Christmas Starts Here!

The Strictly Writing crew are herewith signing off for a couple of weeks. We'll be back posting on Monday 4th January - 2010!

We hope you all enjoy the festive season and wish you the very best for the New Year.

I shall be attending a Bollywood themed party on New Year's Eve. Last year's theme was unspecified - I wore a Twenties style costume and my husband went as a giant whoopee cushion (it's amazing, the variety of fancy dress outfits you can buy nowadays). We and the group of friends there really only chat, in depth, at this party, once a year. So I am bracing myself for questions about how my writing went in 2009 and whether I am published 'yet'. Erm... Nope. But I'm one book closer. Hopefully. Well, it's easy to be 'half-glass full' when it's champagne!

Before we sign off, just to announce the winner of the Emily Gale giveaway competition: Well done Sky Blue! Please email me (Samantha) through my profile and I'll get back to you within the next couple of weeks.

See you all in January. It's been great reading all your comments and we look forward to another interesting year of fun and discussion in 2010.

Guest Blog by Vanessa Gebbie - The Art of the Short Story

It’s a slippery thing, fiction! So I looked up a few definitions.

Story: a fictional narrative of briefer length than a novella. Then I looked up ‘Novella’ and discovered that the original ‘novels’ were probably the verbal relating of news from one town to another. The news was told to entertain as well as inform. The sequence of events changed. Some was held back, making the listeners desperate to know more…and so was born the ‘art’ of the story.

Art: the process or product of deliberately arranging elements in a way that appeals to the senses or emotions.

The short story is one of the most powerful forms of fiction. An arrangement of fictioncraft elements to elicit a response from the reader. ( Something that varies from mere enjoyment through to a real emotional punch in the gut). It is also one of the slipperiest forms of fiction –on one level it is easy to write (anyone can scribble a story in a few minutes – a sequence of events; a beginning, middle and end). But it is one of the most difficult to do well –that is the challenge for those of us who adore the form.

Maybe we love it for its power. The strength embodied in so few words, the way it can elicit a depth of emotional response that cannot be sustained (and rightly, or the reader would collapse!) for a whole novel. The way it can literally be life-changing.

Life changing? What IS this woman talking about?

I am not talking everyday page-fillers here, although they have their place. Instead, read ‘A Small Good Thing’ by Raymond Carver. Or ‘The Ledge’ by Lawrence Sargant Hall. Or ‘The Shawl’ by Cynthia Ozick. If you don’t feel changed, a little, you have not been reading properly. (All in Best American Shorts of the Century, ed: Updike)

Behind those stories is the craft of writing short fiction, applied by the masters.

I wanted a text book that would show me what was possible. Written not by a single writer but by many. By prize-winning writers who are also superb teachers. I wanted a book that did not treat me like an idiot. But neither would it treat fiction as though it was the province of academia, of the intelligent and cloistered few. It had to be fun, encouraging me to explore my own creativity whilst being solid on craft. It would not pretend that writing is a mystical happening. And it would, once I had started my journey, continue to feed me, to give me ideas, and most of all remind me that I am in the company of others.

That book now exists. It’s called Short Circuit. It has been out exactly a month today, and is already on the recommended reading lists of many writing courses. It is recommended by those behind the Bridport, Fish, Asham and Frank O Connor awards, by teachers of writing and by writers. It works.

Vanessa Gebbie’s short fiction has won many awards, including prizes at Bridport, Fish (twice), Per Contra (USA), the Daily Telegraph and the Willesden Herald, from final judges such as Zadie Smith, Tracy Chevalier, Michael Collins and Colum McCann. She is a freelance writing teacher working with adult groups at literary festivals as well as school students. In 2010 she will be teaching undergraduates at Stockholm University.
Many of her prize-winning stories are brought together for the first time in Words from a Glass Bubble (Salt, 2008). A second collection, Ed’s Wife and Other Creatures, is forthcoming.

Vanessa asks you to support independent publishers. The book can be bought direct from Salt with a 20% discount. (Also available from Amazon and the usual suspects.)

Do visit her website or blog and also

Top Tens

For those of you who remember Top of The Pops, I need you to get into the mood. Remember Dave Lee Travis? No? Just me then…

Imagine the countdown music. It goes something like this:

Na Na Na Na – Nah, Nah, Nah! Na Na Na Na – Nah, Nah, Nah! (Repeat repeatedly)

Top Ten Tips For The Unpublished Writer

  1. Never lose faith. You are a great writer.
  2. Read – preferably with your favourite snack on hand.
  3. Know what you’re writing about – your story. Be able to answer the question ‘So, what’s your story about?’ in a couple of snappy sentences.
  4. Know your audience.
  5. Know the difference between writing and editing.
  6. Choose your preferred agent and don’t give up.
  7. Write what you want to write – not what you think is trendy or commercial.
  8. Avoid people who do not support your dreams. They don’t have to ‘get’ them but they do have to support them.
  9. Join a writers group for feedback– real life or online.
  10. Write something every day, remembering to use your senses…

    Ready again? And now…Cue the music. Na Na Na Na – Nah Nah Nah!

Top Ten Tips For The Published Writer

  1. Remember all of the top ten tips of the unpublished.
  2. Keep in touch with your agent and editor. Remember their birthdays.
  3. Never read Amazon reviews. I mean NEVER read them and in the event that you do - NEVER respond to them.
  4. Do not ask your agent to explain the term ‘returns’.
  5. Ignore the ‘bestsellers’ unless of course you are listed. Then feel free to embrace them. In print. In public. In Trafalgar Square.
  6. Don’t obsess about whether your agent/editor will like your current WIP as you’re writing it. Do you like it? You’re a published writer. You count.
  7. Sell yourself! Sell yourself! Sell yourself!
  8. Don’t stick your fingers in your ears and ignore the fact you have a deadline. Not a good plan.
  9. Write even when you don’t want to because YOU ARE PUBLISHED. You have an audience waiting for your next work of art.
  10. Limit internet activity and by this I mean blogging, tweeting, facebooking etc etc. to max of one hour a day. Try not to cyber hop. It’s distracting.
    (This should really be in the above list too, but that would have made it eleven top ten tips which would have been odd at best.)

And now cue different music. Something less jaunty. Like the Death March?

Top Ten Things For Writers To Avoid (Published Or Unpublished)

  1. Morning television. It is the devils fare, produced mostly by men for women who want to write but will watch any old crap in order to avoid doing said writing.
  2. Sky plus re-runs of Ricky Whittle’s Argentine Tango on Strictly Come Dancing. It is a distraction. Worse than Facebook, Twitter and blogging combined – although far more pleasurable and very easy on the eye and good research for future sex scenes.
  3. Chocolate before 11am. It just leaves you wanting more. A bit like number two really...
  4. Blogger, Email, Facebook, Twitter etc etc. Pure procrastination tools.
  5. Answering the phone. Let the answer-phone get it.
  6. Thinking of food. Bad idea. Leaves you wanting some. A bit like number two really...
  7. Answering the door. Could be the window cleaner looking for cash which you inevitably won’t have at that moment in time. All that time wasted on explanations and apologies. Unless of course it’s Ricky Whittle. Then answer the door and make no apologies.
  8. Carbs after 6pm. ‘Writer’s ass’ is bad enough without adding to the problem with excess pounds.
  9. Too Much Booze. It is a well known fact that it’s difficult to write under the foggy haze of a hangover.
  10. Gyms. Go for a long walk instead. Much better for the brain and the writing synapse thingys. Awakens your senses. And you meet characters who walk dogs.

I could go on all day.

Top ten favourite snacks for writers? Top ten ways of describing a wintry day? Top ten writers blogs? Top ten tools of the trade? Top ten Strictly Dancing Celebritys?

Okay, I’m suffering from ‘Whittle-itus’ but for those of you who haven’t seen it, have a look. He’s my number one. *Sigh*

Frailty – thy name is Fionnuala…

When writing starts to get dangerous

Did Amanda Knox's graphic stories of brutal rape ultimately lead to a conviction for murder? Well according to some newspaper reports, it helped. The stories which appeared on her MySpace account, emerging after her arrest on suspicion of murdering fellow student Meredith Kercher, were lurid and graphic. The partially clothed body of her flatmate Miss Kercher was found on November 2, 2007 after she bled to death from knife wounds, the crime scene indicating a struggle. At the end of the trial, two judges and six jurors convicted Knox and Raffaele Sollecito, her former boyfriend, of murder and sexual assault.

The story on the exchange student's MySpace social networking site was about the drugging and raping of a young woman. Can this stand up as evidence and can we believe that this is what she's like in real life? When the item emerged, headlines such as 'Amanda Knox wrote stories about rape' appeared in papers. So too does many a writer.

One of the University of Washington student's stories was called 'Baby Brother' and it gained a total of one comment - not much by comparison. The Daily Mail at the time said the writing on Knox's blog gave a worrying insight into her bizarre life. But critics who were clued up suggested that the only confirmation here was that she was a poor short story writer, given her constant use of 'furrowed brows' overly long sentences and poor descriptions.

It's interesting to note that my Work In Progress starts with the live skinning of cats and dogs in China. Now if I'd been a suspect in an animal cruelty case I most certainly would have been questioned and charged. However, I'm a vegetarian, and have been for the past 19 years, and I'm also a member of PETA. Would the jury believe me if I stood up and said that?

If there's a topic I'm interested in and want to read up on, I tend to go as close to the epicentre as possible. In this case, there's The Seattle Times, the and, all of whom are carrying stories about her relatives protesting her innocence. And they seem to be fascinated too with her writing. According to a report in the Telegraph which was published only days after her life sentence was handed out in the court in Perugia, Amanda won a prison essay-writing competition which centred on a young woman who was injured during a drugs-fuelled sex party. Surely this is enough to confirm her guilt?

* Stock photo of Perugia

A chat with YA writer Emily Gale + Prize Giveaway

Emily Gale is a London-born writer of children’s books, currently living in Australia. Girl Aloud is her first book for teenagers. Emily has kindly given us a signed copy of Girls Aloud to give away to one lucky person who comments below. The winner will be chosen out of the SW hat and posted up on Friday.

Kass Kennedy, the main character in Girl Aloud, is being pushed to audition for the X Factor against her better judgement. What gave you the idea for the story, Emily?

The initial spark came from thinking about pushy parents – in particular there were a few first-round auditions on The X-Factor in which the kids were tragically lacking in X and the parents were wearing gigantic rose-coloured spectacles. Watching those clips made me want to go home with the families and find out the set-up: how you go from clapping adoringly at your toddler singing Incey Wincey Spider, to encouraging them to make utter twits of themselves on national television? I wanted to complicate matters by giving my main character a lot of oomph and absolutely no desire to be a star – we hear a lot these days that “everyone wants their 15 minutes of fame” and I was sure my character wasn’t interested in that. So the dysfunction of the family grew from that scenario.

How easy was your road to publication?
I worked as a children’s editor for several years and following that I published a few pre-school books, so that fell into my lap but the journey to publish Girl, Aloud was a lot trickier. I had a false start with my first agent (with a different book) and we parted ways - at the time I thought that was it, that you only get one shot at it. I’m happy to say that’s completely wrong. I wrote Girl, Aloud purely for my own enjoyment and to prove to myself that even though things hadn’t worked out, the writing part was the most important. I did the usual rounds of subbing to agents and seemed to be at that frustrating “so close but no banana” stage for ages (ages in my eyes, not actually ages), but then I found Louise Burns at Andrew Mann. Her suggestions for rewrites made such sense to me that I was happy to do them even without a guarantee at the end that she’d take me on. But she did. It was a relief to have someone fighting my corner at last. Most of the subbing happened while I was in the process of emigrating to Australia, which I think helped a great deal with that usually awful waiting process (granted that’s probably not very practical advice for most people). And then came Chicken House, and an editor who liked the serious aspects of my novel as well as the fun bits. Finally the stars were all aligned. I do think stars aligning is a huge part of it. That and persistence. And Simon Cowell, obviously.

You also write for young children. How different a discipline is that from writing the teen stuff?
I’m fortunate to have a couple of willing guinea pigs (I mean children, I actually can’t stand guinea pigs or anything else rodenty) so I’m thinking of them when I write picture books, instead of conjuring up my inner teenager. I don’t find the process so very different apart from that because I think in terms of visual scenes in both cases. In one sense the younger stuff can seem easier because the end is always in sight, or you can hold the whole in your hands and look at it from all angles – not like writing a novel where it often seems insurmountable and messy.

So is it easier?
There is no room for self-indulgence and every single word must be precisely right in a picture book. As the author there is a skill in letting the pictures do some of the talking, which if you’re not an illustrator is an extra challenge. I consider myself to be a Learner and am just as ambitious about picture books as I am about future novels.

The main character’s father in Girl, Aloud has mental health issues. Did you do a lot of research before writing the book?
As I’m slightly allergic to planning I have to say that no, I didn’t research before I started to write. The dad’s character crept up on me during the course of the first draft. The shape of the story was laid down and then when I knew exactly what was what I went deeper into his mental health issues, reading up on the types of emotions children go through – the questions they ask, such as: is it my fault? That was a big part of what I was interested in, in terms of the story. So, it was a mixture of reading guidance aimed at young people, online forums, personal experience and then plain old imagination.

Are you a quick first drafter, or do you edit as you go along?
I was the kind of writer who can’t move on from an imperfect phrase, until this book. In November 2006 I decided to do NaNoWriMo, having been dismissive of it before. I was 8 months pregnant, we were in the middle of renovating our flat (no proper kitchen, no proper bathroom kinda scenario) and I intended to have a rip-roaring month of intensive writing before the birth. It was completely eye-opening – thrilling, writing-in-the-dark, writing without a care, putting one word in front of the other and knowing that was okay, I could fix it later. Very liberating. There was a lot of rewriting, of course, and although I haven’t done NaNoWriMo since it has changed the way I work – I’m much easier on myself these days and appreciate how important the rewriting process is, so I let myself get away with the odd dodgy sentence or unfinished thought. I think I’m still quite strict on the actual prose but I let myself skip over things more – as a result I’m usually adding-to at the redraft stage rather than cutting.

Which writers make your heart sing?
Oh, too many! I’ll have to limit myself to four or we’ll be here all day and no one wants that. I am in awe of the originality and quirkiness of YA author Jaclyn Moriarty (have just finished her latest, Dreaming Of Amelia) and only wish I had the edginess and truth of Simmone Howell (try Everything Is Beautiful). Recently I discovered Christos Tsoliakis (The Slap) and he blew me away; so clever, so accomplished at different voices. I have a huge literary crush on Kate Grenville (favourite being The Idea Of Perfection). You can tell I’ve recently moved to Australia, can’t you?

Describe a perfect writing day…
It really depends where I am in the book. I remember a day, towards the end of a big rewrite, when my partner whisked the children away in the morning and stayed out for hours – and I sat in my pyjamas and drank tea and didn’t wash or speak or pay any attention to the outside world until the job was done. The unwashed / not getting dressed part seemed to be significant – something about indulging that one burning desire, to finish, and ignoring all else. Wonderful. But that’s a rare thing. Mostly I’m clawing for time….

Why I Love Bella, Edward and Jacob

And if you don’t know who those characters are, stop reading now! Clearly, you aren’t well enough to be on-line as you must have been in a coma the last couple of years. Go take a pill! Go work on recovering your memory!

I am talking, of course, about the three stars of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight Series. Today I am (rather bravely, I think), putting forward my case on the respected bibliophile’s site, Vulpes Libris, So, please, any of you who have loved the series as much as I have, take a look; back me up; I might need all the help I can get!

Why? Because, like so many commercially successful novelists, Meyer has been much maligned – regarding the quality of her writing, the quality of her characters, her motives for writing these stories. Even the Vatican has added its criticism. Yet, not for years, have I sped through such a serial, reading late into the night. Vampires? Werewolves? With a good dose of unrequited love? What more could a girl want? Ah yes, I know – Robert Pattinson cast as the hero when the book finally made it to film.

So, do take a look at the arguments in my article, and this one , posted by Eve Harvey on Vulpes, earlier in the year. In it, she explains why she "hates" Twilight.

Which side do you take? And haven’t we been here before with Dan Brown and JK Rowling?

The Monkey in my Hall of Residence

Being slightly Christmas-phobic I’ve decided to leave all tinsel related topics in the capable hands of other Strictlies less inclined to panic attacks whenever the subject of Delia’s Christmas versus Nigella’s is raised. Instead, in this post I’ll mostly be focusing on two writing relating incidents that have particularly caught my attention this week.

The first is by way of the lovely Alan Bennett, whom I shall forbear to call “that National Treasure.” In the cockle-warming "Bennett on Bennett”, broadcast last Saturday evening on BBC4, he remarked how embarrassed he always became when people told him what a nice man he was.

"When people say, you know, you're nice-natured or kind-hearted or so on, about a writer, that's never entirely true, because there's always this monkey on your shoulder, as it were, you know, watching," he says.

Though no stranger to the habit of observing life one step removed and often times wondering how long I can decently afford to leave it before wringing a story out of someone’s misfortune, I’ve always found it a slightly distasteful trait to admit to. But if Alan Bennett can own up to it on national TV then suddenly I don’t feel so bad about myself any more.

In fact, from here on in I intend to call the monkey on my shoulder Alan. He is slightly round-shouldered with the benign, shortsighted expression of a vicar and his favourite food is Garibaldi biscuits. What’s your monkey called?

What happened earlier this week, when an email from fellow womag writer, Womag, herself, came pinging into my inbox, turned my thoughts in a completely different direction.

I’d written a story that appeared in last month’s Fiction Feast called “Not Wild About Harry” which I’d set in what I fondly imagined to be one of those grotty rented houses we all lived in as students, that smell of damp and unemptied bins.

Womag was very nice about the story and said she’d never thought of setting a story in a Hall of Residence? A what? I spluttered – not out loud, of course. But how could she have thought this was a hall of residence? I’d imagined it clearly in my mind. A tall, Edwardian terraced house, squashed up against other tall, Edwardian terraced houses. From the outside the view is of curtains that don’t meet in the middle and a black bin takes pride of place in the four foot square front garden.

I’d written all this, hadn’t I? Surely anyone with half a brain who’d read my story would have picked up on all this description? That was when I thought that perhaps I really ought to go back to the story itself. And here is what I wrote regarding the description of the building in which the story took place: -

She’d watch him taking those big strides down the street, past the overgrown privet hedge, then up the path.

Yes. I’m a bit embarrassed now, actually.

You see, I don’t like writing descriptions of places. Frankly, I’m rubbish at it. I never remember any place I’ve visited for longer than about two hours, though I can remember a face I glimpsed in a crowd for twenty years.

But maybe I can forgive myself on this score too. Readers have imaginations. They don’t need long descriptions of settings, which they’d probably just skip anyway. The story is the thing and everything else is just gravy.

See, I knew there was a connection between the monkey and describing places. And it’s this. Don’t beat yourself up about the things you feel guilty about – hogging writing time when you should be making nourishing meals for your family, that streak of curiosity that borders on the prurient. And don’t be disparaging of the B minuses in your writing.

Be nice to yourself. It’s the season of goodwill, after all. Good heavens. Did I mention Christmas?

The Complete Package

My kids are addicted to The X Factor.

There, I’ve said it.

I tried, really I did. I fed them organic pieces of cardboard...sorry, rice cakes, I read them poetry. I even played Classic FM on the school run.

Alas, they now settle down each Saturday night with a packet of crisps and the remote control, discussing whether Cheryl Cole is the most beautiful woman on the planet and whether Simon Cowell waxes his hands.

Worse still, I have been sucked into my children’s world.

Yes, I am now an avid watcher of the darn show. I won’t say I’m a fan but must admit to an unseemly interest in the whole spectacle.

One of the things that fascinates me most is the constant commentary from the press and public as to which candidate is ‘the complete package.’
It transpires that it’s not enough that Joe McElderry sings like an angel. The guy will never make it, apparently, until someone fixes his teeth.
Similarly Stacey Solomon gains more column inches for her giggling than her undoubted talent for belting out a song. How, the public asks, will she ever give interviews when she’s clearly bonkers.

Have these people never heard of David Bowie or Kate Bush?

I must confess it makes me slightly uncomfortable, not least because this idea that an artist must be all things, ‘the complete package’, is gaining pace in the publishing world.
Nowadays, it’s simply not enough to pen a good story. A writer needs to be able to engage with radio DJs, write pithy features and lead creative workshops in schools and libraries. All of which require skills that may not be part of the average scribbler’s make-up.

I’m currently doing the publicity rounds for my latest novel and have been told, with indecent rubbing of hands, that I have a terrific back story.

‘You’re such an easy sell-in,’ said my PR gal.

Well, of course I’m pleased about that. And I actually enjoy chatting about work and craft. I’m naturally loud and opinionated and I have a terrific arse for radio.
I don’t even mind being asked for my views on being a working parent, or whether Olly Murs is the new Robbie. My commitment is to my book and I will do whatever it takes to help it reach an audience. And I’ll do it happily.

And yet...I do worry that the idea of being a personality is taking hold. And that like the poor contestants of The X Factor, being great at what you do will never be enough.

I worry that good writers won’t cut it because they couldn’t do the whole publicity thing.

A friend asked me today, why the hell I care, when I’m like a pig in the proverbial.
The answer, in truth, is I’m not sure.

Maybe I’m just being old fashioned.
But, you see, I love books and I love reading and I would hate to be dnied a fantastic author just because they needed a brace, or couldn’t dance.

Oh ignore me.
As my kids never tire of telling me, I’m just showing my age.

Guest Blog by Sheila Norton - A thousand words? Or a hundred thousand?

I started out as a short story writer. In fact, it was winning two short story competitions that established me as a ‘proper’ writer (in my own mind, if not in anyone else’s!) – and I went on to have stories published regularly in Woman’s Realm, Woman’s Weekly, Woman, etc. I was proud of this, and so were my friends and family – but I did come across a certain amount of snobbery from people who had no idea how difficult it is to achieve publication in these magazines, and who presumed I’d try to go on from there to ‘have something more serious published’. As if it were that easy!

Well, I’ve never had much ambition to have anything ‘serious’ published – whatever that means. But like lots of short story writers, having a novel published did seem like the ultimate goal. To be honest, working full-time, as I was back then, and with three teenage daughters, a dog and two cats to look after (not to mention a husband and a house), even finding the time to write a novel seemed more like a silly fantasy than a goal. I did try – several times – and abandoned the resulting pathetic attempts, most of them fortunately before submitting them anywhere. But then I had the idea for The Trouble With Ally – a kind of chick-lit novel about an older woman – a fairly new theme back in 1990 when I started writing it. I was so fired with enthusiasm, so sure this time it was going to work, that I finished it, liked it, submitted it. Don’t ask how I found the time – the job, kids, animals and husband must have all suffered neglect! Over the course of eighteen months I collected rejections, although several of the agents I tried were complimentary but didn’t take me on. I moved on to trying publishers direct and eventually, after several more rejections, got a two-book deal with Piatkus.

In the eyes of those who had been slightly toffee-nosed about my women’s magazines stories, I was now suddenly a ‘really proper writer’ – an author of a book. Friends and colleagues rushed out to buy it and some were surprised to find it was even less serious than the magazine stories. In fact, it was humorous and quite cheeky! But – OK, I’m only human – I’ll admit that the kudos of having a novel out there in bookshops, being translated into foreign languages, and actually being bought and read (by a few people) – was fantastic! What with publisher’s parties, interviews with local papers, invitations to speak to writers groups and so on, life as a novelist seemed more thrilling than that of a magazine story writer – or that of a medical secretary, my day job, for that matter! I don’t think I ever recovered enough from the surprise of being published to become ‘up-myself’ though – I try to remember I’m only as good as my next contract. Non-existent at the moment!

I’d like to say I went on to being able to give up the day job because I’d earned so much from my novels and was made for life. But as we know, this only happens in fairy stories or if you’re one of a tiny percentage of very lucky devils – or a celebrity. I did give up the day-job – after I’d had five novels published under my own name and started writing a series of three under the pseudonym of Olivia Ryan – but this was because of needing a fairly serious operation. I retired early and took on the title I’d craved all my life – ‘Full Time Writer’. Of course, this doesn’t earn me a living, so in an attempt to boost the income I’ve now gone full-circle and started writing short stories again, alongside the novels.

And it hasn’t got any easier! In fact, it’s harder now than it was a decade ago. There are less magazines publishing stories, more of us seeking publication, and editors’ requirements are more defined. So it’s been just as gratifying to have some stories accepted this time around, as it was the first time. Some days I work on my new novel; other days on a short story. With some experience of both now, I’d say neither is easier, or less satisfying, than the other. Different skills are needed – and both are immensely enjoyable. Trying to have a foot in both camps might seem crazy but with today’s difficult climate in publishing, I believe ‘hedging our bets’ between different writing forms is the way to go if we can manage it. In fact I also write the occasional feature. And now – thanks to Strictly Writing – I’ve written for someone else’s blog too!

Sheila Norton writes contemporary relationship-based fiction and has had five novels published under her own name and now a series of three under the name of Olivia Ryan. She’s also had more than 100 stories published in women’s magazines.

She lives with her husband in Chelmsford, Essex and has three grown-up daughters.

Her own blog is at – and her websites are and

A Writer's Christmas Wish List

Dear Literary Santa,

I think I’ve been a good girl this year. Just look at this blog! Just look at my latest book! Um – okay, it hasn’t found a home yet, but it’s the best I’ve produced in terms of editing, taking on board criticism and research. Although I know I’ve been ratty; wept at rejection; eaten too much chocolate. But I’ve not given up. I’m determined. So, please, may I request the following gifts?

1) A large bottle of patience, two spoonfuls of which I can take directly after each submission.

2) A generous slice of humble pie, for those moments when I come over all X-Factor Contestant, and tell myself I should already be choosing my dress for the world movie premiere of my novel.

3) Contact lenses to hide the green in my eyes when yet another writing friend gets a deal. Envy is not an attractive quality, Santa, I know, but I can’t escape it and have decided camouflage will be more effective than seeking a cure.

4) Vouchers for cognitive therapy to help cure me of my email obsession.

5) Clear instructions on how to write in the First Person without being too introspective.

6) A remote control that won’t let me access digital dross. My time would be much better spent reading, rather than watching Girls of the Playboy Mansion (I even know all their names by now).

7) A gadget to give me an electric shock, every time I encourage my children to pursue a career in publishing. Although it’s their fault really, for promising year in year out, that one day they'll publish my books.

8) One of those implants that makes you vomit when you imbibe alcohol. Since I started writing, Mr Jacob Creek and Miss Blossom Hill are my best buddies.

9) A best-selling dream - like Stephanie Meyer's one encapsulating the idea of Twilight.

10) A social life.

Thanks, Santa! I can’t wait to see what I get on Christmas Morn. And aren’t you impressed? This is the first year I haven’t asked for a publishing deal. I’ve matured, you see – I realize now, the only thing that will get me that is hard work. No one’s going to magically slip a contract onto my desk. Not even you.

Best wishes, as always,

(And ignore that one about putting me off wine - instead I'll have a bottle of the pink stuff and a metre long block of Toblerone...)

So, come on folks! 'Fess up! What’s on your literary wish list this year?


My novelist’s group were discussing getting agents (as you do) recently. The prevalent feeling was that most published writers were lucky enough to have got an ‘in’ - a chance meeting, a recommendation, someone who knew someone else who knew… I’ve heard of a few writers who’ve been picked up off the slush pile, but they do seem to be in the minority. Of course, your book has to be sh** hot as well. But I couldn’t help but wonder (a la Carrie Bradshaw):

Do we have to learn how to network as well as how to write?

When I worked at the BBC, I remember being told that my ‘profile’ wasn’t high enough in my department and that I needed to raise it. I was up in arms. I thought I was there to make programmes. And truth be known, I’m a lousy networker. The thought of arriving at some huge writerly event and infiltrating groups of people I don’t know fills me with abject terror. Strangely, I’d have no problem standing up in front of people and talking. It’s the informal, one-to-one stuff that’s so scary.

With the popularity and proliferation of literary events these days – The York Literature Festival being the latest – there are more and more opportunities for aspiring writers to rub shoulders with agents, publishers and authors. Indeed, many festivals now include bookable one-to-ones with agents, each lasting about ten minutes, during which said aspirants can pitch their novel. There are also those terrifying ‘Pitch Idol’ type evenings where you can compete with about fifteen other writers in front of a panel to convince an agent to take you on. I went to one in Cornwall (as a member of the audience, I should quickly add) where the panel included Simon Cowell’s half-brother (who happens to be a literary agent). It was all very entertaining. But is this something I want to do?

The online equivalent, I suppose, are sites like Authonomy and You Write On, where hours are spent ‘networking’ to gain the attention of a) fellow writers and, through them b) publishers or agents. Sadly it seems that the majority of these hours are wasted, since only one writer has been ‘plucked off the slush pile’ at Authonomy and both sites now seem to have segued seamlessly into offering self-publishing services.

The irony is that if I were confident at speaking and meeting n’greeting and networking, I’d not be a writer. I’d probably be an agent. Writing is the way I communicate best. Yet I suspect that part of the writerly ‘package’ these days includes an ability to be confident socially and adept at persuading, arguing, and otherwise influencing people verbally. Preferably with a Unique Selling Point which will go down well on the telly, the patience of Job and the tenacity of, er, someone tenacious. All this on top of having the talent to write an amazing, marketable book.

Tell you what, by the time I’ve developed all these assets, I’m not only going to be a bankable writer. I’ll also be an incredible – and probably insufferable - human being.


When the chips are down

Last night I won a $600 prize in a competition. Yay?
No. It wasn’t a short story competition. If my Ace-King hadn’t run into an extremely lucky (whole stream of expletives deleted) Ace-Seven on the other side of the table, it could easily have been $10,000. The week before I won $2,678 one evening and about $700 another. This is all bad news. Poker is one of the things I do when I’m not writing.

An online poker tournament requires hours of application and concentration in front of a computer screen – sounds familiar? It demands an overall plan implemented through a serious of micro-decisions. It demands insight into a variety of characters, predicting their reactions in challenging circumstances, without actually meeting them. It rewards a certain amount of creativity and preparedness to put yourself on the line, to click caution to the wind, throw all your chips on the table, take a big risk and do what you know is right in the situation. But stop! Let’s not admit this analogy. They have nothing in common. Poker is simply a way to avoid writing when I’ve got the hideous block parked on my chest.

The others are: going to the gym, booking tickets to the World Cup, spending time with my son, spending time with my girlfriend, cooking great meals, reading South African guidebooks in preparation for said World Cup. I’ve even tried to con myself into thinking I might set a story in South Africa one day based on this research. Nonsense and delusion.

In other words, I have a wonderful life (if you don't want to be a writer). But for me, all these activities must be stamped out. All non-writing time is a waste of life and at the moment I’m wasting nearly all of it. Work has spread through my world like the flu.

This doesn’t Strictly count. It’s not real writing; it’s not fiction. Poetry counts, but I’m not writing any poems at the moment.


I know you think all life experience is valuable as the raw material for fiction, but I'm afraid you are wrong. I've done my living. Now I want to do my writing.

This is my last slot before Christmas so I also want to take the chance to say HAPPY CHRISTMAS! to everyone who visits these pages. In the New Year I resolve to publish posts bubbling with enthusiasm for writing.

Blogging - look before you leap

A couple of months ago, Colin Mulhern did a guest post for us on the advantages of blogging. So let's say you have decided to go ahead and are currently canvassing opinion about the merits of Wordpress, Blogger, Posterous and Tumblr. With free software so quick and easy to set up, it's tempting to dive right in and launch 'Fred's Self-absorbed Musings' with a post about how the publishing industry hates you and writing is soooo hard and only slebs get book deals because agents are too stupid to accept your stream-of-consciousness account of life as a depressed headlouse. Before starting a blog, however, there are a few things that might be worth considering:

What's it for?
There is no right answer – everyone has their own motivation, but it's helpful to know what that motivation is. A few examples:
To attract the attention of agents or publishers
To publicise an already-published book
To keep a personal journal
To regale the world with your superior knowledge about everything
To enjoy the achievement of completing short pieces while working on a novel.
To campaign on an issue that is important to you.

Identifying the purpose of your blog will help you start – and, more importantly, keep going - on the right track.

How are you going to sustain it?
You don't have to blog every day, but to build up a regular readership you do need to update often – preferably two or three times a week. Is this possible? Have a think about what subjects you want to write on – will you really be able to keep generating regular posts for years, or will it soon become a chore?

Who will read it, and will they all be people you know anyway?
Consider whether your blog will appeal only to the 20 people you already talk to every day online. If that's exactly who you want to reach, that's fine, but if you're looking for a wider audience, think about what will attract and retain them – the blog needs to give them something (e.g. entertainment, knowledge, useful advice), not just beg for their attention.

Does it really have to be about writing?
Just because you're a writer, that doesn't mean you have to blog about writing. Of course, there might be tons you want to say on that subject – if so, great! There are other topics in the world, however. I made the mistake of setting up a writing blog and then realising I don't know a whole lot about it. My history blog, however, has a bottomless supply of material that appeals to people who like history – many of whom also like to read historical fiction.

What's it going to be called?
It's possible to set up a blog very quickly in a fit of enthusiasm. But it's worth spending some time thinking about a name. 'My Ponderings' might be ideal for a personal diary that you don't expect others to read, but it won't necessarily stand out from everyone else's musings, jottings, random thoughts etc. A name can also end up limiting what you write about – be too specific and it will be difficult to shift the direction of the blog once you've got into the swing of it.

These are just a few points I wish I'd put more thought into before I started my first blog. Of course, one of the wonderful things about blogging is that you can write what the heck you like without me or anyone else telling you how – but I reckon it's worth doing a bit of planning before you jump into the blogosphere head first.