak for the experiences of these writers (although I’m pretty sure they’re all straight), but I can speak for the imagination.

As times change, so has sexuality in fiction. The imagination finds new and fertile ground to play with. The established order shakes. The walls are coming down.

And imagination? Well, we are only ever catching up with it, because imagination knows no bounds.




James Bennett is a British writer of dark fantasy and the occasional contemporary fable. The Lambda Literary Foundation (US) nominated Unrequited for Best Debut Novel in 2007 and he is currently working on a second book, a dark fantasy epic. This is his first guest blog. He thanks you for reading and welcomes your opinions.
For further info, please visit:
www.freewebs.com/waxlyrikal

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Forget Halloween - Writing is Far Scarier.



Why?


1) That first time you show your work to someone, breath held, eyes shut, heart knocking on your chest. Will they laugh? Smirk? Struggle to soften the blow that your work is rubbish? Be it a relative, friend, writing group or online acquaintance it takes guts to put your work out there. So, whatever the outcome, Congratulations! You’ve done the equivalent of opening your eyes in the dark.

2) That first time – lots of firsts here – you submit your story, be it one thousand or one hundred thousand words long. Why is this scary? Because the result more often than not will be a large brown envelope landing in your hall, bearing those brutal words Not for us. Yet you’ve confronted your fear, you’ve stepped well and truly into the aspiring writer’s Haunted House. One way out is the door of publication and to find this exit you must confront all manner of spooks – the dreaded synopsis, the hellish cover letter, the eternal rewrite, the shattered confidence… It takes a brave – some might say foolish person – to take this path.

3) Next you must hold your nerve and ride the two-faced ghost-train of success. You get an agent, get a contract and your day of publication arrives, yippee! But then, hello scary sales figures and alarming Amazon rankings and a devilish deadline for Book Two. And ultimately you must grapple that ghoulish question – will my contract be renewed?

4) It’s scary how writing stirs her cauldron and casts her spell on your once steady emotions. Now you feel intense envy at fellow authors who write more eloquently, get four book deals or meet Will Smith (you know who you are!) Tears are shed over rejection, high cackles let rip over positive–sounding emails or the production of an occasional bit of superb prose. Up and down, we are at the mercy of this literary mistress. Our happiness is no longer under our own control

5) The night-time terrors. Mine? They revolve around the thought that on my deathbed, I shall still be a struggling writer and a wail will escape my lips as I tot up all the hours I have pursued my self-indulgent dream, and realize that they would have been better spent achieving other things. Like getting fit. Like cooking my family nothing but home-made meals. I could have learnt to wind-surf or kept a tidier house. I could have done volumes of charity work or brought in more income. In other words… I have wasted my valuable time on this earth.


So why do we write? Is it a choice? Can we ever cast aside the demons of this pursuit? I have tried but its seductive song always lures me back, with the promise of great rewards…

Halloween isn’t scary, with its witches and zombies and ghosts. No, far scarier is being lucky enough to discover your calling, but not knowing if you will ever truly do it proud.

Monday, 26 October 2009

NANO-NANOOOO!


Today, winter officially begins. Evenings darken. It’s hibernation time, time to turn inwards. This week also marks the beginning of NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month: when tens of thousands of would-be writers dedicate thirty days to the sustained act of writing a novel – or at least, 50,000 words of one. Whoever chose November for this mini-marathon of writing was inspired. What better time to go for it than in this dark and otherwise uninspiring month?

Maybe NaNo should be renamed NiNoWriMo (Nike Novel Writing Month) since the overarching theme is Just Do It. This is the bungee-jump method of writing. The pinch-your-nose and leap method. The kamikaze method. No safety net. No pause for thought. No gentle mulling and meandering. This is the apply-the-seat-of-your-pants-to-the-seat-of-a-chair and never-mind-the-quality-feel-the-width method.

NaNoWriMo has been criticised as a waste of time, a method of producing only the requisite number of words, rather than anything worth keeping or using. I’ve never yet done it, but I have a sneaky feeling that its detractors may be wrong.

Practice may not always make perfect, but it certainly encourages flow. Like Morning Pages, NaNo may just be a great method for undermining the Inner Critic, for storming the fortress of I Can’t. NaNo is the Shitty First Draft. No-one expects anything other than shitty. Yet without that first draft, there’s nothing to work on.

As someone who is all too prone to procrastination, and who is incredibly anal in her writing (editing as I go and never feeling ready to progress until the last bit is ‘perfect’) maybe it’s time to get my running shoes on.

I’ve decided to give it a go. Not the official version, but my own private one, shared with a fellow writing friend. She has forty-thousand words to edit. I have forty-thousand words to write. We intend to Just Do It, and to support one another by weekly meetings and nightly phone calls. I know we will be in good company. Sebastian Faulks may not have done NaNo, but I suspect he understands the process and the point of it:

‘You give yourself six weeks. You write 2,000 words a day and that will give you the required length. Don’t stop. Don’t agonise. Don’t try to correct your prose as you go along. Don’t worry too much about the details. You can always revise them later…’

Good luck, all you official NaNos, and especially those Strictly writers and followers who are about to embark on this year’s adventure. This is one race that everyone can win.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Winner of Cally Taylor Prize Giveaway - Heaven Can Wait


Yikes! Nearly forgot about this, sorry guys - put it down to the hour change today!


Well done Debs Riccio, you are the winner of a signed copy of Cally's debut novel, Heaven Can Wait - please send me your details (click on my profile to email me).


Bad luck everyone else, but thanks for entering!


26/10 - Due to circumstances out of my control, a redraw was necessary and the winner is now Claire Moss - Claire, contact me!

Friday, 23 October 2009

The Ideal Reader - Guest post by Andrew Sharp


Andrew Sharp's wonderful debut novel, The Ghosts of Eden, a story of medicine, love and redemption set in East Africa, was published by Picnic earlier this year. Andrew trained as a surgeon and now practises as a GP in Leicester.His website is www.theghostsofeden.com.

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I have a notion that Wordsworth’s line, I wandered lonely as a cloud, has nothing to do with walking the Cumbrian hills but is a metaphor for the poet’s mental state when he wrote. Writers mooch lonely in their thoughts whilst under the tips of their fingers the novel forms and grows as they tap at the keys. Sometimes they think they have created fields of daffodils but even the prettiest words that appear on the screen have no guarantee of making it into the finished piece; at any moment they could be dragged and dropped, substituted or deleted, leaving not a trace.

But there comes a day when the writer has to say (like Pontius Pilate when asked to change what he’d written on Christ’s cross): ‘What I have written, I have written.’ No more revisions. The last pre-submission draft is printed out, is packaged up as if it's the stone on which is scoured the Ten Commandments, and sent to the publisher or agent.

Whilst the writer might have kidded themselves early on that they didn’t care if anyone else read their work, the truth is that a writer who doesn’t want to be read is like a composer who never dreams of having the Berliner Philharmoniker playing their work: they have a limited vision. However very few writers are happy to go in one step from a manuscript for their-eyes-only to a book open to the world. At some point in the late draft stage a writer starts thinking about their readers and - in Stephen King’s words from his entertaining book On Writing - wants someone around who’ll tell them, before they go out in public, that their fly’s unzipped.

What the writer would give their index finger for is an Ideal Reader. Someone who embodies the collective opinion of all the readers and reviewers of the world; someone who offers an unfailingly constructive and critical eye, pointing out what works and what should be deleted. For many writers, this is their agent, but it is ironic that when a writer most needs that Ideal Reader - for their first submitted manuscript – the agent is not available. How important this mythic figure can be is illustrated by the story of literary agent Charles Monteith who took a manuscript described as an ‘absurd & uninteresting fantasy …’ by a less visionary publisher's reader and provided William Golding with the editorial input that culminated in the finished novel: Lord of the Flies. (No pun intended with the close of the previous paragraph).

Inviting friends and family to comment might do wonders for a writer’s ego. They will make flattering remarks to avoid a lifelong rift (and because they are astonished to actually know someone who has written a book, however bad it is), but it’s hardly objective. The first reader feedback I received came in the form of, ‘Wow, Dad!’ as my youngest daughter ran her fingers across the top of the four hundred page high manuscript still hot from the laser printer. I guessed a publisher might be harder to impress.

There are critiquing services that will write a report for the writer in exchange for cash. Some will major on commenting on the marketability of your novel (let me save you the money: almost always the answer will be ‘unmarketable’ – gloom is programmed into the industry) and others will dissect, with surgical precision, the anatomy of the story itself but the truth is that even the most professional critiquing outfit can only afford to have one reader on the job and reading a novel is a highly subjective experience. After reporting competently on writing technique, plot credibility, characterisation etc the subjective element kicks in: what is Man Booker prize material for one reviewer will be shredder material for another. Several opinions that concur (as we say in medicine) are valuable, but would be prohibitively expensive if done through the critiquing service route.

Another route to pre-submission feedback is the writers’ group, either online or meeting face to face. Many writers find these disastrous. They're subjected to comments such as, ‘It’s kind of meaningful, I mean, I get the feeling that this is really heartfelt.' Some groups are let down by mutual back slapping or pseudo-intellectual point scoring. I’ve been fortunate. My group, the Leicester Writers’ Club, is as good as these get, although I nearly slunk out the back door on my first attendance.

I found myself sitting in a rather imposing hall gripping, unnecessarily tightly, four A4 sheets of paper. On the pages were a couple of thousand words from my recently completed debut novel. There were four rows of heads between myself and a wooden lectern which stood on its own at the front, the focal point of everyone’s gaze. By the lectern was an oversized microphone. It looked grand enough for an inauguration address. The chairperson was seated at a table, a little off to the side, looking extraordinarily intelligent and insightful. I could tell she’d be scornful of drivel. I convinced myself that the people sitting in front of me were all professors of English Literature or had written one of those books you see with titles like ‘the 1001 most common mistakes in fiction writing’. I hugely regretted putting my name down to read. I glanced down at my piece and convinced myself that the first paragraph was laughable.

The chair asked for announcements and acceptances. My perception that I was a tadpole in a pond of pikes was confirmed when someone announced that they had sold the German rights to their fourth novel. Then I heard, ‘We have a new member this evening ... who’s going to read for us.’ I found myself subconsciously screwing my pages into a tight ball. Why open myself to public humiliation?

After surviving the occasion it struck me that I had not been looking out on the literary equivalent of Dragon’s Den but was looking at a bunch of listeners/readers. Thirty willing, captive, readers. Where else could you find that for your draft manuscript? But it’s even better than that. The members of a good writers’ club are a very special type of reader. Because they’re writers, as well as readers, they’re well-versed in the techniques of the craft, and so are able to see why your favourite scene hasn’t worked and then suggest ways to make it work.

Even a good writers’ group has its limitations. In a meeting format where manuscripts are read out it’s only possible to get comment on a limited part of the novel and it’s difficult for the group to get a feel for the entire plot. There are, however, other benefits: it’s an environment to share knowledge of the writing and publishing world with fellow sufferers, to commiserate, encourage and to share in the joys of success. The group may not embody to perfection that elusive Ideal Reader but it’s good to feel that there is no need to do so much wandering lonely as a cloud.


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Thursday, 22 October 2009

Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov


Grab yourself a bottle of cherry brandy, find a log fire, choose a cold, preferably snowy day to snuggle down with Death and the Penguin. It’ll soon be apparent why you need the cherry brandy, although Finlandia vodka would serve just as well. Put the kettle on and brew a large pot of coffee. You will need to drink plenty to keep up with the folk in this book. Are you ready for a charming experience?
That’s the word for it, and I have Susannah Rickards, erstwhile and sorely missed Strictly team member, to thank for the recommendation.

Viktor, a hapless writer of obelisks (obituaries) for Capital News is a charming fellow for a drink on a winter’s afternoon; Sonya, the four-year-old who drops into his life is charming too; Sergey, his militiaman friend is charming, and the penguin is super-charming. So often I don’t give a crust for any of the characters in the novels I read, but here’s A Group of Friends with which I’d happily share a cramped flat in Kiev.

Viktor and his pet penguin find themselves implicated in some nasty dealings without any intention or understanding on their part. Viktor’s philosophy when faced with this tricky situation is summed up as:

And life seemed easy and carefree, despite painful moments and less frequent scruples over his own part in an ugly business. But what, in an ugly world, was ugly? No more than a tiny part of an unknown evil existing generally, but not personally touching him and his little world. And not to be fully aware of his part in that ugly something was clearly a guarantee of the indestructibility of his world and its tranquillity.

Entering that little world and its tranquillity is the joy of this book. It’s a highly visual world, with all those tons of snow and bags of frozen fish and a penguin splashing in a cold bath – it’s easy to imagine that Kurkov writes screenplays.

This is a cosy read, an experience akin to sitting on a settee watching the television, something that Viktor and little Sonya spend plenty of time doing. Death and the Penguin offers the same warm indulgence as drinking coffee, or cherry brandy or sitting before a log fire. It’s for those who appreciate the simple comforts that life affords us in the intervals between the funerals. The other comfort is to have someone there, whether it’s the child watching television in the next room, the lover in the bed, the penguin standing mournfully in the corner of the room, or a stranger spotted across the pale moonlight, reading in one of the windows of the block opposite: a companion in misfortune.

But don’t let’s dwell too much on the melancholy. This book is also extremely witty. I’ve got my hand over my mouth to refrain from spoiling the fun – suffice it to say that Kurkov makes the most of the comic potential of a pet penguin and all that fish. And he does so by creating a gentle affectionate picture rather than showpiece gags. The effect is touching and uplifting without being sentimental. There’s even a short section from a new POV: Penguin’s Own View.

I was swept into the world that Viktor and his friends inhabit. Ultimately it’s a thriller, of sorts, and there’s plenty of impending threat to pull you through the story. It's also an absurdist take on existence amid the wholesale corruption and violent disregard for life in post-soviet Ukraine. I'm sure that some, reading my "cosy" comments above would say I missed the whole point of the book: the satire and the hardship and the disjointed relationships. So this is simply a personal impression from one reader. For me it was mainly fun and funny and the simple domestic scenes were the most fun: a vodka picnic on a frozen lake watching the penguin cavorting, or a New Year trip to a snowy dacha with kebabs barbecued and a tree in the garden with presents. I was in no rush to get to the action. And you don't need to analyse the politics. You can simply relish peeping through the frost covered windows into another world until you fall under the charm. Put this one in someone’s stocking and I promise they will thank you.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Dear Impressive agent.....


Dear Impressive Agent,
I’m enclosing a sample of my first novel - ‘Brilliant'.
I’m not bothering with a synopsis because the book speaks for itself. I know you probably get a lot of letters from nutters who write in green ink and it must be a relief when some real quality turns up in your slush pile.
I want to be a writer because I think it would be cool to see huge posters with my name on them on the Tube. It must be great to be paid to sit around all day and make up stories. I know that you will work hard to get me a really good deal with a reputable publisher. I’m thinking a six figure deal is probably about right. [By the way, I’m not sure I’d want to do anything like book signings but I’m sure you can get round that.]
I’ll lay my cards on the table – my book really is brilliant. That’s why I’ve called it that. You probably hear this all the time, but let’s be honest - most people can’t really string a sentence together. Including many on the best seller list! Every time I look in the bookshop I see hundreds of new novels that are clearly rubbish. I don’t have time to read them, [I’m too busy to read books], but I can just tell they’re crap. I think the authors are usually just in with the publisher or something.
To make it even easier for you to love my book, I’ve had it specially bound and designed a cover. I wouldn’t dream of doing something stupid like hiding hairs inside to check whether you’ve read it [I’ve used paperclips instead LOL!]
You’ll note that I’ve also sent this recorded delivery because I know that all agents work in huge offices and have lots of staff do things like signing for the postman. But just to make sure, I will ring tomorrow just to check you got it. I hope you like the glitter on the cover. I ran out of glue so in the end I just tipped some directly into the envelope.
I haven’t actually finished writing it yet but want to see what you think before I bother. As I said, I don’t have a lot of spare time for things like writing and reading. I’m a very busy person.
Anyway, hope you enjoy reading my book [it’s called ‘Brilliant’, did I mention that?] and I’ll come along to the offices next week to introduce myself in person.
Yours sincerely,
A. Deluded-Nutter
PS Hope you like the sparkly purple ink!

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Quickfire Questions with... Cally Taylor + Prize Giveaway!




Cally Taylor completed her first novel in 2007, having previously written short stories. In 2008 she signed with her literary agent and Heaven Can Wait, a supernatural romantic comedy, has been published by Orion this week. Check out Cally's website here. She is kindly giving away a copy of her debut novel - the winner will be randomly chosen from those people commenting on this thread. (Sorry, but Strictly Writers are not eligible.) The winner will be announced this Sunday!

Which 3 writers, living or dead, would you invite to dinner?
Margaret Atwood, Stephen Fry and Jane Austen.

Favourite writing snack?
Chocolate! Or mixed seeds when I'm trying to be 'good'.

Longhand or computer?
Longhand for planning a novel and scribbling down notes and ideas. Computer for writing the first draft and editing.

The best thing about being published is...
Knowing that, over next few years, eight different versions of "Heaven Can Wait" (seven foreign editions) will end up on my bookshelf and I'll be able to look at them, marvel over the different covers and go, "Ooooh...my...god. I did that!"

Win Booker prize or land Hollywood film deal?
Film deal. I'd LOVE to see my characters brought to life on the screen.

An author should never...
Google for reviews of their book without their thickest skin zipped up tightly and a stiff drink in their hand.

Daily Mail or The Times?
Neither. The Guardian. Although The Daily Mail online is always good for a laugh.

Independent bookshop or Amazon?
I'd be lying if I claimed I didn't use Amazon. I'm actually a bit addicted and order most of my books, CDs and DVDs from them. That said I do try and support independent bookshops when I actually manage to tear myself away from the computer.

You really must read...
"After You'd Gone" by Maggie O'Farrell.

Left on a cliffhanger or told all?
Too much of a cliffhanger and I feel robbed (or assume there will be a sequel). I'd rather be told 80% and finish off the story in my head.

My biggest tip for a Women's Fiction writer is…
Love your main character. You're going to be spending a hell of a lot of time with her.

Character first or plot?
I get a rough idea for the plot first, but only the first 8 or 9 scenes and the ending. The character dictates the rest of the novel.

My journey to publication was...
Extraordinarily lucky. I was rejected five times before I signed with the Darley Anderson Literary Agency. After that my agent, Madeleine Buston, made all sorts of magical things happen. I spent three years writing short stories (and collecting rejections) before I wrote my novel so think that helped harden up my writing skin a bit.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Tipping off balance


Don't use passive voice
Don't use adverbs and adjectives
Avoid the verb 'to be'
Delete anything that you actually like
Shoot yourself immediately if you ever feel tempted to use a dialogue tag other than 'said.'


All right, so I exaggerate just to be stupid, but sometimes it feels as though the advice given to 'aspiring' writers is designed to stop you ever actually writing anything. How come you can pick up any published book and find adverbs, characters whispering or shouting things rather than saying them, and the verb 'to be' used perfectly sensibly without ruining the entire story?

I don’t think there’s one rule for published writers and another for first-timers. I think what’s really going on with advice like this is that the same problems crop up over and over, and helpful people want to warn against them. The trouble is that there’s nothing to catch the writer before he or she tips too far in the other direction, and one analogy that springs to mind here is with learning to ride.

When getting on a horse for the first time, many people subconsciously feel safer if they hunch their shoulders forward. The ground doesn't seem so far away, which is comforting, and the horse's mane is nearer for the rider to grab. A side-effect of hunching over is that the rider's toes point downwards. This whole posture looks ugly, but more pertinently than that, it’s not safe at all. It shifts your centre of gravity and messes up your balance so it doesn't take much for you to hit the deck.

That’s why anyone who had riding lessons as a kid will remember some demotivated, weathered fag-ash-Lil of an instructor bawling 'HEELS DOWN!' every five seconds. So you concentrate hard on keeping your heels down, and then she bawls 'HANDS DOWN!', and when you start thinking about the hands, you don’t notice the heels creeping upwards again.

I’m not a 'natural' rider, so any ability I have is down to trial and error (mostly error). As a pony-mad but nervous kid, I was a prime target for the 'HEELS DOWN!' shouts. Eventually, I started remembering not to let my toes point at the ground – hooray! I’d got the hang of it! Or so I thought.

I pushed my heels so far down that I ended up leaning back like a water-skier, with my feet sticking out next to the pony’s shoulders. Just as off-balance as I’d ever been, but in a different direction.

Some years later, it all became clear when a different instructor told me: 'The soles of your feet should be parallel to the ground.'

So that was it! Pretty simple, eh? Why hadn’t anyone just said that in the first place? They didn’t mean 'Heels down,' at all - they meant 'Heels not so far up!'

I think the same is true for the rules of writing. They are there for a reason – ignoring them altogether makes your work ugly and ineffective. But taking instructions too literally is just as likely to send you toppling into the dirt. In riding, recognising your centre of gravity becomes instinctive. It’s more difficult to achieve that with writing (for me, anyway) – maybe because it’s not so much of a matter of life and death – but I think it gradually becomes possible to recognise when the rules have a point, and when they’re tipping you off balance.

Friday, 16 October 2009

I Am Muriel


You've heard of the film, I Am Sam, well, I am Muriel. That's me. Muriel Moffett is my name and I'm the protagonist in my creator's current work in progress 'Cake.' I heard through the grapevine that Strictly Writing is a wonderful site, so I'd like to thank you for allowing me to participate. Well, to let you in on a little secret, the lovely ladies at the Women's Institute were gossiping about this new internet phenomenon, and one of them mentioned this fantastic blog. So I mentioned to Gillian about it, and was delighted when she said I could post a blog. I do promise not to ramble on.

Before we begin, let me tell you a little about myself. I live in Pettycross with my husband Bill and our cat Mackenzee. Pettycross is a small village and we're very parochial. Our community is ably led by the wonderful Reverend Gilchrist, or Giles as he's affectionately known. Gillian seems to think I am an unreliable narrator, but good grief, don't believe that for one second. My hobby is baking, specifically Victoria Sponges. I'm a member of Pettycross Women's Institute and I'm renowned for consistently attaining first place in the annual competition.

I've just come first in the regionals and this Saturday, I'm due to take part in the grand final. I phoned the reverend's wife Mrs Gilchrist to see if she knew who Saturday's judges would be – well, my main reason for phoning was to see how Giles was after his nasty fall from his bicycle while carrying out parish duties. It seems this year I've some stiff competition. Anyhow I still expect to retain the title and hopefully on Saturday I'll be standing on the podium with the sash. I'd like to think this year the photographer from The Pettycross Bugle will get my name right. Last year, the caption read: "Mrs Muriel Muff from Pettycross is crowned Victoria Sponge champion and is pictured receiving her prize from Mrs Bellamy, chair of the Women's Institute." Of course, everyone thought it was hilarious, even Mackenzee who chewed the cutting up, then stuffed it in his litter tray.

I don't wish to hark on about it, but people like you lot say I'm an unreliable narrator. Pffappf – what do you know? All you smart literary types. That really makes me mad. That and Bill's inane ramblings and Mackenzee constantly leaving hairs all over the place. But to disbelieve me for one second really breaks my fragile heart.

Hopefully some day you'll be able to read my adventure in 'Cake.' But do be prepared for a roller-coaster ride because, as you'll see, I'm really not a soft old biddy at all. I can be quite the machine gun, all spur of the moment of course. In 'Cake' the knives come out as well as the wooden spoons, sugar, and vanilla essence - heh heh, it suddenly becomes something else altogether. Well, I better be off now. The phone is ringing, and if it's Mrs Bellamy, I wouldn't want to miss out on some razor-sharp gossip from the Women's Institute. You never know who had died, got married, or run off with the bishop. Wish me luck in the finals!

Love Muriel xxx

* Muriel appears in 'Cake' the work-in-progress by Gillian McDade

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Mum's the Word


*Claps hands!* - I’ve managed to blag an extra hour on the laptop to do homework. Little does Mum know I’m here to write her blogpost. I mean, it’s not like she’ll get around to it herself - *rolls eyes*. She's going through another of her writing crises.

You’d think I’d be the over-emotional one. You know, with boyfriend probs, SATs exams, pressure to binge on cider, do ecstasy (yeah, I read the Daily Mail) or shag (Mum hates that word). But none of that compares to her latest rejection letter or crappy editorial report. And those supportive emails she gets from her writing friends, covered in smilies and kisses… Ugh! I’m never going to be like that when I reach their age. It’s so unsophisticated. You should see the flirty emails she sends to various men at WriteWords… Yeah, okay, I peeked at her inbox. That’ll teach her to read my school journal and spot the detention I forgot to tell her about. Anyway, I left one open on the screen so that Dad might ‘accidentally’ take a look - but all he did was close it so he could Google the football results.

It’s so unfair! I’m not allowed to make friends on Myspace and here she is practically snogging strangers over the internet – some of them have even met up. I mean, how dangerous is that, even writers could be vampire lesbians or axe murderers! And you should see her whenever we shop in Waterstones, announcing their book titles in a loud voice… It’s not like they’re Stephanie Meyer. Or JK Rowling. Or Jordan.

So, what’s all the latest fuss about? *Removes ipod plugs from ears*. Oh God! She’s still ranting on to poor Dad.*Puts plugs back in*. Apparently everyone thinks she should rewrite her latest book for teens. God, that’s random – as if Mum understands anything about being young. So if you’re out there, you sick people (no offence) who suggested this, you are soooo wrong. It’s embarrassing. Did you know Barry Manilow sings her ringtone? She calls funky short skirts “tarty belts” and can’t understand why I’d kill to snog Robert Pattinson. She fancies Simon Cowell - Simon Cowell! - and tries to be what she calls "street" with my friends, chatting about music and downloads. She doesn’t even know her Pixie Lott from Geldof. Why can’t she be like Megan’s mum and just say ‘That’s nice, dear’ before disappearing off to make tea? What’s even more random is that my friends don’t seem to mind and laugh at her jokes.

Then there’s the food – she still adds up my five-a-day and thinks I’m anorexic if I miss breakfast. Although that’s nothing compared to when I brought Tom home last month. Mum had been on at me for weeks, saying its her biological, God-given right to meet my boyfriend. Fine, I eventually said (after she bribed me with several chunky caramel Kit-Kats), as long as she didn’t wear her M&S lycra leggings (she thinks they’re really cool). And it all went okay, even when she asked if his phone had got Greentooth - until she served the pudding: home-made fairy cakes, decorated with pink icing and silver balls.

So please, any of you lot with half a brain – or heart – DON’T GIVE MY MOTHER ANY MORE BONKERS IDEAS!

Better go now. I promised I’d make her and me hot chocolate with marshmallows on top. We’re going to drink them in my room and if she’s still set on this mad teen lit idea, I suppose I could show her some of my favourite books. Then I’ll test out my new foundation on her skin as blotchy red eyes really aren’t a good look. Perhaps I’ll let her try my dazzle eyeshadow from Claire’s. She’ll like that. And I might even laugh at one of her jokes…

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Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Just For the Hell of It


On November 1st thousands of people around the world sit down to begin writing a book.


Actually, I’m pretty sure that folk do that every day of the year. What a thought. Someone, somewhere sat at their computer this morning and began the first line of the first chapter of what might be the next Da Vinci Code. Okay, let’s not start that one again.


Anyhow, November 1st is different to all those other days when random people begin writing random books ( which may or may not become best sellers) because it’s official.


November is National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo as it’s become known. The idea is that over 100,000 writers sign up on nanowrimo.org and begin work on November 1st. They then write like whirling dirvishes until Midnight on November 30th, by which time they will have 50,000 words.

The website is already buzzing with positive slogans and advice. 'Win or lose, you rock for even trying.' The forums are alive with members sharing previous NaNo war stories. In fact if you look closely you soon realise that many posters have done this whole thing not once but several times before.

My cynical other half wonders why they bother. If their previous attempts have proved unsuccessful why are they simply repeating the experience? Doing more of what didn’t work last time isn’t likey to bring results, he argues.

An author mate of mine hates the whole business. She feels the very notion of NaNo devalues writing. The idea that books can be banged out in this way, is, she feels, deluded at best. Learning the craft of writing, she says, takes time. A lot of time.
NaNo says it is for those who have been scared away from writing by the time and effort involved, as that were a bad thing.
This sort of exercise smacks too much of cutting corners, of trying to get to the end result without putting in the hard graft.

I know she’s right...and yet.

There’s something contagious about NaNo. The enthusiasm, the optimism, the sheer joy of writing. There’s no talk of the state of the publishing industry or reductions in author advances, barely a mention of agents and editors. Instead writers ask for opinions on their outlines. They trade characters and story lines – I’ll give you my villain for a sub plot idea.
Yes, some of it is naive. An almost teen-like cleaving to the notion of what writing a book is all about. And yes, I’ll warrant there are some who couldn’t write their way out of a paper bag, let alone put together a story anyone would want to read.

But something still calls to me. The thought that for just one month I can write something for which there is no contract and no deadline looming is terribly appealing. I could write science fiction or bodice ripping historical fiction. I could write a children’s book or the story of a man finding hidden messages in Italian masterpieces...stop it...
You get my point though, the possibilities are endless.

So maybe this year I’ll join all the other hopefuls and spend November writing just for the hell of it. Anyone with me?

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Quickfire Questions with... Trilby Kent



Trilby Kent has written for the Canadian national press and publications in Europe and America; her short stories have appeared in Mslexia and The African American Review, among others. She currently lives in London, where she is about to embark on an English PhD with a focus on Creative Writing. Her first novel for children, Medina Hill, is published by Tundra Books (McClelland & Stewart) on October 13.

Which 3 writers, living or dead, would you invite to dinner?
Unfortunately, most of my favourite writers are (or were) highly neurotic and unsociable creatures and would no doubt make rather terrifying company! Having said that…Truman Capote would be a hoot. Wendy Cope, too. Dulcie Deamer, simply because she’d probably turn up wearing a leopard skin, Stone Age-style.

Favourite writing snack?
Dried pineapple or edamame. A sneaky butter tart when I’m feeling homesick for Canada.

Longhand or computer?
Computer – although I do sometimes wonder if it makes the process rather too easy. Longhand probably produces more considered writing. I keep telling myself I’m going to try it some time.

As a child I read…
Quite a few books that I wasn’t supposed to, or that were too old for me at the time. I discovered Lord of the Flies when I was ten, and it terrified me. I loved anything that featured hapless orphans being shoved up chimneys and forced to eat gruel. My boyfriend still jokes that I was the freaky kid who knew a bit too much about bubonic plague and wanted nothing more than to be a nineteenth-century street urchin.

Win Booker prize or land Hollywood film deal?
Booker, please!

Daily Mail or The Times?
The Times, definitely. The Daily Mail brings me out in a rash.

The best thing about being published is…
The thought of my characters coming to life for someone other than myself.

Independent bookshop or Amazon?
Please don’t make me admit to buying books for a penny on Amazon...! Actually, there’s a splendid indie around the corner from us (West End Lane Books - plug, plug!) and I do try to support them whenever I can.

Left on a cliffhanger or told all?
It’s a question of timing. Ending a chapter with a cliffhanger is good; ending a novel with one isn’t. That said, I try to avoid telling all – you’ve got to leave the reader space to imagine.

Age-banding is…
Misguided at best. Young people should be encouraged to read as widely as their interest and ability allow. Readers shouldn’t be pigeon-holed; neither should books.

I write for children because…
If you ask someone to name one book that has significantly influenced them, chances are it will be something they read as a child or teenager. Perhaps this is because young people are receptive to stories and new ideas in a way that adults often aren’t.

Enid Blyton was…
The source of my childhood fascination with tinned tongue, girls who look like boys, and the modifier “ripping”.

You really must read…
If you are a reader looking for exquisite writing by a Canadian author about an English icon, it doesn’t get much better than Helen Humphreys’ The Frozen Thames.. If you are a writer, The Paris Review Interviews. They are my comfort and inspiration. If you are a young person (or young at heart!), do seek out some of the wonderful children’s and YA books being produced across the Channel. There is so much really exciting writing available to us in translation now, and many gems don’t receive any press here. Guus Kuijer (The Book of Everything) and Anne Provoost (In the Shadow of the Ark) are two that I’ve particularly enjoyed.

My biggest tip for a children’s writer is…
Never underestimate your audience.

An author should never…
Underestimate the value of the humble ‘Delete’ button.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Mind The Gap!

Anyone else forget things all the time? Due to the fact that I’m a woman of a certain age, (more than forty, less than fifty), my memory cells aren’t what they used to be. In fact, they’re really quite awful. I fight it, of course, like I fight my alarmingly grey roots with a popular brand that tells me I’m worth it. The gaps in my memory, however, need a different tool, so I have notebooks placed all over the house. The idea, and it does work, is that if/when what I’ve forgotten creeps back into my head, I can write it down. I then recommit it to memory by repeating it aloud ten times, whilst tapping my head with my right forefinger. Mad as a box of frogs, I know, but as I said – it works.

Yesterday, I was on the tube from Camden Town to Bank, when I found myself surrounded by several disparate characters I felt the urge to write about. Needless to say I’d forgotten a notebook, but I did have a pen and one of these characters, complete with enormous cello, was scribbling on an A4 pad. So I did what any writer would do and asked him for a page.

Right beside me, there were two men chatting. They were dressed similarly, both wearing dark formal trousers and lace up shoes, with more casual jackets. I imagined them having been on some conference together, or perhaps journeying from a work shift. I placed them as policemen, lower ranking. Here’s a snippet of their conversation:

Man No 1: ‘I don’t believe what they’re saying - that you were solely responsible.’
Man No 2: ‘I appreciate that, but it doesn’t make me less culpable.’
Man No 1: ‘It doesn’t seem fair.’
Man No 2: ‘Well it’s not, but I have to live with it.’

Ooh, the mind boggled. I SO wanted to know what they were talking about, I had to resist leaning across and asking.

Beside them sat a woman, Japanese, difficult to age. Her hair was died peroxide blonde and her roots made mine seem insignificant. She was tiny. I mean she had the the body of a small child, yet I placed her at least in her twenties. She was reading and had almost finished ‘The Life of Pi.’
Cello man sat directly opposite me. He held the hard instrument case between his knees during the journey. Through John Lennon glasses, he scribbled on his pad and I imagined him penning something musical, something beautiful that would live forever. Okay, I also thought he might have been a hit man with a BIG gun. When I asked him for a page of his pad, he handed it to me, but never met my eyes…

To his left the final character in this scene, occurring in two rows of eight seats in a London underground carriage, was the hair man. This man was so thin, I wanted to feed him. He had craggy features, wore a long leather coat, was dressed entirely in black and had waist-length hair. Late thirties or early forties, I thought. When he sat down, he reached into a (black) rucksack and removed a large (black) paddle brush and began to slowly brush his mane. I swear! He looked like an aging, goth-like siren, prepping to lure willing creatures of the night to danger.

When I left the train, I tucked the page into my bag, as the ironic voice that is standard at Bank station warned, ‘Mind the Gap’. I grinned widely, delighted that the characters I’d just ‘met’ would never fall into one of those memory gaps, thanks to the trusty tools of pen and paper. All I had to do was get home and remember to file the piece of paper in the proper place. Hell, I had the makings of a thriller, a tale of international espionage, a Gothic underworld full of long haired killers…or maybe even a blogpost?

Friday, 9 October 2009

SHINE TIME


A book is a metaphor for the life of its writer. As it stands on the bookshelf, its contents are private, hidden - just as the writer spends months, years even, hidden away in the dark womb of her writing.
Later, if you're really lucky, there's a cover. Instant visibility. Here I am, the cover shouts or whispers or giggles or cries. See me. Buy me. Read me. Once the book moves from manuscript to bound copy, it - and its writer - become public property. Just as we all need our daily half hour of sunlight, so too does each book need its time in the sun.
The whole process is like those little weatherhouses where one character swings out when the sun shines and another when it rains. Just as sun follows rain, so does a published writer creep out for his time in the sun - his 'shine time' as Victoria Moran, author of Creating A Charmed Life, calls it. Shine time ranges from the moment the author sees her book on the Waterstones shelf to receiving reviews, giving signings and interviews, readings and workshops. All of which may send her scurrying gratefully back to the privacy of her study to begin the next book.
But what of the unpublished writer? How do we get our much-needed time in the sun? Those precious moments when our work is read and received? An art tutor once told me that she considered the most important thing about a tutorial was having your work witnessed. We all need, she said, to be seen. And I believe we do.
It happens all the time in 'real' life: the privacy of the relationship comes into the spotlight during the engagement, the wedding, the anniversaries; the hours spent by the runner pounding the pavements in training are made visible and honoured during the marathon. The silent hours at the easel are exalted at the exhibition.
We aspiring authors are like moles. Toiling away in the dark, we become almost blind to the sunlight. Yet we crave our 'shine time' just like everyone else. And so we join writer's groups, pay for critiques, enter competitions, read at local slams and submit our work to agents and publishers.
Perhaps you are happy to labour in the dark for ever. Some people choose never to marry, never to race, never to exhibit. Yet I suspect that somewhere in your life you're filling up with shine time on a regular basis: singing in a choir; dressing up for a party; winning the parents' egg-and-spoon race on sports day. Because we all need to be witnessed and applauded from time to time. As Moran writes:
'Nobody is in the spotlight nonstop. Accept that you will shine, step back, then shine again. The moon has phases from dark to full. So do we. We're fully valuable throughout the cycle. At certain times, we just attract more attention.'
So this is just a reminder to consider your shine time and to build it into your writing life in whatever way is right for you - which may be nothing, outwardly, to do with writing.
I find that a daily walk in the sun does it for me. Where do you shine?

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Fiona Robyn's Blogsplash!




Fiona Robyn is going to blog her next novel, Thaw, starting on the 1st of March next year. The novel follows 32 year old Ruth’s diary over three months as she decides whether or not to carry on living.

To help spread the word she’s organising a Blogsplash, where blogs will publish the first page of Ruth’s diary simultaneously (and a link to the blog).

She’s aiming to get 1000 blogs involved – if you’d be interested in joining in, email her at fiona@fionarobyn.com or find out more information here.



So, good luck with it, Fiona! Strictly Writing looks forward to having you here on the 1st March next year and we hope you get a lot of support from other blogs!

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Guest Blog by Colin Mulhern - Why Blother?



I’ve noticed the question, ‘Should writers blog?’ appearing on several writing forums. The thread usually follows the line of what a writer’s blog should contain, whether they have anything useful to say or advice to give and what sort of numbers are reading. If the readership is low then it seems to reimburse the right to question, why bother?

No one ever asked that question about keeping diaries, so why blogs?

I’m guessing it’s because a blog, unlike a personal diary, has a potential audience. It’s out there; it’s published. And for the writer, that’s a good thing. Just having a blog puts a pressure on you to update the thing. If you include “writer” as a hobby or occupation, then there is added pressure to make sure the posts are something half decent. Not only do you have to think of a subject worthy of posting, but have to edit it and kick it into shape to prove you really can do what you claim.

And that, for me, is enough reason to sit in front of a screen and bash out updates to a blog that perhaps only one or two people ever read.

There is always the chance of an editor considering a manuscript to Google my name and end up on my blog, so I have to maintain a certain quality of narrative. Sometimes I post about writing, sometimes about personal stuff, and sometimes I post book reviews. But it’s all writing. It requires planning, drafting and polishing to a level you might not do if the work wasn't going on show.

So, should writers blog? My opinion - yes, because the more a writer uses those fundamental skills, the better those skills will be.

But, if you are a writer who blogs, bear in mind that you really are putting your wares on show to the world. It really is essential to produce work you’re proud of, because the bottom line is as simple as this: if your blog stinks, maybe your fiction will too.






Colin Mulhern writes dark fiction for Young Adults. His first novel, The Devil's Prayer is currently with publishers. While waiting for the millions to roll in, he works as a teaching assistant in a primary school. Check out Colin's blog here.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

A guide to writing course dwellers

As a connoisseur of courses, here’s a directory of the type of people you will meet if you sign up for a series of evenings, or an inspirational weekend.


The Bookwife
She writes now the children are at school, or ideally have buggered off to university. She fits writing between school runs, food shopping, house cleaning, cooking, and dutiful love-making. Her one aim is to validate her life by achieving something. She is galled at her husband’s expense account lifestyle and important sounding lunches, and longs for something to show what she’s worth. That means one thing – publication. Bookwife wants to learn as much about the craft of writing as she can, as quickly as possible, and then churn out something publishable.

Output: she’s on her third unpublished novel.

Spends most of the course: frowning, and the breaks phoning in to check that the kids are alright.


The Lit-chick
She’s a girl on the town complete with glossy shoes and glossy hair. Writing is what she always wanted to do; it’s why she read Eng Lit (at Oxford, of course). She’s doing a job that she calls “dullsville” as an assistant to some big knob in advertising. The job's not important, just a way to earn a little pocket money, but somehow that, and keeping up with hundreds of friends, leaves little time to write. The party last weekend was such a hoot, she could hardly miss it. Her output of text messages betters the word count of most authors.

Output: she hasn’t a novel on the go and might never finish one, but if she does it will be an instant best seller.

Spends most of the course: giggling with the other Lit-chick sitting next to her.


The Bookfly
Each day he wears the same pair of scuffed leather jeans and the black tee shirt. To acknowledge his late arrival on the second morning, he grunts in the direction of the course tutor and then explains how he drank a whole bottle of whisky last night in some dodgy club in Brixton. When he learns that you don’t worship Bukowski, he sneers. Whenever one of the other writers reads their work aloud for criticism you can see him scratching his stubble and raising his eyebrows in feedback. His own idea, still in concept form, is for a novel about an altered political state based on a cult of violent sex.

Output: he’s got too much of a hangover to write today.

Spends most of the course: eyeing the Lit-chick.


Gramps
He’s been writing, on and off, for sixty years. Now retired from his job as an Educational Realignment Counsellor and Coordinator with Brent Council, he’s free to do so full time. He generously offers willing advice based on his vast experience to all, including the course tutor. He also shares from his life experience without reserve, in detailed anecdotes for the benefit of the whole class.

Output: Over three hundred “poems”, some published in the Brent libraries annual. Collection upon collection of short stories including a volume he had printed himself in 1967 which he’d love you to take a look at, if it's not too much of an imposition. A novel he’s been working on for five years, set against the background of the Boer wars, now standing at two hundred thousand words.

Spends most of the course: comparing his own narrative style to the great English diarists.


The Exotic
Her parents escaped from some war-torn hell-hole ten years ago. She reads from her work with a bowed head in a voice barely audible. Her words seep onto the walls and are splattered on the ceiling in a way that changes the whole atmosphere in the room. When she finishes, silence grips every throat as we absorb the horrors that have just been related. Finally, the tutor calls for a break. In the break, Gramps and The Bookfly can be heard agreeing that she can’t write.

Output: the book is nearly finished and she has an offer from a publisher.

Spends most of the course: taking feverish notes, staring at the page, avoiding eye contact.


The Gossamer Strand (can be male or female, or some combination of the two).
As thin as a sheet of paper. When Gossamer reads there is silence too: an awed appreciation of the poetic nature of the work. There’s a wispy translucent quality to the prose as she reads in a stumbling voice. In the breaks, when Lit-chick or Bookwife try to befriend him, he shies away, says he'll stay in the room, finish the exercise the tutor set. He doesn’t turn up on the last day of the course.

Output: carries a binder stuffed with manuscript pages, but it’s nothing worth mentioning, ‘Just an early draft’.

Spends most of the course: saying that she’s no good.



All of the above characters are entirely fictional and any resemblance to members of my writing circle is entirely accidental.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Why bother with Twitter?


Some say Twitter is essential for writers; others sneer at it as a time-wasting exercise in vanity. I wouldn't say it's essential (which for me means stuff like oxygen and water), but I do find Twitter useful and, what's more, fun.

I've only been on Twitter a couple of months, having resisted joining for ages because it seemed pointless. Like many people who have never looked at it, I thought it would consist of morons informing the world that they're about to eat a doughnut, or that their baby is a genius because it just did a poo.

I was finding, however, that most people I knew elsewhere on the net were other writers, and could not necessarily be expected to have an interest in my history blog. I wanted to find people with shared non-writing-related interests and - dare I say it - I wanted a change from the kind of tortured writerly discussions that always include the phrase 'oh God that's so depressing'. I joined Twitter mainly to promote my blog, but was pleasantly surprised to find there's a lot of interesting, intelligent and funny tweeting going on.

I am certainly no social media guru, but from my limited experience, the advantages of Twitter are:

  • You can tweet your blog posts to a wide audience. My blog stats have more than doubled since I've been on Twitter. I also use it to catch up with other people's posts and now don't bother much with RSS.
  • If you already have a book out, chatting to people on Twitter encourages them to check it out – but this is all about talking with others because they are interesting, not about constantly begging everyone to buy your masterpiece.
  • If you don't have a book out, gathering a crowd of relevant followers who get to know and like you will be useful if you ever do get published.
  • Many agents, publishers and book trade news sources are on Twitter, so you can get an insight into what they're doing and what they're looking for.
  • Some famous authors are also on there, and if they're using it properly they'll engage with their readers – you can actually find yourself chatting to your literary hero or heroine as if they were a normal person, which usually they are. (Certain ones just broadcast and won't respond to anyone, but this doesn't do them much good.)
  • It's a useful exercise in brevity – you have to choose words carefully to keep to the 140-character limit.
  • People post interesting links – brilliant for finding research sources, writing advice, short story markets, book recommendations etc.
  • You don't have to talk about writing all the time. Well, you can talk about nothing but writing if you want to, but there are lots of other people out there too.

So, is it worth a published writer joining Twitter to publicise their book, or for an unpublished writer to build up a following ready for when that six-figure deal comes along?

Well, yes and no. It's worth it if you will enjoy it anyway. Joining purely to promote yourself or your work could backfire – either people will get bored with your egotism or you'll get bored because your heart's not really in it. And if you aren't published as yet, there is the possibility that you never will be, so being on Twitter under sufferance purely to prepare for a deal that might never happen is a bit sad. If you don't want to join Twitter, don't. You and your writing will survive without it.

If, however, you plan to enjoy it for its own sake and are prepared to join in the conversation and appreciate what other people are saying, then give it a go - it could have a lot of benefits for your writing career.

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UPDATE: Nicola Morgan at Help! I Need a Publisher! has a great post today about how to get started on Twitter - click here for her excellent advice.
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Thank you to Crystal Church for the picture.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Winner of Guest Blog Competition!


Some of you might remember our Guest Blog Competition from September and today we announce the winner who will have their article posted on Strictly Writing, plus will win a signed copy of Damaged Goods, by our very own Helen Black...


So, without further ado, well done to... CATHERINE HUGHES! We couldn't resist her idea of sharing the positive experiences she has had with literary agents, as these people so often receive bad press.


Many thanks to everyone one who took part - we enjoyed sifting through some intriguing and humorous entries.


Catherine, we'll be in touch! And look forward to eventually reading your post...

Friday, 2 October 2009

"Our Spoons Came from Woolworths" - review



It was Josa Young, author of “One Apple Tasted” and recent guest blogger here on SW, who chose Barbara Comyns’ “Our Spoons Came From Woolworth’s” as her favourite book. I was immediately taken by the title and looked it up on Amazon. A Virago Modern Classic. Published in 1950. A novel set in the Bohemian London of the 30’s about marriage, poverty, and adultery, praised by none other than Graham Greene as having “an off-beat humour” and ending happily. Oh, yes. I already knew this was my kind of book and I was right.

Sophia is twenty-one when she marries Charles, spoiled only son of divorced parents - the ghastly Paul and the even more ghastly Eva. Despite having no money, they are happy at first. Charles stays at home all day and paints his still lives – the description of which had me howling with laughter - while Sophia goes out to work and learns how to cook, though until she gets the hang of it everything tastes of soap and she has little idea about what to ask for at the butcher’s.
' “Can I have a small joint of bones stuck together?” '

So far so light-hearted. It all starts to go wrong though when the cheques in the drawer run out, unfortunately coinciding with Sophia’s realisation that she is pregnant. Here is the conversation the newly weds have together to discuss their plight:-

‘Charles said, “Oh dear, what will the family say? How I dislike the idea of being a Daddy and pushing a pram!” So I said, “I don’t want to be a beastly Mummy either; I shall run away.” Then I remembered if I ran away the baby would come with me wherever I went. It was a most suffocating feeling and I started to cry.’

Sandro’s arrival marks the start of the end of their marriage. Charles refuses to take on any work to support the family and no one will buy his paintings and they are plunged into greater poverty though occasionally it’s alleviated by offers of modelling work for Sophia. When she gets pregnant for the second time, she is forced into an abortion, which goes badly wrong and leaves her hating Charles. She turns to Peregrine, an older artist, for comfort and enters into an affair, which results in a third pregnancy.

So many things go wrong for Sophia but she tells her story with an admirable stoicism, dipping into a delicious black humour, which buoys up the reader throughout the grim bits – and there are some – particularly her experience of giving birth and the episode where she contacts scarlet fever. But we know from the first paragraph that it will all end well for her, so we can put up with the bad bits.

Comyns writes in an almost childish way, though it is far from artless. She uses slang of the period – ‘frit’, ‘waddy’ (lame) and ‘stiff with’ to mean ‘full of’ are her favourite words and she has an occasional habit, when using two adjectives, of putting them in the wrong order, which makes what she says sound very childlike.

Her descriptions are short but always original. Here she is on her landlady: ‘Her face (was) like a melting ice cream, rather a cheap one’

Occasionally she steps right outside the story, as in this example: - ‘This book does not seem to be growing very large although I have got to Chapter Nine. I think this is partly because there isn’t any conversation. I could just fill pages like this:
“I am sure it is true,” said Phyllida.
“I cannot agree with you,” answered Norman.
“Oh, but I know I am right,” she replied.
“I beg to differ,” said Norman sternly.
(There is neither a Norman nor a Phyllida in the entire novel, by the way!)

“Our Spoons Came From Woolworth’s” is a little gem of a novel, shining a light on a dreadful era in history – the Great Depression – while at the same time managing to appear so very modern. One word of advice – don’t read it while you’re in the middle of writing your novel/story/whatever. Comyns’ idiosyncratic style works its way off the page and fastens itself onto your imagination to the extent that you won’t be able to stop it rubbing off on your own prose.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Quickfire Questions with... Penny Holroyde


Penny is an agent at the Caroline Sheldon Literary Agency Ltd.


The author I wish we’d ‘discovered’ most is…..
Oh, have a guess!

Left on a cliffhanger or told all?
Sadly, it’s an agent’s lot to have the ending ruined so if this question relates to the synopsis, please tell all! When I’m reading for pleasure (a vain aspiration) I prefer to have things resolved. The last two books I’ve read seemed to race to a close and left me wanting somewhat.

The perfect book deal is…
Decided upon quickly, for the right kind of money, with the right kind of contract, but most perfectly when the author and editor are perfectly married and everyone from sales, marketing and publicity to the post room are excited about the book and the author.

You really must read…
Something is Going to Fall Like Rain by Ros Wynne Jones. This is partly a gratuitous plug for a friend’s book but also a great example of how first novels, with work, can become expertly polished.

I get most excited by…
Ahem, at work? It’s weird, I’ve been working in the publishing for 14 years now and I still get the biggest buzz when someone places a finished copy in my hand.

My biggest tip for a writer is…
One thing that irritates me the most with unsolicited submissions are the people who’ve read just enough to know that their idea might have a commercial application but not nearly enough to know how utterly derivative their submission is. I know authors are always told to read but I might venture that revision is more valuable.

An author should never…
Compare their work to Rowling or Pullman.

My pet hate in a submission package is…
Oh don’t get me started! There are so many transgressions in this regard – ribbons, treasury tags, folders, Sellotape, staples, string yadda yadda yadda but difficult-to-open packages is a particular bugbear of mine because I’m already bristling with resentment for the author before I’ve read a single word. Also a too-small envelope for return.

Favourite desktop snack
Oh God help me, I have become completely addicted to Walkers Sensations roast chicken and thyme flavoured crisps.

Best thing about my job is…
Seeing something go from a twinkle in the author’s eye to a bound book on a shelf in a shop. There’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears from many people along that route and as an agent, you get to see it all.

Email or phone?
Email all day long. I like the phone but people in publishing (agents included) seem to rarely be at their desks when one wants them.

The hardest part of my job is…
Apart from the workload it’s rude responses from total strangers. It should be water off a duck’s back I know but agents are people too. At least I don’t keep them any more.

The most common mistake I see is…
I focus on writing for children and the most common mistake I see is [writing] patronising tone and [illustration] no children.

If I didn’t work in the literary business I would be a…
Chef. In my darker moments I think perhaps a media lawyer but no, really, I’d be a chef.