Thursday, 30 September 2010

It's All Brown Paint...


Yesterday, I painted the bathroom. It’s been something I’ve been putting off for ages, but finally I went to B&Q, carefully chose the shade and spent the afternoon, roller and brush in hand. My husband’s response last night? A raised eyebrow and then silence. My daughters?
‘Mum, why did you paint the bathroom the colour of poo?’ she said. This remark was followed by a quick smirk from hubby and my curt reply – ‘It’s the colour of ‘Iced Frappe’ actually...’

Apart from the fact that I seriously believe she needs a doctor if her poo is the same shade as the bathroom wall, it did highlight the whole question of taste and subjectivity.

If I had a pound for all the times I’ve heard ‘You can write’ only to have it followed with the word ‘but’. .. The ‘but’ is followed by a ‘just not for us’ type remark. In other words, in my head I’ve been writing Iced Frappe but the fact remains - others see it as poo?

I imagine paint firms employ cool hunters and trend setters to come up with the next big thing in the paint world. Then having mixed their mix, they call it a trendy new name. Gone are Autumn Leaves and in with Cappucino, Nutmeg, Iced Frappe and Flaked Cinnamon. But when all is said and done, it’s all brown paint innit? Likewise with writing. You can write a best- selling time slip novel but strip away the layers to boy meets girl and it’s a love story. Or you may write a series of books about a family of human friendly vampires in a sleepy American town. Strip away those layers and it’s a love story with a little obsession thrown in.

I’ve spent years obsessing myself when it comes to my writing. Have I tapped into the zeitgeist? Is my story commercial? Lately and especially with my current WIP, I’ve gotten back to writing for writing’s sake and I’m loving it. I’ve avoided throwing an angel into the mix as they’re apparently the new vampires. And yes, underneath the layers of what I hope are interesting characters, it’s a love story.

So, years on, I think I’ve got something figured... It’s all brown paint. Some agents, readers, editors will see what I want them to see, Iced Frappe. Others will think my work isn’t current, reading in shades of Autumn Leaves; others may see a sparkle of Flaked Cinnamon.

And yes, though I hope to avoid them, despite my new found confidence in what I do- some will simply see poo... It’s the way of the wonderfully diverse world we live in.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Guest Spot: Bestselling Author Claire Allan

We're thrilled to have bestselling author Claire Allan guest for us, especially as her fourth book, “It’s Got To Be Perfect” is released today . Hi Claire, and welcome to Strictly.



Q. Can you tell us a bit about “It’s Got To Be Perfect” and where the idea for it came from?
It’s Got to Be Perfect is my most traditional chick lit book to date. It has more comedy in it that anything else I’ve written and I can honestly say I adored every second of writing it. It is a fairly upbeat story - one woman’s quest for perfection in her life, her relationship, her work, her friendships etc. The only thing is she seems to constantly get it disastrously wrong and she is envious of her friends who seem to have it sussed. Of course, we all know that there is no such thing as the perfect relationship and that everyone has their secrets if you dig deep enough. 

Q. Your first book, “Rainy Days and Tuesdays” was a massive success and dealt sensitively with the very real issue of Post-Natal Depression. Was this a cathartic exercise for you and what kind of feedback did you get?
It was a massively cathartic experience and while the book is not a misery lit memoir, there are passages which I find hard to read now as it brings back to me the very real pain and guilt associated with my PND experience (which I experienced after my son was born in 2004). It was a book I felt I had to write however and I’m very glad that I did and that I made PND a big part of the storyline. The feedback I got, from people who have been there and even from health professionals has been astounding. One doctor told me she would give the book out on prescription if she could! It was a very humbling experience, to be completely honest. 

Q. How did you find writing the infamously difficult Second Book, “Feels Like Maybe” (which I adored, btw!).
I loved it! I know at times, especially at the beginning while I was trying to get the voices of the two main characters just right there were times when I wanted to tear my hair out in frustration but once I had Aoife and Beth in place it was a joy. The book was one of those really happy author experiences where it just seemed to write itself and there were times I would read back the previous chapter and not quite believe it was me who had put those words on the pages. 

Q. Can you tell us a bit about your road to publication and how it felt to realise you were a ‘Bestselling Author’?
I had a very lucky experience - one which makes some people pea green with envy but it really was the case that my book hit the right desks at the right time. I started writing RD&T in January 2006 with a goal of finishing it by June. I did and that was the first and only time I’ve ever written a book in six months! I sent it out to agents and got a yes from the first lady I approached - Ger Nichol of The Book Bureau. She helped me through a few revisions and then, around October time we sent it out. By early December I was sitting with a four book deal from Irish publishing giant Poolbeg Press. Poolbeg advertise themselves as “the Irish for bestseller” but I never expected my book to hit those dizzy heights. Indeed my editor, Paula Campbell, went to great lengths to explain to me that sometimes it just doesn’t happen. It was an amazing and happy shock with RD&T hit number 2 in the Irish charts and I still a get a buzz when I see that “bestselling” catchline on my books. 
 
Q. You write a regular column on the Derry Journal, “Skirting The Issue” . Are you any different  since becoming such a household name?!
Oh God no! I still do the same as I did before - I still cover school prizegivings and courts and bomb scares and whatever else comes our way. I do tend to get kicked out of the office to all career events though as I’m a bit more high profile and occasionally people I’m talking to for stories get very excited when they realise who they are talking to. It’s very surreal because I’m still working full time to pay the bills and journalism is still a way of life for me. It is nice to get a wee ego boost now and then though - I can’t deny it! 

Q.Do you already have an idea for book number 5 and can you tell us anything about it?
As I write a year in advance, book five is well underway and should be finished in the next few months. Essentially book five is about friendships, how they can come and go but how someone will always survive. It follows three school friends, now in their 30s, as they take a holiday together and uncover each other’s secrets. It’s set partly in the South of France and I have loved researching the region, dreaming of chateaus and hunky French men. I’ve also really enjoyed exploring the dynamics of friendship. 

Thanks so much for taking time to be our guest today, Claire, and on behalf of everyone at Strictly Writing, huge congratulations and we wish you enormous success with “It’s Got to be Perfect”. Here’s to another bestseller!
You can find Claire here:

www.claireallan.com
Released by Poolbeg Press

Monday, 27 September 2010

An editor's visitors - 1890

It's my turn to blog on Strictly today, but a few hours before this post is due to go up, I, as an international woman of mystery, will have just (I hope) arrived home from a top-secret mission to the Middle East. (Well, it's not really top secret, but it sounds cooler and more enigmatic that way.) I am, therefore, scheduling this post in advance. I'm handing it over to one Arthur Lockyer Esq, a Victorian editor who gives a glimpse into the process our writerly forebears had to endure when submitting their work. This is an excerpt from a piece he wrote for The Graphic newspaper in April 1890.


The editor probably suffers more than any other professional man from the visits of people whom he has no desire to see, but who are eager for a personal interview with himself. In this respect, therefore, his ideal of bliss lies in the two polysyllabic words, inaccessibility and invisibility. In the case of an extensive and highly organised concern, it is possible to achieve the first of these two substantives.

Let us give an example. You want to see the editor, or one of the editors, for in such an establishment there are often several of them. But you have learnt from private sources that the name of the particular editor whom you wish to see is Marmaduke Johnson, and so, with your manuscript in your hand or concealed somewhere about your person, you climb a steep narrow staircase until your progress is arrested by a sort of sentry-box, wherein sits an undersized, but preternaturally intelligent, youth. He has a manner as if the name of Johnson was entirely foreign to his ear; nevertheless he is fairly civil, and after inspecting your card, and holding a colloquy with an invisible person through a flexible tube, he hands you over to a commissionaire. The military hero, after conducting you along several passages, suddenly says 'In here, sir,' and ushers you into a small room containing nothing but a desk, two chairs, and a rather ancient map of London.

You inspect the map for about five minutes, when the door again opens, and in comes an elderly gentleman in spectacles, who asks you to be seated, and listens to your statement with patience and courtesy. You say to yourself, 'What a nice fellow Marmaduke Johnson is!' Unfortunately, however, this is not Johnson at all, but only his deputy, for presently the elderly gentleman says: 'Your manuscript shall have Mr. Johnson's best attention.' He then bows, touches a bell, the inexorable commissionaire appears instantly, like an Arabian Nights' genie, and in another two minutes you are politely marched off the premises, without having even seen the great man's coat-skirts. This is a specimen of the Inaccessible Editor, and a very enviable mortal he is, in this respect.

But, as spacious premises and a large and well-trained staff of subordinates are required to render an editor triumphantly inaccessible, some editors, who do not possess these advantages, strive, often with indifferent success, to render themselves invisible. Some accomplish this by notifying to their would-be interviewers that they are to be seen on Fridays between 4 and 6 P.M., and by taking care always to be absent on those afternoons; while others have a couple of doors to their den, and when they hear in the outer office the voice of a well-remembered bore they bolt incontinently through the inner doorway down the staircase, and hide themselves until the bore's patience is exhausted, and he reluctantly departs.

Friday, 24 September 2010

The Strictly Writing Award Shortlisted Story for September - 'My Burglar' by Carys Bray


Congratulations to Carys Bray, whose story is now on the shortlist for the Strictly Writing Award. For more information about the award and how to enter, click here.

My Burglar
by
Carys Bray

The best time to think of hiding places is before you need them. It’s no use hiding things under beds or in mattresses; they’re the first places people look. Unexpected places are best. Sometimes I surprise myself with my ingenuity. Once I discovered my wedding ring in the bread bin. What a marvellous hiding place. Who would think to check there? Certainly not my burglar.

He always comes at night. In the thick of dark. In the solid, black stillness. In the quiet. In the smothering, pitch silence that stifles the house. I hear the pattern of his feet in the wide hush that packs each room. I hear the snap and creak of the floorboards. The whisper of his hands on the banister. The tide of his breath. I smell the stale tang of urine, of sweat, of wide, yawning pores.

I don’t scream. There’s no point. I’m alone. I sit up in bed and push my back to the headboard. I keep still. Sometimes I hold my breath and then let it hiss out of the corner of my mouth in a slither. I strain my eyes as I try to separate the swirling spirals of yellow-black, red-black and blue-black into something static and penetrable. The streetlamp outside has not worked for some time. I must call the council and mention it.  I peer into the squid-ink darkness, searching for a partition of shadow and form.

So far he has left me alone, been content with trifles: my Accurist watch, an emerald necklace, a pen, my address book. But I watch television. I know about burglars. A man from Birmingham said he was burgled twenty three times last year. He claimed for twenty three televisions and the insurance company was very angry about it. I saw it on the BBC. Burglars keep coming back.

I am beginning to suspect that my burglar is looking for something. I don’t believe he is creeping about my house on the off chance. I think he is after my locket.

‘Don’t be silly Mum,’ says my daughter Charlotte, on the telephone: very bossy and officious. ‘How on earth would anybody know about your locket?’

But I wear it don’t I? How easy it would be for someone to catch a glimpse of it around my neck in the grocers’. Or see it sparkle in the large print section of the library. How straightforward it would be to wait with me at the bus stop, board with me, alight with me. How simple it would be to follow me down Topsham Road and watch me enter number forty. And how effortless to return later, in the dark, to search for the locket.

‘You are being ridiculous Mum,’ says my daughter, Charlotte, on the telephone: unsympathetic and sceptical. ‘You lost that set of keys, they’ve not been stolen. You keep saying you’ll get the locks changed and you haven’t. I’m going to have to look on the internet; send someone round to do it. There is no burglar.’

Charlotte lives in Ireland. She’s been very rude recently.

Night doesn’t fall in the late autumn, it plunges. It catches me unawares. It crashes around me, throwing itself through the house like an unstoppable, black breaker and I chase after, switching on lights in its wake until the whole house is shining like a warning flare. For all my burglar knows, I have guests, a party, family visiting. I feel like Cinderella, safe until the clock strikes twelve. No-one of my age would be entertaining after twelve. I always turn the lights off and hurry to bed before midnight strikes. The only thing worse than hiding from him in the darkness would be confronting him in the full glare of light.

My television breaks the broad silence of evening. So many channels. Just enough time to make a cup of tea during the adverts, so long as you remember to switch on the kettle after filling it. I like programmes about Americans with obesity. They do these operations on them to stop them from eating. Sometimes they suck the fat out of them with a tube like a vacuum cleaner. Afterwards they all cry and hug each other. It’s very entertaining.

Tonight I am not watching television. Tonight I am looking for a hiding place for my locket.

My locket is silver. It is Victorian, oval-shaped. It belonged to my mother. It is such a long time since I took it off that it was extremely difficult to undo the clasp. But it’s done. Here it hangs, in knotty fingers that I can hardly believe are my own. The locket is worth a lot of money.

‘For God’s sake don’t lose it Mum,’ said my daughter, Charlotte, on the telephone: impatient and brusque. ‘You seem to be losing all sorts at the moment.’ I dare say Charlotte is looking forward to inheriting it.

The kitchen is a good place to hide things. The locket dangles as I examine the worktop: breadbin, biscuit tin, kettle. I plop the locket into the kettle. He will never look there.

Midnight.

The chimes of the dining room clock carry up the stairs. If there had been time I would have changed the bed. There is nothing like sliding into sheets that have been dried on the washing line, soaked in the season, fragrant and fresh. Perhaps tomorrow. The darkness presses me flat to the sheet. I breathe softly. I listen.

Morning.

Morning perforates the darkness, prickles across the daybreak sky. Morning and the shadows would be relieved if the streetlamp were working. I must call the council about it today.

He has been. He has been and the stench of him fills the space where the darkness was. Fetid urine. The sheet is moist. Perhaps it was still damp when I changed the bed last night.

I clean the teeth that are mine, insert the teeth that aren’t. Stare into the bathroom mirror at the bloodshot eyes and furrowed face reflected there.

My locket!

I check the bed. Pull off the sheet. Perhaps it came off in the night. But no, the clasp was far too tight. Oh, the smell. He has been here, in my room while I slept. He has fumbled sweaty fingers around my neck, removed my locket and stolen it.

In the kitchen the water tinkles into the kettle. I watch it boil. I make tea and dial my daughter’s number. Her name is Charlotte. She lives in Ireland. 




Thursday, 23 September 2010

Drum Roll Please


Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls....
Please don't forget that tomorrow we reveal September's winner of our short story comp.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Pursuits of a Personal Nature

There used to be this guy I worked with who loved his garden. There are a lot of them about apparently. Guys who love gardens I mean. Not gardens. I know there’re a lot of those about – they’re everywhere, right? Anyway, don’t get me wrong, I quite like my garden too; I just don’t feel the need to tell everybody how lush my lawn is and what’s sprouting up in my herbaceous borders from one weekend to the next. But this guy was clearly proud of his cultivations and so every Monday morning, after the younger lot of the office had oafishly entertained us with how many alcoholic points they’d managed to down and then Up again, this guy would regale (a kind word for *bore the pants off*) a dwindling crowd with how perfect his privet was.

Which is all well and good if you’re of a gardening ilk.

And there were a couple of kindly souls who’d seek his advice on bug treatment and fertilisation advancements and this would please Gardening Guy no end. Because someone had taken an interest – in his interest. And that, of course, is a nice thing to do.

But behind his back I always saw a rolling of eyes and a sighing of sighs and I vowed never… NEVER to speak of my own personal passion and weekend pursuits EVER.

Especially in the company of the people I worked with. It was bad enough trying to ‘keep it’ from people I lived with and slept with, let alone trying to reveal it to those with whom I spent the majority of my life. Nope, my hobby would remain a figment of my own imagination. Literally.

And now I remember why I felt this way. It’s because the minute you tell somebody you work with that you’ve written a book/are writing a book/intend to write books until your fingers fall off, then you aren’t even met with the well-intentioned looks that Gardening Guy got. There’s a brief pause. (Is it ‘stunned’? I’m never sure. And I’m equally never sure whether to be insulted or flattered by this stunned pause). Followed by a widening of the eyes and a rising of the eyebrows and then you know precisely where this is going:
“So what’ve you written?”
And after you’ve explained – without wishing to appear a staggering combination of pompous/useless/deluded – that you haven’t actually had anything published… yet… there follows:
“Oh you SHOULD”
Like it’s a choice. Like it’s something you haven’t thought of having done yourself. Like it’s such a simple, obvious thing to do that it’s taken the Newly Qualified Teacher of PE and Personal Development to inform you of this and why didn’t you think of this before, you MORON!
And this is the point at which the blood begins to heat up very nicely and the stunned pause somehow transmutes from audience to performer and there follows what any writer worth his/her salt would ruefully term a pregnant pause which lasts all of three minutes or until PE/PD Teacher grabs his warm photocopying from the stack and runs off back to his class, totally disinterested in any form of conversation continuance.

Of course if I’d told him I’d spent the weekend with my arm up a cow’s arse in my passionate pursuit of animal husbandry, I bet news of my 'novel' endeavours would have been round the staffroom like a dose of Andrews.

Sometimes it’s best just to say nowt.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Sorry, no customers


Dear Agony Aunt

'I saw on the Smith and Jones Literary Agency website that they are 'no longer accepting unsolicited submissions.' I realise this sounds really dense - but does this mean that they are not accepting partials? Then I went to another site and they say 'no unsolicited mss'. Crikey, I need an agent. What do I do? Please help me.'

I asked Mr Brain Smart, a literary agent to tell us:

'What 'unsolicited submissions' means is that I don't want people mailing me with chapters if I haven't specifically asked for them. However, writers are free to e-mail the agency with a query. 'No unsolicited mss' on the other hand means I don't want tomes arriving on my desk. We will read and respond to all e-mails and if my lovely assistant Debbie Magee feels your work is of interest, she will pass your e-mail on to me and I will respond promptly.'

When we trudge through agents' websites, all too often the familiar 'shop closed' sign is up - 'no unsolicited submissions'. As a lowly writer I used to grip my head and wonder how they managed to put in their day. My interpretation is (and this is open to debate) 'no unsolicited mss' means sample chapters and synopsis only. 'No unsolicited submissions' means phone or email first, then you're 'solicited' and Bob's your uncle.

I do take the 'no unsolicited submissions' with a pinch of salt though. When I go to Sainsbury's I don't expect signs up saying 'sorry, no customers.' That would be insane - a killer move by a company which relies on the goodwill of people to open their purses.

Agents too rely on us to provide them with income, so we have every right to send a query straight to them, requesting/begging (delete as appropriate) representation. We are their employer. On previous occasions, I've fired off e-mail queries to agents who have stated on their websites 'no unsolicited submissions' and they've responded by asking for sample chapters. My gut instinct is that they don't want the next JK Rowling passing by.

For my second book, I made the rash decision to query a New York based agent who represents an Irish writer whose work is very similar to my own so I popped the letter in the post, after a rough lesson on how to write a US style query. I included my e-mail address and no return postage in any shape or form. Now, being the big agent he was, I assumed his list was full and that I wouldn't hear any more in response to my Dear John letter. However, two weeks later I received a nice rejection, nicely folded up in the agency's envelope, signed by the man himself. How nice, I thought. Considering I didn't pay return postage, he really didn't have to send me the rejection. In the letter which included my name and address, he said his list was basically full and wished me well.

In conclusion, if the shop is closed, then break down the door. Lack of perseverance will get you nowhere. Unlike in the real world, you won't be arrested by the police for breaking and entering. What's the worst the agent will do? Put your book in the bin?

Friday, 17 September 2010

Reality bites




I heard Nick Hornby, an author I’ve long admired, in conversation with his editor on the Penguin Books Podcast recently. He was talking about his latest adult novel, ‘Juliet, Naked’. The editor commented that Hornby handled his characters with a particular fondness, and almost never painted them as all bad'. Hornby’s response was a bit sheepish. He admitted that deep down, he couldn’t shake the feeling that if he treated them badly, one of his characters might one day knock on his front door and remonstrate with him. He admitted it sounded a bit bonkers, but felt that on some level the people he created on a page existed somewhere as flesh and blood.

I loved hearing this.

It reminded me of Hilary Mantel saying she once wondered why she felt chilled while writing and then realised she had just killed off one of her characters. Naturally, she said, they feel cold and so she does too.
I’ve told the latter story before and had the reaction, ‘How creepy!’

But none of this seemsl bonkers or creepy to me. If anything, I think it all seems rather wonderful. I’d go even further and say it’s an entirely healthy reaction for a writer towards the personalities they’ve dreamed up. After all, if they don’t seem authentic to you, their creator, how on earth can you expect your readers to believe or trust their actions in the course of the story? I tend to feel a huge amount of affection for my characters, even the horrible ones, and those whose stories have never really seen the light of day sometimes give me pangs of guilt.

It isn’t only as a writer that people on a page seem real. If the job is done well, you can experience this strongly as a reader too. I recently read and loved Abraham Verghese’s novel Cutting for Stone and at the end, I felt a mild bereavement that I wouldn’t be spending any more time with the characters. If I’m honest, I often feel this way at the end of a good book. Although, I’m happy to say the feeling usually only lasts for a short time. I wouldn’t want to start believing a little too much....

We’ve all heard about the people who write letters to characters from TV shows and novels, concinced they’re real. Harmless, yes, but a little bit disturbing. At the very furthest end of this scale, you have Stephen King’s brilliant creation, Annie Wilkes, in his novel Misery. Wilkes is so obsessed with the veracity of writer Paul Sheldon’s character Misery Chastain that she ties him to a bed and carries out unspeakable violence when he disrespects his own creation. It’s a twisted sort of compliment. As she famously tells him, ‘I’m your biggest fan..’

But as long as a small, rational part of your brain knows that characters don’t really come and knock on the door, you should try and think of them as living and breathing entities. It could just mean your readers are able to believe in them too.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Arvon, I'm in Arvon

At the risk of sounding slightly gushy, here goes. Last week I finally did something I've been meaning to do for about twenty-seven years, give or take a decade.

I finally dusted off my polo neck sweater and pipe and headed off to Ted's place in the country.

Lumb Bank is one of the four Arvon houses, in this case pitched on the side of a valley in a strange part of the world called Yorkshire. It's strikingly similar to Malaysia or Vietnam, complete with spiralling columns of mist in the mornings and wall to wall trees. The picture above that I stole from the Daily Mail hardly does that justice, but if the photographer had turned ninety degrees to the left he would have fallen off an almost sheer drop into prime rainforest. Geography was never my strong suit.

Anyway, I met there with fourteen poets including the tutors, Ian Duhig and Amanda Dalton. I'd chosen the place because it was the only Arvon centre that could offer me a single room that week. In other words, I had limited expectations. In discussions with Jess before I set off I decided that, if it didn't turn out, I'd spend my time writing and avoid the classes. After all this was my week.

So imagine my surprise when this turned out to be one of the most inspirational weeks I couldn't imagine. I'm lost for words - now. Perhaps that's because I've been in the summer house all day working on material I wrote last week - wrestling with a particularly resistant poem that won't accept its destiny, to be massaged into heroic couplets.

Ian and Amanda were fabulous. Their generosity of time and spirit was humbling. Everyone kept saying that we were a special group, and that immediately made me suspicious, but we were.

One day, when the mist settles on Lumb Bank I'm going to blog about this properly - tell you why it was so special. For now, all I can offer is the first sonnet I ever wrote, thumped out in a writing exercise when we were given twenty minutes to come up with something, anything.

Hyades

I found you at the bus stop in the rain,
no transport there so we agreed to trek.
I never thought that we would meet again,
complained about the dripping down my neck.
Your words flowed as a torrent on the route
how you loved the damp, the misty air
how rain could clothe your body like a suit –
the water was the perfume that you wear.
I couldn’t pay attention to the stream
and struggled for impressive words to say,
pretended that I heard this in a dream:
the rain it raineth every single day.

But even after all these cloudy years
the smell of rain can still bring me to tears.









Alright, I admit I changed the name when I returned to England. Originally it was called Rain Girl. But we all know that a poem should have a pretentious classical title. I prefer Rain Girl too.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

The Strictly Writing Award



Some people have been contacting us recently to ask if there is still time to enter our competition. The answer is: yes.

So far we've shortlisted and showcased here five stories. That means we're half-way there. Over the next five months we will be shortlisting and posting another five, on the last Friday of each month. We'll then announce details of the voting system to choose the overall winner, and we'll dish out the £300 prize.

All the details are in the link in the column to the right.
If you haven't sent us a story, there's plenty of time to do so.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

To See You - Nice!


So it’s back again. That show which cheekily took its name from the Strictly blog. With a new set, a new format, and a cull of several of the most popular pro dancers.

But some things never change: Brucie’s back – albeit only for the Saturday show – and Tess towers over him as ever, resplendent in aqua. The four judges -Bruno ‘Hyper’ Tonioli, Len ‘The Charm’ Goodman, Alesha ‘Extensions’ Dixon and Craig ‘Char-char-char, dahling’ Revel Horwood - are ready with sharp eyes, tongues and nails, poised to pounce on any mistakes (rather as the sadly-missed Arlene Phillips used to pounce on the hunky male dancers).

And where would the show be without its contestants? This year’s haul includes Pamela Stephenson (self-styled Hollywood sex psychotherapist and wife of Billy Connolly), the ubiquitous magician Paul ‘Not A Lot’ Daniels , the actor Felicity ‘Good Life’ Kendal, Peter ‘Hand of God’ Shilton and Patsy ‘Oasis’ Kensit.

And then there’s Ann Widdecombe.

Yes, the politician. The pocket rocket. Diminutive of stature, giant of mouth. Writer of four novels, participant in Celebrity Fit Club and changer of image extraordinaire. Who, you might ask, would be a worthy partner for Ann?

Enter Anton du Beke. Born Anthony Beke. Shares Brucie’s humour – and, unfortunately, his profile. Oldest dancer in the show. Dances the foxtrot like Fred Astaire, and the latin like, er, someone who hates latin dancing.

Already, Ann and Anton are generating more column inches than any of the other more glamorous couplings. Already, Ann’s refused to dance a particular move in the group dance, because she considers it improper. She has banned any clothing that might be considered 'immodest' and has refused the use of fake tan. Stately as a galleon, she will sail through the opening round of the competition purely on the basis of her wry wit and her X factor. Eccentricity factor, that is.

Not for me the size zero soapstar beauties with their chest-waxed, spray-tanned partners. For pure entertainment, give me the Ann Widdecombes, the John Sergeants, the Julian Clarys of this world. Which leads me to think about character, and odd couples in fiction. Eccentricity, for me, is the defining factor. I’d rather remember a character for her rapier wit, her difference from the crowd, than for her beauty and grace. Jo in Little Women was always more interesting to me than Amy or Beth, just as Katherine Hepburn was infinitely more entertaining than Marilyn Monroe.

And when you couple them up, you really start cooking on gas. Who cares about Romeo and Juliet when you can have Othello and Desdemona? Where’s the charm of Cinderella and her Prince, set against the darker enticement of Beauty and The Beast? Jane Eyre and Rochester beat Catherine and Heathcliff hands down, in my opinion, just as Homer and Marge Simpson tower above Fred and Wilma Flintstone and Bill and Ben fade into insignificance against Kermit and Miss Piggy. And Tom and Barbara Goode (sorry, Felicity) were pygmies compared with Basil and Sybil Fawlty.

The defining thing about eccentric couples seems to come down to conflict. Nicey-nice couples do not great literature make. Whilst in real life, being of one mind may be the stuff of golden wedding aniversaries, in fiction it’s the differences that make the reader read on – even if it’s just to see whether they’re ever resolved.

So dance your heart out, Ann and Anton, and ignore the barbs. Because one thing’s for sure: it’ll be you that the nation remembers, long after the spray tan’s faded and the glitterball’s twinkled its last.

Monday, 13 September 2010

The Authenticity of 'Now'

There's a scene in my first novel where the main character, a nurse, sweeps herbs over the hospital floorboards in an attempt to mask the smell of the patients. It's no big deal; just part of what she happens to be doing at the time, but several readers have mentioned it as a fascinating historical detail; an example of how carefully I must have researched the era.

But the truth is... I, er... made it up. I don't know whether it was routine practice for 18th-century hospital staff to spread herbs on the floor – but equally, there's nothing to say that one resourceful individual in one hospital wouldn't try it out.

Is this, therefore, historically accurate or not? I believe it to be authentic – herbs were around then, brooms were around, smells were around, it makes sense to use the former to deal with the latter. But what if someone, having read the book, starts telling their friends the interesting fact that 'in the olden days, hospitals used to put herbs on the floor!' Is it unfair on readers to make them believe in something when it's just an illusion? 

Personally, I don't think it's unfair at all – history involves a lot of individuals doing individual things, and sometimes those individual things aren't what a GCSE history book says 'the Georgians' (or whoever) homogeneously did. In fiction, what's important is whether something is possible and believable within the context of the time.

In a recent piece for the Guardian, James Forrester pointed out a mistake in an un-named book set in the 14th century – the narrative mentioned that there were 'no priests within a three-day ride,' and Forrester's knowledge of history enabled him to work out that there would in fact have been several thousand.

Now, I don't know what this book was, and chances are the author really couldn't be arsed to get the facts right, but unless the story has a modern, omniscient narrator, then it's being told from a historical point of view – the point of view of someone living in their own version of 'now'. I don't know about you, but in my 'now' – the 21st century – there is an awful lot of stuff I'm unaware of and an awful lot of stuff I get wrong. Should a 14th century character really be expected to have accurate details about every single thing that is going on in their 'now'?

Maybe the narrator has no idea about the priests, but makes the statement anyway so as to appear authoritative. Maybe they've been told this by someone with an ulterior motive, and are naïve enough to believe it. Or perhaps the statement is an intentional teaser for knowledgeable readers; a hint that something is amiss and that the narrator has intriguing reasons for giving the wrong information. Maybe it's a way for the author to conspire with his or her audience, and reward the alert ones with an extra clue to the mystery.

Readers are quite entitled to enjoy feeling clever when they perceive historical inaccuracies, but there's also a danger of congratulating yourself so much that you miss out. If the 'mistake' turns out to be an early warning of the political machinations that ultimately endanger the hero's life, then it's even cleverer – and more satisfying – to have used your superior knowledge to work that out. 

Friday, 10 September 2010

Welcome To ... (See Picture)

I’ve decided to call the last twenty one days – my ‘weird weeks’. Picasso had a blue phase so I think I’m allowed a weird one. Three weeks ago, I was happily sitting in the family home we’ve been in for sixteen years and now we’re selling it. All because I drove up a road and saw a ‘For Sale’ sign. All because my husband, whom I regularly show ‘For Sale’ signs to, didn’t give me a derisory grunt this time, but instead said ‘Let’s do it. Let’s move!’



This happening so quickly – and it needs to if we want the house we’re after - adds to the weirdness. And whilst I’ve been running around like a headless chicken wondering, worrying, if we are ‘doing the right thing’, I haven’t been writing at all, which has felt really odd. I’ve missed it, which has led me to realise the following things:

1. I love it. I LOVE my writing!
2. I am blessed to be able to write and not to have to go into some office I loathe every day.
3. Too often I forget number two.
4. Far too often I forget number one, leading me to obsess about things like publication and forget the craft and the actual joy of writing stories.
5. September is the month this is going to change because I am going to get back to being grateful for number one and two in my life. Any writing I do will be done because I enjoy it and am writing what I want to – not what I feel I should.

The weird phase has also led me to realise the following:

1. Only nutters move house on a whim.
2. Only nutters try to sell and buy a house in the space of six weeks.
3. Only nutters fit an entire ground floor of solid oak flooring in a house and then consider moving.
4. Only nutters leave a beautifully finished house with room for their books to move into a ‘project’ where books will have to be stored.
5. Only nutters think there will be any writing done at all in September...
6. Only nutters think there just might be a story in all that???

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Short Stories are Everywhere. Look, there goes another one!

I’ve had two short stories published. In my life. Which I think is pretty bad going considering how much ‘life’ I’ve had. The first one, ‘Sidney’, a humorous homage to my very best friend in the world, was printed in our local free newspaper which probably doesn’t even count. I was 20 and I’d written it aged 18. Although I did have to go and have my photo taken for the little Biog that went with it, so I did feel like a minor celebrity briefly. And the real ‘Sidney’ had many pints bought for him following the publication that week. In hindsight, I think the pints were more commiseratory than celebratory because of how I’d portrayed him.

And I had a lovely letter back from the (then) Editor of ‘Woman’ magazine, to whom I’d also sent ‘Sidney’. Telling me that whilst he’d enjoyed reading it, he didn’t feel it was particularly suitable for their style but he’d enjoy the chance to meet up and discuss the possibility of future commissions.
Of course, to receive such a response today would have me clawing my way to the front of the ticket queue at British Rail, demanding I’m taken to the IPC building immediately. If not sooner. (Not really – I’m not like that – I’d just queue up like everybody else sweating profusely and imagining the worst).
But back then (wwwaaaay back then) my parents had other ideas. I’d only ever been on a train once, and that had been with them and my brother as part of a ‘See Your City’ day-trips we’d taken one summer holiday. I think I’d been 15. So I was kind of green behind the gills and not very travelled and, of course, still ‘under their roof’. And there was, as they told me “plenty of time to go gallivanting around London when you’re older”. Little did they know.
Little did I.
Maybe if I’d been a tad more resolute and single-minded I’d have just done it, sod the parental consequences; but I was very eager to please in those days and simply complied.

The second (and last) short story I had published was in the TwitterTitters book, written and sold as part of comic Relief, called ‘Killing Kevin’. I wrote that about 5 years previously too, and sent it on the usual rounds of magazines. But I just got back the same response my ‘Not-So-Secret-Agent’ always seemed to get when she submitted my shorts and that was “not sure there is a market for this type of story”. Clearly my style hadn’t changed. Still unmarketable. At least I was consistent!
So I was stunned that ‘Killing Kevin’ had been chosen to appear in this celebration of humour and for such a worthy cause. And my story appeared alongside such greats as Cally (“Heaven Can Wait”) Taylor, Dave (co-writer of Phoenix Nights) Spikey and Lane Mathias, whose blog I love. I couldn’t quite believe it.
I still flip through the book occasionally and marvel when my eyes fall upon page 49. There’s me. And there’s Kevin.
Which proves there’s a short story to be found everywhere. I grew up with ‘Sidney’ (we’re still friends) and even though I didn’t actually kill ‘Kevin’ there were times when all I did was sit in front of my accounts screen at work, imagining how I would kill my boss, given half the chance (and a heavy-duty stapler) because he angered me so much. In fact the day I wrote the story, he had angered me more than I can ever remember being angered by a boss*.
Ever.
So there’s a short story waiting to be written wherever you are. Sit back, reflect; go with your feelings and then get them down on paper/screen.


Oh, and then enter the Strictly Writing Short Story Competition, of course. That was the idea of this post, after all!

*He made me "redundant" a week later and I still wonder if this was something like divine intervention for ‘killing’ him off in my head!

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Keep Fit for Writers - a guest post by Alexandra from Chicklish


It came to my realization recently that all those pages writers spend ages creating – and then editing, keeps their eyes pinned to something evolution hadn’t really planned into genetics: The computer screen. Writers and office workers in general, can spend too long hunched over a keyboard, sitting on a chair not attending to their posture or remembering that it’s good to get up and stretch from time to time. It’s time to talk about keep fit for writers.

Workrave is a free software product that can help you by reminding you to take a break. You can set it as you wish to prompt you to take short breaks every so often – say 20 seconds every 15 minutes, which is enough time to stretch and remember life away from the computer. You can set ‘coffee breaks’ where you are reminded to take 10 minutes break and remove yourself from any temptation to touch the keyboard. During the coffee breaks it suggests some short exercises for the first minute or so, then it’s up to you.

Most people reading this will start looking away now. They feel ok, what's in this for them? Right? So what should a writer know about how their body is affected by long periods of computer use? Today let’s start with your eyes:

Eyes – they weren’t really created to stare at a screen for such long periods. Simple exercises such as looking at a long distance object out the window then immediately to a short distance object in your office is a good work out for them. Another that Workrave suggest is slowly inching your way around the outside frame of your computer monitor, giving the eye muscles a short work out.

Dim your screen so that the glare is minimized and consider changing the colour of your manuscript document from white to a pastel colour. This can soften the view. Monitor how much you blink one day. Do you stare a lot at the screen in between blinking? Do you spend ten minutes glued to one sentence that you can’t get right? Not blinking reduces the tears in your eyes – and if you already have any tendency towards dry eyes you may find trying ‘blinkers’ for a while a good start to a new blinking habit. You add a ‘blinker’ to the corner of your screen and blink when it does. Make sure you drink a lot of fluids and take care of your eyes if they continue to be dry – using eye drops – provided they are always (no exception) preservative free drops can be done by anyone at any time. If you find computers affect your eyes very badly you may want to search for information on more tips, and one great resource is this site, just go there and type in ‘computer’ in the search box.


Alexandra reviews for Chicklish, the teen books website, works in financial services and writes in her spare time. She has zero tolerance for slouching and bad posture in front of the computer...

Monday, 6 September 2010

The weird and the wonderful



While chatting recently to fellow Strictly blogger, Rod, I mentioned the Cambridgeshire-born author Nicola Barker and went on to praise her quirkiness. I first stumbled upon her in 2008 after seeing one of the rather attractive covers of Darkmans – the one which features a court jester. And I ordered the book from Amazon because it looked cool and original. Despite being 838 pages long, I was engrossed from the beginning, partly due to the unusual use of language. We are introduced to oddball characters Beede and Kane, a father and son who work in a hospital laundry and deal in prescription drugs respectively and who, despite living in the same apartment block, are estranged from each other. Set in Ashford, Kent, it's a book populated with characters who are quite simply, bizarre. I'm not even going to attempt to cobble together a brief synopsis, but the weird and wonderful characters, who are so 3D they leap off the page, include Kane's ex-girlfriend, Kelly, Gaffar, a Kurdish refugee who works for Kane and is terrified of salad leaves, Elen, Beede's chiropodist, Isadore, her husband, and their son, Fleet, who is constructing a model cathedral from matchsticks.

The book was shortlisted for the 2007 Man Booker Prize for Fiction and the 2008 Ondaatje Prize - and quite rightly so!

My interest in Ms Barker's books doesn't end there. To whet your appetite, her previous novels include Wide Open, which is set on a nudist beach, a wild boar farm and a nature reserve on the Isle of Sheppey, and which feature her array of idiosyncratic characters. There's also Behindlings with central character Wesley who is stalked by a bunch of weird outlandish people including Josephine, a nurse and environmental campaigner, the scandalous Katherine Turpin, and Ted, the island's estate agent, all of whom have their own reasons for following Wesley.

Or there's Clear, narrated by a young man who is drawn to watch David Blaine suspended in a Perspex box above the Thames.

I've just started The Burley Cross Postbox Theft, a book which is comprised of a series of letters. I recently read an interview with Ms Barker in the Guardian in which she talked about the origins of this comically absurd book.

Apparently a few years ago friends of hers applied for planning permission to make amendments to their house and Ms Barker wrote a letter penned by 'the planning office', requesting them to put up a partition in their living-room. She said in the interview that she thought nothing more about it until sometime later when her friends phoned after realising she had faked the letter. Apparently they were furious. She tried to make amends when she heard about their problem with people hanging plastic bags filled with dog poo on their hedge, so she decided to write something about dog waste and legislation, in a form of letters.

And so the epistolary Burley Cross Postbox Theft was born. In the book, the village postbox is broken into and its contents, including 26 letters, 22 Christmas cards and nine applications for a remedy designed to cure erectile dysfunction, were placed in a bin bag and dumped in the backyard of the hairdresser. And now, PC Topping must sort through the letters. It seems everyone is objecting to everything, no matter how mundane - from dog poo to speed limits, planning rules and who gets to be Jesus in the Christmas play. It's all a bizarre mix and over time, the reader realises the incidents are in some way connected. It's all good fun and if you enjoy a quirky read which raises a wry smile, then Ms Barker's books should be on your list.

Her novels make compelling reading, given that the characters really come alive. They even stay with you for some time well after you've closed the books. In each story you'll find the common theme of sympathy for the underdog or oddball. Having lauded her brilliance, Ms Barker is not what I would call a commercially successful novelist. But she has that x-factor that not a great many contemporary writers have.

Friday, 3 September 2010

JUST LET GO...


I’ve always been interested in spirituality and personal development, but there are a couple of things that rile me:

1. Reference to The Universe as in ‘The Universe will provide...'
2. Any mention of The Secret: I hated this film, particularly the angelic chords which accompanied each speaker’s pronouncement, and the way they portrayed The Law of Attraction by showing a girl yearning for a gold necklace in a jeweller’s window, and - having presumably discovered The Secret and applied it - the said necklace being placed around her neck by a tall, dark, handsome man.
3. Being told by people to Just Let Go.

Just let go? Just let go?!?! The implication appears to be that it’s easy. And that this is The Answer to everything - if you are only wise enough to know what the speaker knows. Which may be The Secret. Or perhaps The Universe provides The Answer to The Secret.

Forgive me. This is cynical. In fact I do believe, wholeheartedly, in certain energetic phenomena. And I do believe that there is an intelligent force at work in life. It’s just that sometimes truths deteriorate, through over-use and under-examination, into lazy cliches.

I’m preoccupied with Letting Go at the moment, since I may be selling up and leaving my home of almost 7 years in Cornwall and moving to…er, I’m not sure where yet. I look at my beautiful little house with its direct views over the river, and wonder – sometimes - what I’m doing. No doubt I will also need to look at each of my possessions and decide which to take with me and which to let go of. Some things are easy: the clothes that are old, no longer fit or have never been worn; the books I know I’ll never read again. But what of the lifetime’s accumulation of journals which have accompanied me everywhere, yet which I’ve barely looked at since writing them? What of all the paintings and drawings which will never be sold or hung but which represent years, collectively, of work? What of the four or so printed drafts of my first novel?

Which brings me, somewhat circuituously, to my point. I was saddened to read a blog post by Ian Hocking, author of Déjà Vu and a further three novels, all of which his (very good) agent has tried hard, but unsuccessfully, to sell. Please drop over to his blogsite, This Writing Life and have a read. Ian has decided to call it a day. To let go of writing with the aim of being published, after fifteen years of striving, and - with his first book - succeeding. The right decision? Who can say. A forever decision? Ditto. This may be one of the hardest examples of letting go. And there’s no ‘just’ about it. In any sense.

Have you ever thought of ‘just’ giving up writing? Have you ever managed to do so? Can you imagine ever wanting to? Writing demands sacrifice, effort, energy, passion and time. As Ian says, it also makes demands on other people in the writer’s life – the partner, the children, the friends. It demands a certain wholeheartedness, at least whilst it’s being practised, which necessitates shutting out the world. And if all this effort and energy is directed into a practice which is not rewarded in the traditional sense, just how long can someone continue to do it? No wonder so many writers squeeze their writing into the fag-ends of their days so that others won’t be too inconvenienced. No wonder they practise their writing as if it were some form of guilty secret, carried out late at night while the family sleeps, early in the morning before they wake, or during precious moments while the baby naps, the children are at school. No wonder that there comes a time when a writer decides it’s time to let go.

The thing about letting go is – and yes, I know this may be seen as another new-age cliché, but it’s one I recognise and believe in – it opens up a space for new things to enter. The I Ching calls this the empty fertile space. Without such spaces in our lives, new things cannot be born. We may be full, but we aren’t fulfilled. So I wish Ian Hocking everything fresh and new: I wish that his spirit may be refreshed and his writing self renewed. I wish that what he next gives birth to is his greatest work so far – whatever that may be.

Ian Hocking’s decision is courageous. The word ‘courage’ stems from the word for ‘heart’. It takes courage to write. And it takes a very particular kind of courage to stop.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Guest Spot: Carl Ashmore tells us how it feels to have the most successful book of all time on the Authonomy website...

We are delighted to have Carl guest for us at Strictly.  So without any further preamble,  let's find out a bit more about how he got to where he is today...

Who are you?

My name is Carl Ashmore and I’m an aspiring writer for children. I live in Crewe, Cheshire with my partner, Lisa, my one year old daughter, Alice, and a very round, grumpy Cheshire cat that flatly refuses to adhere to the stereotype.

‘The Time Hunters’ is my first novel and is about a teenage girl who discovers her reclusive uncle is a time traveller and becomes involved in a murder/mystery and a quest through time for the Golden Fleece. I am proud to say ‘The Time Hunters’ become the most successful book of all-time on the Harper Collins website www.authonomy.com and won a Harper Collins review in July.

What is Authonomy?

It’s a networking site for writers across the world and an online arena for critiquing work and sharing ideas. There are thousands of books uploaded at any one time and each month, the top five most popular books are selected for a review by an editor from Harper Collins.

What made you join Authonomy?

I was exploring writing websites and happened to stumble across Authonomy. It was never a conscious decision to join a site like it but I’m thrilled I did.

What other routes to publication have you tried?

Agents, mainly. With ‘The Time Hunters’ I had four requests to send ‘fulls’ and one offer of representation from an agency I chose to reject (for very good reasons). I tried one publisher ‘The Chicken House’ and they requested to see a full (this was when they accepted unsolicited submissions) but didn’t pursue it. The feedback from the agents was positive but did highlight issues I have since addressed.

Would you consider Self-Publishing?

I may well do. My dream has always to been to go the traditional route but I’m aware the publishing industry is changing. The development of new technologies (Kindle etc) and the ways readers are accessing books means that it would be rather silly to dismiss it outright. To be honest, I think many literary stars of the future will come from the self-publishing route.

How have you found Authonomy?

I enjoyed it enormously. Authonomy is merely a microcosm of life. Some writers are hugely giving of their time and experience and others are somewhat self-obsessed, egotistical and rather curt. It would be easy to be cynical about Authonomy (many are) but personally, I avoided such cynicism and concentrated on reading/commenting on the work of others and embracing the feedback on my work. I made a good friend in Mel Comley (a fellow gold star winner) and she offered to do an edit of my full MS, giving advice she’d received from other Authonomites. The process becomes a circular one. What I learn today, I pass on tomorrow.

Where did you get your pretty book cover from?

I’m a lecturer in film and media at a college. A friend and colleague of mine, Henryk Szor, created my cover after reading the book. ‘The Time Hunters’ is an adventure that fuses history with mythology (characters include a friendly Minotaur, Will Scarlet etc) and the main time machine is a 1963 Volkswagen campervan. Henryk liked the scene where the campervan is attacked by two Harpies in Ancient Crete and visualised it for the cover. Henryk’s work can be seen on www.henrykszor.com.


What advice would you give aspiring Authors considering using Authonomy?

Don’t expect the site to be the answer to all your publishing dreams. Only join if you’re committed to improving your book and not just because you want to win the Harper Collins review. The journey is what’s important, not gaining the gold star and review. I know ‘The Time Hunters’ is a considerably better book than when I joined because I listened to the advice of others. Treat the site and other writers with respect and it can be a valuable tool for self-improvement. It also increases your visibility on a world-wide stage and if you’re lucky, you may be spotted by an agent (this has happened to a number of Authonomites) or publisher.


What are your plans for the future?

Whilst I wait for my Harper Collins review, I intend to use the success on Authonomy to try and gain an agent. I’m also writing another children’s book ‘The Angel Prophecy’ about a very special thirteen year old boy embroiled in an ancient war between a modern Knights Templar and Hell demons.

I have also written two other children’s books for a younger audience ‘Bernard and the Bibble’ and ‘The Night they Nicked Saint Nick’ which will be re-edited as a result of the advice I’ve received from my time on Authonomy.

Most importantly, I have a beautiful one year old daughter who I am try to get interested in reading. So far, she has successfully destroyed a copy of ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ (which she smeared in chocolate) and tore out five pages of ‘Treasure Island’ and buried them under the couch. She may not be reading yet but I’m delighted she’s embracing the spirit of the books.

The link to the Time Hunters is:
http://www.authonomy.com/books/16708/the-time-hunters/

Carl can be contacted on carlashmore@mailcity.com