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Sunday, 7 August 2016

Spouting Forth

This summer I was lucky enough to be interviewed by the lovely Grace Palmer and to read extracts from both my books at the July NovelNights event in the beautiful Strawberry Thief Bar in Bristol.

The theme for July was the road trip novel and the place was packed. What a wonderful audience they were, so warm and welcoming. They asked lots of good questions too and I could have talked all night!

NovelNights is a brilliant monthly event and guest authors, Mike Manson, Kathryn Hind, Jean Burnett and Lizzie Parker, were all reading from their road-trip novels. It was a great honour that Tying Down The Lion was featured and that I was also invited to talk about my short story writing as well.

Answering the insightful questions, both from Grace and the gorgeous audience

In other writing news, I was very grateful to be interviewed recently by the wonderful author, Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn, for The Short Story website, and answered some more thought-provoking questions about writing both short stories and novels.

And yesterday, in a break from writing, we had a family outing to the inspirational Witley Court ruins with its huge and stunning fountain of Perseus and Andromeda, which bursts into life on the hour. A stunning spectacle.

Middle daughter, Olivia, dwarfed by the stunning fountain in full swing

Adrian, Olivia and youngest daughter,Georgia

I hope you are all having a glorious summer too.

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Finchley Literary Festival 2016

The lion sleeps tonight...

At the 2016 Finchley Literary Festival, I was given the honour of announcing the top three stories from the Greenacre Writers & Finchley Literary Festival Short Story Competition. Judging the twelve shortlisted stories was an absolute pleasure and I read and re-read them many times before making the final choices. You can see the results and read my thoughts here.

Announcing the results...

I read out the winning story, 'The Sender of Second Chances', by Anthea Morrison. James Woolf, who came second, gave a beautiful reading of his haunting 'The Wondwossi Hotel Bar'.

Afterwards, I gave a presentation (part of which will become a future post) about how my shyness stopped being a hindrance when writing fiction gave me the perfect excuse to lock myself away from the world - not quite in a bell tower like Dr Seuss, who was frightened of the children for whom he wrote - and find validity in being a quiet person.

I discussed a variety of research methods, which included the purchase of communist chocolate bars, and the stretching of the imagination beyond the limits of knowledge and experience. I also delved into my endless thoughts on the explosive, raw power of the short story and read an extract from my collection. (A few days later, I was overjoyed to discover that When Planets Slip Their Tracks had been shortlisted for The Rubery Book Award.)

As if I hadn't already had the time of my life, I was also given the opportunity to sign copies of both my books. When I do this, I can never quite believe I really am the author, as if I am doing something illicit.

Me with Rosie Canning...

...and with Lindsay Bamfield

Afterwards, Antonia Honeywell and Rosie Canning gave an entertaining, insightful and sensitive presentation about Orphans in Fiction with readings from some of the classics as well as The Ship, Antonia's debut novel and The Dolls' Hospital, her novel in progress. She talked about the idea that being orphaned in real life is a tragic and frightening situation, whereas in literature it becomes a platform from which the character can aspire to launch a heightened quality of life.

The festival had such a warm atmosphere and the audience was so receptive that, along with the very warm welcome I received from Rosie Canning, Lindsay Bamfield and Carol Sampson  - how good it was to meet you all in real life! - it was a wonderful, uplifting day. Thank you so much.

My East German chocolate

Monday, 4 July 2016


I'm really thrilled that the lovely Grace Palmer at Novelnights has invited me to talk about Tying Down The Lion as part of The Road Trip Novel Author Talk.

It takes place on July 21st at The Strawberry Thief Bar in Bristol and there will also be extracts from road trip novels by Mike Manson, Kathryn Hind, Lizzie Parker and Jean Burnett.

I'll be talking about how I embarked on the long road to publication via memories of the year I lived in Germany, my research into the history of Berlin and the vital feedback I received from the literary consultancy who helped shape my lengthy, floundering draft into a novel. And I'll be answering questions and reading extracts.

Can I keep talking for so long? I asked my husband.

He didn't think I'd have a problem with that.

I can hardly wait!

Sunday, 26 June 2016


I'm so thrilled to welcome to the blog hugely talented author, Shirley Golden.

Shirley is already well-established as a short story writer published in many anthologies and magazines and you will have frequently spotted her name in competition shortlists. Her poignant The Right Time To Fly was the 2013 winner of the Exeter Short Story Competition. Then last month, Urbane Publications released her debut novel, Skyjacked.

Set in 2154, Skyjacked launches the adventures of space pilot, Corvus Ranger, and blends high-tech space travel with the depth of human emotions, exploring the interactions between the well-drawn characters with the wisdom and carefully nuanced precision at which Shirley's writing always excels.

Today, Shirley is going to examine the use and development of artificial intelligence within fiction.

Over to you, Shirley!

The first time I ever encountered AI in fiction was in the form of the on-board computer, Zen, in Blake’s 7. Zen is hostile (initially), evades questions, and insists on being called by its name. It is, in fact, thoroughly capricious, displaying many human traits. It is also, essentially a screen. But I was hooked on the idea.

It was a far cry from Blade Runner’s replicants, especially Rachael, who’s been given memories to mask the fact that she isn’t human, and displays an impressive emotional response to the Voigt-Kampff Test. It takes Deckard over one hundred questions to confirm that she isn’t human.  The film shifts away from the idea of machines as (mostly) benign assistants. The Robots in this story are scary, with obvious tones of, ‘creation kills creator’. But their scariness is justified. They want more life. They don’t want to be ‘retired’. And who can blame them? It’s a predicament to which any human can relate.

Much more horror in its approach is The Terminator. This is the classic monster movie, a cyborg that ‘…absolutely will not stop ever, until you are dead’. And here again, the shift is huge from a static computer interface to the walking and talking Arnie as, ‘living tissue over a metal endoskeleton’. The original Alien also taps into the idea of an evil machine (or at least one tied to the evil plans of man). Subsequent Alien films use the idea of Asimov’s inbuilt robotic laws*, which prevent robots from harming humans. I Robot explores this further when a central AI computer calculates that humans are on a course which will lead to their extinction; because of the robotic laws, it can’t allow that and tries to enslave all humans to protect them from themselves.

Now, the idea of such sophisticated technology doesn’t seem so far-fetched. And AI in fiction continues to evolve, with shows such as Humans and the recent film, Ex Machina, presenting far more complex pictures of how robots might develop as individuals. Even the sequels to The Terminator move away from absolutes and adopt a morally ambiguous stance.

When I began to think about the issues surrounding the creation of an AI character, it seemed that the old problems of emotion and humour would still be the most difficult to replicate. I didn’t want to implant memories, as that had been done before, so I added an element of fantasy to get around the issue of emotion, but I decided that a lack of humour could be used as a character trait. And in the end, I liked the idea of my creation having free will – at least to the extent that any of us have it.

*Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics
1.  A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2.  A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

3.  A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Thanks so much, Joanna, for having me over on your blog.

It's a great pleasure, Shirley. Wishing Skyjacked the success it deserves - I can certainly highly recommend it!

Find Skyjacked here:

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Bisley Well Dressing Day

Inspired by Rosemary Gemmell's lovely post about May Day in Scotland, I realised that later this week our village will celebrate Well Dressing Day.

The ancient wells in Bisley, Gloucestershire were fully restored in 1863 and ever since, on Ascension Day every year, the entire village comes to a halt while the primary school children go on a procession carrying wooden letters spelling out the word ASCENSION, along with the year, and other figures in the shapes of hoops and stars.

Youngest daughter Georgia in Year Five, with the hoop we made together.

During the days leading up to the event, the children cover these letters and shapes, first in moss, then in flowers, with parents going into school to assist. Although I have never been gifted at flower arranging - and was especially bad at making the moss stay in place - the experienced parents and grandparents always help out. 
It has become a custom
passed down through many generations of the families
who have lived here for hundreds of years.

Fully decorated in 2001. Younger children have laid the posies along the ledge. Wild garlic grows in abundance on the grassy bank behind the wells.

Olivia, far left, was one of the oldest in her final year, so she was able to carry one of the two stars with the eldest boy. These children dress in traditional school uniform from the time the custom began.

The procession to the wells is accompanied by the local silver band and many villagers watch from their windows or come out to join in the walk. The vicar gives a blessing at he wells and all the children sing 'Water of Life'.

When floods caused havoc a few years ago, contaminating a local water treatment plant, the village was without mains water for two weeks. I don't know how we would have coped without the wells. We walked there several times a day with empty bottles and filled them to use at home, then back again to fill our ponies' buckets every evening.

My children are all grown up now, but we still walk to the wells at the end of Ascension Day to take in the beautiful sight of the flowers. I may not join the procession these days, but while I'm at my desk I can hear the band strike up and hope the sun continues to shine, as it always did for my children on this special day for Bisley.
Eldest daughter, Alexandra, in 2001, carrying the 'O' we made, together with Georgia, very shy, carrying her posy.

Monday, 4 April 2016

Guest post with Jenny Kane

Today I am delighted to be the guest of lovely Jenny Kane with a post on her beautiful website about how I approach my writing .

I am really grateful to Jenny for this opportunity to think back over the last eight years since I began writing and talk about how much it means to me.

And because all blog posts need a picture, here is Brian, who keeps me company when I get up before dawn.

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

The Complete Story

I am so excited about judging the Greenacre Writers and Finchley Literary Festival's Short Story Competition, I have been thinking about what I will look for when I read the entries. For me, the essence of a successful story can be encapsulated in one word; completeness.

A short story is not a fragment or an extract. It must stand alone, as entrenched within its own identity as a novel, and offer an engaging opening, a satisfying conclusion and a middle which keeps the reader enthralled. 

While it is possible to extract the grit of a short story and cement it into the bedrock of a novel, it is difficult to transplant a complete piece in its entirety. Having tried to shoehorn one of my stories into a novel as a first chapter (as explained in this post for The Literary Pig) I discovered that while it was imperfect as a fully-fledged story, it possessed too many of the required elements to function as part of a whole. Like trying to squeeze a cup-cake into the body of a perfect Victoria sponge, or make a coat with three sleeves, it became a distorting appendage.

So when I read a short story, I always hope for it to be whole, with an opening hook, a strong narrative arc and a satisfying ending. I like to be taken on a journey, be it literal, metaphorical, or some of each, and for that journey to flesh out the central character, whether his development ultimately brings him back to square one again, or leaves him dangling.

The core conflict, which has to arise early on, must leave me in no doubt that the protagonist's struggle will prove to be absorbing and credible. And with regard to characters, I need them to ignite in me the same strong responses as they would illicit in a full length novel. The short story's time constraints should not impose any constraints on my emotions. 

I do not have to like this person, but I must care about him. Such a brief time is invested in the reading of a short story, but those few minutes must result in an experience which resonates for a long time. 

One of my favourite authors is William Trevor and one of his stories which springs to mind is Gilbert's Mother. Following a disturbing local event, the mother's thought-processes help to develop Gilbert's sinister and unsettling character, as does their everyday - yet somehow disconcerting - dialogue. 
At first it appeared unlikely I would warm to Gilbert as I wondered what part he might have played in the grisly happening, but such was the skill of the author in unfolding the tale, nothing could have deterred me from reading on.
My reactions to the characters, set firm at the start, began to alter. Could I rely on the facts and opinions Gilbert's mother was telling me? 
The arc of the story built unabated and the relentless tension swelled, shifting my emotional responses with such a delicate touch that by the end, my view of both characters had been changed in an artful way which felt as unnerving as the story itself. Most important of all, as I became more closely acquainted with Gilbert and his mother, my sympathy and concern kept growing.
The ending fulfilled all the needs of a successful short story, bringing matters to a satisfactory conclusion, yet without tucking its loose strands into a tidy knot. I prefer these stray ends so that I can imagine the characters' futures for myself, so that I can ponder and wonder, and so that I can continue caring.

My well-marked copy of William Trevor's story collection, After Rain, along with my notes on Gilbert's Mother.
I like to see characters pushed to the extreme, not only hanging from the cliff edge by their fingertips, but by the tips of their fingernails, pushed to the limit of endurance and even beyond it. However, when they fall, they don't have to land. Provided they follow the natural arc through which they need to travel for the course of the story, they can be left in mid-air. A short story may need to be fully complete, but it is still a raw moment, frozen in time. I imagine it as a fragile relic that has passed into and out of someone's life, valuable to those who find it only because it is whole.

Thinking about plot now, in my story, No Consequence, (click on the 'Stories' page of the website) the central character, Ashley, is about to celebrate his sixteenth birthday, a particularly monumental milestone for him. The sense of impending change hopefully encourages the reader to stay with Ashley for the duration of his story to discover what the change entails and how it will affect him and his family. 

As with Gilbert's Mother, the plot depends upon the characters in that nothing happens which is not a result of their impulses, their needs, their motivations and emotions. For me, this provides the greatest driving force for any story. External circumstances crowd into the picture of course, as they do in real life, but they do not propel the plot. All the actions emerge purely from the characters.

So, I am looking for complete stories in which the plot is steered by credible characters with a dilemma to solve. I hope to care about them despite - or even because of - their faults and failings. I want to be engrossed by the opening sentence and captivated by all that follows as the story builds to its rewarding - although not necessarily tightly knotted - conclusion. And all within a thousand words! 

I am looking forward to lots of rewarding reading, so please submit your stories by May 31st. I can hardly wait!