In the Attic by M Wilkinson ( July's shortlisted story )

In the Attic

We’ve been here a long time now, my daughter, Madison, and me. I’ve lost count of the days. Madison writes in her diary. Her long blonde hair hangs over the page and she licks the end of her pencil before she writes, forming the childish letters with care.

The attic door is re-enforced with steel bars, and six padlocks hang like heavy fruit, grey circles against dark oak. Shutters keep out the night. That’s when they come, slithering, sliding, long arms hugging the brickwork as they make their way up. Distended bellies scrape the walls and leave a silver trail to mark their passing.

Before we came up here I showed Madison the trail. She didn’t believe me at first.

‘That looks like an old snail trail,’ Madison said, and touched it with her fingertip.

‘That’s what they want you to think.’

Her blue-green eyes opened wide. ‘Who are they?’

‘Things that suck at you until you disappear.’

‘Mummy disappeared. Is that what happened to - why she didn’t take her things when she left?’ She looked down at her nails, her lips drawn in tight as if to hold back a sob.

‘I don’t know what happened to Mummy, darling, but we have to be careful - prepare things.’

‘Prepare what?’

‘The attic.’


I close my eyes. Strange shapes flicker behind my closed lids. Fountains throw red water high in the air. Hammers flash silver in a macabre dance. I see them too, long grey maggots feasting on a blonde head, one brown eye staring from below a crushed cheekbone. I try to shut them out and picture my wife, but the 'Mummy' Madison talks about has faded from my recollection.

The bottled water is almost gone, perhaps enough to last us a few more days. Madison wants something to eat. I can’t go downstairs because they’re in the house now. I hear them move about. Whispers and clicks. Clicks and whispers.

Madison is ten and too young to understand danger. She's going to open the door. I know this because I read her diary.

There is something wrong with Dad. He has locked us in the attic. He says there is something on the other side of the door, talking in whispers. I can’t hear anything. There was no breakfast today. The cornflake boxes are empty. My stomach is rumbling. When he is asleep, I will get his keys, go downstairs, and make a cheese sandwich.

I’ve thrown away the keys to the padlocks. I watched them flash through the air and land in the shrubbery. There’s a knothole in the shutters. It’s a perfect round. That’s good, because my eye is a perfect round, and a perfect, perfect fit. I can only see straight ahead and it’s dark. I’m waiting for the moon to cross by – that’s a perfect round too, like cheese, pale with blue-green tinge. Madison likes cheese and crisps – She wrote in her diary.

I’m so hungry I wish I had some cheese sandwiches and crisps - or cake - Mum used to make cherry cake. I wish she hadn’t run away. I wish she would come back and let us out.

I flip back the pages. It’s filled with words, but I can’t take in the meaning.

Since Mummy left he keeps washing his hands, over and over.
He empties the rubbish every day but the house still smells bad.

Who is the 'he' she was writing about? The inside of my head feels as if it's filled with cotton wool and I search in among the empty folds for answers.

Madison doesn’t write much now. She sleeps all the time. She talks about food in her sleep.

They’re inside under the floorboards now. They’ve seeped in, greasy, grey bodies twisting through electrical wiring and water pipes.

They came while we slept and sucked at our flesh. They did it slowly, savouring a little of us every day. They think I don’t notice Madison dissolving. Her bony wrists lie on the coverlet and she hasn’t moved today. They’re feasting on me too. My clothes are too big. I rub my face and skin falls like grey snow onto my lap. I sit on the floor facing the door, waiting, waiting.

I saw one of them last night, in a circle of moonlight and my heart contracted. On a crushed cheekbone, a brown eye swung from a thread. Somewhere a memory stirred, I grasped at it, but it slipped away.

I draw my knees to my chest and rock. Rocking is such a comfort. I’m back in my mother’s arms. She wouldn’t let them hurt me.

My heart pounds and I look around the empty attic. ‘Big boys don’t cry.’ That’s my dead mother’s voice. My cheeks are wet, so I must be crying.

I hear voices in the garden, the distant clamour of an ambulance, the wail of a police car.

Madison opens her eyes and smiles. ‘They’re coming to rescue us, Daddy,’ she whispers.

‘I don’t think they’re coming here, Madison.’

‘They are, I pushed a note through the hole in the shutter when you were asleep. They’ll break down the door and rescue us.’

My heart jack-hammers and I don’t know why.

When you can't judge a book by its cover

People say you can't judge a book by its cover. It's something I frequently do, and if I'm totally honest, I've been known to add books to my Amazon wish list purely based on the fact the cover is visually pleasing, that is, non-pastel coloured with an abstract picture of something or someone shrouded in mist.

During a recent fleeting visit to my local library to pick up a book I'd requested (The Burley Cross Postbox Theft by Nicola Barker), I was accosted by the lovely lady behind the counter. Maybe I looked like an open minded reader? Perhaps I looked super-intelligent and up for a challenge? Or maybe she was just desperate to shed a book from her big pile?

I was invited to take part in the Libraries NI Lucky Dip Reading Challenge as part of the London 2012 Open Weekend. In this scheme participants select a parcelled-up book from the display stand at random. They then fill in the comment card with their views on the book and this is returned to Libraries NI HQ. The main aim of the challenge is to introduce readers to books they otherwise would have bypassed in the library.

I said yes, of course I'd participate and picked my parcel from the third shelf. Admittedly, this was after a swift grope to ascertain whether it was a paperback or hardback.

'No cheating,' said the nice lady behind the counter.
'I'm just feeling them, to see if they are hardback or paperback,' I said.
'You can't see through the paper,' she said.
'I know!' I replied.

The paper covering was indeed completely opaque so there were no opportunities to cheat. I chose what I was led to believe was a hardback. And it was.

When I opened my package I sighed in consternation because it was a ghostwritten biography. Worse still, it was Sir David Jason, A Life Of Laughter. But then I recalled all those years spent watching Only Fools and Horses. I remembered the batman and robin scene and all those Christmas specials. So I put aside my prejudices and opened the book and read the first chapter on Mr Jason's childhood. Not being of any interest to me, I closed the book and filled in the comment card ticking 'no' for the question: is this a book you would normally read? I also added a point along the lines of not being a fan of ghostwritten biographies, but enjoyed the opportunity to participate in this scheme. Finally I added that I would definitely be encouraged to select a book I wouldn't otherwise have chosen on a future visit. And I may just keep my word.

It's a great scheme for the occasional reader; the person who visits a library maybe three or four times a year and goes in without any specific author or genre preferences. And if your library has organised something similar do go along and support it.

The London 2012 Open Weekend, which is supported by BP, features a series of sporting, arts and cultural challenges, taking place across the UK, to mark the countdown to the start of the Olympic Games. This Libraries NI reading challenge was just one of hundreds of other Open Weekend events giving people the chance to learn a new dance or piece of music.

Why not challenge yourself and read a book you would not normally choose, be a daredevil and e-mail a literary agent, finally send off that MS, or do something crazy in a non-literary sense…like a bungee jump or a skydive. The challenge is yours.

Mind your Ps...and Qs

Will you have your five portions of fruit and veg today (or your eight if you live in the USA)? And your protein? Your carbs? Your essential fats? Will you be taking some exercise? Will you be going out into daylight for at least thirty minutes?

It's quite a project, eating a balanced diet, living a balanced life. And it's vital for our well-being. Far too easy to spend the day with the seat of our pants welded to the seat of a chair, grabbing at junk to keep us going and only venturing out at dusk to buy new print cartridges and another bottle of wine. Or wasting another day in procrastination, then getting down to some decent writing at midnight and being unable to tear oneself away from the screen until the early hours, when it's so light you might just as well stay up...

Writers need a balanced diet. Writers need exercise. Writers need light. And in addition, writers need a particular and little-known vitamin:

Vitamin P

The P Vitamin can be broken down into three complete enzymes. Each must be taken regularly in order to maintain good writerly health. So, with apologies to Patrick Holford, here they are:

Vitamin P1: Pleasure
Yes, fun. Anticipation. Stimulation. Inspiration. Flow. Play. Pootling about. This is the vitamin we often begin with, as writers: the sheer, unadulterated joy of putting down words. We are truly amateurs, writing for the love of it. Because writing gives us fulfilment. Because writing sends endorphins rushing round our systems. Because writing fills us with hope and possibility and excitement. As time goes on, we can easily forget to take this particular vitamin. But we ignore Vitamin P1 at our peril. Lacking it, writing becomes a head-down, serious chore. The lines on our forehead deepen. The light in our eyes fades. Our laughing-muscle atrophies. We are heading for Writer's Droop.
Vitamin P1 comes in many forms. Simply injecting some variety into our writing may do the trick - trying new forms, like the Six Word Novel, a haiku, a limerick. Taking our writing outside, to a cafe, a clifftop, a park. Playing word games, going on a course and meeting like-minded people. Vitamin P1 is all about nourishment and inspiration: providing yourself with a beautiful new notebook, a new pen; having scented flowers in your study; finding a mentor. And rewarding yourself for your writing, in whatever form most appeals to you: that novel you've been longing to read, a phone call with a supportive friend.

Vitamin P2: Practice
Just doing it. Writers are like children: we need both freedom and boundaries, permission and discipline. Vitamin P2 is about self-discipline. It's about showing up each day. Commitment. Constancy. Continuity. Practice gives us parameters. And, as we practise, we gradually grow that vital writerly ingredient of persistence. Deficiency in Vitamin P2 leads to a loss of foundation, of self-respect, of connectedness, of strength. Writerly muscles weaken. It's more and more of an effort to drag ourselves into the study. We becoming embedded in Writer's Flab.
Vitamin P2 always involves exercise. An injection of Vitamin P2 propels us out of inertia and into movement. The hardest bit is making the decision to do it. It's surprising how easy it is, if one only begins. For maximum effectiveness, Vitamin P2 has to be taken regularly. Every day, if possible. They say it takes thirty days to establish a practice, so it's worth setting yourself a target of a month to create this new, healthy routine. The benefits will be magical. Your writing - and your self-confidence - will begin to strengthen and grow. Vitamin P2 helps us to believe in ourselves and our work. It's much easier to call yourself a writer when you're actually writing. Oh, and Vitamin P2 can also, as a side-effect, create more Vitamin P1. Practice may not necessarily make perfect (who wants perfection, anyway?) but it often takes one into The Zone, that place where writing becomes pure flow and pleasure.

Vitamin P3: Performance
I can see you wrinkling up your nose at this one. Performing - particularly for the British - is seen as infra dig. Too-big-for-your-boots. Showing off. Well, that's giving this Vitamin a bad name. I'm not suggesting you go out into the streets in a multi-coloured wig to declaim your novel (though do, please, if that's your thing). Performing is about making your work visible. Sending it out there. Offering it to the world. It's about spending some time in the light, in the sun. A lack of Vitamin P3 results in a sense of invisibility, anonymity. We slouch around with hunched, hopeless shoulders, transmitting don't-look-at-me-I'm-not-worth-it vibes. We become a shadow of our former selves. We have succumbed to Writer's Drab.
Unless you leave the house, no-one will ever see you or respond to you. The same goes for your work. It longs to be received, to be acknowledged, to be celebrated. Vitamin P3 includes offering your work for critique and response to trusted readers; sending it out to agents; reading it out in public; entering competitions; blogging; self-publishing. It involves saying: I am a writer and I believe in what I do. Here I am. Scary. But essential to our writerly well-being. If it feels too precious to call it performance, look on it as marketing. It's what professionals do. And the world needs your gift.

So do take regular stock of your Vitamin P levels. The balance between them is constantly in flux. Maybe right now you need a booster of Pleasure. Perhaps some extra Practice would tone up your writerly muscles. Or maybe you've been depriving yourself of Performance.

Mind your Ps, as the saying goes. And the Q - Quality - will take care of itself.

Invasion of the killer YOURs

We always knew they had been there, but they fooled us into thinking we had them under control. Now and then they would infiltrate an email from a friend, or peek their hideous visages above the deluge of Farmville crap before sinking back into Facebook status obscurity.

But then, like the first zombies in a B-movie, the killer YOURs insidiously began to proliferate. Opening any innocent-looking webpage could put you at risk of exposure.

'If your looking for something fun to do this weekend...'

It was possible to click away and pretend you hadn't seen it. It was just a mistake. Yes, that was it – someone was typing too quickly. Live and let live! Everyone's an idiot, just on different occasions.

Now, however, it has gone TOO FAR. The killer YOURs are taking over the universe – and I, for one, do not welcome our new stupid overlords. Together with their quiet but powerful sidekick, the killer YOU'RE, they have plunged us into an epidemic from which no one will come out alive.

Everywhere you turn, they are lying in wait:

'Hey, your coming to Julies house on Saturday arent u?'

'Hope your feeling better.'

'This cat video will brighten you're day!!!!1'

'Your a retard.'

These abominations are so prevalent that I even think twice about using your or you're in a message, in case I have unwittingly been infected and find myself writing 'Hehe you don't know what your talking about you moron.'

I don't even consider myself a grammar nazi. I know anyone can make a typo, especially on fast-moving social media sites. I'm not outraged by split infinitives or sentences ending in prepositions, and I find 'could of' instead of 'could have' quite funny in a stupid sort of way. Verb crimes and made-up words are are also entertaining, and I'm increasingly fond of the comma splice.


The sensible, regular readers of Strictly Writing can skip the next bit, but for any idiots who have stumbled upon this post, here is a simple guide.

YOU'RE is short for YOU ARE.
Example: 'You're about as much use as a fireman with a wooden leg.'

YOUR is possessive and refers to something that belongs to someone.
Example: 'Your brain is the size of an amoeba's toenail clipping.'

What the first one is doing, you see, is to replace the letter 'a' with an apostrophe. Who'd have thought anyone would be so clever as to come up with something so amazingly complicated, eh?

Oh, no, wait a minute, it's actually so simple a drunken zombie sea anemone could understand it. And now you do as well, don't you? Good. That's settled then. You can bugger off now.



Photo credit: Stuart Caie

Guest post: From frustration to self-expression by means of a little light blogging

Today's guest blogger, Stephen (a.k.a. BillyGottaJob) writes the excellent At-Long-Last-I've-Got-a-Job Blog. Here he explains his reasons for starting to blog - and why it's worth continuing.

I’ve never had any trouble “finding my voice”, as anyone who’s had the misfortune to share a management team meeting with me will testify. I’m not a great talker socially, but get me started on stimulating cultural change in an organisation, and you’ll almost certainly wish you hadn’t. On the other hand, if you are obliged to read one of my written reports at work at least it will have a bit of style, a reasonable grasp of when a comma, or even a semi-colon, would be a good idea, and a dearth of unlovely management-speak. No, it’s not lack of voice that’s my problem; it’s a lack of an audience that has chosen to be such, rather than the work ones for whom discretion is the better part of pissing me right off.

My blog first began as a way of allowing me to get the frustrations of unemployment off my chest. Even with the limitations of a work-based audience that I’ve described, at least it is one of a sort. When you’re out of a job, and your wife is evading her wedding vows to provide you with an audience on demand, you’re in danger of rampant schizophrenia when you try and operate as both voice and audience. So The Still-Jobless Blog, as it then was, fulfilled its purposes admirably and, to my delight, even seemed to entertain total strangers.

Having managed to get back into employment (although I write as Mr Osborne’s public not-spending fetish is only just beginning, so watch this space) I’ve found that the weaknesses of the obligated work audience have been amplified by the luxury of having established a voluntary electronic one. It's not just the involuntary nature of a work audience that's a problem, it's also the stiflingly narrow range of topics available to write about. But a blog has no such restrictions; so I’ve broadened my writing beyond angst-filled tirades about unemployment to include similarly angst-filled tirades about a whole lot of other things too. The freedom to range from the scarily scatological (Should I raise my obscenity quotient?) to the philosophically speculative (It's almost as if God exists...) via the whimsically sentimental (Valentine's Day massacre...) is liberating and stimulating in equal measure.

Thus now re-named as The At-Long-last-I’ve-Got-a-Job Blog my writing has become an indispensable part of my tool-kit of self-expression. I have established a small but loyal following and whilst, in audiences as in willies, it would be nice to have a bigger one I’m genuinely more interested in satisfaction than in size.


The At-Long-Last-I've-Got-a-Job Blog
Follow BillyGottaJob on Twitter

Guest Post: authors Michelle Jackson and Juliette Bressan talk about co-incidences and collaborations

Juliet Bressan and Michelle Jackson are two authors who have three best selling novels each to their name. Now they have joined forces and collaborated on a new work of non-fiction entitled ‘What Women Know’ which is an insightful book of wisdom and knowledge gathered from interviewing women from all around the world. We asked them how they met…
“Sometimes we call it coincidence, fate or destiny when we meet someone. But in our case it was definitely all three. We both were at similar points in our lives. Shortly after reaching the age of forty, we were searching for something but not sure how we were going to achieve it and we met on a writer’s course in the Irish Writers Centre - Juliet was trying to finish her first novel and Michelle was trying to explore different genres in writing while waiting to hear back from a publisher about her first novel.
With only a few months between us in age and many similarities in our personal circumstances we bonded instantly. Both working for nearly two decades in the caring professions of medicine and education – both with two children and both in our second marriage – the coincidences unfolded over a gin and tonic on our last night together when the course was finished. We exchanged emails, said that we would keep in touch and the coincidences kept coming. Shortly after the course and within a week of each other, we both signed by the same publisher. It was wonderful to have the support of someone in the same situation as when embarking on a new path in life and our similarities became an important part of our adventure.
About a year ago, over one of our lengthy telephone conversations on a miserable rainy July evening, we were having a rant about the state of the country and the mess that many people were finding themselves in and came to the conclusion that it was up to the women in the country to do something about the situation that was ultimately a testosterone-driven recession caused by men in suits in banks, property development and politics. So we asked ourselves what could we do about it? And the one thing we could do was write a book to help women who are experiencing the brunt of the recession to feel better about themselves and to see what wisdom and resources they carried around with them to help others in the same situation.
We started by emailing and talking to our friends; asking them if they had a piece of advice or wisdom that they could share with another women. We kept notes and started a blog but we needed something more to reach out to more women. The idea mushroomed when we took our questions and set them up on a Facebook page.
By this time we had discussed our idea with Hachette publishers who loved what we were doing and offered us a contract. The book started to write itself and more and more women from around the world came on board and told us their knowledge and wisdom. The funny thing was how similar women were – whether writing to us from Canada, Libya, Australia or any of the European countries. Our friend-base spread and we had women telling other women to join our page and share their wisdom. We’d built an on-line community without realising it and these women were becoming friends with each other.
It was a marvellous feeling, knowing that a friendship which had started in small workshop in Dublin city had morphed into a wonderful feel-good campaign bringing women around the world altogether – and this, we hope, is only the beginning. The book will be for sale in Ireland and the UK initially but from the start it has a global input and this is how we would like to see it develop and grow.”
“What Women Know” will be published in October 2010.

Waiting – a user’s guide

Everyone who has ever written something and asked another person to read it – whether it be husband, friend, agent or publisher – knows that the worst thing about writing is not the lardy bum from too much sitting, or the neck and back ache. It’s not even the writer’s block.

It’s the waiting.

Writerly waiting is a whole other ballgame from waiting, say, in a bank queue, or for the gas engineer who said he’d be there between 8am and 6pm and it’s now 10pm. I’m not saying these irritations aren’t enough in themselves to make you want to claw your own eyes out if you’re naturally impatient, as I am.

But when you’re waiting in a bus queue, your only concern is that your time is being wasted. When you’re waiting to hear an important decision about your writing, your entire ego and self worth are being suspended by gossamer threads over a tank of sharks. You might say I’m exaggerating here. I say, you haven’t met me and are therefore not aware of the fragility of my ego and ludicrous emptiness of my self worth tank.

I’ve just handed in my revised manuscript to the editor who, astonishingly, wants to publish it. I’ve gone through many agonising waits over the last seven years, including with two other books, although never before at this level. Having been turned from a fairly good natured sort of woman into a snarling hag by the process in the past, I know something needs to be done this time. I’m not expecting the verdict to come quickly and am therefore determined not to go insane. Here then, is my cut out and keep guide on How to Wait.

Step one
1. Go offline. Maybe, like me, you have tried to limit the number of times you check your email in a day. Some people even disconnect their cable or disable their broadband in order to stop the temptation. This is nowhere near enough.
You actually have to put your PC in the car, along with all laptops [even if they belong to your partner or children] and drive them to a remote Scottish island. If you already live on a remote Scottish island, you must drive to Land's End.
Then you have to leave them there for a month. My job requires me to use my computer but penury is the price that must be paid for sanity.

2. Go out of the house as much as possible. You’ve probably spent too many hours hunched over a keyboard drinking coffee and occasionally laughing out loud at your own jokes. Go look at some scenery or visit that exhibition you read about. Just make sure you avoid internet cafes on the way.

3. Enter a state of denial. Every time your brain swerves towards the question, ‘I wonder if she’s read it yet..’ put up a mental STOP sign. Do not allow the thought to take root because it’s just a short hop from there to getting in the car and reclaiming your computer.

4. Try and remember what it was you thought about before you were a writer. [No, me neither]

5. Make notes for a new project. Buy a very pleasing notebook and start to sketch out what shape the story might take. Before you know it, you will have the basis for a book.*

So there you have it. How to wait in five easy steps. Now I must dash because I have a long car journey ahead of me...

*This tip actually works.

Not-so-Secret Agent

It dawned on me today that I have been living a lie. For the past crikey-knows however many years, I have been living in that State called Denial (just down the road from Disbelief) because, yes folks… for all my bemoaning and wailing at getting hearty sniffs of but never actually securing one…I ONCE HAD AN AGENT.
Oh yes.
Now, whether she could legitimately be called a ‘Literary Agent’ in today’s current climate remains debateable.
So, the technical bit…
I was probably something like nineteen. And in those days (“waaaaay back when”) this was very close to twelve – in terms of mentality; emotionally and physically – I mean, I was still a virgin! Back when Virgins were fashionable and not just fodder for the Un-dead of this/that World or the next.
Also, I’d written six books by this time. (More technical stuff: they were all diaries. But they’re still books, right?) I’d had one short story published in the local newspaper, and a rejection from the BBC for a Fawlty Towers episode my best friend and I wrote. Oh, and a quite curt letter from Michael Grade telling me that if I really thought I could do a better job than Terry Wogan on his eponymous chat show, then I’d have to start at the bottom like everybody else at the Beeb had and not just leap into his comfy chair because I’d run out of career options after leaving school.
My mother was a post lady.
And this IS relevant. Because one of the ladies on her ‘round’ was a b***-selling author. Who, although only lived round the corner to us (remember this WAS the early 80’s and “round the corner” was still a Big Deal – tantamount to, say, a weekend in Prague and all the preparations that might justifiably go into planning something major like this) I’d never met, never heard of and in fact placed this on something of a pedestal.
B***-selling author, Eileen Pickering - nope I'd never heard of her either - In my village! Down the road! On my mum’s post-round!
Who knew?!
Well, mother did, obviously.
And she said she’d help me on my rocky road to publication and literary success! (Well, okay then, she said she’d read my bumbling efforts at short-story writing and my rhyming poetry about dying Fawns and unrequited love and let me know what she thought and send some off to some publishing places she knew…so, Agent? Hmmm…not sure.)
I paid for the photocopying, the stamps and the envelopes and in return she let me have my very first rejection letters. Via my mother.
So doubly humiliating then.
Even worse was the fact that my writing generally featured angsty teen first-love, testosterone-fuelled car mechanics and rom-comedies of errors involving randy driving instructors and pouty Advertising executives (of which I knew absolutely nothing…really).
And her genre? Westerns (she wrote under the pseudonym of Mark Falcon). So her forte in brooding, bristling cowhands and winsome corseted wenches in Shoot’em’up and Spitt’em out City probably didn’t resonate too well with my juvenile literary endeavours.
I do remember one of her comments saying something along the lines of: “not certain there is a specific market for this kind of style” and so heralded the very first heartslump in my chosen field.
And now Heartslump seems like quite a fitting name for a ghost-town in an obscure Western town.

Ah well, it’s back to that lil'ole state of Denial I think – and don’t spare the horses!

***book/best – details far too sketchy to be deemed concrete fact.

Not the be-all and end-all?

'People who have what they want are fond of telling people who haven't what they want that they really don't want it.'

Ogden Nash never did an email submission only to realise in the nanosecond after pressing send that he'd typed 'Dera Ms Agent...', but his words reflect the experience of many a modern unpublished writer.

Every famous or not-so-famous author has been through the uncertainty or downright agony of being unpublished. But, for some, publication results in a sudden change of tune. It's like someone who desperately wants a baby and then gives birth to one and starts complaining that it cries a lot and actually needs quite a bit of attention. Getting published can have the same effect.

After years striving at their ambition, honing their craft, coping with frustration, crying over rejections, picking themselves up and somehow grasping the determination to keep going, a writer gets published and soon they're saying:

Being published isn't the be-all and end-all, darling!

It doesn't suddenly sort your life out!

We published authors still have problems, don't you know!

It was OK for them to work hard towards their goal, but if you work towards yours, you must be a deluded wannabe who thinks a book deal will make your bank account groan with a million quid and your letterbox collapse with invitations to soirées with JKR. You sad little person, you – sitting there in your crappy job and dreaming of being famous enough not to have a care in the world. If only you knew the difficulty of being a published author!

To be fair, authors are usually just saying these things because they're knackered and worried like everyone else, and because there's a British inclination to play down success and not to look as though they're showing off.

This is understandable. It's still bloody annoying.

Serious unpublished writers know darned well that life will go on pretty much the same but with a book with their name on it on the shelf. This does not make publication something that isn't worth aiming for. All right, the well-meaning author might only be expressing concern that you're making yourself unhappy over the submissions/rejections process, but this is none of their business.

You can give up trying to get published any time you like. No one will care. But if you want to go for it, it will require a bit of obsession and probably a lot of angst. If you're determined to carry on, what's the big deal to anyone else?

I've never read the slushpile so perhaps I'm naïve about the level of delusion and crapness out there, but I think if you’ve got the wherewithal to write something and send it out on submission, and to be with-it enough to engage with blogs like this one, chances are you are not dur-brained enough to think that a book deal will bring you permanent health and happiness, resurrect your dead hamster and stem the BP oil spill. Serious ‘aspiring’ writers are grown up enough to know that what they're aiming for is just publication, not a key to eternal sparkly youth.

Being published is actually pretty cool, and I say that as someone who is not exactly hitting the big time... or even the slightly-bigger-than-absolutely-minuscule time. Being published is several million times better than trying to get published. It's worth aiming for. So, if publication is your goal, I say: keep aiming, and politely ignore people - even the well-meaning ones - who try to put you off.

A news producer who doesn’t play by the rules

I have a job that is unlike the profession of many of the people who contribute to Strictly Writing – can you guess what it is? Here are some clues . . .

I’m paid to invent characters and conjure up interesting settings and then write about them. I have to dream up plausible and lifelike situations into which to put the characters. It’s important that there should be tension and conflict in what I write and that the people who read it should not be able to guess what happens to the characters or what their true motivations are from the start. Often the characters are eventually played by professional actors and the whole drama is filmed.

Yes, you guessed it, I’m a business psychologist.

At the moment I’m designing a collection of role-plays for use on leadership development programmes. The work is fun and it demands a certain amount of creativity and insight into the business models and operational practices of large organisations. The exercises have to replicate tight corners faced by senior managers and stretch their leadership abilities to the full. I enjoy seeing the final product acted out on the programmes – seeing my creations come to life. And when you consider that my fictional organisations and characters have been used for the assessment and development of thousands of managers all over the world, it’s not a bad publication record, and certainly well rewarded.

All of this makes it exactly the type of work that John Braine advised against in his book on how to write a novel. I’m sure I’ve seen that advice from other authors – if you have to work then it should be something that doesn’t involve using words or being imaginative. Wait on tables, clear bins, hose fires: anything that is manually rather than intellectually stimulating.

I have to agree. After a day like today working on a management simulation role-play, I’m all written out. I know it’s no real excuse but I’m putting aside the novel for a while until I’ve finished this spate of exercises. For the meantime I’m engrossed in Marlon Dieter, a Senior Producer in my fictional news broadcasting organisation, who has his own ideas about how to run the business. Gripping stuff, sigh.

Guest post by Sophia Bennett: The Toddler Theory

Sometimes, you’re in a rush, trying to get the kids to school, and the three year-old stops dead in the street and says ‘I don’t want to go to school’, and his lower lip wobbles, and his little feet stay firmly planted on the ground, and every muscle and sinew in his body tells you how much he means it.

It’s tempting to think through all the reasons why he might not want to go. A tricky teacher? A bad day yesterday? The fact that his brother is going on a trip? That’s when you have to stand back, be a parent, think through what’s happened so far and suddenly realise that what he really needs is … a banana.

My favourite scenes to write are when my book demands the same sort of maternal lateral thinking. A character isn’t working. Two characters won’t talk to each other. A fabulous setting won’t come to life. They sit on the page, pleadingly, begging you to fix them with the help of a killer adverb or a masterful line edit, but what they really need is … to be deleted. Or transported. Or role-reversed. Or something. Something that you weren’t expecting.

I’m not advocating deleting toddlers. Or using bananas as a panacea for tricky scenes. Although you never know. It worked in Beverly Hills Cop. But I’m amazed at how long it took me to step back from work that wasn’t working and do something radical to it. And I’m eternally grateful to Elliott Grove, my screenwriting tutor, who taught me to be brave. ‘Kid ain’t right? Make her a boy!’ ‘Father too bland? Make him a transvestite! Get rid of him! No father! Make him the maid!’ None of which I have ever actually done, but it’s liberating to know you can.

One specific thing happened after I started to play with the text like this. I got published. I wrote far more in the drafting process, because I was throwing at least half of it away, but I wrote faster, and what I wrote was more interesting to read. Characters didn’t say what I expected them to say, but they were still in character, and the result was funnier. Scenes didn’t start where I expected them to start, but they shot out of the blocks and kept going.

The problem with my three and a half unpublished novels was that I loved them too much. Or rather, I indulged them too much. I admired their witty prose and forgave the fact that the plot was more string bag than coiled spring. I let them off school when I should have given them a banana.

I’m sure there are limits to this approach. If you ever read one of my books and the children are being brought up by a transvestite maid, you’ll know I was struggling with the characterisation. It hasn’t happened yet, but come to think of it, that story does have possibilities. However, if the maid gives the children a banana, get me some help.

Anyone Seen My Mojo?

I’ve not had the best week. My diet failed miserably. I succumbed to overwhelming chocolate desires. I haven’t exercised. I haven’t blogged regularly. I haven’t tweeted. And my daily word count target seemed determined to go backwards. I attempted to write a short story and couldn’t – it was like my mojo had left the building. Dissipated in the heat, disappeared through the pores of my skin – Mojo Osmosis...

So I drank water. Lots of it... I drank wine, more than I should have and played an after dinner game with friends that involved sliding After Eight chocolates from your forehead into your mouth – don’t ask. When Saturday arrived, I greeted it with the hangover from hell, as I made my way in extreme temperatures to the annual RNA conference in the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich University. This year is the Golden Anniversary of the Romantic Novelists Association and though I’d been unable to attend the entire weekend’s celebrations and felt like overheated dehydrated crap, I was still looking forward to Saturday’s line up.

It didn’t disappoint and the day of workshops, lunch and afternoon tea spent mingling with fellow members, tweeters and industry experts was fabulous. Throughout, the sun burnt in a cloudless blue sky over the most truly beautiful venue, situated right next to the Thames.
We were treated to various workshops from Kate Harrison, Nell Dixon, and Sue Moorcroft to name but a few. Pre-booked one to one appointments were available with editors and I learned about a publisher that I’d known little of beforehand - Choc Lit Publishing. Their USP of always having a male (the hero's) Point of View is, I think, an unusual idea within the romantic novel genre. Do have a look at their website for further details and submission requirements.

I should confess here that the low point of the day - the lowest point of the week in fact, came when I was sat outside in the sun having lunch with a group of women I'd just met. I glanced at the woman sitting opposite me, caught her name badge and said 'I recognise your name - do you blog? Tweet?'
'Yes,' she replied shyly, supplying me with her blog address when I asked.
See here, the Gods could have been good to me. But instead the Gods of white wine, After Eights and missing mojo conspired against me. I suppose I shouldn't now be surprised that when a fan approached her and asked her to sign a book, Sarah Duncan soon beat a hasty retreat. Yes, Sarah Duncan (who was lovely), she of many novels, two of which I have on my bookshelf. (*hang my head in shame*)

Mojo eventually reclaimed, I travelled home Saturday evening determined to send my manuscript off to the RNA for their New Writers Scheme appraisal. This is offered as part of their new writer membership – open only to romantic novels ‘where romantic content and love interest are integral to the story.’ Yeah, mine qualifies. It is when all is said and done a love story...

A bit like the one I had on the way home with a bag of cold giant chocolate buttons. I needed them after the SD faux pas.

I said I got my mojo back. I never said anything about my willpower or tact which alas are still AWOL

Why can't I love audiobooks?

I’ve posted before about the fact that I’m a podcast addict. But I’ve never been able to work out why I can’t seem to get on with audiobooks. Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of them. I have long wished for a device I could strap to my head so I could read while walking down the street. When you think about it, this is pretty much what audiobooks are all about. Although less ridiculous looking, obviously.

But for some reason they just don’t grab me. While I was walking my dog recently, I was listening to Radio 4’s Open Book podcast about the 50th anniversary of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. It was a great discussion with people like Meg Rosoff, Kwame Kwei Armah and Shami Chakrabarti all talking about the impact the book had on them. Every now and then there were clips from the new audiobook, read by Sissi Spacek. Now I’ve loved our Sissi ever since she had a bucket of pig’s blood tipped over her head in the movie 'Carrie'. And To Kill a Mocking Bird is an amazing book. So why did my eyes instantly glaze over at these bits in the podcast? It was like tripping a switch in my mind and I couldn’t work out why it was happening.

And then it hit me. The reason I don’t like audiobooks is because the narrators read so slooooowly. I read very fast - too fast, sometimes forgetting plots as soon as I put them down. I find it very hard to slow things down and savour what I’m reading and of course, this is exactly how audiobooks should be narrated, giving listeners time to properly digest the story.

I'm obviously not alone in my lack of enthusiasm. Observer books editor Robert McCrum has said, 'I have fairly mixed feelings about audiobooks. At their best, unabridged and read by an author who knows about reading aloud (John le Carré springs to mind) they can be distillations of pure magic; a lovely window on the author's intentions. Read badly, or over-read by an out-of-work actor and horribly abridged, they can do a book a great disservice. Obviously, with a tape or a CD, the reader also loses some autonomy: it's much more difficult to skip.'

I injured my eye a few years ago and discovered that when one eye is in agony, you have to keep both of them closed. This meant lying in a darkened room and I had never needed to get on with audiobooks so much as I did for those few days. But they still didn't satisfy, even then.

Despite all this, I worry there is a whole other world of books out there that I’m missing out on.

So my plea is: how do I persuade my brain to slow down when I’m listening to someone else reading? And also, what are your top three favourite audiobooks? I’d love some recommendations. I’m determined to try and curb my impatience and make use of an art form that really deserves more respect.

Guest post by Rosy Thornton - The most beautiful place on earth

Have you ever been on holiday somewhere so peaceful, so wonderfully, soul-restoringly beautiful, that you carry the place away with you, tucked somewhere deep inside yourself, to escape to later for succour and refreshment in times of stress?

Well, for a novelist, that process of escape is part of the job description. It might be for purposes of creation and not of mental restoration, but it is very much the same thing. And for me, recently, the two functions coincided blissfully in one, with the writing of my novel, The Tapestry of Love.

Twenty years ago now (can it really be that long ago?) I spent a fortnight’s holiday in the Cévennes mountains, which lie at the southern tip of the French Massif Central. It was – and remains in my imagination – the most beautiful place on earth.

I suppose for those twenty years it lay waiting in the quiet places of my mind, until a year ago when it rose to the surface, unbidden, and demanded, ‘Write about me!’ Every morning of a bleak winter in the Cambridgeshire fens I sat down at my keyboard, closed my eyes, and found myself back in those wooded mountains, where I built myself an old, stone house at the fringe of a tiny hamlet on the slopes of Mont Lozère.

Second best to moving in myself, was to write myself an Englishwoman, Catherine Parkstone, to invite her to leave behind her home in England and to come to my cévenol retreat and build a new life for herself there among the chestnut woods. I gave her a plan to start up in business as a seamstress, making soft furnishings for her new neighbours; I peopled her hamlet with local farmers and endowed them with deep layers of French reserve; I gave her a tapestry frame and a basket of silk thread and set her to work.

The result was The Tapestry of Love – the story of Catherine’s slow-growing love affair with the place and its people.

But if you think that this is a picture of Catherine’s house, then think again. Her house stands 1,200m above sea level, and mountain weather is harsh. Cévenol dwellings are built of the sombre local granite, with walls a metre thick and roofs constructed of the same material.

Their doors are solid oak, not glazed as in my cover picture; in autumn and winter, the oak swells so much with damp that Catherine’s door sticks in its frame This cover visual, I told my editor, is of a soft, southern house with a soft, southern door. It is clearly Provence and not Lozère. So what? came the reply. This is an image of how people imagine France, so this goes on the cover. If we used a photo of a real cévenol house, she said, it would look like February in North Wales and nobody would buy the book. And no doubt she was right.

Where we really went on holiday on was dark and dumpy, stone-roofed and almost windowless – but in surroundings of such stark, heart-stopping beauty that twenty years later I had to write a novel about it.

The Tapestry of Love is published today by Headline Review. Rosy Thornton is the author of three previous books, all published by Headline Review: More Than Love Letters, Hearts and Minds and Crossed Wires. She teaches law at the University of Cambridge, where she is a Fellow of Emmanuel College.
Visit Rosy's website here.

Game, set and match

I love tennis, especially Wimbledon and the atmosphere of this particular sporting event is really hard to beat. The men's Wimbledon final on Sunday wasn't much of a contest. As usual Rafael Nadal made all the right moves and managed to re-claim the tennis trophy by winning in three sets. And the jubilation he demonstrated at the end of the match, including the roly poly manoeuvre, is similar to the personal satisfaction and delight that authors experience upon being told they will finally be published.

Writing and getting that elusive book deal is all about 'game, set and match.' There are the hours of practice, the year-round training, the disappointments and the trophies. Tennis players are in the practice courts when they're not competing, just like us authors, who spend hours creating and perfecting the manuscript before sending it out – a procedure which the reader and customer doesn't see. And the fitter tennis players get, the better their performances will be. Similarly, authors who read, read and read, and write, write and write will develop their craft more than those who don't take the time to learn the techniques.

And of course, no tennis match would be complete without a bitter disappointment. In every match there is a winner but also a loser. The same is true in the agenting or publishing world. For every twenty full manuscripts that an agent requests, he or she may only take on one writer. And for every five the agent passes to a publisher, only one may make it through the selection process. Like any grand slam tournament, for every fifty players who enter, there can only be one winner. The rest, while illustrating that they are undoubtedly top tennis players, suffer disappointment which is often hard to hide. Springing to mind is Andy Murray who, in interviews, clearly showed that post-Nadal depression had set in following his performance.

But the best part of writing has to be trophy time. After endless practice sessions, the tension of an intensive tournament and the nail-biting play from the opponent, the champion tennis player finally sees the end in sight. At 6-2 6-4, the finishing line has been crossed for the ladies and the win goes down in history.

When you get that book deal, you can shout, 'game, set and match (insert your name here!)' Don't forget to celebrate with a punnet of strawberries and cream to emulate the Wimbledon experience.

The Way You Tell Them - Guest post by Alison Bacon

Picture this. You are in the pub with a group of friends and there’s a gap in the conversation. You heard this joke a while back and it pops unbidden into your head. You step forward and find you are holding the floor.

Have you heard the one about?’

The audience is hooked and you start well. The trouble is, the joke isn’t quite as clear in your head as you thought. If you’re anything like me, you get almost to the end then realize you’ve missed some vital detail along the way. The punch-line just won’t work. Or it turns out that you’ve somehow given the punch line away too soon; the joke – and the audience – are left hanging out to dry.

You’ve blown it. You flap and flounder like a stranded fish. ‘No, no, sorry, that’s not it! Hang on, hang on, I’ll do it again.’ And you do, but mainly for your own satisfaction. The gang has lost interest and drifted back to the bar.

Well, a novel is a tad longer than the average joke, and not necessarily comical, but in terms of the plot it works in much the same way. Timing is all. The information has to be revealed in just the right order and at just the right pace, or it won’t work. But if it does go tits up (and there’s a lot more to go wrong in the 100,000 words of a novel than in a thirty second joke) the result is usually the same; you have to start over. And it’s a very long way back.

Of course, if you’re one of those writers who doesn’t even begin until every scene and character has been researched, planned, and filed on coloured cards, you’re less likely to mess up and find yourself, as I do, stuck on the hamster-wheel of constant plot revision. But even you (yes you, Clever Clogs) might still have something to learn from our comedy metaphor.

If constructing the ‘story’ of a joke is vital, it’s really only the start. Remember Ronnie Corbett in the chair? The punch-line could be an old chestnut or a pretty lame pun, but he found a way of telling it, with all his infuriating digressions, that would have you laughing just for the sheer relief of getting to the end. Do you think that didn’t take practice? Or if you prefer your comics standing up, think of Live at the Apollo. These guys (I’m including girls of course) might sound spontaneous as they toss one-liners to the crowd, but I bet every shrug, every wave of the hand or pause for a knowing smile has been rehearsed and rehearsed some more. That’s why, even if there are only seven distinct plots in the whole of literature, it doesn’t really matter, because successful writing is in the performance. So before you even think of putting your novel on the stage, it has to have style, flair, panache and the patina that come of regular and enthusiastic polishing.

When that agent opens your envelope, the floor is yours. Make sure you don’t choke. Make sure they remember your name.

Alison Bacon is a native Scot who lives in the West Country. A glutton for writing punishment, she is currently toying with a third novel. She also tinkers with short stories, one of which recently made it into The Yellow Room Magazine. She loves having visitors at or you can follow her on Twitter as AliBacon.

*Subbing* seems to be the hardest word

Forget cardiovascular workouts, forget frenzied, passionate all-night lovemaking sessions… al...though…no… no… c’mon, focus now…and forget the sheer icy panic you get when you think you mightn’t have locked the front door before your 2-hour trip… or turned the gas off (seriously? WHO forgets to turn the Gas off?) Nope - if there’s anything guaranteed to quicken my pulse, send my heart-rate into overdrive and my blood pressure soaring, it’s sending out a submission.
And I’m not alone *gulp* am I?

 Over the years, I've probably lost about fourteen pounds (that’s a stone, right?) just sitting at the keyboard with my finger poised over the left-clicker – THAT’s how trembly my right hand gets. I've never needed one of those mad machines that shakes my cellulite into surrender, like a crazy blender with no lid… oh no, all I have to do is prepare my nice polite enquiry email, make sure I’ve got a new document with three chapters in it, polish my synopsis until I can see my (sweaty) face in it, swallow back whatever meal that threatens to re-appear and hover over ‘send’.

I’ve even been known to do it with my eyes shut; it gets that bad. As if shutting my eyes somehow makes the whole process that much easier, less stressful, more dream-like. Like it maybe didn’t happen because I wasn’t looking? Isn’t that a bit like calories not counting if you eat something when nobody’s watching? Love that idea. Eating alone is my diet of choice. But I digress.
I used to take Subbing to the max. “Extreme Subbing” if you like. Back in the days when paper, ink, envelopes (including self-addressed) and stamps were de rigueur. And Post Offices. My God, Post Offices. I’m still very surprised that the lady behind the counter who worked the 2 o’clock shift didn’t ever ask me if I’d thought about therapy, the number of times I got her to weigh the envelope with contents, then take out the self-addressed envelope and letter and weigh it all again so I’d know how much the return postage would be. Because sometimes I might have used ‘heavier’ ink than the last time. I mean, wouldn’t it stand to reason that the lower an ink cartridge gets, the fainter the print, and the lighter the whole caboodle? And I didn’t want those nice people at the Marsh Literary Agency* thinking I was a total prole for not understanding something as straightforward as the Royal Mail standard postage weights and measures guidelines. Well, did I? Such ineptitude would surely send my manuscript back to the bottom of the slush pile - for only submissions by writers with a basic grasp of Post Office Protocol would be worthy of reading.
At least that was my worry. Well, one of them.

Along with all the others. Did I put the right letter in the right envelope? did I put the right SAE in the right envelope? did I stick stamps on every-bloody-thing? And of course, did the nice Post Office lady really understand what it is I was asking her to do in the first place anyway?
I’m surprised I slept at all.

But at least in those ‘paper-days’ I’d have been able (if I’d been so inclined and that convinced that something in an envelope was awry) to stake out the box into which the envelope had been posted, lie in wait for the post van to collect the contents and then wrestle my envelope from his sack so that I could rip everything open only to discover that nothing WAS actually wrong in the first place and actually I DO need to seek psychiatric assistance of some kind.
After my second book did the (boomerang) rounds and I worked out I was probably spending more in posting my submissions than I was getting paid for in the part-time job which fuelled my habit, I decided to just sub to Agents whose email details appeared in the Writers and Artists Yearbook.  And there're a fair few of them.  But it doesn't make the 'sending' any less traumatic.  In fact there's not even the consolation of being able to lie in wait for the Royal Mail van after you've hit 'send' - and the blind panic I felt once when I realised I'd sent an enquiry to two different Agencies but addressed to the same person, was something I do not wish repeating in a hurry.

And, so having committed this idiotically heart-stopping misdemeanour, would YOU:
a) send another e-mail saying 'oops, sorry about that - I'm a fool who doesn't deserve representation.  I insist you send this message and any attachments directly to your recycle bin', or
b) pretend you didn't notice and hope they don't either, or
c) convince yourself that they'll think you're just a typical creative-type who, although obviously a skilled story-teller, has a head too full of creative ideas to master the banalities of basic emailing.
Yup, me too.  I'm a c) person every time.

*Just one of a number of very lovely Literary Agencies Out There.

I was going to post about something entirely different...

Then I received this. Try reading it in the context of writing, subbing and being recognised:

Washington, DC Metro Station on a cold January morning in 2007. The man with a violin played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time approx. 2 thousand people went through the station, most of them on their way to work. After 3 minutes a middle aged man noticed there was a musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried to meet his schedule.

4 minutes later:
The violinist received his first dollar: a woman threw the money in the hat and, without stopping, continued to walk..

6 minutes:
A young man leaned against the wall to listen to him, then looked at his watch and started to walk again.

10 minutes:
A 3-year old boy stopped but his mother tugged him along hurriedly. The kid stopped to look at the violinist again, but the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk, turning his head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. Every parent, without exception, forced their children to move on quickly.

45 minutes:
The musician played continuously. Only 6 people stopped and listened for a short while. About 20 gave money but continued to walk at their normal pace. The man collected a total of $32.

1 hour:
He finished playing and silence took over. No one noticed. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition..

No one knew this, but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, with a violin worth $3.5 million dollars. Two days before Joshua Bell sold out a theater in Boston where the seats averaged $100.

This is a true story. Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and people's priorities.