The Strictly Writing Award Short-listed Story for January - "The Possibilities of Scalding Geysers" by Yvonne Jackson

It was worth waiting a year for the thrill. We always planned well ahead, so that we could enjoy the anticipation, but the excitement was in not knowing the detail. Each year a different place. Each year a different person. Each year a different accident.

Our house was always littered with travel brochures. We preferred unusual destinations. What can compare with the biological thrill of the Galapagos Islands, or the haunted wilderness of Easter Island? Who has lived, if they have not seen glaciers birthing mighty icebergs, or peered over the lip of a restless volcano?

Ron always said that a pool-and-beach holiday in a cheap and popular destination would not suit us, maintaining that we would only meet shallow binge-drinkers, or money-starved parents with loud, sticky children. We preferred the company we found on the more expensive, exotic holidays. A better kind of person, you understand. A more intelligent, thinking kind of fellow traveller. It was often during our deep discussions with these interesting individuals that we made our annual selection.

Besides, higher-class holidays offer more scope for memorable incidents. There was the time we watched from a tree to see a member of our party being attacked and eaten by a grizzly. Nothing we could do about it, of course. Once the bear smelt the melting chocolate in the young man’s backpack, it was all over for him really. And after all those warnings we were given about not carrying food with us! Nobody could think how he could have been so stupid. It was like walking around with a big sign written in grizzly, saying, “Eat Me”.

Yes, that was a gory one, better even than the occasion we witnessed a young Egyptian girl being eaten by a Nile crocodile. She was trying to sell the passengers of our Nile cruise some worthless trinkets, and she slipped and fell in the river just as she was reaching out to show her wares to Ron. Unfortunately the water hid much of the horror, and she died more quickly than the grizzly bear’s lunch, being smaller and tastier. Our stomachs swirled like the reddening waters, and we watched avidly until the last morsel had been consumed. The Egyptian police said my photographs were extremely useful in helping the parents to identify their unfortunate child.

We often looked back over the photographs - kept them in a special album. In the same album were the photos of the woman who was bitten by a deadly snake in the middle of the Brazilian rainforest. By the time the poison had done its work, her face was all puffed up and purple and contorted in agony. But there you are: if people choose to camp under a forest canopy that’s chittering and chattering with poisonous creatures, and then put on their boots in the morning without first checking inside them, what can be done?

But the memory we returned to most frequently over the years was that of the elderly gentleman who carelessly tumbled overboard during an Alaskan cruise. Of course, I shouted, “Man overboard!” but by then he was already in the grip of the deadly chill. The water resembled one of those slushy drinks that children like to buy – bits of ice all mashed up in coloured liquid.

Naturally, I couldn’t jump in and attempt to rescue him – as I told the captain later, I am quite unable to swim – and it was a pity that the life belt I threw him fell so far short of its target. I never was good at games where you had to throw things, you see. Coincidentally, it was the same old man who had argued with Ron the previous evening.
Ron gave me a hard time over throwing the old man a life belt: it was some minutes after I had done so before we could be certain if the old codger would slip under the water before he succeeded in reaching it. A lady, who arrived on the scene a few moments after he fell, said that he was shaking his fist at me and shouting, but why would a drowning man waste his precious energy doing that? No, as Ron told the captain, he was not waving, but drowning.

Two years ago, Ron’s newly-divorced sister came travelling with us. I told Ron it would be a disaster, and it was. Glynis made our lives a misery, from the moment she stepped on the cruise liner until the moment she slipped off a cliff in Venezuela.

For one thing, she would keep going on about her children. Ron and I have never been into brats, of which our teenaged nephews and nieces seem to be the worst examples. Then again, Glynis would take her knitting everywhere, which is so middle-class. Really, I was embarrassed to be seen with her. No style, no class.

But the worst thing was that she wouldn’t leave Ron and me alone for a moment. For the first time since we had begun our hobby, it was impossible to make a proper selection, and I could see Ron becoming even more frustrated than me. In the end it was he who suggested we pick Glynis – and I was only too glad to acquiesce.

It was a terrible tragedy, and of course the rescue services in these out-of-the-way places are so unreliable that it was hours before the body was recovered. Hours and hours in which to ask ourselves questions. If Ron had not stepped forward to reach for her, would the cliff still have crumbled? If I had not startled her with my cry of, “Careful!”, would she still have stumbled forwards? And most importantly: when they brought her up, would she be dead, or merely injured?

Ah yes, as I look back over the years, I feel a shaft of delight in remembering some of the experiences we’ve enjoyed. It is as acute as the pleasure experienced by a collector of fine art when he looks over his paintings. But Ron and I never cared for art, you see. Our pleasures lay elsewhere, and we selected with care the person on whom we bestowed the honour of delivering them. Sometimes we would spend the first two weeks of a three-week trip wrapped up in this delectable task.

It made us feel like God: as we decided, so it happened. We would fix on some obscure, unimportant individual, and that person would be transformed from insignificance into a lasting adornment in our lives, one that we would revisit in our memories again and again. We, the omnipotent, bestowed immortality on the nondescript.

Last year we were torn. Ron favoured a trek through the Gobi Desert. It was the allure of scorpions, of course, but I wasn’t so keen and argued fiercely for Iceland. It wasn’t the first time we’d argued about destination. Ron was becoming increasingly domineering and tended to favour hot places, while I prefer the temperate or even the arctic. Don’t like to sweat, don’t like to be among sweaty people, you understand? But hot climates did something to Ron. Perked him up so to speak. And in the end, he got his way again.

All our fellow travellers had their eccentricities, naturally: it’s an extraordinary type of person who chooses to camel-trek across a burning wasteland for pleasure. In the end Ron selected a young Norwegian. He was fascinated by her pale eyelashes, her transparent skin, and her halting accent. Rather too fascinated in fact. He insisted I take her photo with their arms around each other, for the album. Of course, I wasn’t jealous, at least, not until I realised that it was more than his eyelashes that she liked. Privacy is difficult to achieve in the desert, and it was a bad mistake on his part to humiliate me by being so publicly perked up.

It was the next day, as I bumped through never-ending glare aboard a lumpy and morose camel that I had the idea. It was perfect. I made my selection, and this time I made it alone.

This time I had no photographic souvenirs to bring home, except the picture of Ron entwined with his Norwegian, which the newspapers ended up using. I kept all the newspaper cuttings for the album. The media made much of the fatal passion that had apparently caused the adulterous couple to wander off into the desert in search of privacy.  “Just Deserts”, proclaimed one paper, self-righteously.

Our guide was keen to corroborate this story. It was not in his interest to get a reputation for losing his customers. Only I knew the truth.

Next year I am going to Iceland.

I think scalding geysers have distinct possibilities.

January's Strictly Writing Winner Is....

...postponed until Monday actually.

At the risk of sounding like a British Rail Apologies Announcement due to the wrong kind of snow or the weight of the leaves on the track, the delay is due to the level of entries this month which far exceeded our expectations - both in terms of quality and quantity.

This doesn't mean that the deadline has been extended, though, only the announcement of the winner.

Anyway, piggy-backing the unprecedented-ness of this month, we have also decided to have an additional winner at the end of February, although NO FURTHER ENTRIES ARE BEING ACCEPTED as of midnight last night.

AND, after the OVERALL WINNER has been announced,  the prize awarded and we've all shimmied  out of our sequinned outfits, we'll also be highlighting some of the stories that  we felt were Highly Commended.  These will become posts throughout the year.

So bear with us everybody and remember the great British Rail motto*:
"It's bound to be great if you have to wait."

* No, I know it isn't really, but it should be, don't you think?

Look At Me, Look At Me.

This week I received an email from my new publicist inviting me to lunch.

Obviously, this made me happy.

First, I like being taken out for lunch. Who doesn't?

But more importantly, it means that my publishers are taking my next book seriously.

There is nothing more annoying to a writer than spending a year writing a novel, only for their publisher to act like nothing's happened.

Publicity is the lifeblood of any book.

Without it, your hard work languishes and dies. There are a million books out there and readers tend to go for the ones they've heard something about.

This is one of the reasons publishing houses would rather ask established authors for more books, than take a punt on a newbie. At least the readers will have heard of you.

My new publicist, Jamie, and isn't that a great name, the sort of name that belongs to a person who can come up with mind bogglingly ace sales ideas at the drop of a hat, asked me to consider various proposals and also to 'put forward any suggestions [I] might have.'


I mean, I am always banging on about how this is a business, how authors don't take enough ownership of their own work, how they expect everything done for them.

But actual real life suggestions for publicity. That might conceivably work. That's another matter.

So I've been thinking. And thinking. And thinking. And here's my list.

1. Radio.

I like doing interviews on the radio. As the saying goes, I have a great face for it, certainly the perfect arse. And I find the presenters terribly accommodating. I suppose if you have hours of time to fill every single day, a ten minute slot with a wittering author seems like a plan.

I've also found that talking about writing in general or the theme of the latest book to be preferable to an all out sales pitch.

2. Blogs.

Like radio presenters, bloggers have space to fill every day.

As long as you've got more to say than 'please buy my book' they seem happy to have you on board.

3. Festivals.

I've never really understood if these work or not in terms of sales. They always seem to be full of writers not readers. But I suppose we writer are probably more prolific book buyers than most, so hey ho.

Anyway, they're a laugh and a great place to get pissed with writerly mates.

4. Social media.

Hmmmmmmm. This is very tricky.

I accept absolutely that this is the future and that done in the right way, social networking can put you in touch with thousands of pontential buyers. I read articles about books/songs/games 'going viral'. The trouble is, if I'm honest, I don't really know what that means, or how to go about it.

Twitter, Facebook and the like all call.

But how to make the most of it? How not to end up wasting hours and hours of my time?

I have made a note to ask the lovely Jamie.

In the meantime, does anyone have a clue?

Writing the Mind Alive Part 2

Last Wednesday seven women gathered in a cottage on the edge of a frosted wood. No, its not the beginning of a fairy story, we really did. The class I teach would have been disrupted by builders re-roofing our house so we swapped venue and met at the home of one of my students. That she lives in a Victorian cottage surrounded by woodland, and the world was lit by a heavy coating of frost simply helped. We were starting the proprioceptive writing together and it seemed an auspicious mood in which to begin.

I lit the candle, feeling a little silly, as though I was trying to add some false solemnity to what was, after all, merely a bit of scribbling amongst friends. Then we put Bach’s Goldberg Variations on the CD player and began. There was the usual short spell of kerfuffling – whispers, sneaked biscuits and giggling, and then the music pealed out loudly over all of us, surprising us. We turned it down, picked up our pens and wrote. And wrote and wrote and wrote.

There was a hush over the class I’d never encountered before. They are all talented writers and more than capable of getting down to work but usually there’s a constant low hubbub of biscuit snaffling and sighing, pen chewing and trotting off to the loo. The directive was simple: listen to the voice inside your head and write down what it is saying. Process what it says, in a kindly, inquisitive manner, probe what it really means. Keep listening and recording, not directing.

Today there was a consistency in both their concentration and their energy. It seemed easier for them than usual. And it certainly was for me. The breakthrough was the use of the Proprioceptive Question (I know. Such a pompous title but if we ignore the surface bluster and dig at what’s underneath, it’s gold.) The question you keep repeating is: What do I mean by X and you ask it every time you get even the tiniest hiccup or glitch in the flow of your thoughts.

This to me is the core of Proprioceptive writing’s magic: it’s the Editor gently inquiring of the Creator: Can I help? I’d like to help. The Ed is a right old School Monitor. Gets all uppity if it hasn’t a job to do. And Very Doesn’t Hold with the Creator romping around adding bits here and there and jumping ahead ten scenes because scene 13 is more fun to write than scene 4. The Ed stamps on such frolics, with a Can’t Play Won’t Play attitude and refuses to co-operate. The result: writer’s block. But here, the trick is to make Ed and Creator bezzy mates from the outset. It works.

Occasionally I looked up from my page, feeling guilty that I was getting so much from it myself when I was there to teach. But all heads were down, all pens were moving at exactly the same pace. We were writing to the rhythm of Bach’s music, which matches the rhythm of our own pulse, our heart rate: he composes to the rhythm of our bodies. So body and mind were in harmony. How often can we say that about writing? How often are we cramped in a chair, trying to ignore backache and numb thighs and twinges of RSI? Forgive me if this sounds whacko, but the energy in the room was clear – as if made of crystal or bright water. And the candle? I glanced at it once or twice when the Teacher in me broke concentration to see if everyone was OK. Its light was soft and intense – a simple focus back to the job in hand. So if you try it, don’t skip or customise it. Light that candle, play that Bach, listen attentively to the voice inside and copy down what it's saying. Prepare to be delighted.

What a writer needs - guest post by Emma Haughton

What increases your chances of being a successful novelist? Talent, perhaps? Previous writing experience maybe, or early success? If only it were that simple.
When it comes to writing fiction, nothing stymies you like the advantages you set out with.

What do I mean? Well, take early success. You’d think that hitting the jackpot, or at least hitting the ground running, would set you on the path of an illustrious writing career. I wish. My first foray into fiction – apart from a few abortive, adolescent efforts that never got much past page three - met with quite unanticipated results. I wrote a picture book – literally dashed it off in an afternoon - sent it off to a publisher of repute, and, hey presto, they wanted to publish it. And they did. (It sold diddly-squat, but let’s save that for another gripe.)

The point is that this bout of undelayed gratification did nothing more than give me a completely distorted idea of how easy it was to get published. So when further efforts stumbled and bit the dust, I was totally unprepared for just how pissed off I’d feel.

The same goes for previous experience. I spent over ten years as a freelance journalist. I was published in the broadsheets on a weekly basis, carved out a career in travel writing, churned out a number of non-fiction books for schools that still grace me today with a reasonable PLR cheque.

What did all this give me? An attitude. I got so used to writing something, getting it published, and getting paid for it that the prospect of spending years working on a novel that might never bring in a dime filled me with terror. I procrastinated from writing longer fiction for years, telling myself I couldn’t afford it – I had a living to earn and mouths to feed. Yet when my second husband kindly relieved me of that burden, I still couldn’t find the courage to write.

Okay, so how about ability? Surely a talent for stringing words together in a fairly pleasing way is an advantage? Maybe. But what I quickly realised when eventually I faced that blank white screen is that making pretty with words is only a very small part of the story. I could churn out a 1000-word article in my sleep, but was completely unprepared for the grit of planning and plotting, the sheer terrifying complexity of reeling in and landing a piece of 50,000 words plus. I just hadn’t got a clue how to do it.

More importantly, I hadn’t developed the qualities you need to see it through – guts, determination, perseverance, the ability to withstand rejection. That sounds like so much fluff, the kind of stuff that tumbles like clichés out of the mouths of creative writing tutors. But it’s true. In the long run, those qualities count for so much more than the gift of the gab. Wordsmithing can be learnt, I’ve found; but backbone and stamina must be well and truly earnt.

Emma Haughton spent 15 years writing for the national broadsheets, including travel articles for The Times, and is the author of one picture book and a dozen non-fiction books for schools. She is currently thrashing her way through YA novel number two.

OMG! Next Door's Cat Ate My Mother In Law!

Current financial constraints (yes, Dave and Nick, I'm talking to YOU) have meant the Husband and I have been reviewing the contents of our purse. We share one. No, it’s not pink OR blue. It’s more an electronic, metaphorical one really.

And one way we thought of trying to counteract unbalance is by trying to sell – yes, for money – the product of our individual ‘talents’.

Now, as this site is not called "StrictlyCarpenting", you can probably see where this is leading. And so I'm here to report that for the past fortnight I've been attempting to write for the masses. "Attempting" being the operative word.

I’m not talking about fiction. Oh no, these markets are purely sensationalised factual pieces written to ensure that “OMG!” hits the reader squarely between the eyes. And because the demographic of the readers is nobody I actually know, writing for this market is doubly difficult. I’m having to watch Eastenders. And the Jeremy Kyle show. And Hollyoaks. Actually scrub that, I’m NEVER watching Hollyoaks. Bring back Brookside, I say. And it’s not easy, let me tell you - not easy at all.

The last time I read a weekly woman’s magazine, they were harmless and fanciful, filled with recipes and knitting patterns, ideas to get stains out of the Sunday best tablecloth and cutesy letters from readers with pictures of their grandchildren and their dogs on their laps. Oh My God, what’s happened? Not only are they called things like ‘Give me a Break’, ‘You're Kidding’ and ‘No Way!’, but they’re chock full of mental headlines like "My Gay Stepfather Killed my Secret Transvesite Lover – Now We’re Happily Married” And they scare me. No, they do. I mean, do these things really happen and more to the point, why would these people want their stories spread around the country in a magazine for the world and his wife (and probably her transsexual stalker) to read?

*ahem* I digress. Anyway, I’m trying to look on this slight deviation from my ‘norm’ as a kind of exercise in genres. I’m flexing my writing muscles, giving my words of two syllables or less a bit of a stretch. And it’s hard. Seriously hard. I can only equate it to Lardy-arse me popping into the the local Gym (do we have one?) to quickly get shot of the Bingo Wings. It ain't happening anytime soon, and it's not as easy as I'd like to think. Although any kind of exercise, writing or otherwise, must surely be good for you and un/fortunately my patch-worked past also means I have a plethora of ‘life stories’ that I can draw on and *sex up at will. In fact Will might have more success at it.

I have to admit, though, I'm actually quite enjoying the madness it's stirring in me – I feel like a child let loose with a tube of red paint in a perfectly arranged room!

Of course, if anybody wants any sensible advice (unlike this) on how to write freelance, the lovely Deborah Durbin, who has guested for Strictly before has her website here and is not afraid to tell you how YOU can write for the weekly/monthly glossies. She’s far more sensible and successful than me. In fact forget you ever read this, I might be having the human equivalent of a feline cat-nip moment.

p.s. A magazine has since responded to my "Two Car Crashes in 5 months - Was Somebody Trying to Kill Me?" story (see how sensational that sounds?) implying that if there'd been more *sex (there was precisely NONE) or if I'd been hit twice by the same car, then they might have been interested.

Failure + Singing Out Loud = Successful Journey

Wednesday last was dedicated to clearing the boxes in the small bedroom/office after our house move. Order was the order of the day – I hated the fact that things weren’t in their ‘right’ place yet.

Anyway, in amongst the boring tax and banking stuff and a huge pile of paper for shredding , I came across some cds with songs I’d co-written some years ago. So I started to tidy the mess with my lyrics playing in the background.

I knew when I wrote them that I wasn’t the best lyricist (most of the work being an excuse to write something more akin to poetry than commercial lyrics) and listening to them years later I still felt that though the end result songs were ‘good’ – they weren’t amazing. Simon Cowell was not going to call in his search for the Christmas 2011 number one... And the song I'd written with Kelly Clarkson in mind, well...maybe not.

But then a strange thing happened. I looked at the pile of demo cds, next to a shoe box that holds my two unpublished novel manuscripts and rather than think of failure, of the fact that none of that work was ‘good enough’, I found myself beaming with pride. Hey! I made that music happen! And I wrote two books – all of that in three years! I turned the music up, went downstairs and made a cup of tea, sang along at full belt to my non amazing songs (in the style of Kelly Clarkson naturally) then went back upstairs and read the first halves of both manuscripts in the shoe box.

Hours later, I beamed some more... They may not have been perfect but they weren’t half bad. In fact, yes, I’ll say it out loud –they are a little bit amazing.

Okay, book one definitely has a couple of plot holes and book two, a plot twist that simply doesn’t work in the story but both of these are fixable problems. I know how to fix them, if I choose to. And the thing is - it wasn’t the writing that made them imperfect. I guess that’s why I beamed. I just enjoyed the feeling of knowing I can write, and that all this past work is, to coin a cheesy phrase, ‘all part of the journey’.

I’ve decided not to fix the problems, at least not now, as I’m working on book three. I’ve learnt such a lot from writing all those songs and two novels and I’d prefer to concentrate on correcting areas I fell down in before. I realise that I’ve naturally become more of a plotter, less flying by the seat of my pants (Although ‘pantsing’ still remains important!)

And I’ve also realised I hate tidying paper just a little bit more than I hate things not being in the ‘right’ place. The filing is still not done, the papers still not shredded, but my cds have been framed and the old manuscripts placed in a shiny, new, hard to ignore, neon pink box. There to constantly remind me of what I’ve done and how far I’ve come.

And since last Wednesday I'm singing more. Out loud! I've missed singing! My new neighbours may not be grateful but I'm enjoying myself immensely. I've come up with a new song called 'Lucky Misfortune'. Strange title I know but Kelly had a hit with 'Beautiful Disaster' so you see where I'm coming from? And 'When We Collide' (which could mean ANYTHING) has been massive for Matt Cardle?

So if Orion don't call, come on Simon - you know you want me...

Authors for Queensland

Please lend your support to this brilliant campaign that aims to help victims of the recent floods in Australia.

Several authors, including occasional Strictly guest Emily Gale are behind the auction. Her colleague Kate Gordon explains why it came about.

The “why” of this project is the easy part.

I think it would have been impossible to watch the footage of the unfolding crisis in Queensland and not feel moved to do something – anything – to help. I had donated what I could but I didn’t feel like that was enough. As a one income family, my husband and I were restricted in what we could give and, as the situation got worse – more people dead or missing, more homes and businesses lost, more animals displaced or lost – I started feeling desperate to do something more. The only thing I’m any good at is writing, but I didn’t know how I could use that skill to help, short of donating my books to libraries – and, at the moment, most libraries are underwater.

So I sent a call out to my Twitter writer friends, asking what we could do together as a community to help. Almost immediately, I got messages from Emily, Katrina and Fleur – wonderful writers who I consider friends even though we have only ever communicated online – telling me they felt the same sense of powerlessness, and expressing their desire to do something together to help. Emily had the idea of the online auction. Fleur offered to donate her blog, and to ask her web guru, Nyssa, to set up the auction. Katrina and Emily worked together to create a Facebook page, and have been skilfully administering it as the donations flowed in. All of this was achieved in a bit over two days.

We have had so many donations from generous people; so many shows of support; so many people asking how they can help to promote the cause. We’ve even had some people not involved in the book industry offering to donate their art, which I think is brilliant. It just goes to show how powerful social networking can be to start things like this. I am flabbergasted at how quickly it has all taken off, and so grateful and awestruck by the kindness of all involved. If this initial generosity is anything to go by, this auction will be a huge success. It all just goes to prove that people want to help, in any way they can.

Please help now by bidding on some of these wonderful items. I hope you have fun doing it (I always love a good hot auction contest), and I know that the people and animals of Queensland will be grateful for whatever you can give.

You can donate here


There’s an old saying: A friend is someone who knows the song you sing and who sings it back to you when you’ve forgotten the words.

I’m blessed with amazing writing friends. Some are online, some I meet in the flesh. All understand the slog of writing when it feels like nobody hears you, the frustration of not-getting-there, the longing for acceptance.

A while ago, as I trudged through the ever-familiar Slough of Despond, my friend Derek said: ‘Don’t forget. Things can turn on a sixpence.’ There was something about that phrase which stayed with me, and which gave me hope.

Recently, I hit a big low. An agent had asked for the full manuscript of my novel, after saying he loved the first 50 pages. The ‘L’ word! Off went the novel, and I prepared to wait. After two months, I nudged. He said he’d ‘get back to me very soon’. I waited. A month later, he replied. He was sorry to give my novel such a negative review at the beginning of the new year, but…

Fair enough. He didn’t love it any more. As is my wont, I emailed my writing friends with this news and as always, they rallied round in their wonderful and supportive way. Derek added that he’d sent me something in the post.

Next day, I stuck my chin out and entered a competition. And I also subbed the first two chapters of my novel to a small, new publisher whose details had been sitting in my inbox for a while. Derek had sent me them, suggesting I try them.

That night I received a delightful response from the publisher. She liked my synopsis, and would read the chapters. The day after, another email. She liked the chapters and would like to read the whole novel. And a few days later she emailed to say that she was reading the novel at bedtime and didn't want to get to the end. It’s hard to describe what it felt like to receive such an immediate – and positive – response. Whatever happens, I won’t forget the boost this gave me at a time when I’d hit bottom.

Soon afterwards, an envelope arrived: Derek’s mystery missive, which had been travelling through the ether towards me since my miserable rejection email. Inside, a beautiful card with the words: ‘Dear Susie, Welcome to the next stage of your journey.’

And shining like a tiny star, a sixpence.

Finding your genius

Have you watched the wonderful TED video of Elizabeth Gilbert talking about her experience of creativity?

I found Elizabeth’s talk deeply inspiring the first time I watched it, and again last night, when I was thinking about what to post on Strictly Writing today. It also links well with Susannah's fascinating post last Friday about proprioceptive writing. What Elizabeth says resonates with my own experience, apart from the bit about writing a best seller.

I’ve often thought that I need to be available for a story or a poem when it shows up, and that if I miss it the muse will pass me by, looking for another outlet. My experiences aren’t quite as mystical as some of the ones she describes, but I too know that sensation of a creative idea coming along when it’s not convenient for me to write it – the experience she described from Tom Waits.

I’ve also found it helpful to address that creative spirit as something external in the way Elizabeth does.

I’d be interested to know if others relate to this; I also hope you find Elizabeth’s humility, energy and insight a source of inspiration to keep turning up at work.

You can find it by clicking on these words

There are lots of other fascinating talks at TED. It’s perfect for wasting time when you should be writing.

Writing The Mind Alive

All my writing life I’ve been aware of two halves of the writing self.

First, there’s the Creator who spools out material with nonchalant bliss. On a bus! At 3 am! In a café with a friend doing the same across a wobbly, latte-stained table. This is the writing self I’ve always loved best. The one who pencils eight-inch arrows across a first draft and scrawls an additional paragraph in the margin, tailspinning the plot and setting it alight. Or can’t find the right word, so contentedly scribbles, ‘Furry, leg at each corner, kneads your belly in front of Relocation, Relocation – whattheycalledagain? – never mind. Protag has one that gets lost, and, whilst trying to find it, she stumbles upon a secret community living in a derelict house on the island. Oh yeah: cat!’

Then there’s the Editor, who I mulishly admit to feeling more at home with. She’s a scrawny, bespectacled beast, whose eyes gleam as she lifts her red pen (which she probably wears on a chain round her neck, prissy mare.) ‘I don’t think we really meant to say, ‘At home with?’ did we dear? With whom I feel at home is correct but I’ll allow the vernacular if you argue well for it.’ To be fair, she’s also the one who culls the Creator’s glutted draft with the zeal of Gillian MacKeith tossing pork scratchings from an obese family’s larder.

So, I’m used to playing splurge then purge. Or Ed assembling an impeccable skeleton plot then Creator wrapping it with flesh, hair, eyes and body odour. I’m happy to give one top role, then the other, confident that between them they’ll eventually conjure goods that are, for the most part, presentable. Half way what I was after.

But in all these years I’d never strayed upon a writing practise that melds the two. Same page, same time. That’s as impossible as, I dunno, asking Clegg and Cameron to run a country together and make a fair fist of it. Not happening. But this union is the basis of a book I recently read, on the advice of a fellow (highly productive and successful) writer. The book is called Writing the Mind Alive and the concept of running Editor and Creator together has the off-putting name: proprioceptive writing. When I mentioned it to my students, they knew all about proprioception. One, a teacher turned masseuse, said it means using right and left sides of the brain simultaneously, typically by using right and left hands together. As in massage or playing the piano.

Most writers are acquainted with morning pages or automatic writing - some process where you write without stopping to think. In proprioceptive writing you write freely but pause and ask questions of the creator: What did you mean by that? This way, the editor gets her fix of intervention but the creator is allowed continuous flow. Both are gainfully employed, their monkey egos simultaneously satisfied. The author of Writing The Mind Alive has simple rules. You play Bach. (Bit strict on that. It must be Bach because his music simulates our pulse rate in relaxed, receptive mode.) You light a candle – to remind you this is a ritual that works best done daily. You write for half an hour, no more. You continue to ask the question: What did I mean by x?

Ok, it’s a little whacky, but leave the room please ladies and gentlemen if you have no truck with whacko ideas from time to time. I’m a proprioceptive novice (hah – those are words I’d not even have understood this time last year) but I intend to light that candle, play that funky harpsichord and write and ask, write and ask, until Creator and Editor are coiled together in blissful, fruitful union.

More on this in my next Strictly blog.

Writing The Mind Alive by Linda Trichter Metcalf and Tobin Simon

WINNER of Jane Lovering's "Please Don't Stop The Music" Competition!

We are delighted to announce that Morton S. Gray is the winner of the competition set by Jane Lovering in her Guest Post from the weekend.  If Morton could please get in touch with an e-mail address, we can ask those lovely people at Choc Lit to get a copy of Jane's latest book "Please Don't Stop The Music" off to her as soon as it's released. Congratulations!

Email us at

Writing by committee

I’m writing some sample chapters for a series fiction packager at the moment. In case you haven't heard about this kind of thing, here's a quick lowdown. There are a small number of companies out there who come up with a story/series concept as a team effort. They develop it very carefully in-house until they have a detailed breakdown of the content, chapter by chapter. A brief is then then put out to a bunch of writers who produce some sample chapters for free. The one whose style and handling of the story is seen as the best fit will be paid to write the whole book, often with a view to writing a series. The packager then sells the whole thing to a publisher. Many of the series you’ll see in the average Waterstones, especially in the younger children’s category, are created in this way and the name on the cover is usually a pseudonym.

What’s in it for the writer? A bit more income, mainly, something most writers are in need of. I met the author of one very successful series of this kind recently and she told me it’s basically a ‘nice little earner’, even if her name isn’t on the cover. I’ve also come across several writers, successful authors in their right, who didn’t get chosen after submitting the initital chapters, so I don’t have high expectations, but I’d love to get picked. In theory, unagented/unpublished writers can be considered for these projects. All I know about that is that I heard nothing when I approached these companies pre my contract for Dark Ride, but when I mentioned wanting to do this to my agent, post-contract, things happened very quickly.

Not having to think about a plot has been enormously liberating for me and I’ve had a real blast writing these chapters. You’re given such a detailed outline of what to write, you can just concentrate on voice and style and all the twiddly embellishments that bring a story alive. I’ve enjoyed it enormously and the best bit is that if chosen, you get paid regardless of whether the packager sells the books to a publisher.

I know it isn’t always a straightforward ride and writers may be asked to submit several times to get a style exactly as its wanted. That all has to be done for free. But if you do get beyond these initial hurdles, writing for a packager could be another very useful source of income, as well as an interesting excercise in how a story can be created.

Work, Work, Busy, Busy

Whenever I tell anyone what I do for a living I'm often met by oohs and aahs, swiftly followed by a
'I would love to be a writer.'
Interestingly, this wasn't a frequent response when I was a lawyer...
At first I thought that this expression of a fervent desire to write was simply because the majority of folk secretly did want to do it.
After all, hadn't I jumped at the chance?
And indeed, for those of you out there who do want to make a career of writing. I mean really want it. Then my advice is simple. Keep doing what you are already doing, plugging away, chip, chip, chip. Your time for success could be just around the corner. I know it doesn't always feel that way, but take heart from what happened to me, because I'm just an ordinary woman, certainly no genius, and without any inside knowledge or contacts to help me along.
Actually, it makes me furious when I hear this oft bandied piece of rubbish: that you have to be famous or have the right contacts to get an agent or a publishing contract.
Sure, it helps if you happen to be a Hollywood actress, but let's be very clear about this, most of us authors are cheerful nobodies. And we like it that way.
So, if you're using this particular excuse to avoid subbing your work, fine. Just be clear that it is an excuse.
Anyway, back to my point that everyone wants to be a writer.
Well, actually, I have, over time, come to the conclusion that it just aint so. Yes, there are reams of people out there who harbour the dream of walking into Waterstones and seeing their name on the spine of a bestseller.
They can imagine themselves receiving news of their shortlisting for the Booker, maybe they're in their funkily untidy study at the time, replying to fan mail.
This however, is no more a real desire than me wanting to be a size zero. The mind can imagine the little red dress, but is the mouth gonna stop chewing? Don't be daft.
There are unpalatable truths to anything and writing is no different.
First, you're probably going to have to write and do the day job.
The dreamer sees empty months and years before him, allowing his muse to strike. The reality is that no-one gives up proper paying employment until a decent advance comes in.
I wrote my first book while working as a lawyer. I snatched lunchbreaks and evenings when the kids were in bed.
I was lucky to sell that book. Most don't and will have to keep on keeping on for another two, perhaps three unsold books.
Second, you probably won't ever make enough money to give up the day job. Most writers don't. And those of us that do, well that leads me to...
Point three, we have to write a hell of a lot and we have to write to dealines. Not for nothing does a good friend call me 'the word factory'. I write and fully edit a book a year, whilst promoting the previous one. It is graft.
Now, I'm not complaining. I love my life.
But, as the saying goes, it is what it is. Now if you're still along for the ride...get working.

Letter to the Gods Of Writing

Dear Writing Gods,

It is January - the time of year when we mere mortals are full of good intentions. During this month (okay admittedly in November, during Nanowrimo too) I usually promise you copious words. And yes, usually within weeks I fail to meet my own, too tough, targets.

Previous promises to you have been verbal and often empty. As a sinner who has not written much at all in ages, I’m taking the unusual step of writing to you. My hope is that this particular work of written word will convince you of my sincere intentions that more will follow? After all what’s written remains, so you will be able to wave this letter at me next January should I fail in my promise to you.

And what exactly is your promise to me I hear you roar from your Godly abode? Simple... I promise to write a minimum of 250 words a day, every day. If I exceed this – wonderful- but ANYBODY can find the time to write 250 words a day. And no, I don’t intend cobbling together any emails I’ve written and claiming they suffice. I really do mean 250 words of my current WIP every day. This is an achievable target which I will stick to.

This is my promise to ye Gods. And so, I ask that you bestow your benevolent graces of inspiration and writerly powers to make every single word matter and count within my story.

Yours sincerely,


(Diary note to self and Writing Gods - Monday January 10th 2011 – 250 word Strictly Writing post - Job sort of done, although not really as not words for my WIP? So 329 further words of WIP written - Job well done.

Keep this up and you may just have the writerly Gods smile upon you. Which could mean more inspiration, more words and a fabulous finished book. Deep breaths... One step at a time... Tomorrow another 250 words.)

With thanks to Debbie Ridpath of for the kind use of her image

Guest Post: Author Jane Lovering shares the secret of the "OFF" button and tells us how she finds Time To Write

People often ask me about my writing. Which is good, you know, me being a writer and all because it would be bizarre if I was, oh, I dunno, a tax inspector or something. But I’m not, so it’s fine and I like to encourage a ‘stop me and buy one’ approach to my books, so I will talk about my writing all day, since talking about it means I don’t actually have to do it.
And one of the things they most often ask me is – when do you find time to write? Well, this is the question they ask after they’ve asked if I’m a millionaire, if I know JK Rowling and if I can get them a book deal for their three page pamphlet on the history of their grandfather’s wooden leg. Since it would be churlish to walk away at this point (besides, I’ve still got a book to sell), I usually smile and answer the question – when do I find time?

Between the day job and the five kids and the two dogs and the four cats and my poor grimly-smiling husband and the dust and the laundry, I managed to turn out "Please Don’t Stop the Music" in around nine months. [And for a chance to win a copy, carry on reading to the end!].

Released Feb 2011
So, nine months of trying to keep control of my characters and their lives, when none of them are willing to confide in the others and none of them are telling the truth. That’s nine months of searching for spare time, which is tricky to find in this household, bearing in mind I still can’t find my good biro or that book of stamps I bought in March. But I managed to track it down by the simple method of never watching television.

It’s amazing how much time I used to spend, staring at the corner of the living room with my eyes open and my brain in neutral, and sometimes the set was even switched on. So, by keeping away from the moving pictures and using the time to write instead, I got my tale of Jemima and her secrets and Ben and his enigmatic hidden identity onto paper. Their story became more real to me than anything I might see on the TV and as I got more and more involved in their interactions I found that I didn’t miss watching television at all. Except, maybe Doctor Who. And Merlin. And Big Bang Theory – all right, I missed some of it.

But the freedom it gave me, not being tied to the screen (although I did sneakily iPlayer a few episodes of the above...ow, yes, all right, I watched all Doctor Who, now stop twisting my arm) meant that my book got written, not left half-finished locked in my laptop whilst I spent every evening flipping channels and moaning about that book ‘I always meant to write’.

Of course, when I typed the words ‘The End’ and looked up from my laptop, I realised that I hadn’t only stopped watching television, I’d also stopped dusting, ironing and cooking and my entire family, plus dogs, were sitting at my feet hopelessly begging for a square meal. But they’ll get over it. Eventually.
And barely had I started to watch the new series of ‘Strictly Come Dine with Me Factor’, than I felt a new book coming on...

Publishers Choc Lit are offering Strictly Writing readers the chance to win a copy of Jane's book, "Please Don't Stop The Music". All you have to do when you leave your comment is tell us who your favourite rock star is and why, and we'll announce the winner after the weekend.

Jemima Hutton is determined to build a successful new life and keep her past a dark secret. Trouble is, her jewellery business looks set to fail - until enigmatic Ben Davies offers to stock her handmade belt buckles in his guitar shop and things start looking up, on all fronts. But Ben has secrets too. When Jemima finds out he used to be the front man of hugely successful Indie rock band Willow Down, she wants to know more. Why did he desert the band on their US tour? Why is he now a semi-recluse? And the curiosity is mutual - which means that her own secret is no longer safe ...

You can find Jane here:

Tenacious Seeds Can Produce a Great Crop by Jean Dewitt

Writers are kind of quirky people—they work in solitude, they hope in quietude, they pour out their hearts in a world of their own creation. They give their utmost and their best, so when they finally send their 'baby' out into the world it can crush their spirit if it isn’t received with open arms!

Tenacity is a quality that every creative person needs, but especially writers. Why? Because while the artist can 'show' his or her work and receive instant feedback, the writer cannot do that. The writing process can take months and even years, so clinging firmly to one’s objective has to be a strong resolve, and believing in your work is not a luxury, but essential to survival! So the seeds of tenacity can often produce a great crop!

The poem 'Don’t Quit' has some inspiring words: “Often the goal is nearer than it seems to a faint and faltering man. Often the struggler has given up, when he might have captured the victor’s cup.” The path to success has many quitters along the way, but maybe, just maybe, they might have been winners had they positioned themselves mentally to 'hang on tight,' whether the ride is bumpy or not.

Some projects take years before someone has the vision to 'see' its potential, but that shouldn’t halt the creative flow. Just move on to another one and keep that one in the back of your mind…resurrection may still take place. After all, there is a season for all things, and timing is a reality, not a fable. Did you know that Steven King’s first book, Carrie, received 30 rejections and caused King to give up and throw it in the 'circular file?' Who knows what might have happened had his wife not fished it out of the trash and encouraged him to resubmit it?

Sometimes greatness flows from the struggle…it produces a more worthy book or piece of writing, so never regret struggling for your craft or waiting to see it acknowledged. Embrace both the highs and lows of the journey, and remember to keep tenacity as your closest friend!

Jean Dewitt is a poet, artist, songwriter, and blogger. She is bonkers about good biographies, persistent in her pursuit of learning French, and just plain weird when it comes to symmetry. She is a 'quiet' philanthropist (or 'good deed doer) according to the Wizard of Oz) who liked to make a difference in people’s lives. She enjoys too many things and wishes she could be more focused (suspicions of ADD have crossed her mind!) One of her dreams is to have a library just like Professor Henry Higgins (My Fair Lady)…ladder and all! Visit Jean's website at

New year, new goals

Those new year resolutions always go out the window, don't they? Quit eating too much chocolate, start going to the gym at least twice a week, drop two dress sizes and so on. To be honest, I never bothered with them for precisely that reason. Besides, if a 'new year' resolution is worth making, it can be made when it pops into the brain, whether that be July or October.

However I'm breaking with my own (self-imposed) tradition of non-new year resolutioning, and making a few goals of my own. My first is to never buy, or to be talked into buying any sort of e-reading device, whether that be the Kindle or the Sony Reader. Sorry, the luddite in me says if I want to read a book, I want it printed on paper (apologies to the Amazon rainforest!) I do not want to read it off a screen. That's too much like sitting at a computer which equals work. I want a colourful cover which I can run my hand over, and I do not want to have to rely on an electronic device which may break down. Thanks anyway, but I'll stick to Waterstones.

My second is to read more books. Last year I managed a grand total of 12 which is poor to say the least. However there are only so many hours in the day, and juggling a job with own writing projects can be difficult. Once we get the dreaded Christmas onslaught of sleb books out of the way, I can't help but get excited at a new reading year, wondering what the publishers will throw our way. (And congratulations to you if you have a book coming in 2011!)

My third is to do something I haven't already done before. And I'm four-fifths of the way there. After much deliberation, I decided one of my unpublished novels was more 'visual' and would better serve a television audience, so I've re-written it/slashed it to pieces and plan to enter it into a screenplay competition. Wish me luck! Having previously dabbled in screen/scriptwriting at school, I decided it was time to re-live my teenage hobby (which is hopefully much improved!) I'd love to hear some of your new year writing resolutions, whether you intend to follow them through or not. Happy 2011 and may all your publishing dreams come true.

The Brain Backup

Happy New Year to all our Strictly Readers!

It's a time for resolutions and developing good new writing habits, and in a recent post I mentioned that I planned to note down all the fiction-related ideas that flit half-formed around the periphery of my mind throughout the day.

Well, I went one step further than that and, after several minutes of doing no research whatsoever, I invented the Brain Backup. It's a tiny device that plugs into the side of your head – so small that if people notice it at all they think it's just some new-fangled headphone or hearing aid. But the Brain Backup is nothing ordinary. This invention can instantly save the brilliant thought that just sprang into being.

Thoughts are fickle things. Within seconds of its glorious arrival, an idea can escape from your mind's warm embrace and skip off into the ether, leaving only an imprint that says it was there once, and it was amazing.

Ideas need to be captured in those few seconds. A notepad or voice recording device are the writer's current options, and very successful they are – if you're lucky enough to have a few moments spare (moments that could turn to hours if someone has run off with the notebook and every working pen within 500 miles). More likely, the inspiration will arrive at the point when one toddler is shouting 'I need a poopie!' while another is ascending the bookcase, or when you're behind a shop counter trying to cling to the will to live while a customer dithers over whether to buy large eggs or medium. What if it arrives during a funeral or a wedding, and chuckling to yourself while you whip out a notepad is not quite the done thing?

The Brain Backup is always with you because it's embedded in your head by... er... some kind of process – I'm a bit hazy on this part but I'm sure it'll be fine. As soon as that brilliant idea manifests itself, you touch the device and the thought is saved, to be wirelessly downloaded to the computer at your leisure. 

I have always hoped that if something is so important to my novel, then of course I will remember it, but oh, no! I find that the even the most vital ideas are crowded out by the demands of everyday life before they can properly take root. My invention might need a bit more work – the brain surgery aspect, for example – but soon I'll have a way of capturing every thought from 'this book will be a three-volume dystopian epic satirising the Otherness of imperfection in contemporary society,' to 'Fred scratches his arse – v. important later!!'

As for the term Brain Backup – that's just a working title for now. I thought of an excellent product name last night just as I was about to go to sleep, but... you know how it is.