Joanna Thomas: the pleasures and pains of blogging

I started blogging just after my 30th birthday, as part of a bucket-list style challenge to try out 30 brand new experiences before turning 31. Number one on the list was to start a blog, and the blog was to be about my journey through the challenges. You see what I did there? Wiped one challenge off the list with little more than half an hour’s worth of fiddling about with Blogger. Easy-peasy.

Except, blogging about my experiences has turned-out to be as important, challenging and rewarding as each of the other Thirty@30 experiences themselves. Writing the perfect piece takes me hours. I agonise over every word just as I agonise over the words in my novel. I pour my heart and soul into each blog, and worry as I send it, defenceless, into the world. I Facebook and Tweet my posts with the same anxious pride that others reserve for pictures of their babies. I hope that people are going to read, like and share them, and am hurt when some of my dearest, closest friends seem to ignore them. Conversely, I am elated when people share their own stories, and give me inspiration for new challenges. I am overwhelmed by the support of people I don’t even know, and, of course, many that I do. Putting your writing out into the world makes you vulnerable, but I’ve found that even swinging on a trapeze doesn’t match the exhilaration of hearing that people are moved, touched, or interested by my words. A particular highlight was being re-tweeted by the wondrous and bonkers Amanda Palmer. That piece received 600 page views in 24 hours, a huge deal for me.

My writing process for the blogs is completely different to my efforts at fiction. I have discovered a liberating sense of urgency around penning my posts, because I can’t wait to get them online. I’ll stay up until 3am tapping away at my keyboard, knowing that there’s going to be some fairly instant gratification once I’m done. The same can definitely not be said for my novel, which I have been working on for five years and which I fear has become stale. I keep worrying at it, prodding old wounds, burying my head in my hands at the exhausting hopelessness of it. For all that I agonise over my blogs, I rarely start writing one without finishing it, which I think and hope keeps them fresh. If only I could do that with my novel! Sometimes, of course, the blogs are too raw, and I have to go back and make tiny tweaks when I think no one’s looking. It’s worth it for the breathless excitement of typing straight into Blogger and hitting the ‘Publish’ button.
Blogger and writer Joanna Thomas
For all the differences in the process, blogging has taught me that good non-fiction, just like good fiction, is all about storytelling. If you give readers a story arc and a healthy dose of dramatic tension, humour and emotion, they’ll go with you, and forgive the raw moments or rough patches. Fortunately that’s something I find relatively easy to do when writing about my challenges, since each one implies a mini-journey for our hapless but bloody-minded heroine, aka me.

As I write these words I’m seven months into a twelve month challenge, and still have lots more Thirty@30 experiences waiting to be discovered, enjoyed (or not!) and written about. And whatever happens once the challenge ends, I know that blogging will forevermore be a part of how I express myself through words. Now, back to that pesky plot hole in chapter four…
Visit my blog: Thirty@30
Follow me on Twitter: @JoannaJosefina
Joanna Thomas is a London-based writer with a day-job as managing editor of a legal publishing company. She blogs, writes poetry, and is editing (and re-editing) her first novel. She is also a freelance fiction editor.

Quick Fire Questions with Bestselling Author Carole Matthews

Carole Matthews is the Sunday Times bestselling author of 21 novels. Her unique sense of humour has won her legions of fans and critical acclaim all over the world. Her books have been translated into twenty languages and sold to Hollywood. Her latest book is "With Love At Christmas" has just been published by Sphere and  I've just added it to my personal Wish List.

Can the imperfect family really have the perfect Christmas?
Juliet Joyce adores Christmas.  She loves the presents, the tree, the turkey, the tinsel, everything. Already the festive spirit is upon her, which is just as well as this Christmas things are starting to get out of hand.
Her son Tom is out of work and bringing home a slew of unsuitable partners; pregnant daughter Chloe and her little boy have moved back in; Juliet’s father, Frank, is getting over a heartbreak of his own and Rita, her eccentric mother, is behaving more erratically each day.  And has the chaos got too much for Juliet’s husband Rick?
 With the big day fast approaching, Juliet hopes that she can stop everything spiralling out of control, because the only thing she wants is her family all around her and her home to be filled…

Born in St Helens, Merseyside, Carole began writing after she entered a short story competition in Writing Magazine and won a thousand pounds.  Then – to her and everyone else’s amazement – she spent the money, not on shoes and handbags, but on a writing course.  The tutor on the course liked what she was writing and recommended an agent who took her on straight away.  She got her first book deal, for Let’s Meet on Platform 8, a week later.

Thanks for joining us, Carole.  Here's a nice little starter (pun intended):
Which 3 writers, living or dead, would you invite to dinner?
William Shakespeare. There are so many questions I’d love to ask him. Like ‘Did you know you’d put so many school kids through so much pain?’

Philippa Gregory as I adore her books so much and I’d love to find out more about those pesky Tudors.

Bill Bryson as I’m sure he’d have some interesting travel stories to tell.

Favourite writing snack?
Anything chocolate-based.

Longhand or computer?
Always computer. I am a trained touch typist due to former life as a secretary and can just about keep up with my brain.

The best thing about being published is...
I can behave very badly and call it research.

The book I’d wish I’d written…
One Day by David Nicholls.

Win Booker prize or land Hollywood film deal?
Hollywood. How shallow am I?

An author should never...
Take anything for granted. I’m only doing this job because I have fantastic loyal readers who will spend their hard-earned cash on my books.

 Daily Mail or The Times?
 Daily Mail. The most amazing source of stories for a women’s fiction writer!

Independent bookshop or Amazon?
I hate to say this, but Amazon all the way. Click, click, click. And I adore my Kindle!

You really must read...
Any of the Tudor books by Philippa Gregory. She just makes the whole Tudor court come to life. Love them!

I really can’t stand…
Having to wear fingerless gloves in the winter to type as my fingers get so cold.

Left on a cliffhanger or told all?

My biggest tip for a Women's Fiction writer is…
Write what comes from your heart rather than chasing the market.

What comes first – character or plot?
Hmm. Bit of both. No point having a great character with a wet plot and vice versa.

My journey to publication was...
Relatively short. Got my first deal 17 years ago at the start of the whole chicklit wave. Thank you, Bridget Jones!

Desert Island companion?
The love of my life, Lovely Kev. He’d kill all the creepy crawlies and could make fire and catch fish. 

Carole's website can be found here: 

THANK YOU for taking time out of your busy schedule and visiting Strictly Writing,  we wish you every success with your latest book and, of course, a very Merry Christmas, Carole!


Carys Bray announces the WINNER of her signed book giveaway!

"I was supposed to decide which scenario I liked the best, but it was very difficult as there were lots of delicious ideas and I couldn't make myself pick just one. So I cheated - I'm afraid I drew one at random.

And the winner is... *FANFARE*...
Julia Bohanna.

Thanks everyone :)"

Thanks Carys.  On behalf of everyone who commented and entered, thanks - and  CONGRATULATIONS TO Julia, if you'd like to IM me your address on my Twitter account @DebsJRiccio or DM on Facebook (Debs Riccio) then I'll make sure the book begins to wend it's merry way to you.


A whole lot of stuff

There's nowhere to hide on the page.
Forgive me if I appear a little distracted. It's been a busy time. In the last month I've become the proud parent of two ebooks (one a home delivery) and there's a paperback on the way from the Lightning Source stork. And, as if that isn't enough to keep me occupied, I decided to re-travel The Artist's Way.

It's what some writers long for - an opportunity to talk about your books and, hopefully, generate some sales, amid a whirlwind of social media and marketing activity. Alongside all of that, The Artist's Way is pulling me inwards, giving me a gentle nudge to look at what makes me tick creatively. It's an interesting tug-of-war between the outer and the inner, and I'm starting to see things in a slightly different light.

Firstly, when you write a book and it's published, there's a sense of losing control over it. It's no longer just your book. It's there for all to see and some will take it to their hearts while others will take it to the charity shop (I know that gag doesn't quite work with ebooks, but work with me here). There's no more time for edits and you start to notice those little tweaks and polishes you wish you'd seen - and acted upon - earlier. Little things, like commas or adverb assassination.

Perhaps, most importantly, your book becomes a product. The artistic aspect of the journey is over to all intents and purposes. You'll still talk about the themes and metaphors, of course, but you'll start to judge the book's success by its sales figures. And although you need to be on the ball to show the book in its best light, and network-network-network, what you'll really want to do is find a comfortable space and start writing again.

Add to this, in my case, the voyage of discovery that is Julia Cameron's Artist's Way and you can soon start to feel that it's all one big obligation. 

However, as I've aways said, feelings aren't real. They're a perspective - a take on reality. Not even a map of the territory, more a set of glasses. 

When I step back from it all I realise a number of important things:

1. This is the other side of writing. It's not talked about a great deal because writers can be very private people. And no one wants to be seen to be complaining about the trials of having a book published.

2. Writing and completing a book is an exercise in risk and hope and ambition. There's so much stuff tied up in the act of reaching The End, and then putting it out to public scrutiny, that we underestimate how much it impacts upon us as writers.

3. The notion that there's a divide between the writer when she or he is writing and when they are doing something else (e.g. earning a living) is a construct. We're the same person and that same intensity of thought, and curiosity, is ever present. I'm even watching me type this and wondering what I could do with this experience in a piece of fiction.

4. Creating anything draws upon a whole set of issues and perspectives that may not have anything to do with the created work itself. Writers may wrestle with their self-esteem, ego, competitiveness and even fear. Having the work out there isn't a happy ever after in itself - not always, anyway. And certainly not since Amazon rankings came about!

So I guess what I'm saying is that I'm pleased to have brought some of my writing into being; to have dared, and nurtured it, and edited it (honest), and walked with it every step of the way to the finishing line (whatever they tell you, it's very rarely a sprint). And I've remembered the obvious truth that every writer goes through a version of this. 

Every book we see and laud or lambast, every Harry Potter or Fifty Shades or every shade of literature in between and beyond, they've all come from the fertile mind of some individual who wondered, 'How would this work as a story?' 

And whether I love a piece of work, or hate it, or (that greatest of reader crimes) feel indifferent towards it, I know that someone took the time and effort to make it available for me to read. And for that, writers everywhere, I thank you.  

Whatever happened to the Strictly Writing Award Winner? Carys Bray returns to tell us all!

I wanted to be a writer when I was a little girl, but I married young, had several children in quick succession and the dream got buried somewhere - probably under a big pile of dirty nappies. I started writing again as soon as my children were at school. I did a writing module during my Literature degree with the Open University and then I decided to do a Creative Writing MA.

I entered one of my early MA stories in the Strictly Writing Award competition and I was tremendously excited when I won. I was just beginning to think that perhaps, one day, when I’d had a lot more practice, I might actually be able to call myself a writer.  

I kept writing stories after I’d finished my MA and I soon had enough to make a collection. I heard about Salt Publishing’s Scott Prize, the only international prize for debut collections of short stories written in English, and I decided to enter. I was delighted to be shortlisted and over the moon to win.

My collection, Sweet Home, is full of stories about family and the things that go right, and wrong, when people live together. Some of the stories are sad, some are funny and some are best described as fairy tales. 

Lancashire Writing Hub guest editor Sarah Schofield reviewed Carys Bray’s Salt Scott Prize winning short story collection Sweet Home here: she says "...The collection is titled after the third story in the book. This decision is well measured. ‘Sweet Home’ is an updated twist on Hansel and Gretel. Playing on the original narrative, it highlights discrimination, racism and small community gossip. Refering to the foreign woman’s gingerbread home, one zenophobic character states: “She should have used an English recipe… Victoria sponge… You can’t get more English than that.” It seems more than appropriate that the Hansel and Gretel narrative, so ingrained in family life and read to generations of children, should have a re-evaluation and hold an important place in this collection. Challenging established expectations of what ‘family’ looks like...."

I get inspiration from everyday things. A couple of the stories are set in shops; one in a surreal store where people can buy children, and another in a midnight supermarket during the rescue of a group of Chilean miners. I read a lot of parenting books when my children were small and, over time, I developed a hatred of them. The opening story in the collection deals with that hatred - it is interrupted by ‘helpful’ quotes from fictional parenting books. I really like fairy tales and I think they have fuelled my love for short stories where impossible things happen. In one of my stories an old lady builds a gingerbread house and in another a carpenter sculpts a baby out of ice.

I like to read stories that are funny and sad, probably because real life is often both of those things. I like beautiful language and I also like to be surprised. Some stories I have really enjoyed recently are ‘Sports Leader’ from Jane Rogers’ new collection Hitting Trees With Sticks, ‘Sometimes Gulls Kill Other Gulls’ from A.J. Ashworth’s debut collection Somewhere Else, Or Even Here and ‘Tamagotchi’ from Adam Marek’s new collection The Stone Thrower.

I’m still writing short stories, although at the moment I’m mostly concentrating on a PhD and novel. I’m nearly at the end of my first draft of the novel. It doesn’t have a name yet, but it’s about the sudden death of a small child and it’s full of fairy tales and misplaced faith in the miraculous. It’s sad, but I hope it’s funny too, just like real life. 

To find out more about Carys, you can find her blog here

To win a signed copy of 'Sweet Home', simply tell us which traditional fairy story YOU'D like to give a modern twist and why.  Leave your idea in our comments box  and we'll announce the winner next week on Strictly Writing.

Many thanks to Carys for coming back and telling us all about her rise to publication fame - we're so proud that we were able to play such a meaningful role in her success story.

Sorry, you what?

Predictive text, commonly known as auto-correct can either be a blessing or a disadvantage, depending on how accustomed you are to new technology. For those of you who are beyond the 40 to 45 age bracket, predictive text is this phenomenon which allows a mobile phone user to input the first few letters of a word with a view to sending a text, then the in-built technology does the rest. For example if I wanted to text: ‘Hello, how are you?’ all I have to do is key in the first few letters of each word and voilĂ , the sentence is formed. Then all I have to do is press ‘send.’ Furthermore, it can autocorrect perhaps the most common mistake – hte instantly becomes ‘the’ which is really handy. Just like the computer does when you're writing a novel.

We’ve come a long way since the typewriter and the correction fluid, and now we’re in an era of instant messaging, e-mails, and Skype. And there’s no doubt, predictive text messaging can be beneficial, as long as you re-read what you’ve keyed in, or rather, what the iphone has instantly thrown up for you. This also applies to novel writing, and often the Word package can predict how the story is going to end.

One evening I got a text message from the Hubby.

‘I’ve bought a big schnauzer,’ he’d texted.

Oh good grief, I thought. What will the Naught Kitty do? She’ll hardly befriend a big dog, seeing as she’s the most spoiled cat in the town and refuses to share her house with us, never mind some other creature. I instantly saw bloodied battle scenes, tense stand-offs and fights over food.

Ping. The phone bleeped again.

‘Sorry, sorry. I meant a bottle of Schloer.’

‘Phew, oh, ok. I’m just coming back in a Porsche,’ I texted.

I knew we had some shopping to do that evening. It was approaching Christmas and a visit to the Disney Store was on the agenda. So I keyed in:

‘I think we need to go to the divorce.’

‘You’re what?’ he texted back. ‘WHY…WHY….WHY…????,’ he texted.

‘Why not?’ I asked. ‘We should do it for Little One. She deserves this as she’s been good. Don’t you think?’


‘Hey, what’s up?’ I texted after a few minutes.

I had of course meant to key this in but the message instead ended up as…
‘Heidi, what’s up?’

‘Who’s Heidi?’ he texted back.

‘Dunno,’ I replied.

And the result was mass confusion.

So that was it. When I pulled up in the Little Black Car, the hubby asked where the Porsche was and who did he think was going to pay for it. He also grilled me over the impending divorce.

‘What on earth are you on about?’ I asked.

This auto-correct malarkey can be quite interesting and I wonder how far technology will go in the future to assist us with novel writing. I envisage an implant type device which will enable the words to flow onto the page as they spring to mind....

*And the texts of course were sent while the vehicle was stationary with the handbrake on.

Up, up and away!

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Nah, it's a butterfly.
It wouldn't take a barrage of psychological testing to work out that I draw inspiration from many sources. My muse seems to wear different guises depending upon his or her mood.

Many writers talk about listening for 'the voice' and then following the thread to see where it takes you. I assume that's a pretty good definition of a pantser when it comes to novels.

I don't often write children's fiction because I tend to see it as having an added layer of requirements in terms of understanding your audience, as well as using appropriate language and situations for the age group that you think you're writing for.

And I'm fussy about titles too, since I like the title to be in some way indicative of the flavour of the book. Scars & Stripes, for example, is both comedic and dramatic - a coming-of-age story about an adventure that purports to be one thing and is revealed to be something else. Clever, huh?

However, Superhero Club is something of a departure for me. To start with, the lead character is a girl, she's a pre-teen (I have a feeling I just made that word up), she has a dysfunctional mum, and both she and her mum are obese. But the muse knows best.

School days in literature is such an evocative time, reminding us of the emotionally charged atmosphere of discovery, insecurity and vulnerability. My heroine, Jo - because that's what she is - lives her life on the margins and the book opens with her last one-to-one session with a counsellor.

Here's the blurb, which is in American English as the ebook is coming out through US-based Musa Publishing.  

Twelve year-old Jo has never fit in at school, what with being overweight and over-sensitive. Since Dad moved out, Mom forgets who's who in the whole mother-daughter relationship. Jo has one ambition in life: to be normal. Not gifted, or gorgeous, or even particularly popular. Just normal. 

When Jo's counselor offers her a lifeline, there's a bunch of other misfits sharing the rope. Group sessions could help them to help each other, but Chris doesn't like speaking and Alistair's a self-confessed geek. Like Stevie, the joker, says, “Oh yeah, right bunch of bloody superheroes we are!”

Sometimes the most heroic thing is to trust a group of strangers, who also have a lot at stake. Jo may find the unlikeliest of friends, and a way to transform her life from the inside. The Superhero Club could give her all that in the blink of an eye. Well, maybe a double-blink!

TaglineYou only find out you're a butterfly if you spread your wings.

Obviously, I'd love the book to do well. What writer wouldn't wish that for her or his work? But, more importantly than that, my goal is for the book to reach an audience where it can perhaps make a bit of a difference. If you know of any review sites or approaches for an ebook of this kind, please leave me a comment.

Superhero Club is out on the 9th of November:

Which books about childhood really chimed with you?

Audiobooks schmaudiobooks

Every now and then a person has to hold their hands up and say, 'I was WRONG, okay?'

Back in 2010 I took part in a discussion on the brilliant books website Vulpe Libres on audiobooks.

Author Rosy Thornton talked about how much she loved a good talking book, and I put forward the counter argument, about how audiobooks just didn't work for me. And they didn't.

The thing is, I've changed my mind. I susbscribed to anyway, because my youngest son liked to stave off car sickness by listening to books on long car journeys. About eight months ago, found I'd built up some credits that I needed to use up.

Grudgingly, I downloaded a book: The Secrets Between Us by Louise Douglas.

And you know what? I decided I liked the experience after all. It's a great book for a start, but listening to it also turned out to be the perfect thing to make household chores a bit more bearable. 

Since then I've listened to many good audiobooks and am now just as addicted as Rosy.

Here are the pick of the books I've enjoyed most over these months (I won't mention the duds...that's a whole new post)

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes 

Please Don't Stop the Music by Jane Lovering

Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo

My Dear I Wanted to Tell You by Louisa Young

The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling

So if you've never been tempted by audiobooks, it's worth giving it a go. 

But be may start making excuses to hide from the family to listen to a little more (as with The Casual Vacancy, read by the wonderful Tom Hollander) or, as genuinely happened today, fighting tears in a queue in Sainsburys (listening to the end of Private Peaceful).

Guest post: Ian Mayor on writing computer games

Hi. My name’s Ian Mayor I’m a writer and I love stories.  
Games writer Ian Mayor

Although I dabble in comic book writing, screenwriting, copy and prose; for about ten years now I’ve spent my weekdays as a computer games designer and writer (a role that’s often called “Narrative Designer”).

Narrative design is an odd gig but an increasingly common one, no two games writers I know of got there the same way. Here’s my story.  

In a prior life I wanted to be a screenwriter. After a degree in Film and Television Production at Manchester Metropolitan University I buzzed around the North West’s amatuer filmmaking scene (which involved a lot of bars) before spending a couple of years writing and directing educational films. If you’ve ever seen the memorable “Manual handling and lifting techniques” by Bolton College Consultancy Services I wrote the opening line “Most accidents in the workplace are due to improper manual handling and lifting techniques”. Around that time I realised that I wasn’t truly pursuing my dream and that a change of day job might be in order. I cold-called a games studio in Warwickshire, who, unbeknownst to me, had recently advertised for a freelance writer.  

Back then, (December 2000, yeesh) computer games seemed like an odd step for someone with serious writing ambition. This was the Playstation era, games were everywhere and I was amongst the first generation who had grown up playing them. Although the medium was being explored as a venue for storytelling, few outside the industry could see the potential or value in interactive narrative. This was never a problem for me. 

Unlike my outgoing, sporty siblings I’d grown up bookish, creative and a bit oversensitive about about it all. I drew, I acted, I obsessed over Batman comics and when at age 8 my brother and I got a 16K ZX Spectrum for Christmas, I played games.  

Gaming requires a greater investment of imagination than you probably expect. Brace for tangent.  

In his book “Understand Comics”; cartoonist Scott McCloud wrote about “closure”, a functions of the human brain which helps us make sense of the world. Although he does it in a very different way, I’ll Illustrate the concept thusly. 

You enter a room with a smashed window, a ball is on the floor surrounded by broken glass.

Think, for a second, about what occurred in that room at some point in the past. Now, you’ve just done a complex thing, effortlessly. You’ve made a story, filled in the gaps with your own knowledge of how the world works and solved the simple “whodunnit” of how the room got in that state.

I’ll bet you did more than that, tell me... what did the room look like? was it day or night? I’m cheating a little, you filled in those gaps as you just read them. Of course, as readers we do this all the time but we rarely think about the mechanics of it, closure is powerful stuff.

Although you use this same function playing current games, back in ‘82 when your avatar could be a small group of pixels allegedly depicting a spaceman your brain worked overtime to make sense of the game. 

Due largely to technical limitations games of the 80’s were usually light on context, “story” was often printed on the cassette case inlay that the game came in (which you wouldn’t have because you’d pirated the game off a school friend). But to me, and many like me, it made no difference, there were stories in games before anyone put them there.  

We all love stories and will invent them where they don’t exist. In what’s left unsaid in prose, between the panels of comic books, the edits in film and in the abstractions of gaming.  

To me, this says something universal about storytelling which everyone who crafts stories should be conscious of. A writer’s greatest tool is not her mastery of words or his understanding of structure, it is the readers/viewers/players mind. Your chosen medium is just a method of delivery. 

And so, nearly twelve years after that first writing job, six weeks in a barn-house office near Hatton Wood, I’m still in games. The writing led to a full time design position with the same company and (a brief break aside) the rest of my professional life.  

Games is still a young medium and an exciting one, games developers have produced some amazing stories, and though I concede we’re yet to deliver a narrative masterpiece, I believe it’s coming.

 Ian Mayor is a Designer and Narrative Designer for Reflections of Ubisoft Studio, he lives in Newcastle Upon Tyne with his wife and cats and you can follow him on Twitter @IanMayor where he’s more likely talking about comic books and risotto.