Guest Spot: Author Sue Ransom - how a birthday present for her daughter became her first published novel!

I don’t see myself as a writer, not really. Of course I write a lot of reports for my day job, and years and years ago, when computers and programs came with instruction manuals, I used to write them for a living, but I’m not a ‘proper’ writer. The fact that I have one novel published, another coming out in June and have just completed a third has rather taken me by surprise.

I read as much as I can find time for, mostly on the train during my daily commute into London, and I love all sorts of fiction. I read the first two Harry Potter books out loud to my son when he was too young to read them himself, and was instantly hooked. I started reading my daughter’s books too, and loved the innocent romance which many of them contained, particularly the Twilight series. What I was less enthusiastic about was the fact that most of her books seemed to be set in America. I thought that was a shame as, being very British, she didn’t really understand some of the references and she had no idea what some of the places would be like.

I started to wonder how much more she might enjoy a book which was set in her world, full of people she knew. I decided to see if I could write a story, one which was just for her.

This was in February, 2009. Her birthday is in September, so that was my goal: to write her a book as a birthday present. I started jotting down notes about the places, the people and the possible plot. It all started to come together and I realised that I could use my commuting time to write, not read. Not long before I had bought myself a touch-screen BlackBerry, so I started writing a few notes on that. Soon I was writing whole chapters on it.

Every day when I got on the train I would read what I had written the day before, and carry on. At the end of every trip I emailed the files to myself. I pieced the bits of files together in the evenings and at weekend, and printed each chapter out as I went. My husband volunteered to be my first reader, which was very brave of him, and he was brutally honest in his criticism. He also came up with some blinding ideas!

The writing was done by about July, and I had a month to edit and revise before getting two copies printed and professionally bound to give to Ellie at the beginning of September. She was desperate to read it, as all I had told her was the name of the story and no other details. She fell on the book on her birthday and (even though it was a school day) devoured it before bedtime. Thankfully she loved it, and was desperate to know what happened next. I had really enjoyed the writing process, and had started to think about what could happen to the characters after that first book finished.

Ellie started to lend out the books to her friends, and very soon I was being asked why I didn’t try and find a publisher. I was a bit wary of that: I had written a story which was only designed to entertain her, and I wasn’t at all sure that anyone else would be interested. But serendipity led me to Kate Wilson, who loved the story so much she commissioned me to write the rest of the trilogy. She also brought forward her plans to set up her own publishing house, Nosy Crow, so that Small Blue Thing could be the launch publication.

I’m just editing the last book in the trilogy now, ready for publication in January 2012. I still write on the train every day - it’s a peaceful, uninterrupted time, but my mind is now full of new stories I can write to keep my kids - and others - entertained. And entertainment is the key. I want them to be racing through the pages, smiling and crying, getting involved. That’s what being a writer means to me.

Details of the book - and a great video trailer - can be found at, and you can ask Sue questions on the SmallBlueThing Facebook page or @SCRansom on Twitter.

What would you do if you were able to speak to a ghost?
And what if you found yourself drawn to him like a magnet…
After meeting Callum in St Paul’s Cathedral, Alex realises that her mysterious new bracelet can somehow help her see ghosts. She can see Callum, she can talk to him and she can fall head- over- heels in love with him…
Callum is everything the boys at school are not – kind, attentive and romantic – but he’s trapped in limbo with no hope of escape. What future does their relationship have?
And who is Catherine? What is she trying to tell Alex about Callum, and about the secrets that he is keeping from her?

The Strictly Writing Award - the final

We are in a quiver here at Strictly Writing: it's time to vote for the winning story and dish out the glittering prize of £300.

First, a big thanks to everyone who submitted stories for our award. We've enjoyed reading them all, and the standard has been high. We hope you've enjoyed seeing the shortlisted story here on the last Friday of each month. As more people got to hear about the award we've had a growing pile of entries through our virtual letter box at Strictly HQ. In fact we planned to shortlist 10 stories but in the end we chose 11, to give a chance to the large volume of high quality last-minuters.

The voting process is simple. The winning story will be chosen by a combination of votes from readers of Strictly Writing and votes from the team here. It will be 50% us and 50% you, a method that has since been stolen by a certain TV dance show that also borrowed our name. I can't say anything more about that as our lawyer (you know who) is dealing with this. All you have to do is decide which of our wonderful shortlisted authors most deserves The Strictly Writing Award - 2011, and the delicious £300. We'll also ask the winner to do a guest blog for us to crow about their success, and I'll try to get one of the judges to write a post about the experience of judging and any patterns in the themes or styles of stories we received.

Once you've chosen which story to vote for, simply email us at with "Vote for" plus the number of the story, in the subject line of your email, as in: Vote for story 1.

Only one vote each!

To help you decide, there is a link to each story below, with the number of the story for voting.

Story 1. A Time for Grief by Jennifer Jensen

Story 2. Firstborn by Celia Andrew

Story 3. Hex Love by Phil Latham

Story 4. In the Attic by M Wilkinson

Story 5. Coming home by Csilla Toldy

Story 6. My Burglar by Carys Bray

Story 7. Coalescence by Julia Dalby

Story 8. You Can See France From Here by Kay Seeley

Story 9. A Little Bit of Soul by Gavin Wilson

Story 10. The Possibilities of Scalding Geysers by Yvonne Jackson

Story 11. Too Many Kittens by Uta Coutts

We hope you enjoy reading the stories and we look forward to announcing the winner. Voting will stay open until 30 April. Good luck to all our finalists!

To re or not to re

To re- or not to re-write, that is.*

We all know we’re supposed to. We pick up advice from classes or workshops or writers' groups: hash out the first version and then return to do the real work, the work of uncovering what it is we’re really trying to say. Chisel away the unnecessary dross or fill in colour. Whether we’re adders or cutters, we’ve most certainly learned that to take ourselves and our work seriously, we must be rewriters. Only an amateur beams with delight in the one-draft finished product. 

Except… whatever flaws that first draft has, there is an effervescence in the flow of it that often gets lost in the remodelling. A sensible, orderly, methodical approach to troubleshooting can turn a vibrant first idea bloodless. For me, (sorry for banging the same drum three posts in a row) the problem lies with the division of labour between creator and editor. When I first came across this notion of the two halves of the writer, I embraced it with Eureka! reverence. Dorothea Brande outlined it in Becoming A Writer. She had put into words what I’d long felt – that the act of writing fell into two distinct modes – the wild mind of creating and the schoolmarmish restraint of the editor. I loved that. I enjoyed it. And I think now, it is an essential phase in a writer’s development. Only by separating the two do we find which is dominant in our writing self, which needs to be strengthened.

But at some stage we need to lure them together and get them to work in unison – like conjoined twins or three-legged racers, who get nowhere fast if they’re at loggerheads. Working with the creator then the writer is like trying to follow the direction of Doctor Dolittle’s pushmi-pullyu. (A gazelle-unicorn crossbreed with a head at each end that sets off in two different directions every time it tries to move.)

But if we work first at getting the two facing the same way, we may well find that the first draft is not so far off the desired final version. If we're working a novel, it's almost guaranteed revisions will be necessary. But rather than cutting and pasting and fleshing out or paring down, perhaps we’re better off with a fresh stack of paper and sharpened pencils in a room at the opposite end of the house from the computer glow of the existing draft. Because that faulty version with its big, fat, beguiling word count will only try and coax us to tinker with it rather than start from scratch and rewrite an entire chapter again.

New work has edge. It has energy. It surprises us and romps off through the wooded rough land of our ideas, where rewriting would have us stick to the known path. And if that new work harnesses, in equal measure, editor nouse and creator verve, then a first draft may be the one.

How though? What is this first work we must do to get those two heads facing the same way? No easy answer, nor one sole answer-fits-all. For me, I’m pretty sure voice is core. When the language flows with a surprising brightness and clarity, that I can both direct and follow simultaneously, like lucid dreaming, then the chore goes out of the writing, the joy returns and that shows on the page.

*When I wrote this post, I didn't know Susie had covered the same topic the day before. I think our attitudes are not opposed. I'm not suggesting a single take at a novel will suffice, but that tinkering can kill. Perhaps writing from scratch for a piece that is stalling produces somehting stronger than shoring up holes in a lively but too-flawed draft.

In Praise of Boredom - guest post by Melissa Harrison

I was perpetually and vocally bored as a child. ‘There’s never anything to do around here,’ I’d whinge almost daily during the school holidays. Mum would tell me brusquely to go out and play, and, sulkily, off I’d go: to the attic if it was raining, but more usually to the garden, the street or into the woods (the world wasn’t heaving with imaginary paedophiles back then).

Before long my imagination would inevitably kick in, and before long I’d be piloting our apple tree through the deepest reaches of space, hiding in a spies’ lair behind the old air raid shelter, building a house for a toad or in secret training for the rollercycle Olympics. In other words, I’d be making stuff up. I’d be telling myself stories.

Lucky is the child these days who has the luxury of being bored. For many kids, life outside school is a whirl of play-dates, extra-curricular activities and carefully supervised play. Risk is minimised, and even indoors many are surrounded by devices designed to keep boredom at bay: TV, games consoles, the internet. Yet it is boredom that stimulates the imagination; boredom, I believe, that leads to true creativity. I wonder sometimes where tomorrow’s novelists will come from, with little need for many children to make up stories for themselves.

I do my best writing when I’m really bored. To that end, I try to take myself away from all the interesting (and not-so-interesting) other things I could be doing. When I can, I borrow friends’ houses: I’ve house-sat; I’ve dog-sat; I’ve even chicken-sat. Once – luxury of luxuries – I rented a tiny cottage, off-season, for two whole weeks. I use a free computer programme called LeechBlock to ban myself from all the parts of the internet that sap my time: Twitter, shopping websites, even the news. I switch the radio off after breakfast, and don’t watch TV until evening, if at all. It’s not my house, so there are few chores to procrastinate with. Day after day stretches out, empty. There’s nothing whatsoever to do except feed myself at regular intervals. It’s deadly, deadly dull. I climb the walls. I talk to myself. Eventually, I begin to write.

It’s harder at home, with so many things clamouring for attention, but it can still be done. A quiet room; a shut door. No music, no television, no internet. The to-do list on temporary hold. Like a skittish horse my mind will shy away. It wants to fill the void with something, anything: that’s the way we live these days, with not a moment unfilled, surrounded at every moment with distractions. I pace. I refuse all the blandishments. I refuse and refuse. Eventually, the writing comes.

When I was six and seven and eight I raged against what I thought was my mother’s indifference. ‘Go and play,’ she’d say, feeding another sheet of paper into her typewriter, the typescript of her own novel growing beside her. And so I would, the sound of the clacking keys drifting out from the house to the garden where my childish mind would be reluctantly, then eagerly, making up yet another story. How grateful I am to her now for giving me nothing at all to do.

Melissa Harrison lives in South London with her husband, Anthony, and rescue dog, Scout. Her first novel, Clay, will be published by Bloomsbury in 2012.

How Is It For You?

So you’ve decided to write a novel... You know what genre you want to aim for, be it commercial women’s fiction (Don’t you just hate that genre title? That’s a whole other blog post!) or sci-fi, vampire busters whatever. Where do you start? By writing a few lines? By exploring some themes? By writing some dialogue that the persistent character who has been loitering with intent in your head for weeks would say? Or do you simply have a story you want to tell and the device of telling it happens naturally? If so, you’re one lucky writer!

For me, I start a project by listening to the voices in my head. Yeah, I know – there are places for people who do that... I usually have a couple of imaginary people to begin with. They’re nattering to each other and after a few pages of writing the chatter down, I can normally tell quite a lot about them. Who they are, where they might live, what they look like, how old they are, whether they have a wart on the end of their nose, an unusual giggle, or a five o’clock shadow that no razor cures. I always have several theme ideas and sometimes the way the characters talk to each other, what they say or how they say it may indicate the main theme. Friendship, loss, personal growth, betrayal? These conversations rarely appear in the actual opening chapter – being a pure research tool - but what they often do, is hint at what the opening line could be?

What comes next is absolutely imperative in order for me to get away from the above starting blocks. I HAVE to have a title. It may end out changing through the process of writing a novel but one that I believe in has to be in place for the real writing to begin. I have to see it there in the ‘Header’ of the page on my laptop...I love brainstorming title ideas and have an entire notebook of titles for, as yet, unwritten stories. I search through books of poetry, some of Shakespeare’s idioms, pages of novels, song lyrics, seeking inspiration for that hooky title that will instantly evoke a response from the reader.

Then the fun begins! The highs and lows of storytelling; the risks your protagonist may or may not take; the potential transformation he or she may undergo; the conflicts and struggles that create the drama; the jeopardy they are placed in order to get where they need to get to.

And what happens me at around thirty five thousand words? I get stuck! Always and without fail... I then leave it for a few days until someone starts talking in my head again. The character, normally the main one, is often quite indignant, like I’ve been rude and ignored them for a while – but once they’re talking again the words seem to flow and flow until the typing of ‘The End.’
Though the joy of completing the first draft is amazing, that’s just what it is – a first draft - an almost complete work ready for re-drafting, editing, slicing and dicing. At this point I normally find a hole to crawl into rather than face that final hurdle.

But a revised, alas often even rewritten work, is more likely to be the complete work. And when that happens, it’s pure magic and worth every single moment of self doubt and agonising along the way.

This isn't intended to be a 'How To...' piece - more a snippet of how it happens for me. And I'm a nosy Norah. I want to know how it unfolds for other novel writers. Do you have OCD type ways of doing things, favourite snacks, writers block at certain word counts?

Er, voices in your head?

Author of THE UNTIED KINGDOM, Kate Johnson reveals how she stopped worrying about homework and started writing books!

I think writing is a sign of a mis-spent youth.

Ask any successful novelist what they spent their youth doing, and you can betcha by golly wow it wasn’t buckling down to schoolwork. I’m not saying you can’t be academic and creative, but I am saying I spent much more time chewing a pencil and staring out of the window daydreaming than doing my homework. What a blissful relief it was, then, when I didn’t have to do homework any more, and had a whole summer—that one between GCSEs and A levels—to just do what I wanted. And, being the odd soul I am, what I wanted was to write.

It’s a funny thing, but careers advisors don’t consider ‘novelist’ to be a proper job. They could just about get their heads around journalism, and they were on much safer ground with English Lit degrees, but as for actually writing books, instead of writing about them? I might as well have said I wanted to be an intergalactic space pirate.

(Actually, I wrote a book about that once.)

So I had to teach myself to write. It was another few years, and several really crappy jobs, before I heard of the RNA or the RWA, and actually met other people who not only wanted to write, but wanted to write romantic novels. Several more years, and several more really crappy book ideas, before I finally wrote something somebody wanted to publish.

That was six years ago. I’ve actually lost count of the novellas I’ve had epublished—somewhere around the 30 mark, I think, plus six full length novels, most of which are also in paperback. That’s coming up the hill for forty published works, with three publishers, and they’ve won awards too. But since they were largely ebooks, and with American publishers, for the most part I’m utterly unknown in the UK. Sometimes I have to check my own website to remind myself who I am.

But what’s nice about the romance writing community is how genuinely friendly everyone is. And thanks to the Internet, we can all keep in touch, share congratulations and commiserations, and make friendships that last. It was because of one of these friendships that The Untied Kingdom came about. A friend of mine from Texas—who I’d never have met if we hadn’t both been aspiring writers—and I were messing around on Instant Messenger, joking about a misspelling of the United Kingdom (which I actually find increasingly hard to type now I’ve got to used to ‘untied’!). Silliness after silliness crossed the Atlantic, until I suddenly said, “I could write about that!”

So my alternate world began to evolve. My friend and I zinged historical points at each other, and I clearly remember wondering aloud (all right, typing) whether the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand would have inevitably led to WWI. Perhaps he was still shot, my friend suggested, “but his capable wife Sophie stepped into his place, bringing about a period of peace and prosperity.” It’s a line that made it into the book.

There are a load of other ‘what if’s, some of which made it in, some of which simply shaped the world, and some of which gave me such a headache that I gave them up. The “What if Henry VIII didn’t divorce his wife?” became, “What if he was granted his annulment by the Pope and still married all his other wives, but never broke with Rome and created his own church?” A small change, but one which, the more I wrote, subtly changed the world and characters who inhabited it, especially when it came to my hero, Major Harker, and the matter of his own divorce.

I’ll also admit that the book offered me an opportunity to create the kind of hero I’d always wanted to, but who never really fit into any of my other books. Too ruggedly heroic for the modern world, too wearily put upon for my erotic romances (because that’s what a lot of my other books are!). I wanted to write a Richard Sharpe of a hero, a Mal Reynolds, a Sam Vimes. A man who didn’t fit in with the acceptable norms of his place in society, a man who spent every day dealing with idiots, a man who was tired and put upon and scarred and angry but who still, no matter the cost, got the job done.

His name is Major Harker, and you can read about him in The Untied Kingdom, available from Choc Lit 1st April.

Now, you see what happens when you don’t finish your homework?

Kate Johnson lives in rural Essex where she belongs to a pride of cats and puts up with a demon puppy. She did actually do most of her homework, but quickly so as to have more time to stare out of the window thinking about heroes. Stay in school, kids. Kate has done a variety of not-particularly great jobs, ranging from airport check-in to lab assistant, but much prefers writing for a living. For one thing, the hours are better, and no one ever tells her off for not ironing her shirt. In fact, the lack of ironing might be the single greatest advantage to being an author. Kate loves going off at mad tangents, which you’d surely never have guessed, but also enjoys reading romance and fantasy, watching funny stuff on TV, drinking coffee by the gallon and occasionally leaving the house. The Untied Kingdom is her first novel to be published in the UK.

Buy link:

If you’d like to be entered into a draw to win a copy of The Untied Kingdom, leave a comment and tell me: when you were at school, what did you think you’d do when you grew up?


The title says it all. Well, nearly all.

The other bit is that I’m still trying to take in the fact that I’ve been offered a contract with this wonderful women’s press:

- and I have a few months to revise my novel.

I thought my book was 'finished' - or as finished as I could bear it to be. Which, I suppose, is the point. There comes a time when you just cannot - or will not - stand to go through it all yet again, and so you tell yourself that it's done. My novel's been written, critiqued, revised, reported-on, and line-edited (dozens of times). The title's changed, one of the main characters has gone into first person, themes have been de-emphasised, attempts have been made to 'lighten it up' and a new beginning has been written.

Linen Press have asked for more changes - some of them changes which others have suggested, but which I didn't know - or told myself I didn't know - how to do. And the more I enter into the spirit of revision, the more there is to do. I'm discovering themes I wasn't aware of. My characters have other, deeper, stories which send reverberations through the novel. The clues were there, but only now, as I dig deeper, do I 'get' them. New characters are appearing. Even the title is throwing up fresh symbols and meanings. And I'm discovering the steps to a new dance (as well as the Happy Author dance): the dance between micro and macro - from the tiny word-or-phrase edits that subtly change the emphasis or trajectory of a sentence, to the plot overview where whole swathes are being reordered and rewritten.

And then there are those passages that have always niggled, somewhere inside me, but which I've never addressed head-on. There are always more darlings to kill, more purple prose to send packing. It's scary - I hope this work is improving the novel, but I can't really know. I'm too close to it.

What am I learning? That every book contains many versions, all hidden in different clefts and crevices of the original. Books are like people. They're much bigger - and deeper - than they may appear. They contain more potential than we're ever aware of. There's always more to discover, more to learn and we can go on being surprised by ourselves, and by our writing, as long as we live.

Booker Prize-winner Anne Enright puts it perfectly:

A successful writer did not write the book you open in the shop. The successful writer wrote about sixteen crap books, and kept working them, and rearranging them until one less crap book was born. Never look at your work and despair - this is hard, it takes nerves of steel - look at your work and then work at it.

Are you ready for publication? Guest post by Miriam Halahmy

Hello fellow writers and many thanks for inviting me to post on your blog. This is a very special time for me as my debut Y.A. novel, HIDDEN, Meadowside Fiction, is launching this month. HIDDEN is the first in a cycle of three novels set on Hayling Island off the south coast of England. The novels are gritty contemporary stories, with a serious dilemma for each of the main characters to face.

In HIDDEN, fourteen year old Alix has never thought about asylum seekers. She has enough problems of her own at home. Then one day on the beach she and her friend, Samir, see a man falling into the sea and they pull him out. He is Mohammed, a student from Iraq who has been tortured by rebel militias for helping the allies and has run away. Samir, himself an asylum seeker, knows how life in England can be very harsh for refugees. He begs Alix to help hide Mohammed to save him from being deported. Faced with the biggest dilemma of her young life, what will Alix do?

So this is a very exciting time for me but I didn’t quite realise how things were about to change! I feel as though my life has been in a complete whirl since New Year. Usually I start a new novel in January and so with a great new idea brewing, I dutifully sat down and started. But that was as far as it went. I think I’ve done about 5,000 words. I’ve hardly touched the surface.

There seem to be so many things to do which take me away from writing a new novel such as organising a book launch, designing a bookmark, filling in a whole string of blog posts as a guest writer and answering hundreds of questions on blog interviews –lovely stuff but of course it does take time.

I have been interviewed by the Ham and High newspaper and the children’s books editor of another well known newspaper (watch this space). I spent a day down at Portsmouth University and Blackwells Bookshop promoting the novel and giving a talk. I spend hours on Twitter and Facebook because there are so many things to keep updating. I have also completely redesigned my website this year, revamped my blog and set up a special Facebook page – Miriam Halahmy Writer – for everyone to ‘like’.

I have also connected with lots of new writers and others who have become interested in my forthcoming publication which is great because they email me and set up coffee dates. There is a constant flurry of emails with my editor, publicist, sales and marketing, the designer and my agent. Sometimes I feel literally glued to the computer screen.

I have to admit that I am enjoying all the activity and attention but I really didn’t see all this coming. I thought we’d launch the book and then slowly interest would grow and we’d start getting it out there. It hasn’t been like that at all, so if you have a book coming out, here’s my advice - Hold onto your hats, it’s a bit like a whirlwind. And enjoy it; it’s your reward after possibly years of hard work.

Miriam Halahmy writes fiction and poetry for children, teens and adults. Her stories and poems have been included in anthologies, read on the radio and performed on stage. HIDDEN is the first novel in a cycle of three teen novels. The next two titles will be published in 2012. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter or leave a message on her website :

Happy Days

Happy Monday.

Yeah, I know, the start of the week is not usually a cause for celebration;

no-one ever popped the cork on a bottle of bubbles on Sunday night, glad that the weekend is over, declaring an urgent desire to set the old alarm clock.

But this is an exception. Because I AM looking forward to getting started.

Last week, has been an odd one for me. I've been out of sorts.
Usually, I'm a horrible Pollyanna, getting on everyone's nerves by looking on the bright side. Comic Relief is normally a gift. How many times can one woman tell their children how lucky they are???

Not this time.

This week I have made Hamlet look cheery.

The cause? In six weeks I have a new book coming out.

There, I've said it.
I know for all of you out there seeking publication, this seems like possibly the worst case of lack of gratitude, but hear me out.

For most of the time, we writers live in some strange half world of reality and fantasy. We spend our days making stuff up and writing it down. It's not, by any standards, normal.
While we create our little worlds, we are the master, the creator, the architect. Sure, some say that their characters 'take over', but even that happens in a controlled setting of OUR making.

I don't know about you, but I find the process magical. Also, as this is my fourth book to be published, I find my confidence at building structure and theme and characters grows. My voice soars.

And though I won't say I enjoy the editing stage, I now deal with it more quickly and less painfully (for me anyway - can't speak for my ed).

But having a book coming out doesn't get any easier. Which is pathetic considering this is a well laundered tee shirt I'm pulling on. I should be able to simply smile and enjoy it.
The trouble is suffer from what is called 'imposter syndrome' ie that I live in fear of being found out.

After six years and four books (five in November), I'm still not convinced I'm very good at this lark.

This might have been acceptable when book one came out. I mean, I wrote it on a whim, having had no training other then reading as a hobby. Publication came in a whirlwind, and I fully expected it to bomb, with wagging fingers staing the bleedin' obvious. I. Was. Not. A. Writer.

But now? Why on earth do I still feel this way? Surely I've proved myself, if not to the wider world, then at least to myself?

It seems not. I've spent this week in a state of high anxiety, anticipating the books hitting the shelves and this time being found out. I haven't been able to write or do much else for worrying.

So this morning I declare this daftness at an end.

This week I will finish the book due out in November. I will go on three ten mile walks, having signed up to a sponsored twenty mile walk in May. I will meet a good mate who works for the UN and get ridiculously pissed before she heads off to Libya. I refuse to think about book four. Indeed I will not speak its name.

So here's to a great week ahead and a Happy Monday to you all.

Quickfire questions with author Julie Sykes

Which 3 writers, living or dead, would you invite to dinner?

Lee Weatherly and Linda Chapman. They're my best writing buddies. They keep me sane on a daily basis. Only they truly understand my madness.

What's your favourite writing snack?

A large mug of strong coffee and a Danish pastry.

Longhand or computer?

Computer to write. Initial ideas and notes on paper, usually in a notebook. I'm especially fond of Paperchase notebooks.

Win Booker prize or land Hollywood film deal?

Hollywood film deal. Definitely. I know, I'm shameless.

Tabloid or broadsheet?

Neither. I have 3 kids. On the rare occasion I have time to read a newspaper I do it on-line.

Independent bookshop or Amazon?

Both. Amazon is my vice. It's so easy. I'm always spontaneously buying books on-line. But I LOVE bookshops. They're the real deal.

Hacker or adder? (in terms of editing)

Both - it depends what I'm working on.

Plotter or panter? [ie do you plan out all your work first or write by the seat of your pants?]

Planner but with lots of flying by the seat of my pants, especially when my characters start talking back.

Leave on a cliffhanger or tell all?

Build to a climax then tell all. I HATE books that end of the edge of a cliff. I feel so cheated....

You really must read…

Saffy's Angel by Hilary McKay - it's one of my all time favourites. It's the comfort food of books. I've read it so many times and it still makes me howl with laughter. And I love the Cassons. I want to be their friend.

I get most excited by…

Spring and books and the first time I see the sea when I go on holiday, especially if that sea is Cornish.

If I wasn’t a writer I would be…

Really? OK, a solicitor. I would love to be Elle Woods in Legally Blonde.

Or a photographer specialising in animals and wildlife

An author should always…

Write regularly, read extensively and get out and experience life.

Julie Sykes is the award winning author of over 60 books for children. Her picture book creations include the loveable Little Tiger and the bumbling Santa. Julie also writes fiction using a variety of pen names. Her two latest series are The Fairy Bears and The Starlight Snowdogs, a magical book with an environmental theme.


A few weeks ago, I went to Brighton for the day. I met up with Nick Morgan of a new media production company called Media Fox and a gorgeous teenage actress from the drama school called Lucy Gape [this girl's going to go far, mark my words]. Nick skilfully put together this book trailer for my YA novel Dark Ride, out on May 1st.

Am absurdly pleased with it and very grateful to the two talented people who made it happen.

Hope you like it too.

Authors for Japan

As the horrifying events in Japan become ever more incomprehensible, it's easy to feel that we are powerless to do anything. The Red Cross, however, is in desperate need of funds to support its mobile emergency teams providing medical care and temporary shelter for the thousands of people affected by the disaster.

Author Keris Stainton has set up a novel way of raising funds – and everyone can take part. The Authors For Japan initiative is offering more than 150 book-related auctions where you can bid on some fantastic items, including signed books, chapter critiques, mentoring opportunities and even the chance to have a character named after you! Our very own Caroline Green and Caroline Rance both have books on offer, and you'll find plenty more from Strictly Writing's friends and guest bloggers! All you have to do is visit the site, find an item you like the look of and leave a comment on it with the amount of your bid. The auctions are open until 8pm on Sunday 20 March. 

Go on, get bidding!

The 'i' in fiction: guest post by Tom Vowler

Strictly Writing is delighted to welcome guest blogger, literary short fiction writer and novelist, Tom Vowler, to our pages. Thanks for joining us, Tom. Apologies but the link to add Tom's photo isn't working, which gives you all an excuse to visit his own blog (link below.)

How much of themselves do writers, intentionally or otherwise, put into their fiction? The perceived wisdom is that first novels/stories are often too autobiographical, but is it ever realistic to entirely separate the writer from their work? Yes, we invent characters, imbue them with a fictional world, with diverse traits, loves and fears – most of which resemble little our own. Their politics may be anathema to us; they may commit acts that terrify or appal us. The setting may be futuristic, or long ago, or just disparate to any we’ve known; a character’s gender different to ours. And yet, lingering deep in the prose, will be vestiges of our own lives, our own experiences and the interpretations we’ve made of them.

We don’t write in a vacuum. Humans are a complex, inconsistent bunch, and with any luck so are our characters. Universal truths, at least our versions of them, will shape the people in our fiction, whether they’re wizards or serial killers, and it’s these we draw on during composition.

And yet, looking at my own stories, I’ve never had a child abducted, attended a swingers’ party or used heroin for research – so how can I write with any authority on such matters? For me, the great emotions and themes in fiction (and in life) are metaphors for each other, and so the vicissitudes and phenomena in my own life allow me insight into these vicarious worlds. Exploration, therefore, of a character’s inner world forces me to examine my own.

The writing process, then, is often about a search for truth or understanding and a story can be cathartic for its creator, an exorcism of their own demons (and cheaper than counselling). Indeed, during research, I’ll sometimes discover something unpalatable about myself, giving me, I hope, even greater empathy with the voices I’m trying to inhabit.

Some of the research I did for my latest novel took me to dark and disturbing places. It, arguably, changed me; it certainly gave me knowledge I’d rather not have. A symbiosis occurs: I shape the prose, it shapes me. We are inextricably bound. And whilst stopping short of experiencing the anguish I put my main character through, it was crucial to attempt to understand the impact such trauma had on her. And so, as much as possible, the writer must occupy their characters’ psychological realms.

This said, it should still be the writer’s aim to leave as few of their grubby paw marks in the text as possible. Whilst it can be comforting to recognise someone’s style or voice, authorial intrusion usually ruins the illusion of fiction, so if you’re in there at all, make sure you’re well hidden. You may have created the story, but it’s not you I’m interested in. Indeed, if I’m reading for competitions, I like to come to stories with no knowledge of the writer, especially their gender. There’s nothing more rewarding than assuming the writer’s sex, only to be wrong.

And so we might think of our books, the worlds and people within them, as detached from our own lives, but the writer’s primordial swamp will always seep up into the words despite our best intentions.

Amazon link:

My blog link:


Tom’s debut short story collection, The Method and Other Stories, won the Scott Prize in 2010. His forthcoming novel, All That Blinds Us, is a dark psychological thriller set largely on Dartmoor.

Fraudulent Folly

While on the lookout for dodgy historical goings-on for my quackery website, I discovered the following case of Victorian literary dishonesty that forms a salutary tale for the plagiarists of modern times.

Like many newspapers past and present, The Bristol Mercury ran a regular Poet's Corner. The quality of this was as variable as you can imagine, but in June 1872 it printed some poignant lines by one T. L. B. of Clifton Wood. Nature and Faith was purportedly written to commemorate someone's death in May of that year, and it began:

We wept – 'twas Nature wept – but Faith
Can pierce beyond the gloom of death
And in yon world so fair and bright
Behold thee in refulgent light;
We miss thee here, but Faith would rather
Know thou art with thy Heavenly Father.

Comforting words indeed, if you like that sort of thing. Unfortunately for T. L. B., bereaved people had been receiving this poem from sympathetic friends since its publication in The Floweret Gathered by Thomas Goodwin Hatchard fourteen years previously – and some of them were readers of the Bristol Mercury.

One correspondent politely suggested that the poet must have made some mistake, while another called his actions 'as flagrant an instance of literary fraud as I have ever met with.'

The best response, however, came from Poet's Corner regular W. H. Dowding, who addressed the hapless T. L. B. with lines that are still relevant to the problem of plagiarism today:

Oh! T. L. B., though to me you're a stranger,
Allow me to send you a rhyme, in my way,
To tell, that by actions like yours there is danger
Of losing all claim to the chaplet of bay;
If you had tarried for sober reflection,
Surely you would not have acted so wrong,
Plain common sense must have told you, detection
Would follow your fraudulent folly ere long.

Strive not the voice of your conscience to smother
Just for a few fleeting moments of fame.
Rob not the wreath from the brow of another,
Such a mean act is deserving of blame.
Beauty and truth shall flourish for ever,
Falsehood shall perish 'neath scorn and disdain;
Work, if you can, with an honest endeavour
Work, if you can, with your own pen and brain.


I Can Feel It In My Fingers...

A funny thing happened to me recently, as I was puzzling over the plot of my WIP.
My character needed to contact a terrorist over the internet and his communications needed to be untraceable. I'd also complicated matters by making said character have autism and no internet cafes.
I'm no techie. In fact my eleven year olds are masters of IT compared to me, so I did the writerly equivalent of phoning a friend: I started a thread on
My query resulted in some sound advice, things I could credibly use in my story.
But the coup d'etat came in a detailed response from my very own Bill Gates.
This chap has PC cables instead of veins.
He explained patiently and in detail how my character could achieve his goal. It was like James Bond crossed with Spooks. Absolutely. Bloody. Brilliant.
I had to stop myself quoting him word for word (always a tempation for we writers when the research is fascinating, no?).
I've even written some fresh scenes to incorporate the idea that coded messages can be sent via photographs posted on the internet. It's too good not to use.
Talk about inspiration!!!!!!
And then I got to thinking about just that; inspiration.
Contrary to the popular myth that inspiration is something almost magical, it is in fact common place.
We find it in overheard conversations on the tube, radio shows, and posts on writers' websites. To be honest, I barely read a book or a newspaper without thinking to myself, 'wow, that would make a great story/setting/theme.'
I'm often asked where I find my inspiration, or worse, I'm asked if I don't worry about losing it.
In my early years this made me worry about something I'd never given thought to.
A bit like someone standing behind you while you make mayonaise, casually enquiring whether you don't find it often splits.
However, the WIP is book five, so I've learned that that's not likely to be a problem. My advice to any writer is not to worry about this either.
In truth, if your ears and eyes are open, you should find something wonderful, interesting or horrifying every day.
If you can't, maybe writing just isn't the right thing for you.
This weekend I was watching the DVD of Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland. My daughter wants to be Helena Bonham Carter and knows all her lines off by heart, so we run a parallel performance. It's an odd experience and one I discourage in cinemas.
However, I must now be immune to the distraction because I was once again taken by one of Lewis Carrol's most famous lines.
'I often think six impossible things before breakfast.'
I think that's pretty apt for us all.

Dastardly Distractions or Inspiring Innovations

I’m back writing. Regularly. Thanks to a promise to myself at the start of the year to write a minimum of 500 words whenever my ass is in the writing seat. By mid January, I’d added an addendum – to park my ass in that writing seat as often as possible, and by and large it’s worked. The WIP is growing in word count and I’m pleased with the outcome.
Pleased, but not thrilled. I could do more. The sisters of mercy warned me during my formative years - telling me that looking out the window would get me no-where. Well, they were right and they were wrong. Right when they wrote ‘could do better’ on my school reports and wrong about looking out the window. I was in fact focussing, just not on anything they said...

Nowadays, it’s the direction of my focus that I still struggle with. A busy personal life means that my ass ain’t in the writing seat as often as it should be, so when it is, I’m having to train myself not to ‘look out the window’. I’ve practised the avoidance of blogs, twitter, podcasts, facebook etc, having told myself that they are a distraction from the job in hand.

BUT, I’ve also had to face that I have the concentration span of a gnat. I get bored quickly, even with writing and I need a little distraction every now and then to keep the momentum going.
The problem is my drug of choice i.e. the internet, is just TOO distracting and time consuming, so I came up with a cunning plan. I would surround myself with impressive and inspirational writerly distractions. The theory behind this was so genius in it’s simplicity that if it worked, I could write a book on it. Watch this space.

So today, I had an hour and a half to write and here’s a list of the writerly distractions that I allowed on my desk.
1. A newspaper
2. A dictionary
3. A Thesaurus

Yes, yes, I know they’re all on my laptop but you’re missing the point!

4. The book I’m reading – Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand
5. A photograph
6. My notebook
7. My iphone – in case of an emergency
8. A red pen

I did get my 500 words done, quite quickly in fact, so I told myself to press on – try and aim for a thousand today. I almost made it when somehow, I found myself doodling on a stray piece of paper with the red pen. I drew trees and hearts and boxes with lids (anyone know what doodles mean?!) The I found an app on the phone that cost me 59p called Writing Tips and it’s brilliant and for only 59p? It had to be done. Then I stood up and put on a dark wash and sorted a white one for later. Had a cup of tea. Doodled some more (squiggly lines this time) followed by a brainwave about my main character and I wrote loads of notes in my notebook.

All in all, a successful session I feel. Focus, have a look out the window, re-focus, have another little look. Concentrate. Write. Doodle. Finish writing.


Anyone know what a red heart in a box with an arrow going through it and a puddle underneath it means? Looks a bit scary. But you know, the more I look at it... there’s a story in there somewhere.

Keep Fit for Writers (2) - a guest post by Alexandra from Chicklish

So in the last article we considered how eyes can be affected by sitting there thinking too much about typing the next sentence and not enough about our health.

What about the rest of the body?

The truth is, typing extensively, writers can fall into some really bad habits. You may notice how you tense up as you furiously type an exciting chapter. Test yourself – half way through your next explosive paragraph, stop typing and freeze. How are you sitting, what is tensed up in your body and what is relaxed? If you’re a huncher – (you’ll know if you are) your back rarely sits straight and rarely gets to use its muscles correctly. This means other parts of the body take on the tension.

Think about your habits. Whilst you feel good now, will you in five years? Remember to stand up and do some stretching in your short breaks and long breaks.

Posture – probably all of us have looked up good posture before or had it demonstrated in our jobs. Most people at some stage have gained some knowledge of the best way to sit. As well as stretching, posture is very important. I’m not a doctor so I will leave you to research the best way to sit, and yes it may take some adjusting to but is your body worth it?

Also interesting is that if your muscles are out of tone, then you might be using the wrong muscles when you sit and stand. The worst thing with posture is that when you’re fit and healthy you ignore the small niggles, shake it off that you slouch in your chair or maybe simply think you’re not doing anything wrong. But it can catch up on you and not only lead to back pain but also neck pain and RSI symptoms.

If you have any niggles in your back, arms, neck then it might be time to look up some strengthening exercises. If you don’t like going to the gym then some simple hand weights or home videos can help. One of the easiest DVDs available is this one . The work rave software mentioned in the first post is also relevant for reminding us to take breaks and stretch.

However if you have had pain for some time, it’s probably time to go to a physiotherapist. Ignoring writer-related injuries may make them harder to combat rather than them just disappearing. All of us deserve to spend some money and time looking after the vehicle we spend the most time in: our bodies.

Alexandra reviews for Chicklish, the teen books website, works in financial services and writes in her spare time. She has zero tolerance for slouching and bad posture in front of the computer...

How To Write. Maybe.

here - have some 'writing advice'
If you're anything like me, then a major amount of time spent in front of the computer screen is not always time spent... well, writing. Like the husband imagines it is. Actually he probably still thinks I'm shoehorning in a bit of on-line dating, which I did a lot of at the time we met (and I spent a lot of 'courting' hours trying to reassure him I'd deleted all my accounts the second our eyes met, but you don't want to know all this).
So, whilst the internet is, indeed, a marvel of modern technology, it also holds way too many distractions that I never considered possible. Procrastination- fixes are so easily and quickly fulfilled when there's a Google in your face (if you told me 25 years ago I'd be writing that sentence I'd have snorted into my Brandy and Babycham!).

Point in case: this post. As I couldn't think of anything entertaining, educational or worthwhile to say, I thought I'd have a sly Google (again, *snort*). I typed in "how to write" and could NOT believe when the search returned 529 million results. That's a heck of a lot of advice I'd say.

And then I started trawling. A lot of it is repetitive, like "Don't Use Adverbs".
Another helpful tip is, of course, to "use adverbs freely".

"Never use a verb other than SAID" seems to be a clear favourite, followed closely by the tip of (yup, you guessed it)  "Never JUST say"...
Which I agree with.  For instance, I'd have warmed a little more to Peter if he'd shrieked "Help!" as he plummeted from the plane rather than simply said "Help!", which for me, makes Peter look a little too blasé for the seriousness of his predicament. Let Peter hit the ground in a mangled mess of bloody limbs if that's his attitude.

There's an author (who I'm fond of) who almost never deviates from the *rule* of not using anything but 'said' - and for me, it kind of flattens a scene. It doesn't stop me reading on because the characters are always so frothy, but a bit of embellishment doesn't hurt, I don't think.
Think of a jam tart, then add cream. Isn't that better? cherry on top? Don't mind if I do, thanks.

Another hint is "Read it back aloud". Why? Do you generally read books aloud - unless they're about ducklings that get lost on the way to the pond or blustery days and rabbits that get stuck in holes? Al....righty then.

Then there's "Read everything you can in your chosen Genre".  Followed closely by (yeah, you're getting good at this) "Read widely outside of your Genre, if you write fiction, read non...". Now, call me old-fashioned but I'm  sure reading a Haynes manual for an Austin Allegro is not going to help me further my endeavours, so I'll stick to books I enjoy; actually want to read and not books somebody else thinks I should be reading thanks all the same.

I get particularly disturbed at the suggestion that I will get precisely nowhere without a degree in Creative Writing or similar.  Or else it will take me ten times longer than someone who does have one.  And whilst I thoroughly enjoyed my education, the thought of having to return to a classroom, constructing and de-constructing sentences, living on bread and water in a draughty garret (see - I don't need a degree to give me creative license) is not my idea of time or borrowed money well spent.

Anyway, after all this Googling (which I read somewhere will almost certainly make me go blind, so it must be true) I arrived at the station marked *Conclusion* and underneath, like a nice little welcome mat, it said "Write.  Just write.  That's all you need to do.".
help yourself - go on!

Bringing it all back home

It’s the strangest thing, but I seem to be thinking about my mum all the time lately. She died quite suddenly more than two decades ago and although of course, she is always there in the back of my mind, it'd been a while since a memory pierced my heart and took my breath away, in a way that happened all the time in the early years.

Anyone who has suffered loss of any kind will I’m sure recognise that description.

But lately the oddest things have brought her into my mind and I’ve had to brace myself against waves of sadness that she’s no longer here.

I wasn’t sure why this kept happening. There's no obvious trigger or anniversary. No one has especially reminded me of her, or said anything that sparked a particular memory. The other period of my life when I experienced this feeling most keenly was when I became a mother myself for the first time. It seemed painfully unfair that I couldn’t talk to the person who would understand it all best.

I was thinking about all this the other night and I realised that I’m living in a time of change right now, just as when I became a mum. For the first time in my life, I’m spending more of my work time writing than on any of the bread and butter journalism jobs I’ve held over the years. This, obviously, is deeply satisfying and I’m very excited about the launch of my first novel in May, Dark Ride. I’m meeting new people through my writing life all the time lately and have a very strong feeling of having ‘come home’. I understand that expression about being in one’s element in a way I never previously did.

So why do I keep thinking about my mum just now?

I wonder whether change, even good change, shakes things up in our lives, dislodging all the sediment and stuff we don’t always address. Maybe the events that shape who are to come to the surface during these periods of our life.

I had only just left university when she died and still didn't really know what I wanted to do at that stage. Getting published wasn't something we’d ever particularly discussed but I know that if she was alive today, she’d be proud of me and boring everyone silly about the book. I’m sorry she never got to do that, but even more so that she never got to meet the most important people in my life; my husband and children.

Maybe this is her way of living on and cheering me from the sidelines.