Saturday Night's All Right For Writing

I was first alerted to the WriteInvite site by the ever-first-off-the-starting-block Womag, at who, following on from a very informative post about the opportunities for writers to try their luck in the fillers’ market, described the weekly online competition as one more opportunity to make money from your writing. Intrigued, I followed her link to

I’m glad I did. Apart from last week when I fell asleep and didn’t wake up till 5.40 I’ve been going back ever since.

To quote the brains behind the site, Rob Richardson “WriteInvite could be described as a Literary Open Mic!” Just turn up every Saturday at 5.30, log into your account, ensuring you’ve already set up a Pay Pal account so you can pay the entrance fee of £3.00, wait for the three story titles to pop up on your screen and you’re good to go. You have thirty minutes in which to pay, browse the titles, choose one, then allow your story to unfold within the time limit, making sure you give yourself five minutes at the end to tidy up.

What follows is that Rob draws up a shortlist of three stories, everyone votes and the winner wins £40. Not bad for half an hour’s work. Recently, as an encouragement to writers, I believe Rob has also begun to name the stories that narrowly missed the shortlist.

So what if you hate competitions because you know you’ll never win anyway? Personally I don’t go to WriteInvite because I think I can win. Though I have as much chance as anyone else and far more than you if you’ve already made up your mind not to enter.

I go there for two reasons.

The first time I entered I desperately needed an idea for a woman’s magazine story. I hadn’t written a damn thing for a fortnight and was getting seriously worried that I’d never write another story again. Having heard the virtues of free writing extolled numerous times I thought I’d give it a go.

I could have done it on my own and saved the three quid. But somehow, knowing that all over the country others were sitting down in front of their laptops all making the same commitment to the exercise as me, spurred me on. With only 30 minutes at my disposal I couldn’t shilly-shally wasting time re-inventing the English language. I had to crack on. And having the time limit pre-set by someone other than myself relieved me of any obligation to stay on after the competition doors had closed and fix the bits I wasn’t happy with. To be able to blame outside forces is always good news for a writer!

I didn’t win and I wasn’t short listed, but my story was mentioned and anyway, even if it hadn’t been, I was proud of myself because I’d broken my jinx and the following week I wrote a 2000 word magazine story in a day,

The second reason for me having a go at the competition is this; if you write within a genre, as I do, WriteInvite presents a rare opportunity for you to kick off your shoes, let down your hair and take a few writing risks. You never know where it might lead and if it leads nowhere, well, you’ve had a bit of fun, which is, as Rob says, the main purpose of the competition. So go on, check out the site. Take a risk. What else would you be doing on a Saturday night? You’re a writer, aren’t you?

Guest Blog by Adrian Reynolds - Have you thought about writing for screen?

There’s more to writing than prose, and I wonder if you’ve ever considered writing for screen? I found my feet as a writer with some classes in scriptwriting conducted by a lovely guy called Jon Wood, whose career has been all about creating plays for children. It turns out that I was one of them, way back when, and now he was my mentor as an adult.

Jon’s classes were an opportunity to test out concepts and scenes with an audience of other writers, and even by reading out scenes ourselves we got to learn a lot about pace, dialogue, and character. Sometimes we had the luxury of acting students performing what we’d done, script in hand, and that moved the whole process up a notch.

For some reason, I was the only writer who spotted the natural simpatico between student writers and student actors, and made the most of the connection by creating playlets that were put on in showcase performances at Nottingham’s Sandfield Centre.

My first, Probably A Robbery, was inspired by the world of dole, dope and DJs I was part of at the time, set in a 24 hour garage with a pirate radio station attached. I wrote it for the friends I had who never set foot in a theatre: I’m passionate about art being able to connect with audiences who don’t spend their lives immersed in review sections.

So, I’d written a short play, what next? Well, there was a competition in The Times for screenwriters to submit a feature film treatment. I didn’t think of myself as a screenwriter, had no idea what a treatment was, but figured Probably A Robbery would make a good film. The Times agreed, and the competition win led to me meeting Four Weddings producer Tim Bevan, who compared my work to that of Hanif Kureishi – they’d worked together on My Beautiful Laundrette – and said I seemed to be doing the right things where writing was concerned.

All of which makes this sound like a success story, and if things had progressed at that speed subsequently I’d be writing this in my Icelandic retreat, receiving a shoulder massage from one of my personal assistants and polishing my Oscar. But as we all know, progress happens incrementally: mastering screenwriting is an ongoing journey, and the form is very different from writing prose, something I could write about in the future if there’s demand.

So, what have I accomplished? Well, I’ve scripted episodes of Doctors for the BBC, the entry level show for new writers. I’ve got excellent feedback about a series of my own, The Sharp End, set in the world of drugs work. And I’m making headway in developing some feature film projects.

What I can say from all this is that I relish the lean and purposeful writing of a screenplay, and that even if you’re not set on making a living at it, you can learn a lot from studying scriptwriting.

Screenwriter and script doctor Adrian Reynolds writes about creativity, writing, and things he's seen and read over at, where you'll also find samples of his work.


True story :
A friend of a friend goes to a posh dinner party.
‘And what do you do?’ the hostess asks her.
‘I don’t do anything,’ the friend says. ‘I’m just myself.’
‘Well,’ says the hostess, ‘That’s not good enough!’

Apocryphal story:
A dinner party guest asks the writer what he does for a living.
‘I’m a writer,’ he says.
‘Oh really?’ says the guest. ‘I’m going to write a book when I retire.’
‘What do you do?’ asks the writer.
‘Brain surgeon.’
‘Funny, that,’ says the writer. ‘I’m going to take up brain surgery when I retire.’

Such stories put me in mind of all the times when I’ve been asked what I ‘do’ - the added implication being for a living. Conversations usually run along the following lines:

Host: ‘And what do you do?’
Me: ‘I write.’
Host: ‘Are you published?’
Me: ‘No.’

Host’s eyes assume a distant, glazed look and he finds a pressing reason to bustle off to harass some other poor soul – preferably one with a career. After all, why be bored by someone who hasn’t ‘made it’ in their field?

It can be tough to stand up and say ‘I’m a writer’ when your work isn’t being published. And yet that’s what we are. Writers. We may not be making much (or any) money from it, but we may work just as hard and with just as much commitment (possibly more, since we write with nothing but hope) as those who are published. And all this for no paycheck at the end of the month, no return for our investment of time and energy, not even, often, a reader or a witness. Yet we may be regarded as ‘dabblers’. Second rate. Amateurs.

In fact, we are amateurs. In the original and best sense of the word, since it derives from the Latin amo – I love. We write because we love to, have to. And loving someone, or something, means being committed to it. Attending to it regularly. Wanting the very best for it.

It’s time we as-yet-unpublished, committed writers had a name. So here’s a suggestion:


Prose-Ams are amateurs (lovers of the craft of prose) who practise that craft in as professional a manner as we can.

A Prose-Am is likely to do most or all of the following:

- read widely in their chosen genre
- learn their craft thoroughly – from courses and workshops, from writers groups, from ‘how to' books
- spend inordinate amounts of time writing
- gather with other Prose-Ams to exchange information and expertise
- take criticism and separate the useful from the non-useful
- learn to trust their own gut instinct, their own voice, their individuality
- research their market thoroughly
- revise, revise, revise
- submit intelligently formatted, grammatically correct manuscripts
- learn to take rejection (and how!)
- develop the traits of persistence and tenacity, together with the skin of rhino and the sensitivity of a deer.

So next time that party-host spits peanuts in your face and asks what you do, draw yourself up to your full height, thrust your shoulders back, look him in the eye and say:

‘Me? I’m a Prose-Am. And I’m proud of it.’

Writers' Deja Vu

The moment when an idea for a novel comes to you is a magical one. The best ideas often seem to come out of the blue, unbidden and fully formed – a literary gift from the gods. All at once you’re inspired, enthused and raring to go. You know there will be periods when you feel like giving up, when your characters will make you feel like screaming, and when what initially seemed like nothing short of genius will feel more like unadulterated bilge. But you’ll carry on, because ultimately you really believe in that idea. You think about it out and about, hugging it secretly to you like a prize. It’s a goer. It’s a winner. It’s… suddenly staring up at you in synopsis form from a bookshelf you’ve been innocently browsing. It’s already been written. By someone else.

Okay, so we all know that there are no truly original ideas, and that it’s the subtle variations on a theme that can mark your work out from the rest… but there’s thematic similarity, and then there’s a "two peas in a pod" style carbon copy. About fifteen months ago, an idea popped into my head. It was a million miles away from the sort of thing I usually write – in fact, it was light, frothy and unashamedly commercial. This would make a change, I thought. I took advantage of Nanowrimo (National Novel-Writing Month, for those of you who have not yet experienced its joys) and bashed out over 40,000 words in 30 days. I was on a roll, but soon enough the pace slowed. I began to find it a bit of a chore, and found my thoughts drifting back to the novel which would eventually become The Art of Losing. I’ll just put this other one on the back burner, I thought. There’s no hurry, is there?!

Hmmm. A year later, I was standing in WH Smith’s experiencing all manner of unpleasant sensations as I gaped at MY book, which seemed to have inexplicably been published under a pseudonym without my knowledge. OK, I exaggerate slightly… but the plot, the hook on which the entire novel turned, and even the opening scene, were all spot on. Naturally, I bought the book (which shall remain nameless) – albeit with a wince of annoyance at lining the pockets of the author who had so cruelly snatched the concept from under my nose. And I read it. Or tried to. Reader, it was terrible. I’m not normally a book bitch, and I appreciate that in this particular case my judgement may have been slightly skewed, but I couldn’t even finish it. And believe me, the knowledge that someone else has written your book is even more bitter when you KNOW that you could have (indeed, have) done it better.

Of course I entertained wild suspicions. Had the author broken into my house and sneaked the file from my laptop while I slept? Was she, in fact, a friend of mine in disguise, eager to snatch the glory for herself? Was she… well, you get the picture. But ultimately, I had to acknowledge the fact that it was just bad luck. We don’t own our ideas, and often, we’re perhaps not quite as original as we think we are. Time to go back to the drawing board. I’ve got a new idea brewing, and I think this one could be a real winner - as long as no one else gets there first.

Quickfire Questions with...Imogen Robertson

Imogen Robertson was born in Darlington in 1973 and is a TV, film and radio director. Her first novel, 'Instruments of Darkness', is a historical thriller set in 1780 and will be published by Headline in May 2009. The opening section of the book was chosen as one of the winners in the Daily Telegraph's 'First thousand words of a novel' competition in 2007, which inspired her to write the rest of it. She also received a commendation in the National Poetry Competition in 2005. She lives in London with a lot of books and a cello and is currently writing full time.

Longhand first or straight to computer?
Computer for prose and longhand for poetry. I'd never have a writing career without spellcheck and the cut and paste function.

Poetry or prose?
I like both. Same way I like pies and cakes. Never, never make me choose.

The hardest thing about writing is…
Starting. After that the hardest thing is stopping.

First drafts are…
The fun bit.

My underlying themes are…
Sex and death, same as everyone else!

The writing achievement I am most proud of is…
Getting a two-book deal with Headline. The lovely, lovely people.

I wouldn't have got this far without…
A great deal of patience from my friends and family. Oh, and whining a lot.

I'm most inspired by…
Long walks by the Thames and hearing people talk about their enthusiasms.

My shameful writing secret is…
I smoke like a chimney when I'm writing, and I'm afraid if I give up I won’t be able to do the work.

My writing dream is…
To earn enough to pay the mortgage by looking out of the window and making things up.

The most exciting thing about writing is…
When characters take over and do things you didn't expect; or the moments when the right word seems to drop right out of the sky and land in the right place in your sentence.

Which 3 writers, dead or alive, would you invite to dinner?
Dostoevsky, Tess Gerritsen and Georgette Heyer. Not sure they'd all get on, but I'd enjoy it.

Independent bookshop or Amazon?
Independents are the best places to browse; Amazon's where I go when I know just what I'm after and want it NOW!

You really must read…
All of William Boyd, Akmatova and Hilary Mantel's Beyond Black

If I were to try writing in another genre it would be…
Fantasy, or some brilliant semi-auto-biographical work of dodgey erotica. Actually, that's pretty much the same thing, isn't it?

Email or phone?
Email as a rule. I have a bit of a phone phobia...

The best thing about being a published author is…
Signing copies, and having the necessary cash to write full time. That's just paradise.

A writer should never…
Get lazy.

If I could pass on any tip it would be…
Challenge your work. Always ask is this good enough? Am I engaging the reader, am I delivering, are my characters behaving like themselves or am I forcing them into things for the sake of my plot? Is this real?

If I could go back and do it all again I would…
Make all the same mistakes. It's how we learn.

Thanks to Rebecca Kay for the author photo. And to Susie for the interview!

It hasn't got to be perfect

Ah, wouldn't it be lovely to go on a writing retreat? A week alone in a wilderness-y location, free to tap away on my laptop, scribble in a pretty notebook or spread out the pages of my work in progress across the crisp, non-dog-haired linen of a comfy bed. I'd go out for solitary, silent walks in the sunshine, and return inspired by the sea breeze hushing through the grasses and the lonely cries of eagles in the cerulean sky.

Not for me one of those writers' retreats in a venue shared with Other People. Yuk! For a start, I'm a nutter-magnet, so judging by past experience I'd probably get someone following me around saying my surname was making them channel visions of the Norman Conquest or something.

Not only that, but I'd be sick with fear at having to get together with everyone else in the evening and “voluntarily” read out the day's work. No, my ideal writing situation would be to become a hermit, in an isolated cottage. All I want is a bit of space and quiet. Plus an attractive man to bring me pizza and wine at appropriate intervals. Oh, and broadband, obviously.

All this would do wonders for my productivity. The work in progress would all come together and be finished in no time. I'd also have the leisure to read as much as I wanted, wander along the beach and attend the on-site beauty parlour (all isolated cottages ought to have one) for a relaxing massage.

Or, more likely, I'd turn up and find that it was a bare, dull apartment smelling of cigarette smoke and tacky air freshener, and I'd footle around for a week failing to accomplish anything.

I find it too easy to feel that writing would be simple if only external circumstances arranged themselves around it. It'll be easier once finances are more stable, once the next deadline is out of the way, once the summer's here and I can write outside. It will be easier once my toddler is at playgroup, once other people stop making demands, once I feel less under the weather, once my book is out, once I get a big advance for the next one, once book twenty-three is made into a mini-series...

Writing will always be easier sometime in the future when there's more time, more money to buy that time, more sunshine and more energy.

But, although the external difficulties are changeable, sometimes looming and sometimes receding, they never go away. Perhaps we can shoot a few down, but they always bounce back ten-fold, like aliens in some crappy 1980s Atari game.

A writing retreat or a sudden influx of cash or a new mahogany desk aren't going to make me into a perfect writer. Wherever I go, I'll still be me, worrying that my book is rubbish, wanting to check my email or Facebook one more time, wondering whether I'll ever really be good enough to fill that blank page.

The only solution is to stop dreaming and get on with it, regardless of the imperfect circumstances of noise, tiredness and pressure. A few words written during the clamour of the day are better than no words written while waiting for everything to be perfect.
Because that would be a heck of a long wait.


Thank you to V√°clav Pastucha for the photograph.

Starting as you mean to go on

I’m not usually given to tantrums, but I almost threw a novel across the room the other night. I even had a brief fantasy involving the temperature 451 degrees Fahrenheit, until I got a grip of myself and remembered the Nazis. The book was a highly acclaimed novel by the recently deceased author John Updike. It was littered with reviews from Important Literary Figures and there were as many uses of the word ‘genius’ on the cover as there are glittery stars on a Katie Price. But lordy, was it a chore to read. The first chapter included a description of a room that lasted for about three hours I’ll never get back. In the unlikely event that I’d chosen this book to read randomly (unlikely because I’ve read and hated two other Updikes) I would have slung it aside and moved onto something much more enjoyable. And let’s say a catalogue of drill bits and rawl plugs left behind by our electrician started to catch my eye at one point. But it was chosen by someone in my book group and I felt I ought to make the effort to finish the thing.
And finish it I did (she says smugly). What’s more, the subsequent book group meeting was one of the liveliest and most stimulating we’ve ever had. Unfortunately, for me the Updike book didn’t improve a great deal, although the start was very much the worst part. Some people liked it but we all agreed that this was a classic case of An Author No Editor Dared To Touch.
Sometimes though, getting beyond the difficult start of a book can bring rich rewards. The two examples that come to mind are Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Berni√®res, both of which I hated to begin with and then went on to love. In the days before motherhood and writing (ie when I had some time) I tended to stay the course with every book I started. (And I say that as someone who almost ground their teeth to stumps, reading Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace). These days, if its opening 50 pages don’t grab me, I have no hesitation in tossing it aside.
All this got me thinking about the start of novels and how easy it might be for a good writer to be missed, simply because their opener doesn’t grab a jaded publishing type by the throat. And when you think that most agents are giving up their free time to read their submissions pile, you can’t really expect them to persevere and dig for gold. I’ve been looking long and hard at my openings and thinking about whether they can be stronger. After all, have you ever heard of a book being criticised because the opening was ‘just too gripping'?
There's nothing wrong with a slow burn if it's skilfully executed and some of the best books take time to really get your attention. But speaking as an unpublished author, it seems to me that it's only when you’ve reached the heights of literary stardom that you can afford to make your readers hang around.

The Winner is...

Congratulations to .....


who is the lucky winner of a signed copy of Fiona Robyn's The Letters! Please email caro_rance (at) with your address, and we'll get it winging its way to you.

The Letters is available from Amazon and Snowbooks, or your local bookshop. Also look out for Fiona's next book, The Blue Handbag, which is out now in hardback and will be published in paperback in August. Visit Fiona's website to find out more.
We've got a couple more prize draws lined up for April, so keep visiting and commenting for your chance to win.


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Go, Mickey!

As the Strictly Writers know, I have recently returned from a trip to EuroDisney. I also visited five years ago when my children were tiny, plus in 1992 was employed as a member of the Opening Crew. So there is quite a history between me and this centre of ‘Imagineering’ and I’m grateful to it for offering me a wealth of special memories – as a single fun-seeking young woman and as an older Madame, returning to the magic with her husband and children.

My recent trip there was the first time I had visited since I’ve been writing, and it got me thinking, as an author of commercial stories – what is Disney’s secret? No other brand of theme park comes close to Disneyland’s global success, what with the visitor numbers and merchandising revenue created by the gigantic park in Florida, plus the other three in California, Paris and Tokyo.

What struck me, on my arrival at the resort all those years ago as a young employee, was the seriousness of the Disney officials. I used to call them The Mafia, with their black suits and radio ear pieces. Our first days were spent at Disney University being drilled with the great Walt’s ethos. ‘Problems’ were called ‘opportunities’ and the words ‘not possible’, did not exist. Expectations were high and negativity stamped out. Mickey’s glass was always half-full and as employees we had to stick stringently to the Disney commandments and rules. We had to believe in our job. And everyone did. From my manager who’d left his $200 an hour job as a lawyer in the States to work at the resort, to the man testing Thunder Mountain after one of the previous dummy-runs had resulted in the prosthetic passenger being decapitated.

Then there was the attention to detail. The grass was sprayed green, just to give it that edge. I discovered that artefacts were sourced from around the world to furnish themed parts of the park, instead of purchasing cheap imitations. And when drinking after work with the ‘Cowboys and Indians’ from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, I found that most had grown up on ranches out in the States and lived for real the life that they were re-creating on stage – they weren’t just horse-riding actors.

Of course the ride’s the thing at the Disneyland parks and each one tells a cracking good story, whether it’s the Peter Pan Flight or intergalactic excursion on Star Tours. And they are innovative. Exciting. Scary. Heart-warming. They reduce you to tears or screams, to sighs or laughs. They move you physically and emotionally. They force you to take part.

So, as a writer of commercial fiction, what have I learned from this?

1) Set yourself high standards. Don’t see rejection as a ‘problem’, but as an ‘opportunity’ to take on board criticism and improve. Surround yourself with like-minded, positive, ambitious people.

2) Pay attention to detail. The things you may not consider important WILL matter to your readers and editors and publishers. Don’t be sloppy with anything, from your characterisation to your grammar.

3) The story’s the thing. Write something different which, at the same time, gives the reader what they need in terms of being able to empathize and get emotionally involved. Give them something memorable. Make them laugh. Make them cry. Make them part of the journey.

Quickfire Questions with ... Fiona Robyn... + PRIZE DRAW

Fiona Robyn's debut novel, The Letters, was published on March 2 by Snowbooks. Fiona lives in rural Hampshire with her partner, her cats Silver and Fatty, and her vegetable patch. She blogs at Planting Words and A Small Stone and runs the blogzine A Handful of Stones. Her website is

WIN A COPY OF THE LETTERS! Thanks to Fiona and Snowbooks, we have a signed copy of The Letters to give away. All you have to do is leave a comment on this post – names will go into a hat and the lucky winner will be announced on Sunday. (The Strictly Writers aren't allowed to win - sorry!)

ABOUT THE LETTERS: Violet Ackerman has drifted through a career, four children and a divorce without ever knowing who she is or what she wants. She starts receiving letters, written in 1959 by a young pregnant woman in a mother and baby home. Who is sending them, and why?

To buy The Letters, visit Amazon or Snowbooks.

And now for Fiona's Quickfire Questions ...

The first story/poem I remember reading was ...
The Very Hungry Caterpillar – a classic.

My family think my writing is ...
something they feel proud about.

The best thing about writing novels is ...
Getting to spend time with my characters.

The worst thing about writing novels is ...
First drafts, yuk.

Longhand first or computer? ...
My lovely blue laptop.

When I run out of ideas I ...
try not to worry and get on with something else instead.

Ideas come to me when ....
I’m on trains or driving.

My advice to new writers would be ...
to enjoy it and to develop your resilience.

Three authors (dead or alive) I'd like to invite to dinner are ...
Raymond Carver, Anne Lammot and Roald Dahl.

My favourite writing snack is ...

The best book I've read during the last three months is ...
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery.

Thanks, Fiona!

Books versus movies

I like to read a good book as many do, but I also like to watch a good film. However, a well-written and entertaining narrative does not necessarily translate into a good film.

It's always exciting when a new movie comes along, one which has begun its life in literary form. Standing in the box office queue, you wonder what the filmmakers have done to it, and will there be parts which veer considerably from the book? Will they present the characters in the same way you visualise them in your head? Or - crisis - will they butcher the whole thing and change the ending?

A sizeable proportion of films released over the past few years have been books in former lives, a fact which prompted me to wonder what percentage of movies are in fact, adaptations? My (very) rough guess is around 18 per cent.
Books which have been made into films include: Girl With A Pearl Earring, Atonement, Fight Club, The Reader, Chronicles of Narnia, The Constant Gardner, PS I Love You, The Kite Runner, and not forgetting the Harry Potter series or comicbook adaptations like Hellboy. Of course those few are just a drop in the ocean of the vast number of book and film marriages. I also hear on the grapevine that both the Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger (who last week sold a new manuscript for close to $5 million) and the wonderful Secret History by Donna Tartt (at last!) are to be made into films too.

I much prefer to read the book before I see the film, which I believe to be the case with many people. A book allows you to create the characters yourself, whereas the filmakers have presented them in front of you. There are some exceptions to the rule though - wouldn't you much prefer to watch The Godfather, rather than read it?
Probably the main reason that the average Joe Public prefers the film version is a short attention span and access to a form of 'easy' entertainment. The average teenage boy would probably prefer to watch a Vin Diesel action movie than read a book upon which the film is based.

There are various books I've read before they were made into films and have been a pleasant surprise when the red curtain goes up. Into The Wild directed by Sean Penn was excellent, retaining much of the sentiment of Jon Krakauer's book; however I did have a feeling it was 'Hollywoodised' as is the case with many.

And what about those films you didn't even know were books in the first place?
How many of you have been in this situation?
Friend: 'Fancy going to see Marley and Me?'
You: 'Yeah it looks good.'
Friend: 'Have you read the book?'
You: 'What book?'

But it seems to be the hotshot Hollywood directors and producers who take much of the glory for the success of a project. Who's heard of Vikas Swarup? Readers may know him as the novelist who wrote Q&A, the story of an orphaned 18-year-old who won a major prize in a quiz show. Many critics said it was a preposterous idea for a novel, but look at the subsequent success of the movie - none other than Slumdog Millionaire.

Perhaps your current WIP (work in progress) will be the Academy award winning Best Picture of 2012? Don't don't rule it out. And while I'm on the subject, can you think of your favourite book/film combo, a successful marriage that holds up on both sides? American Psycho? The Silence of the Lambs? 25th Hour? To Kill A Mockingbird?

Guest Blog by Sarah Bengry - The Addiction of Writing

Hello. My name is Sarah, and I am an addict – a writaholic.

They say there’s a genetic predisposition, but it wasn’t always like this. For twenty years I held down a ‘real’ job, was successful – was solvent – until the awful obsession kicked in. I can’t even blame the excesses of youth. At my age, I should have known better. But then, it was only a matter of time; a staving off of the inevitable.

I guess it began in a casual way, a little dabbling at the weekends. I really got off on inhaling the smell of a pristine, A5 lined notebook. But, writing in longhand – well, it’s so slow. I quickly found myself losing the thread. And the indecision, the procrastination – the hours spent choosing a character’s name!

I’ll never forget my first. Mr Dent, or was it Denton? Whatever – he combed his glossy dark hair, stepped out of his door in Belgravia – and then disappeared in a puff of smoke, because that story never progressed. But I did read, a few years ago, that Dent, or Denton, is the most common name plucked out of the ether by ‘aspiring writers’, and just how weird is that! Maybe it proves my grand theory regarding this addiction of writing – that there’s some ‘greater power’ sending out little poisoned pens to zoom in on any susceptible minds – a sort of literary Cupid, minor god of purple prose and hearts. And, if we get injected or ‘dented’, then we might as well face it, we’re hooked for life. No matter how strong the resolve to resist, the hunger keeps nagging and gnawing away; just a matter of fixing on the right prescription – which, in my case, was something with more oomph and speed. I went out and scored a computer.

OK – it was reckless. I never thought it would kick in like that. One moment, I had it all under control, the next I’d given up my job, convinced of success and a publishing deal. Well, they say self-delusion is part of the game. But, it’s not just the writing any more. It’s all the sites that keeping luring you in – the crack of Write-words, daily doses of blogs, and best not to mention the Twittering.

And the side effects! Just look at what I’m reduced to – mooching around in pyjamas all day, living on biscuits and cups of tea, ignoring the door or the phone when it rings, just staring and staring at this bloody screen. My wrists are riddled with RSI. I’m in a torment from lack of sleep, all those ideas buzzing round me like flies. I’m plagued by blurred vision, the bruising, mauve bags hanging like suitcases under my eyes, the pallid complexion from lack of light; the dreaded, spreading ‘writer’s bum’. One night I dreamed that my legs dropped off, withered away from lack of use. I woke up retching, in a cold sweat. And still I try to tell myself, I can stop – I can stop – any time I want.

But, my finger are itching to press the on button, my ears long for that sweet little Microsoft tune. And when my words appear on screen, so perfect and slick in Lucinda Bright, there’s nothing quite like that sweet, rushing high, that heady adrenalin pumped through the veins – except that I fear for my sanity. It’s the voices, you see. They just won’t go away and sometimes I think I must be possessed; that my mind has been hijacked by wandering ghosts. Those parasites say they’re my ‘characters’ – but I know they’re sucking my blood! And, right now, there’s this tragic, Victorian woman who sits in a crumbling country house, and she can’t find her bottle of laudanum – and with both us well over-due for a fix, perhaps you’ll excuse me...I’ll just go and type up a few more words...I’ll just describe how she pulls out the cork. We’ll both calm down when we’ve had a good swig. Cheers!

Sarah Fox worked as an illustrator for twenty years and began writing almost three years ago. Her first book, The Diamond, a gothic Victorian novel, has recently been published in Russia. She is currently working on her second - another gothic Victorian novel! An obsessive pattern is developing...

The Waiting Strain

If you’ve ever had to wait for an important verdict on a writing project, you’ll know how horrible it can be.
I think of it literally as a large waiting room. The walls are painted the colour of despair and there’s much nervous coughing and magazine shuffling. Writerly types are sitting around and pretending to ignore each other, but really everyone is quietly sizing each other up. Every now and then the double doors open and someone important-looking with a clipboard sticks their head out. My turn at last! But no, another name gets called and someone leaves the waiting area, punching the air or weeping, depending on their outcome.
I’ve somehow got myself into a situation where I’m waiting for external verdicts on two separate books from two sources. What I was thinking?
I’d almost forgotten what this corrosive feeling of anticipation feels like. I remember now. It somehow manages to be exhausting and very dull all at once. And does having two projects out there really make the waiting twice as bad? Of course it bleedin’ well does.
I know this process is just as bad for people who’ve already got an agent, or even a book or two out there already. It’s part of writing life, I’m told. So if you’re in the same situation, I’ve devised a simple quiz that will help you judge your ability to cope with the ‘waiting strain’.

1. On a scale of one to ten, how much do you care about the opinion you’re waiting for?
10 points for: ‘How long have you got?’;
5 for: ‘Well, it won’t be the end of the world, but I’ll be disappointed,’
0 for: ‘Oh, that old thing….’

2. How many times a day do you check your emails?
10 points for: ‘Many more times than there are minutes in an hour’
5 points for: ‘About once every one or two hours’
0 for: ‘I only log on once a day’

3. How many times have you mentally practised reactions to both good and bad outcomes?
10 points for: ‘I have to fill the times between checking emails somehow’
5 points for: ‘Only once or twice. Just to prepare myself’
O points for: ‘What the hell are you talking about?’

4. How distracted are you of late?
10 points for: ‘My children have to forage for food and I am wearing my knickers on top of my trousers’
5 points for: ‘It’s on my mind from time to time, but what will be will be.’
0 points for: ‘Why would I be distracted? It’s not like I can’t do anything about it.’

So how did you do? Here’s how to score.
30-40 points: Your ability to cope with this process is worryingly poor. You need to chill out a bit. Really. Or start writing another book.
15- 25 points: You are coping admirably and will no doubt go on to conquer the publishing world.
0-10 points: Do you really want to be published? Sure? Maybe you should check whether you have a pulse first.

I’m not telling you what my score was. Let’s just say, I’m off to check my emails, feed my starving children and put my knickers on the right way round.

On Not Writing

Creativity is great. At its best, it’s fertile, energetic, enthusiastic and rewarding. And sometimes the very best way of writing oneself out of a block is to doggedly apply the seat of one’s pants to the seat of a chair and get on with it.

And sometimes, it’s not.

I haven’t painted for 18 months. My studio has lain barren, a junk-room, unappealing, chaotic. Now, having cleared out the dead spiders and chucked out the dead work, I’ve begun to paint the way a decorator does, brushing white emulsion over piles of old canvases and boards, each one representing hours, days, weeks of work and thought. Slowly a pile of white surfaces is growing, spaces for future images.

It’s the same with the writing. Eight months with barely a shoot. I’ve been through various stages of frustration, guilt, anger and misery, envying fellow writers their engagement and feeling like an outcast. And yet now, with the first stirrings of new ideas, I can see that the fallow time was necessary. Patrick Gale (author of Notes From An Exhibition) says he waits for two years before he begins to write a novel. Two whole silent years!

Fallow periods feel barren. And frustrating. And guilt-inducing. And time-wasting. It’s easy to beat oneself up for lack of activity. And when there’s no inspiration, it’s all too easy to believe that it will never come again. Yet it is only through being empty that a vessel can be filled.

Inspiration stems from the Latin word inspiro – I breathe in. We need to be inspired in order to express. Writing is like breathing out: expressing, sending energy out into the world and onto the paper or the screen. But energy isn’t a one-way street. We need time for replenishing. We need time to be empty, so that we can be re-inspired. The rhythm of the world and of our bodies show us this: Tides ebb and flow. The moon waxes and wanes. Light gives way to darkness. We breathe in, we breathe out. If we only breathed out, we would die. The trouble is, modern culture doesn’t give much time or value to the ebbing and the emptiness.

Old-fashioned farmers leave their fields fallow for a season so that the soil can rest and regenerate. And perhaps old-fashioned writers could do the same for their souls. Poets know this. There are many spaces on a page of poetry: between words, between lines, between stanzas. Maybe these spaces represent the ruminating time, the resting time, the silence before inspiration.

I saw a man fishing yesterday, from the end of the pier. It was very, very cold, and he was wrapped up in a coat and a hood, solitary. Was it the fishing he loved, or the excuse for silence and contemplation, some simple emptiness at the end of a productive day? There are seasons in the writing year, I think, to sit silently and fish the waters of the unconscious: there’s a lot more down there than meets the eye, and everything comes to she who waits.

The Adverb Question

Strictly Writing has been going for over two months now, so it's about time we had a run-out of the perennial advice: “If you see an adverb, kill it!”

For those few who have never looked at a writing website or read a how-to book, this paraphrases a Mark Twain quotation about adjectives, and is used to illustrate the accepted wisdom that adverbs are the Lex Luthors of the English language. If you let one of those evil, pace-sapping little fiends near your book, you might as well chuck the whole thing out the window and get a normal hobby, because publishers are going to laugh at you, my friend.

I can understand why this wisdom exists. I only have to look at The Most Embarrassing Story in the World, which I wrote when I was a sixth former and sent off to a competition in The Times. I was going to root it out and give you a choice quotation, but I can't find it. Honest, guv, I can't. Suffice to say it was full of people talking nonchalantly or angrily, and fires burning redly. Actually, it would still have been crap without the adverbs, but they didn't help.

Of course new writers - and plenty of not-so-new ones - overuse adverbs. That goes without saying (except, er, I've just said it), because none of us would take up writing in the first place if we didn't love using words. But I think “no adverbs” is too often presented as a blanket rule that doesn't take into account the context, the story, the narrator's background, the target market or the writer's voice.

It's a British habit, for example, to modify speech for the sake of ironic understatement or to avoid appearing too pushy. A strong British narrative voice might well make brilliant use of adverbs. They can also be good indicators of character. Someone who says: “I probably shouldn't, but may I possibly have another tiny sliver of that rather delicious cake?” is very different from someone who says “Stuff the diet, give it here.”

But what I like best about adverbs is the sense of freedom they give me during a first draft. It would be wonderful to have the knack of turning out perfect sentences first time, but for me it's more important to get the book's structure sorted out before going into fine detail with the prose. Adverbs are handy placeholders while I'm caught up in the excitement of finding out where the story is going. The careful crafting comes later, and it's true that I'll say goodbye to many adverbs and adjectives – but it's a fond goodbye after they've helped me along my way. I'm glad I didn't know about the no adverbs rule when I started writing – it would have made me agonise so much that I would never have finished anything.

Those opposed to adverbs sometimes admit that it's OK to leave in one or two provided they're working hard. Quite right ... but that's true of everything else in the book too, isn't it? I feel sorry for adverbs, being singled out as the villains like that. Like other parts of the language, they can be useful or redundant, perfectly or lazily placed. We should judge them individually on what they do, not what they are.

Picture: Huckleberry Finn, by E. W. Kemble, 1884

Up Close and Personal

Writers have been getting a bit of flack, recently, for dragging their personal lives into the public eye. I’m thinking in particular of Julie Myerson, whose latest novel “The Lost Child” chronicles how her teenage son’s addiction to cannabis finally led her and her husband to change the locks in order to keep him out of the house, in a desperate bid to save their sanity and the unity of the rest of the family.

Just because it makes her feel better to write down her feelings that’s no reason to expose her son to such public scrutiny, screamed the opinion columns.

Julia Donaldson has written “Running the Cracks”, nominally a thriller about a runaway girl and a goth paper boy. Despite her best intentions Donaldson was unable to resist the lure of peppering the novel with characters based on all those people she ran across during the many times her son Hamish – psychotic and violent for much of his young life - was hospitalised.

Because the readership for this novel is young adults, Donaldson admits to painting a slightly rosier picture of mental health problems than reality. But it’s something she needed to write about, she says, after the death of a son, who stepped in front of a train at the age of 25.

One of my favourite writers, Elizabeth Jane Howard wrote “Falling”, a fictionalised account of her relationship with a man who tried and very nearly succeeded in conning her out of her money and home when she’d reached an age when the idea of someone falling in love with her seemed highly unlikely.

I’m guessing all these writers struggled with the idea of putting their most intimate thoughts out there and lost sleep worrying if they were simply exploiting their own pain for reasons of commerce. But to paraphrase Julie Myerson – writing comes from a place writers don’t always have control over

Recently, within my own family, something came to light that – briefly – tipped our world on its axes if only for a short time. I came to terms with it through the usual avenues, talking to friends and family, listening to the experience of others in similar situations.

But I am a writer. And slowly, slowly it began to dawn on me that sooner or later I was going to have to nail the moment. It seemed vital to set down, in fiction, the essence of the experience as I had experienced it.

Of course I thought about the other people I’d be involving and how they might feel were they to pick up a magazine and read about it set down in black and white. And I know that I’ll be accused of exploiting the event for money.

If this story gets published then I’ll use a pseudonym. If I get paid for writing it then it’ll be money well earned. In the ruthless pursuit of a good story, as far as I’m concerned, I’m afraid there are no holds barred. But I hope I’ll be forgiven if my story touches the hearts of even just a handful of readers. I ask no more than that.

Why Books Aren't Babies: Post-Publication Day Musings

We’ve all heard the well-worn metaphor about how books are like babies. We create them, nurture them, and (if we’re lucky) finally bring them proudly out into the world for all to coo over and marvel at. Or, if they’re rather more “difficult” babies, to flat-out ignore and shoot evil glances at when they scream the house down. And write bad reviews about on Amazon… okay, the metaphor rather breaks down there I grant you. In fact, I’m here today to tell you exactly why books are nothing like babies.

Yesterday was PUBLICATION DAY for me - and if I could, I would write that in flashing neon letters. THE ART OF LOSING was finally due to be unleashed upon the world on Thursday 5th March. I had been inking up to the date on my calendar for the past year – and that’s the first difference. Think nine months is a long gestation period? Try twelve… in fact, try thirty, because that’s approximately how long ago I started the novel. Imagine this scene in the doctor’s surgery:
“Madam, I’m delighted to tell you that you are pregnant. Unfortunately, um, I can’t tell you when the due date is. There might not even be one. Just keep the faith and see what happens.” Luckily for me, Fourth Estate gathered my as yet unborn baby to their figurative bosom and bestowed a due date of Spring 2009 upon me. The exact date itself kept changing, right up until a couple of months before publication. I lost count of the number of times I had to scrub out the hearts, stars and flowers with which I excitedly adorned the significant date. In the end I gave up and just went with the flow.

Then there was the question of what to expect on the date itself. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I’d vaguely envisaged floodgates opening overnight - papers being crammed full of reviews of my book, bookshop tables piled high with gleaming copies. The truth, as I have gradually grown to realise, is rather more complex. Last Saturday (the 28th Feb) I took a stroll into Borders on Oxford Street… just to have a look, you understand… and lo and behold, there on the shelf sat a couple of copies of THE ART OF LOSING, for all the world as if they had always been there. It was too early! “Madam, your baby is premature – we need to get you into the hospital quick-smart. But bear in mind that you’ll probably have to come back again next week, and the week after that…” You see, what I have realised is that book-sellers care little for those red-ringed dates that we cherish so dearly. They may get their stock in weeks early or late, and it’s up to them when they choose to display it. As to how prominently they do so, that also depends on many things and may well change over the course of the next few weeks as a result of publicity, reviews – anything that the sales reps can use to convince them that the book is worth displaying. There is no grand “birthing” – like much else in publishing, this is a gradual and often slow process.

So what did happen yesterday? I got some lovely messages from my agent and editor. I got taken out for lunch by my delightful husband and given flowers and a card. I got to see my Amazon ranking leaping like a salmon when I sent the “green light” email out to my contacts list. All in all, it was a good day. On Saturday, I’m having a little launch do too. Just to wet the baby’s head, you understand. And I’m not selfish – I don’t plan on keeping my baby all to myself. In fact, if you fancy a piece of the action, it’s on sale at £12.99 from your local book-store now…

Quickfire Questions with...Phillipa Ashley

Phillipa Ashley is a freelance copywriter/journalist and talented author of contemporary romantic fiction. Her first novel won the Romantic Novelist Association’s Joan Hessayon New Writers Award, and The Little Black Dress imprint will publish her latest book, ‘It Should Have Been Me’, today!

Which 3 writers, dead or alive, would you invite to dinner?
Jane Austen, Ian Rankin and Bill Bryson

Favourite desktop snack?
My daughter’s home made cakes or a Snickers flapjack.

Longhand first or straight to computer?
Straight to computer unless I’m on holiday. Otherwise longhand.

A writer should never…
Let other people’s prejudices prevent them from writing the kind of books they want to.

Independent bookshop or Amazon?
Depends on who has my books in stock. There’s a place for both.

You really must read…
Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Philips
Case Histories by Kate Atkinson
Heaven Sent by Christina Jones
Anything and everything by Jane Austen

My biggest tip for success is…
Write from the heart and embrace supportive criticism from those you trust.

Email or phone?
Depends on what you want to say. I prefer to phone my agent and ed.

The writing achievement I am most proud of is…
Starting at the age of 41 – that’s also my biggest regret.

Tabloid or broadsheet?
All. I read them free at the gym!

If I were to try writing in another genre it would be…
Dark erotic fantasy. Under a different name, without my mum finding out.

The best thing about being a published author is…
Sharing my stories with real people and getting paid for doing that. Working with talented agent and editors. Meeting other authors.

Sophie Kinsella or Marian Keyes?
Um. Sorry but neither. I haven’t read any Sophie Kinsella so I can’t compare. I prefer Jill Mansell, Katie Fforde and Christina Jones.

If I could go back and do it all again I would…
Not worry about the destination so much and enjoy the journey more.

Would Yours Still Fit?

Your wedding dress, that is? Or top hat and tails? Bear with me, fellow writers - this is relevant to our craft…

A couple of weeks ago I fetched my wedding dress down from the loft. I hadn’t fitted it on since my wedding day, more than a decade ago. Finally the time had come to swish around in front of my daughter, show her what Mum had looked like for real, instead of in fancy photos. I mean my weight’s more or less the same, give or take a few pounds; my height hasn’t shrunk (yet) and my hair’s still blonde. To the outsider, to me even, there was no apparent reason why it shouldn’t slip on. So I undressed and stepped into the cream puff creation, trying not to tread on the skirts, beaming at my daughter as she helped me hike it up, imagining I’d look like one of those celebs on the cover of OK Magazine or Hello!

Folks, you’ve probably guessed the rest. We heaved, we hoed, but the zipper just wouldn’t budge. ‘It must be jammed!’ I cried as I breathed in hard and my daughter pulled together the seams, straining to do it up. But it was no use, the zip stuck fast at about ten inches from the top. Sheepishly I turned around, red in the face, looking like a half-peeled banana that was just about to fall out.

You see, I’ve changed. Not in an obvious way. But I’m not the same anymore. I’ve had two children and like it or not I’ve got a permanent mummy pouch. And why is all this relevant to our writing? Well, to me it’s a bit like going back to old work. When I hear of writers publishing books they’ve previously written, once they’ve made a successful debut, I wonder how. If I take out my old manuscripts, I’m not the same person I was when I wrote them all that time ago. There is no way I could even rework the book I wrote and subsequently abandoned last year. I would want to tweak every character, every plot twist, and delete the many bits which now make me cringe – it simply doesn’t fit me anymore. And I don’t fit it. My writing skills and I have moved on.

As far as I’m concerned once you’ve discarded a project don’t look back, don’t restrict your writing and try and force it to fit the parameters of something you created in the past. Sure, take it out from time to time, relish the memories, the excitement it gave you when it was fresh and new. But realize that whatever it cost, however criminal it seems to keep it hidden in the dark, you need to find new things to suit the current you and push yourself forward.

Of course, I might feel differently if an agent or editor took a real interest in my past work. In the same way that I might try the Brussel Sprout Diet if my husband announced a longing to renew our vows in our original garb. But for the moment - and for the future, I suspect - my old manuscripts are firmly stashed under the proverbial bed. As for my wedding dress? It is once again boxed – with love – and back in the loft.

Guest Blog by Michele Kirsch - A Modest Proposal

My children , ages 12 and 14, wrote a song the other day. It was a great song, very catchy, and I told them so. What I didn’t have the heart to tell them was that it was , more or less, The Passenger, by Iggy Pop. Yes, different lyrics, slightly different melody, but it was unintentional plagiarism, possibly caused by unintentionally listening to an Iggy Pop Greatest Hits CD, my current washing the dishes music.

This innocent tune pinching got me into a rather jaded, ageing rock chick frame of mind: all the great pop songs have already been written, that my budding brother- sister act would really have nothing to add to rock’s rich tapestry except some rehashed perfect Pop, capital P, and they should hang up their guitar and keyboards and get into, I dunno, chartered accountancy.

Then I realised my two little leaves have not fallen so far from this old tree. I got to thinking that all the great and important books about the thing I want to write about-bereavement- have already been written, and that I should pack in my proposal.. Whatever I had to add, which at this over- read point, was nothing, would be surplus to requirements.

I saw great merit, in the dozen or so books I had read. What could I possibly add to this Now That’s What I Call Death! library. The better the book, the more despondent I felt. For example , C.S Lewis’ A Grief Observed, a small but oh so perfectly formed study of losing and finding God again after the death of his wife, was so very excellent, that I had to read large chunks of it aloud, to anyone unfortunate enough to be in the room with me at the time.

Similarly, there is the lesser known, but equally brilliant Leftover Life to Kill, by Caitlin Thomas, grief crazed widow of Dylan, who got through her bereavement by drinking heavily, taking tranquilisers and sleeping with young Italian men, and writing it about it beautifully..

The best accounts are first hand stories of lost wives and husbands, and desperate as I am to be published, I wouldn’t go so far as to hire a hit man for my husband. I haven’t got the psychological know how to write the definitive, really useful How To book. The only thing I’m any sort of good at is making sad stories kind of funny. Is there room, or even a desire, for a funny book about death?

Does it really matter, now that I have had whiff of interest from a publisher who wants to see a proposal?

Reader, I wrote it. The proposal, not the book. It may or may not be useful, it may or may not be any good, it may or may not be sellable, but I think, I think, that maybe this particular book has not been written before. Now I must be off. I’ve got some washing up to do.

Michele Kirsch is a freelance journalist.

Journalism and fiction - leopards and zebras

Today I'm delving into a subject I briefly touched on in my first blog - the journalist writing fiction. It's easy to make the error of believing that a piece of fiction is simply a newspaper article lengthened. In reality the two are as different as zebras and leopards.
But look at how many journalists have become fiction writers - Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Walt Whitman and Jack London. Some may have grown bored of the newspaper formula, monotony and censorship which was around during their era, realising they could engage their readers' minds in other ways.

Let's take a look at the two: a non-feature length newspaper article is a brief, often colourless summary of an occurrence, whereas fiction has more depth to it, and that all important narrative style. With a newspaper article you need to stick to the facts: there is no room for elaboration, whereas with fiction, the mind is free to roam - that's the simplest explanation of the variation between the two.
It's not just the content that differs, but experience too. There's the camaraderie and a sense of urgency in the newsroom which is omnipresent, while the fiction writer almost always sits in solitary confinement, working at a slower, more leisurely pace - unless of course he or she has a book to write to a tight deadline.
There's the timescale issue too - if a newspaper editor wants an article to be completed at 11am when Big Ben chimes, there is no room for leeway and no room for excuses. With fiction writing, you set your own goals, according to your own ability. If you want to write a novel in a month, then go ahead. Others may set a target of a year for the completion of the first draft. The exception being of course, if you are contracted to deliver a novel within a specific timeframe.

The publishing process (and indeed the agenting phase) couldn't be more different from the cycle of an edition of a newspaper. There's the often lengthy wait for a response to the initial three chapters for the novelist, the request for the full which can take another few months to produce a response, then you may have other agents clawing at you in which case you'll have a game of juggling to do. Then once the agent sends the book out to publishers, another chain of slow-moving events is set in motion.
With a newspaper, by comparison, its lifespan is over in a heartbeat. There's the writing, editing and make-up (production) phase, then the presses roll, and a few hours later, relying on a quick overland dispatch, it's in the shops. All in the course of a few hours.
I remember reading a quotation which went along the lines of this - in journalism, just one wrong fact prejudices the entire piece, but in fiction, one fact that is true gives legitimacy to the entire work.

Despite all these points I've listed which may seem off-putting to journo-now-wanabee novelists, it IS possible to make that transition. Working in news exposes the writer to a vast range of experiences that can all be used as the basis for a novel. I will be the first to admit I do that. The newspaper world teaches you to become a precise observer.
They say a leopard never changes its spots, well the leopard can in this scenario. If you're a journalist, and a budding writer, you need to get motivated and make that mental switch in your head. You don't want to be a leopard with a bout of the measles!