This month's shortlisted story for The Strictly Writing Award

A Time for Grief by Jennifer Jensen

The funeral is over, over by an entire week. My eyes are dry and aching. I should have wept buckets of tears by now, but instead I’m frozen, numb, and the world seems muted around me. I lay at night, unsleeping, and see her still, knowing that I won't hear her laughter again, won't hear the tiny grunt as she restrains herself from criticizing my parenting, won't ever be able to call her for advice or a recipe or just a late-night chat.

My sister rings, wants us to ‘go through Mum's things.’ Lovely. So now we get to squabble over antiques and boot sale junk, as if the row over her coffin wasn't enough.

I enter the familiar door of my childhood, inhaling the scent of the jasmine climbing up the front post, and wander through the house lost in the whispers of my mother’s life. My hand trails over the well-worn recliner where she settled in to watch television. I caress the curves of her treasured Chippendale chairs in the dining room and hear echoes of her laughter at Christmas. The heavy sideboard is gathering dust, a visible reminder of how long she was in hospital.

My sister and two brothers are sitting at the kitchen table, making lists. The good furniture, the Spode china, the jewelry. Anything of any value. My sister, always the bossy one but also Mum's executor, says we'll take turns choosing. I gaze at her but don't answer. My youngest brother loudly claims the Chippendale, and my sister makes snide comments about his motives. Mum loved the chairs, but the haggling grates me. I tune them out and leave.

In Mum's room, the bed is neatly made with the old duvet and matching pillows. Mrs. Forrest from next door must have been in after the funeral – my sister would never have bothered. I flip open the inlaid jewelry box, but nothing interests me. Mum never did wear jewelry much.

Her collection of fairies perches along windowsills, in bookcase corners, on top of a mirror. I hear her voice, ‘Can’t you just imagine them, Jenny, flitting through the air like dancing light? Such joy!’ And they did give her joy – even at the end, the fairy in her hospital room would make her smile.

I open her wardrobe and flick through the clothes, some vaguely fashionable, some decades out of date. Nothing I want. And then I see it, folded neatly on a shelf: Mum's tattered, tartan scarf, a cherished reminder of her last trip to Scotland with Dad.

It had been such a happy trip for them, looking for the monster at Loch Ness, listening to the haunting bagpipes at Edinburgh Castle, even eating Chinese in Inverness. ‘You wouldn’t believe it, Jenny – the best Chinese I’ve ever had, in Scotland of all places!’

Of all the souvenirs she brought back, the scarf was her favorite and she wore it on special occasions. But after Dad died, it seemed like the scarf never left her neck. To church, to market, out to the park, even just round the house – it didn’t matter. Any time the weather gave her an excuse, out came the scarf. And in the middle of the market, or church, or the park, she would stroke the soft wool absently, her eyes focused on some private memory.

I lift it gently, inhaling her familiar scent: Chanel No. 5, Elizabeth Arden makeup, and the peppermints she always used to suck. I breathe her in deeply, knowing suddenly that this is the first item I'll choose, no matter that my siblings will scoff at me. I sink onto the bed and breathe her scent in again. I can feel her close, almost sitting beside me. And the tears finally come.

The Strictly Writing Award - update

Tomorrow we showcase the first of the stories shortlisted for The Strictly Writing Award. We'll be posting one story here on the last Friday of each month for the next ten months.

Thank you to everyone who has sent us a story so far. The truth is there were several we could have chosen for the showcase piece tomorrow. If your story was not selected this time it still might appear in later months. We’ll be choosing the shortlisted stories from the new ones we receive and the ones we’ve already read.

If, in the meantime, your story is published elsewhere, or successful in another competition, just let us know and we'll remove it from our stock of stories for consideration.

We’re having a ball reading all the stories and we’re excited about posting the first one tomorrow. Please keep them coming - the pace is gathering as we get more attention on writing sites and competition listings, but there’s still plenty of time to enter.


Taking stock... I’ve just been going through my Submissions File. I’ve submitted my novel to 13 (unlucky for some) agents. Responses so far: one no-reply, eight standard rejections, three personal rejections (one of which asked to see my next novel) and one request for a full (based only on a synopsis and covering letter) which was quickly rejected when they encountered the actual writing…

In the last 3 or 4 years, I’ve also entered quite a few writing competitions. The first one was Vanda Inman’s regular short story competition – well worth checking out. To my amazement I won third prize - £50 – which they agreed to convert into a critique of the opening pages of my novel. The boost it gave me was huge and very much needed. Since then, I’ve entered the following novel competitions:

- The Harry Bowling Prize
- The Yeovil Literary Prize
- The Daily Mail/Transworld competition
- Cornerstones Literary Consultancy’s ‘Are You Ready To Submit?’ competition
- A competition to win a writer’s retreat at West Dean college
- The Dundee Prize
- The Brit Writers’ Award

Most have come to nothing. But I ‘came close’ for being longlisted in the Harry Bowling; I've got through the first stage of judging in The Brit Writers, and I was shortlisted in the Cornerstones competition. This resulted in my work being showcased to several agents, a request for a full (unfortunately not taken on, but another short-listee was signed by the agent and has since been published) and a very incisive free one-page editorial report on the novel.

Entering competitions can be very, very helpful to an aspiring writer, for the following reasons:

- Competitions are not make-or-break, like submitting to agents or publishers.
- They provide hope and a sense of opportunity/potential during what can be a long-drawn-out process of submitting – or writing your next WIP. The feeling that ‘something’s out there’ is psychologically very helpful to the process of writing.
- Competitions force you to go through yet another round of editing/synopsis writing which can only benefit your eventual novel/story.
- Competitions are often judged by agents or publishers and can be a back-door way to making contacts with them
- You can add a win or shortlisting to your writing CV/covering letter.
- You may win actual money (remember money?)
- You may receive that so-vital and rare commodity – A Confidence Boost.

Some pointers:
Take a look at past entries to get a sense of the kind of work that wins in any individual competition. Find out how many entries the competition usually gets (obviously your chances are higher in a competition like the well-respected Yeovil Prize, which gets just over 1,000 entries, than in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Competition.)

Beware of novel competitions which offer publication as a prize. Read the small print carefully. Far better, I think, to win a sum of money and the kudos associated than hand over your rights to what may, in essence, turn out to be a print-on-demand outfit.

Look at the list of judges. They will give you an idea of the kind of thing they’re after and also of the standard of the competition.

There are lots of websites and magazines listing current writing competitions. Literature Training is free, current and excellent (click on Jobs and Opportunities) and shows competitions for poetry, short stories, novels, screenwriting and playwrighting.

Make sure you give them exactly what they ask for in terms of wordage, layout, submission by email or hard copy, pagination, and whether they want your name to be attached to the entry. Keep a file of the competitions you’ve entered, and the dates.

Let's face it, writing for publication is essentially one long competition with many, many entries, so why not try as many ways as possible to break through the glass ceiling? There’s nothing to lose except the entry fee and a certain amount of pride. And what is gained can be extremely precious.

Oh, and er… do enter the Strictly Writing Award. Free to enter, and a £300 prize. What’s not to love?

Memories of Skyros

Help! It's Sunday evening and I'm supposed to have a Strictly Writing post ready for six tomorrow morning. I don't want to miss my turn and let my colleagues down, but I've nothing prepared. I feel like the boy who left his homework on the school bus. Normally I squirrel my posts away in good time, so they are stored up for emergencies like this, but now the cupboard is bare. The pressure is unbearable, an immediate and urgent version of writer's block. This must be how journalists feel, Caroline? Gillian?

All I can offer is excuses, but at least they are writing related. As usual with me, they are also alcohol related. You see, I invited the people we met on a holiday on Skyros over for a reunion writing workshop, and I made the mistake of billing it, "Weekend with wine and writing" on my facebook page.

It was two years ago that we all met on a course tutored by the adorable and immensely talented Michele Roberts. During the week in Greece she set a series of assigments to be completed in ten minutes or so and then read out to the group. Everything from describing a pile of clothes and then the character that might own them, to writing our autobiographies in exactly 100 words of exactly one syllable each. By the end of the week we were all on fire for writing, and having read out all those stumbling, unpolished, off-the-cuff pieces, we had forged into a group of people with few inhibitions about writing in public.

Of course the wording of my invitation meant that everyone turned up with alarming quantities of booze, not to mention the daffodils and the Belgian chocolates and the Camembert and the Bukowski book; they are a generous-hearted bunch. From the kick-off it seemed likely that the wine would win over the writing.
The sun turned up too, as you know it was a perfect twenty-one degrees in London, and soon my garden was dotted with eager writers scribbling away at the assignments we set each other. We started by repeating the pile of clothes and other old faves from Skyros and as the words and the wine flowed we moved on to exercises made up on the spot, all of which worked surprisingly well.

Oddly, several people mentioned how they benefitted most from the exercises they initially thought would be least useful. For me, it was variations on, "You are a football manager giving a half time talk." Also a game where we randomly generated first lines for each person consisting of an emotion, an adjective and a concrete noun. In the end, I had a riotous time with "Confidence is a wonderful man-trap."

We put in the work and by the six o'clock deadline, most of us had written more words than we'd managed in a long time. By then we were ready for the wine to truly take over, with a trip to our secret location for the best pizza in London.

Today I feel a little weary and apologise again for having no post ready for Strictly Writing. Maybe I got some volcanic ash trapped behind my eyeballs. So in the spirit of yesterday, I've written this as first draft, rushed it off and laid it before you.

On a different note, thank you for all the entries that have been coming in for The Strictly Writing Award. We are greatly enjoying reading them. If you haven't sent a story yet, please do so. We're nearly ready to showcase the first shortlisted story; it will be up here next Friday, but there's plenty of months to go, so keep them coming.

An opportunity to meet Lisa Jewell

Following Lisa's Jewell's Guest post earlier this month and the publication of her new book 'After The Party', we are delighted to announce that Lisa is organising a reading event at her local book shop, West End Books on 10th May for up to 40 readers. People who want to go need to sign up at

I'd love to be a writer

Perhaps I'm cheating a bit here, because this video isn't new - it first appeared last year on my own now-kaput writing blog, and was also a featured video on Red Room.

Strictly Writing, however, has a lot more readers than my old blog ever had, so I reckon this is worth another run-out. These awkward conversations certainly never seem to go away...

Character Versus/Is Plot?

"A perfect character is not engaging. Character transformation can be one of the most powerful effects in any story." Donald Maass

I’ve never written about perfect characters. I'm not sure anyone would want to read about them. But I have written about one who thought she was perfect, for her to discover en route she definitely wasn't. For me as a reader, the draw of the genre I write in (Commercial Women’s Fiction) is the character transformation that unfolds in the telling of an engaging story. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Yet, I’ve tried it twice and though novel two has not bitten the dust – far from it – I’m about to start writing novel three and felt it was time for a change in ‘how’ I approached it.

For a start, I already have an outline. Yep! Me, a prize ‘pantser’, has a plot! (For those of you who don't know, a pantser writes by the 'seat of their pants,' whilst a plotter ,er, plots.)

And I don’t only have a plot (fanfare and drum roll please...) I also have a check list thingy (see below) In my new found organised non pantsy mode, the list came first. It helped create character profiles, the characters whose emotional journeys helped form the plot and move the story forward.

1. Who is your reader? Where and how will they read this book?
2. What’s the title? Have one – even if it changes.
3. Themes? Are they hooky? E.G. Obsession, betrayal, life after death.
4. Who is your protagonist? What motivates her and what is she risking?
5. Is there an antagonist? How is he/she opposed to the protagonist?
6. KNOW your mc. Walk in her shoes...What does she look like? Does she have habits? What does she eat/drink? Does she have pets? Does she own something special/sentimental to her? Where does she live? What’s her job? Does she like it/hate it?
Is she strong/weak/overbearing/confident/secretive/sad? Who are her friends?
7. Place her in jeopardy! Introduce struggle, inner conflict, encourage change by overcoming obstacles. At some point make her hit rock bottom before the rise again.
8. Does she have a clear arc?
9. Have a 'shout line' e.g ‘Hell hath no fury like a mother scorned’

I’m looking forward to taking these people on their journey. I’m looking forward to that ‘splurge’ of a first draft. I’m hoping with this approach, it will provide a strong foundation (character and plot wise) which in theory should make the first draft flow easier, and may even mean that the inevitable EDIT won't have to be such a chore. Watch this space because that is a whole other blog post and if Ernest Hemingway is to be believed, ‘The first draft of anything is shit.’

But I’m brave enough to believe that this first draft, yet to be written, but planned (while still allowing room for sporadic ‘pantser activity’) may just be less **** than other ones I’ve written in the past. Character and plot. Character and plot. See? It rolls off the tongue. Now all I have to do is to get them to play nice and hold hands for about three hundred and ninety pages.

Where it began

A blank piece of paper.
An empty writing book.
The thrill of getting a brand new exercise book on the first day of term; the feel of the cover, the colour on the outside and those invitingly pale blue lines inside just waiting to be filled with your very own personal journey through the next few weeks of education. Remember?
God but I loved those new, fresh books. For me they were like a clean slate. Which I’m guessing is where the saying comes from. A clean slate. A new Term. A fresh start.
And I always tried to change my handwriting. I remember clearly trying to make my loops bigger, my dots more pronounced, my tees, whys and effs cursive to shame a mediaeval script and for the teacher to tell me how beautiful my writing was.
Which actually did happen once as my best friend and I jointly won a ‘Most Improved Handwriting’ award and my prize was ‘The Children of Cherry Tree Farm’ by Enid Blyton. The only downside being that my writing was obviously crap to start off with, if it had ‘improved’ so noticeably.
But that’s where it all began for me. That year. At that precise time. I just wanted to fill and fill and fill those waiting white pages up with as many lovely words as possible. My “most improved” written words. And I wanted everyone to read them and tell me how great they were. And the more encouragement I got from my lovely teacher, Mr East, at aged 9, the more I felt the need to cast aside the boring old “What I did at the Weekend” (all much of a sameness - I cleaned out the gerbils, I walked the dog, I ate some more seventies stodge and groaned at ‘Farming Diary’) and so I began to invent things to make the two days I spent away from school sound more interesting than they actually were.
Which heralded my first trip to see the Headmaster. A formidable, Captain Mainwaring of a man who stood far wider than he did tall in his brogues and who could turn stone to jelly with a single well-aimed query.
So, why hadn’t I told anybody that my “Policeman father (actually a butcher, but Policeman is way more exciting don’t you think?) had been mauled into Intensive Care at the weekend whilst trying to arrest three masked gunmen who had broken into our house and tried to make off with my mum’s diamond necklace (realistically glass - diamante at a push) before our Alsatian dogs (in truth one daft Mongrel who’d no more raise a bark than lick a poor intruder to death) savaged them to the ground and ripped their throats out”?
I clearly wasn’t giving out any indications of distress following my bloodbath of a weekend and was asked why this was.
And if The Simpsons had been on the telly back then, I’m sure I’d have given my favourite Homer quote in response to my total fabrication of creative genius:
“I’m not lying - I’m writing fiction with my mouth” (for “mouth” read “pen”).
So for me, fiction was just stuff that sounded far more interesting that my life actually was. And I liked it.
Oh, we had to have those three Alsatians put down of course and Dad’s never been the same since he hung up his Chief Superintendent hat and took that desk job at NASA. And Mum, well she keeps all her ‘bling’ firmly stitched inside her gold-leaf embroidered stocking-tops now. Next to her Colt .45.
And me? I write books. No, seriously, I do.

My archaeological dig

Until recently, I used to sit in my parents' attic on a Sunday afternoon, unearthing all my childhood books and magazines and sitting down on a cardboard box to a good random read. Taking the dust sheets off the boxes and blowing the few particles from the covers, it was a joy to transport myself back to childhood. I was brought up to read from a very young age and my school reports always contained comments in relation to my reading ability. 'Gillian's stories are always interesting to read,' stated my P2 report.

And when I moved from the family home, I took ALL my books, magazines and comics with me (yes, I still have copies of The Beano 1983 floating around somewhere!) They were largely discarded in a spare bedroom, which slowly over the years metamorphosed into a library which looked as if it had been ransacked by the National Party Against Reading (see what I've done there - thrown in a little gesture to the elections!)

While trying to sort out the reading pile, I unearthed many treasures including a plethora of books, I'd read, digested and then forgotten about. I never throw books out, and I never sell them on ebay, or drop them into charity shops. That's one thing I'm selfish about.

I have listed some of them here – many you will recognise, many you might not.

Five Go To Smugglers Top – Enid Blyton – This is one of my favourite of the Famous Five, along with Five Get Into Trouble. It follows the five as they stay in an old house and discover secret passageways. Reading critically now, I see how these incidents of mystery and suspense appeal to the younger generation.

The Lion's Way – Lewis Orde – I bought this at a school fair in 1987. I always headed to the book stall, which was filled with discarded reads sent by parents. However, this story was quite enjoyable, following Daniel Kirshbaum, a Jewish singer, overcoming the obstacles of Depression-era New York, and going on to succeed on the nightclub scene. I then ordered The Lion's Progress which I haven't yet read!

The Haunted Showboat (Nancy Drew) – Carolyn Keene. Poor Carolyn - I wrongly believed Nancy herself was the purveyor of these great mysteries, and the woman who inspired me to write my first novel at the age of 11. It was a Nancy Drew story involving secrets written on paper and hidden in trees. My friends thought it was a great book and better than the rest of the Nancy series!! It's in a landfill site.

The Tripods Trilogy – John Christopher - I remember watching this series with my dad in 1984. It was freaky, and I remember having nightmares as a result of it. These massive alien machines control human minds by 'capping' them.

Ulysses – James Joyce - I'd forgotten about this tattered copy, but I fully intend to get though it in one stint this time, instead of my reading spurt being permeated by other books as was the case a few months ago. If you haven't read it, then you should.

Carrie's War – Nina Bawden – this is what I call a great piece of children's literature. I read it in P5 and I found it such an enjoyable book. Set during World War Two, it follows Carrie and her brother as they are evacuated to Wales. It was made into a television series, such was its popularity.

Have you unearthed anything lately? I have a few quid to spend on Amazon, and always enjoy your recommendations.

Why Be A Writer? Guest blog by US author Beth Trissel

Because you’re burning up with stories and ideas you just have to get down on paper (virtual paper these days) or you’ll go mad–probably are a bit crazy anyway. I have this theory about writers, those who are on medication and those who should be. I am, but wasn’t for years. *Note, it’s also essential to love chocolate and coffee. Writers function on caffeine.

In the beginning (at age twenty) I drew a picture of a clock with a dissatisfied face and angrily named it a ‘watch-gog’ because I felt that’s all I was doing, watching others live their dreams, and yearned to throw myself into a creative venture. But what? All my family members were artistic and Lord knows I’d tried. Painting and drawing eluded me. I was no hawk-eyed photographer. I’d made some swell collages, but that didn’t seem enough. My arts and crafts weren’t as expertly done as others. Though, I must say, those tuna fish cans I decorated with Christmas scenes were charming.

Yes, I loved to write and poured myself into poetry and short stories. Was there something more? For the next twenty years I continued to craft my pieces about rural life and slowly gained the seed of confidence to at least give myself permission to try and write those historical romance novels I so loved to read. At long last, I’d begun. Could it be, was I actually a writer, and how would I know when I’d ‘arrived?’

Mountains loomed before me, and still do, with each new book. Publication, of course, was the ultimate pinnacle of success, but I discovered contests–some quite prestigious. If I excelled in those, not only might it pave the way toward my giddy goal but would lend me the credibility I craved. Certain I was ready for the initial launch, I entered my first RWA® Chapter Contest. While awaiting the results, I planned my acceptance speech for the awards banquet. Whether they even had one or not, I don’t recall, but clearly remember sitting in utter bemusement holding those first score sheets. “You broke every rule,” wrote an equally bemused judge.

Rules? They have rules for writing? Was Charles Dickens guided by rules, and what of Jane Austen? *Note to self, you are not Dickens or Austen, nor do you live in their time period. But that same judge tossed me a lifeline, “You have talent,” she said, “apparent in your beautiful descriptions.”

This at least was a place to begin. And so I did. With each step forward, there was always someone along the way to lend yet more ‘constructive criticism’ which I balked at, but eventually accepted and grew from. Along with those beneficial guides were individuals who continually smacked me down. Most of them were called agents and editors. But I got back up, brushed myself off, and onward ho I went. I cherished the good rejection letters, a personal note containing a high five along with the inevitable ‘but.’ But, your work doesn’t — fill in the blank.

Boys and girls, I’ve had hundreds of rejections over the years. To cheer myself up, I’d throw mini rejection parties (weekly) attended mostly by myself and the dogs. We jigged around the kitchen to lively Celtic music. Well, at least I did. They tolerated being leapt over in my spritely steps. Being on Riverdance was another dream, but I digress.(Often).

Back in the snail mail days, my dear hubby handed me my mail referring to these inevitable replies as my ‘Dear John’ letters. To gain the fortitude needed to open these dreaded missives, I inked the initials C. D. H. on the outside of my SASE which stood for Courage Dear Heart, a reference to my beloved Aslan from the Narnia books by CS Lewis. Later, I found it easier to be rejected by email, though not a lot. Eventually, after ten years, I landed an excellent agent and thought this is it! I’ve arrived in the Promised Land! But no, not even she could sell my work to traditional NY publishing houses, no matter how much she extolled it or how many awards I’d garnered. They didn’t want stories set in early America. Not sexy, not kewl. Since when?

So my agent and I amicably parted ways and I spotted a new ship on the horizon, an untraditional publisher, The Wild Rose Press. Right off, I was smitten by the name and their whole rose garden theme. Next to writing, my passion is gardening. At the top of their homepage is a rose that looks very much like my favorite variety by English breeder David Austen called Abraham Darby. It was a sign unto me. I was forever seeking signs, must be my superstitious Scots-Irish forebears. It’s also Biblical…

I have four books out with The Wild Rose, a novella in An American Rose Christmas anthology, and have two more novels coming out later this year, release dates TBD. My latest light paranormal, Somewhere My Lass, is a suspenseful Scottish time travel. I’m hearkening further back to my Scot’s roots. The American historical coming out, Red Bird’s Song, is the first book I ever wrote, oft rewrote, and the one mentioned above in that contest where I broke all the rules.

Advice to aspiring writers, write what you love and persevere. Learn and grow from those helpful guides along the way. Keep on going like a sled dog in a blinding snow storm. For years, that’s what I compared myself to. “You are not finished when you lose, you are finished when you quit.” Did I ever threaten to quit? Many times. And then I’d ask myself, what are you gonna do now. Write, of course. It’s what I do.

*Before publication, Somewhere My Love, finaled in the Golden Pen Contest. Since its 2008 release, Somewhere My Love won the 2008 Preditors&Editors Readers Poll for Best Romance Novel and received a stellar review from Publishers Weekly. The cover won the 2009 clash of cover contest at Embrace the Shadows, and the trailer won first place at The Pen and Muse.

*Before publication, Through the Fire won the historical category of 2008 the Linda Howard Award for Excellence in Writing and finaled in the 2008 Golden Heart ® Contest. Since its May 2009 release, it received a fabulous review from Long and Short Reviews, Two Lips, The Pen and Muse… and won book of the book at LASR.

*Before its release, Enemy of the King finaled in numerous RWA® chapter contests, and since its May 2009 release has received an outstanding review from Long and Short Reviews, Coffee Time, You Gotta Read… and won book of the week at LASR.

*Before its release, Daughter of the Wind finaled in several RWA® chapter contests, and since its May 2009 release has also received an excellent review from Long and Short Reviews, Bitten by Books, Mistress Bella… and won book of the week at LASR. All three of my 2009 releases made the top ten Publisher’s Weekly Reader’s Choice Best Books of 2009 at Barbara Veys.

For more on my work please visit:

Guest Post: Lisa Jewell - on Sequels and Unsympathetic Main Characters

We're thrilled that Lisa has found time in her busy schedule to Guest Post on StrictlyWriting. Her new book, 'After the Party', the much-anticipated sequel to 'Ralph's Party' (Lisa's best-selling debut novel of 1999) is published tomorrow and you can read an extract from it  here.

And here's what she said about writing it...

"Many moons ago, I was looking at the prospect of renewing my publishing contract and feeling rather nervous. My previous two books had sold well, but not in proportion to my advances for them and I felt that my publishers were slightly deflated about things and slightly at a loss as to how to progress my career. I kept giving them books to publish that were good and nice but not very easy to pigeonhole (odd-looking reclusive poets in ramshackle houses for example.) So, for the very first time in my writing career I thought not about what I wanted to write next but what I thought my publishers would like me to write.

And it came to me: A Ralph’s Party sequel! I'd always said I would never, ever write a sequel. Once I've spent a year to eighteen months in the company of a group of entirely imaginary people I'm pretty much done with them and ready to meet some new people. But I felt I needed to up my game and writing a sequel to the book that had started my career all those years ago (and remains, to this day, the biggest-selling of all my books) was going to make a lot of people very very happy.

So I began to plan it in my head. And as I thought about it I realised immediately that it would be a perfect opportunity for me to write a book about a modern relationship, about one of those equal pairings formed in curry houses and beer gardens and to examine what happens to those trendy, carefree lovers after children arrive on the scene. I knew then that it would not be a contrived set-up that would include all the old players from the original as of course in real life they would not still know each other. Instead I focused on Ralph and Jem, ten years and two children down the line. I wanted their problems to reflect my own problems so set it just after the arrival of their second child, which was one of the toughest times for me and my husband in the fifteen years we've been together.

And then of course I had to write the thing. It was the most challenging book I’ve ever written. I'd thought it might be technically difficult to write about people I hadn't thought about in ten years, to make sure my references to the original book were subtle and natural and to make it readable for someone who hadn't read Ralph's Party. But actually, the technical aspect wasn’t hard at all. The hardest thing was balancing the need to portray total and utter reality, the moment by moment, second by second deterioration of a relationship with keeping everything moving along with a proper storyline. That was a tough balance to strike. If I'd let the story take over the book would have lost its authenticity, but without the story it would just have been a turgid journey through the minutiae of somebody else’s marriage.

When my editor read it she said the main problem was that she’d found Jem, the female character, unsympathetic. I found that really hard to come to terms with as so much of Jem’s persona and inner workings were based on my own and in fact I'd tempered a lot of it already to make it more palatable. I was worried that I was watering down the stark reality of long-term love to the point that the book would lose its potency, but I did it anyway. I rewrote and rewrote and rewrote for three long, hideous months. By the time I'd finally laid it to rest I was dizzy with it, had no idea what I'd written, what it was about or if anyone would even like it. But now, two days before publication I can see that it was all worth it. The book is striking a chord with people and I can finally breathe a sigh of relief.

Would I write another sequel? Well, you never know, maybe in another ten years, if I REALLY REALLY had to .."

A matter of trust

Receiving feedback is a vital but uncomfortable part of the writing process. It can also be mighty confusing. Someone asks why you've hardly described the hero's looks, while someone else enjoys being left to imagine him. One person raves about your gift for description, while another turns their nose up at your purple prose. Someone adores the hilarious way your ditzy heroine keeps tripping over cake trolleys – but someone else cringes at her vacuousness, making you panic and scribble in a paragraph about her love of Renaissance literature.

When it's informal feedback – from friends, an online forum or a face-to-face writers' group – there might also be issues with the individual commenter's perspective. Is it a family member who just knows everything you do will be brilliant? Is it a kind person who wants to help but worries about hurting your feelings? Is it someone employing Machiavellian tactics to climb the chart on a competitive writing website? Is it an arrogant or insecure writer who feeds their ego by belittling others? Then there are those who have interesting views on your work but can't express them – they might say 'It was great!' or 'This bit doesn't read very well,' but that's the extent of their analysis.

What you want are sensible, polite, honest and thoughtful responders who can explain the reasons behind their views. But even they can end up being unhelpful. They know you want detailed comments and that you won't fall for being told you're the next Milton, so they will find something – anything – to show they are taking the task seriously. They might point out a 'mistake' – but if the same thing were in a published book, they'd see it as a clever literary device. People trust a published author to have a good reason for doing something, but they don't necessarily trust you in the same way.

For all these reasons, I'm wary about rushing in to make changes on the strength of one person's opinion. After a few days, once the sting of criticism or the joy of praise has worn off, maybe it will turn out that the person was right. Maybe a few people have made the same comment, or maybe I knew deep down that part of the story didn't work but I just kind of hoped no one would notice. Maybe they have raised an issue that never would have occurred to me otherwise, and that makes sense of everything. But it's also possible they have their own agenda or that they've completely got the wrong end of the stick.

It's great to have trusted readers who can enlighten you about how to improve your work – but if you've carefully considered feedback in cold blood and concluded that you don't agree, I think it's equally important to trust yourself.

Diary of 2010 Festival Of Writing

Friday 9th April

Today I drove for five hours to reach York University by one thirty, the designated time for registration at the 2010 Festival of Writing run by the Writer's Workshop. As I write these words, it’s late at night. I’ve already met some really interesting new people at a Literary Speed Networking session; caught up with some writer buddies; attended a workshop with Harry Bingham and the lovely Helen Corner; watched a live Authonomy session that rivalled the best of the X Factor, and drank one too many glasses of cheap Chardonnay. Actually looking at the single mattress (pvc lined?!) in my student room, the alcohol may indeed aid my night’s sleep. That is if I can ignore the geese clacking (do geese ‘clack’?? Is there even a verb to clack??) I’m rambling. But it’s allegedly mating season and they make loud lovers those geese...

Saturday 10th April

The festival was formally opened with a key note address by the wonderfully charismatic best- selling novelist and chair of the Romantic Novelists Association, Katie Fforde. I love Katie’s books and she had each and every member of the disparate audience laughing out loud with her. People then parted to attend the many workshops offered, or pitch their novels during one to one agent/publisher sessions. Each attendee had two sessions - ten minutes with an agent or publisher during which they had a chance to pitch and discuss their work. Though this opportunity was a big draw to the conference (and my one today went very well) I do feel that they are not and should not be the main attraction of the festival. The opportunity to network, to immerse oneself in a sea of like minded people is in itself completely uplifting and inspirational – something I desperately needed before York.

After a really good buffet lunch, the afternoon offered a further key note address in the form of ‘Confessions from...’ featuring literary agent Simon Trewin and publisher Barry Cunningham - both of whom provided humorous insights into their busy lives. They were also surprisingly generous and approachable afterwards. Don't tell anyone but I am a little bit in love with ST who is a tiny bit gorgeous.

Throughout the whole day the workshops available were varied and plentiful. I attended one on ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ given by Jeremy Sheldon and ‘Creating Character by Julie Cohen (Do pop over to Julie’s website where she has a nine part section on her blog about character arc which is brilliant) Did I learn anything? Absolutely...The craft of writing is my chosen apprenticeship and I was reminded throughout this entire weekend that I’m constantly learning.

Learning though IS exhausting and I confess that by late afternoon the pvc mattress with sticking out springs and bonking geese beckoned. I needed a kip before the evening festivities began. And all I have to say about the gala dinner where everyone made an effort to dress up is that alas they still served the Chardonnay.I still drank it and I would still be there if I and a few others hadn’t been asked ever so politely to leave the building! Fellow evictees, I will not name and shame, but you know who you are.

Sunday 11th April

Feeling queasy – no idea why. I could only manage a slice of toast and two paracetamol before joining Julie Cohen’s workshop ‘More than Shoes and Shopping’ She had the most wonderful visual slides to accompany the title. Red shoes galore to match my eyes. Brilliant workshop- I love Julie’s friendly delivery and again she too is so generous with her time and advice. I had another 'one to one' which was really useful but unfortunately, in order to accommodate the long drive home, I had to duck out early from the festival just before lunch.

The drive back was long which gave me lots of time to reflect. I really enjoyed the weekend. It was busy and full on, quite exhausting but extremely useful on lots of fronts. It did have a price tag attached to it but to be honest, we were really well fed, the setting was lovely and the quality of workshops and industry people available to us was, in my opinion, more than worth it. Only complaint is the Chardonnay. I’m a sauvignon girl myself. Note to Writers Workshop – supply of sauvignon needed for next year. It’s simply a kinder grape...

PS: Thanks to Liz Fenwick for the piccies! And to Emma Darwin for her boundless energy and positivity. I want whatever batteries she's on.

Reading like a reader

I took up writing again exactly six years ago. There had been a spate in my twenties when I wrote like a man possessed and brief relapses in my early thirties when I pushed out a poem or forced myself to clock in for the dawn shift advocated by the likes of Dorothea Brande. I still have megabytes of folders called “early morning writing” to which I will probably never return.

It was six years ago that I finally fulfilled my life ambition by racing through the first draft of a novel. I know the date because it coincides precisely with meeting Jessica Baker, and we will have been together for exactly six years this Sunday. Pause. Somehow meeting that person rekindled my propensity to write – when I found her I found my pen.

The rest is a story of hard graft and learning. I signed up for every writing course and studied every manual. And in all that labour, I lost my faculty to read. For the last few years reading has been a matter of analysis rather than immersion. When I was a boy, I hid under the blankets with Robert Arthur’s, The Three Investigators detective stories. I had so little interest in what the author was doing that I believed they were actually written by Alfred Hitchcock, who appears in the stories. I swallowed Enid Blyton too, with not a critical thought in my head, just wonderment and, to be honest, envy for the ginger beer fuelled lives of those carefree country children. How I longed to go to a public school. In my teens I slid into Gavin Lyall, by now longing to be a secret agent. Even when I graduated to Beckett and Joyce and set out, in my twenties, on a frantic and fanciful attempt to surmount the entire black wall of Penguin Classics, I was still reading with an innocent eye.

The love of books evaporated when I became a serious writer. As soon as I started learning our craft I couldn’t stop looking backstage. How could I keep my eye on the heroine descending gracefully into her lover’s outstretched arms without peering round to see the stagehands manipulating a pulley mechanism in the wings? One of my favourite writing books is Reading Like a Writer by the fittingly named Francine Prose. She deliberately leads you to a prospect from which you can enhance your writing and destroy your enjoyment of stories. It has taken many books before I can let myself go again, and even now the scalpel is never far from my hand, to dissect the author’s technique. This reminds me of the character in Heller’s Good as Gold, who knew everything about art except what he liked.

Last week I took myself off to a book club for the first time. Down at The Drayton Court I bumped into people who read but don’t write – at least I’m guessing – we had no time for a full exchange of CVs. What I encountered was the strange and dimly recalled appreciation of a novel as though it were true. Real readers, unlike the freaks around here, engage with fictional characters as people and debate their behaviour as if they were actually guilty of murder or betrayal. They don’t notice changes of tense, let alone consider why. Slips of POV are invisible to real readers whereas they jerk my head away from the page as violently as the deliberate breakings of frame in Good as Gold, “the thought arose that he was spending an awful lot of time in this book eating and talking”.

When everyone at The Drayton was discussing whether the author thought her character was to blame for what happens in the book, or was on the MC’s side, I couldn’t understand the question. What the author wanted was to create enough ambiguity to keep people reading, and to stoke a rousing debate in the pub afterwards. The result was, without doubt, a character worth talking about.

The book we discussed is an epistolatory novel. To me, after about two letters from the protagonist to her estranged husband, with no whisper of a response from him, and no explanation why the letters were chock-full of facts he would already know, it was glaringly obvious that he was dead, or at least unavailable in some way that would be revealed later. The only other explanation was that it was a crap book and I wasn’t ready to entertain that. I don’t even consider it a spoiler to mention this here. What shocked me was that virtually none of the real readers clocked that. It showed me how literary devices don’t have to be as subtle as I first thought. Not because readers are stupid, they aren’t, but because they come to the work from a different perspective. They have different needs when they sit down to read.

Now back to the reading, not just to reawaken that first love, but to understand what an audience might appreciate – I’m going to learn to read like a reader.

Nice To Fit In?

When I emigrated to Australia with my partner and two young children, I had in mind that we would give it two years before taking stock. Back then, the idea of two years away from home didn’t seem like a big deal simply because it felt bonkers, unreal. I went along with it as if I were a character in a novel about a family emigrating.
That character was the mother of two half-Aussies, who joked about making them take elocution lessons rather than develop an accent; she was a born-and-bred Londoner who could never understand why people moaned about the place so much; she liked rain and was slightly too curmudgeonly for her age. She was a Brit; she was an author; a British author.
It was such a new experience, being an alien; both thrilling and terrifying. On my blog I talked about being mocked for wearing Ugg boots outside, for not knowing what a rashie is, or for being an anti-social Victoria Meldrew compared to my Ramsey Street neighbours. All good fun. What I neglected to share were the darker times; the times I’ve stood in the park, tears streaming down behind my sunglasses as I observed other mums so at ease with each other and feared I would never find a real friend; or the weeks around Christmas when I was so depressed to be away from home I could barely get out of bed and function properly (the famous Brit stiff-upper-lip has come in handy on many occasions).
I have felt enormous tension between my desire to stay me and my need to fit in - I wanted to feel included, but only on my terms. Over time, my children have taught me better than anyone that you can be flexible without losing your identity. I can say capsicum for pepper now without thinking about it, or deliver a “no worries” casually; I can bbq, talk about Australian politics or house prices, or advise you on ant extermination (wow, don’t I sound fascinating?). The Australian literary scene is far more familiar to me now: I’ve moved beyond Kate Grenville and Peter Carey into less well-travelled authors, and it’s been my favourite aspect of this educational period.
We’re weeks away from that two year anniversary, and it feels as bonkers as ever - except that I accept this is my life; it isn’t fiction. But now there’s a new challenge: my novel, Girl, Aloud, published in the UK last November, is coming to Australia in early April. Just when I’ve found my own groove in Melbourne, now my book needs to do the same.
There have been doubts from others (Australians don’t know Simon Cowell, that whole aspect will be lost on them) and from within (I’m no Simmone Howell / Jaclyn Moriarty / Melina Marchetta - they’ll hate me!). The excitement about holding a launch and finally seeing my book on a shelf instead of on a friend’s camera phone has at times been overshadowed by the thought of Girl, Aloud being sent back to the UK with its tail (tale?) between its legs.
What makes a book travel well? Did those authors who have enjoyed worldwide success think about a worldwide audience as they were writing, or did they just get lucky? Which countries share the same humour? What makes Australian literature Australian? I could generalise, I could philosophise, I could bury my head in the sand on St Kilda beach and wait for my book to come and go. In truth, there is nothing I can do about it. My book is what it is. It will, as I have done, try to elbow a little space for itself over here. Perhaps there will be, as there have been for me, times when my book fits in, and other times when it sticks out. As I have found, that can be a good thing.

Emily Gale is the author Girl Aloud, published by Chickenhouse.

We are delighted to announce . . .

At Strictly Writing we love everything about writing, apart from all the bits we hate - writer’s block, writer’s bum, rejections, etc, etc - but really, we love it all.

Now we want to celebrate writing with a competition, to provide a place to showcase some stories and to offer a prize to the overall winner.

We’re excited to tell you we’ve created The Strictly Writing Award, sponsored by Strictly Writing with a cash prize of £300 for the winning story. Unlike many competitions, this one is free to enter.

We will showcase one story per month for ten months on Strictly Writing, and each of those stories will be entered on the shortlist for The Strictly Writing Award.

When all the ten shortlisted stories are on display on Strictly Writing, the winner will be chosen, with your help. In keeping with the spirit of our namesake, Strictly Come Dancing, the winning story will be decided by a combination of 50% votes from the SW readership and 50% by the SW team. We’ll post instructions on how to vote, nearer the time.

The story to be showcased each month on Strictly Writing will be selected by the SW team. We commit to read at least 30 stories each month from those sent to us. Any we don't manage to read will be placed in a queue, to be read and considered for later months. In the last month we will read another 100, so stories sent in towards the end of the competition can be included too.

How to send your story

Simply email your story to

Anyone can enter, wherever you are in the world, so long as you are over 18 years of age, and the story is in English, with one entry per person.

The story should be included in the body of your email, as we can’t handle attachments. Please include the name of the story and your name in the subject line of the email.

The stories must be no longer than 2000 words, but can be on any subject.

The stories should be unpublished, including publication on any internet sites. You will retain full copyright of your story, but by sending it to The Strictly Writing Award, you give us permission to post it on Strictly Writing.

The shortlisted stories will be showcased here on the last Friday of each month, starting on Friday 30 April. To see the stories please come back here.

What we are looking for

We’re looking for stories that have a strong effect on us, stories that make us laugh or make us cry. We’re not pretending to be experts or professional judges, but we know what we like and we’d like to celebrate that.

So, dust off your quill, unblock your inkwell and send us your story. We're ready to start reading it now.

Guest blog by Kathryn Robinson of Cornerstones

I’ve been trying to think of a good metaphor for the strange journey I’ve had as an editor starting to write; for the process of moving from teacher to pupil; from feeling like I know all about my subject to knowing I know nothing.

Unsurprisingly, I binned my first, oh, 20 or 25 ideas.

Then I hit on it. Imagine a midwife who’s spent her life delivering babies, who understands babies and mothers almost better than she understands herself, who plays her part in the birth, but is only ever behind the scenes.

She gets pregnant. Everyone she knows trills, ‘Oh, you’ll be alright! This must be a walk in the park for you, lucky thing.’ She nods and smiles, digging her nails into her palms. She knows she ought to be the best mum in the world, but inside she’s so terrified of getting it wrong that she’s suddenly paralysed about the simplest of decisions. Home birth or hospital? Disposable nappies or organic palm-fibre pants? Pink or Blue? She gets to the point where people asking her about the baby makes her heart lurch.

Because everything’s different when it’s your baby.

I have always had huge admiration for anyone who finishes a novel. Editing requires a similar level of focus, and it can also be a very creative process, but even with those projects you feel most editorially involved in, there’s always an element of detachment because ultimately it’s not your creation. But a calm, capable editor doesn’t necessarily translate to a confident writer.

Personally, my writing process goes something like the following:

Have an idea. Fall in love with it. Rush to get something down before it disappears. Start writing in a pink haze of passion. Finish a chapter. Re-read.

Spot all the things that aren’t perfect (which I think of as ‘mistakes’ even though rationally I know that at this stage they’re a perfectly natural part of the creative process). Edit.

Write a bit more. Re-read. Spot all the other cock-ups. Edit. Re-read.

Feel sort of satisfied.

But by this time I’ve lost momentum. The initial excitement of the idea has receded, giving me time to GET SCARED. What if it’s not good enough? What if I’ll never be able to finish it? And of course, the mere act of thinking all these things is enough to make them come true. I file the idea under ‘to be continued’, and I hide under my bed for six months hoping that no-one will ask me about it.

You can be the best, most fastidious writer in the world, but it means nothing if you can’t finish the blooming thing. And at this early stage in the writing process, I need to learn to set perfectionism, self-doubt and fear aside. One author I know has a sign on her computer saying ‘Write Crap’. Maybe I need one of these.

Anyway, the more I think about my metaphor, the more I realise it is true. Ideas are like babies, in so many ways. They’re messy, beautiful, flawed and fragile, and they need time and understanding – not just criticism – to flourish.

Kathryn Robinson is Managing Editor of the Cornerstones Literary Consultancy