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Monday, 10 December 2012

The Yellow Room

Some of you will be well acquainted with Jo Derrick's beautiful short story magazine, The Yellow Room, which is published twice a year. I just wanted to mention it for those who may not know it yet.

It has a lovely glossy cover displaying David Derrick's thoughtful and inspiring photography, sometimes black-and-white and often containing a glorious warm amber glow.
Inside is a wealth of literary stories of all kinds. Jo, who founded and edits the magazine, accepts submissions via email or post and is especially keen to receive stories up to 1600 words in length at present. However, stories up to 2500 words are eligible.
Flash fiction is also welcome.
Jo also runs a competition twice a year for stories up to 1500 words or flash pieces up to 300 words.

The magazine is of very high quality, both in terms of content and appearance. Jo is so enthusiastic about new and emerging writers, hoping to give an opportunity to those whose writing sparkles with originality, risk and that special magic. I always send her my best work! It's an honour to be part of such a vivid collection of stories in this neat A5 format, almost more of a book than a magazine, with its solid spine and crisp pages.

The previous issue, Number Seven, featured a story by Carys Bray, who has since had a wonderful collection, Sweet Home, published by Salt. I would highly recommend this book. I couldn't put it down. I was reading it while cooking, while Christmas shopping, while I supposed to be doing my own writing, hiding upstairs with it while the family were trying to find me. I read it until it was finished and then wished I still had it all to come.

One of my favourite short stories, At The Launderette, by Sarah Barr appeared in issue Two of The Yellow Room. I still read it as an example of the craft whenever I need a reminder of how an excellent story should be written.
Spare language, smooth development of the main character in a believable and careful progression throughout, a great stirring of emotion and a perfect ending. I won't say any more about it here, but will maybe devote the next post to why I think it's so compelling. It taught me a lot about taking care to pare a story down to the bone.

Issue Eight of The Yellow Room is available now.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Blogger Award

At the beginning of August, the lovely Teresa Ashby gave me a really gorgeous blogger award. Thank you, Teresa, for thinking of me and my blog and here are the five fabulous things about my life.

1. I have never felt bored. If I'm in a boring situation, my mind switches to imagination mode and I think all sorts of ridiculous things that keep me entertained. When my headmistress gave the sixth-form a long speech for our leaving day, I recall imagining her dancing the can-can. It was a complete contrast to her stiff and starchy image and when she appeared to look straight at me, I was convinced she could read my thoughts. About four years ago, I adapted my tendency to live in a dream-world to writing fiction. I love it more than I can say. The disadvantages of an over-active mind are that I never see anyone wave to me and I have to ask what happened when we've finished watching a film.

2. My father bought me a paperback every Saturday morning. Our day began at the kitchen table, where I would read Bunty or Mandy while he scanned the racing pages of his newspaper. We drank lots of tea and I ate lots of  those iced biscuits (like Party Rings, only square and with iced pictures on them. I think they were called Playbox) for breakfast. Then he took me into the town and deposited me in the miniature branch of WH Smith to browse while he visited the turf accountant. When he collected me (hours later) he bought me whichever book I'd chosen. They cost two-and-six then. If I couldn't choose between two, he might agree to buy both, depending on how the horses were running. No Saturday could have been more perfect than that.

3. I developed a horrendous kidney disease when I was five. My parents were told it might be leukaemia. I was covered in bruises and in terrible pain. Driving me to hospital, my father screeched to a stop outside the toyshop, ran in and came out with a huge box for me. It was the Playdoh factory I'd wanted for ages.
I'd only just started school then, but was at home recovering for over a month, during which the entire class sent me pictures and paintings and cards. I remember the package being delivered and sitting on the stairs to read them all, wishing I could go back to school soon and get to know them all. I did recover fully, I'm glad to say, and caught up with school life. But I was always the shyest girl in the class.

4. After living in Germany for almost a year when I was twenty, I discovered I should have applied for some sort of visa and had my passport stamped. I lived in fear after that, especially when I was caught without the correct ticket on a bus in Hamburg. I was asked to produce my passport, but I didn't have it with me. The inspector was terrifying and issued me with a large fine. A lovely lady in the seat in front of me turned round to ask him to be lenient and to bear in mind that I was English and would get a dreadful impression of the German people if he wasn't prepared to let me off with a warning. But he went ahead and gave me the fine. I sat there with tears rolling down my face at the lady's kindness and at the humiliation. I couldn't eat anything except cheap bread for a week to pay the fine. And I drowned my sorrows with a bottle of very cheap wine, scraping out the cork with a fork, which took a whole afternoon, but is possible.

5. I have the best life ever and hope it goes on for a very long time.

Thank you, Teresa. x






Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Summer Pursuits

It's been a trying time. We tried to be helpful by agreeing to open up the field we rent for our ponies as a temporary car-park. This was to help the owners of said field, who were celebrating a family wedding at their home. Could the overspill of guests use the field for their cars? Of course, we said. How lovely. But we didn't realise the guests would leave the field-gate open all night! From 5am, so we are told, our pony and another he egged on from a neighbouring field trotted gleefully around the village.
They found their way into a farmer's field and nibbled ten new bales of hay. The packaging was ruined and the damp getting in. The owner of the other pony was cross with ours, who was the certain ringleader. And the farmer was fed-up with everyone, understandably. As the ponies were too full of hay and high spirits to be chastened, the two men got cross with each other instead!
Hubby had to act as peacemaker while catching our (exceptionally pleased with himself) pony and mending fences in every sense of the word.
Middle daughter made a notice for the field-gate requesting any remaining wedding-guests to please not open it, walk in and excite the ponies any more. As she attached the notice, four adults strolled past her, went in and proceeded to do just that! Whatever happened to the Country Code? I remember in the sixties/seventies seeing the reminders on television about closing gates.
Meanwhile our neighbours are replacing a fence and the removal of the old one has caused the boldest of our chickens, improbably named Spiffy-Peaches, to get excited and venture through the resulting gaps. Our small kitten, recently allowed to begin exploring the great outdoors, is amazingly not fazed by the chicken, despite being a third of her size. She is thrilled at the hunting opportunity presented by a plump, but small-brained bird on the ground. Hubby had to canter down the garden and rescue Spiffy-Peaches twice yesterday while he was trying to work. Thankfully, Coop, Bernhardt and Kevin Kiev are less adventurous.
I have seen one beautiful daughter graduate - what a wonderful day that was; another beautiful daughter pass her driving test (waiting for her in the test centre with the real driving-instructors gave me a lot of short story ideas) and a third beautiful daughter go off to a week's residential novel-writing course for ages fourteen to sixteen. She has a story published in an anthology, Objection To Perfection, published by Gentlemen Press, and full of pieces by young writers aged thirteen to twenty-one. So, feeling proud of them all, I'm fluffing up my feathers in a style reminiscent of Spiffy before she encountered the kitten and started jogging back up the garden.
In between animal escapades and motherly pride, I have read The Colour Of Milk by Nell Leyshon. I really enjoyed this little novel. It's very quick to read if you don't have much time and is so moving. The language is spare and direct, which adds further shades of grey (I didn't mean to say that) to the bleakness of the narrator's life. I thought I would be annoyed by the lack of capitals at the beginning of sentences. But it was appropriate for the narrator to write in that way and not distracting after all. And for me it was a good lesson in pared-down writing and how effective and emotive that can be.
I'm also looking forward to reading The Lighthouse by Alison Moore, which is long-listed for the Man Booker Prize and published by saltpublishing.com. They are running some short story competitions at the moment, which I have been busy entering. I've read an excerpt of The Lighthouse and really enjoyed Alison's style and voice.
Tomorrow, all being quiet in the garden and field, I start the first read-through of my own novel. This will be the day I read it as a reader, a very critical one who is easily bored by unnecessary description, tedious dialogue, rambling plots that go nowhere, characters who don't leap from the page and repetition of ideas in case the reader didn't get it the first time a hint was dropped. I know I can be guilty of all these in a first draft and I don't want to let any of it slip through the net. Or through the fence. Or out of the gate.
So I shall be ruthless and harsh. I won't correct typos etc., since they might occur in parts that I'll delete eventually. I'll cringe at the silly mistakes, gritting my teeth as I leave them where they are for now, and just note where the massive, sweeping changes need to be made. And I'll let you know how it goes. By the end of the summer, I hope I'll have made some real progress with it.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Tale Of The Unexpected

I enjoyed a lovely morning at Henbury School in Bristol yesterday, watching a Year Ten art class and chatting to the students as they worked. The group was given an entire day to devote to their project - individual pieces based on images from my story, Struthio Camelus.

This story featured in the 2010 Bristol Short Story Prize anthology and is a surreal tale about a man metamorphosing into an ostrich during a job interview. As well as amazing depictions of the metamorphosis, they also picked out all sorts of other details, showing a good understanding of the story.

I saw St. Bernard dogs, the Branch of the Year trophy, the company tie, the office safe, the ostrich-feet bursting through the hapless man's brogues, Emily the hapless bride's wedding-dress (one of these was a collage made from bank-notes) and the interviewer sitting at his desk surrounded by the cheese-plant and the hat-stand mentioned in the story.

They used a variety of media and techniques: paints, inks, collage, pencil and pastels. Every student had their own ideas, yet they all helped and supported one another. Their teacher, John Bennett, was inspiring and enthusiastic. He worked so well with them while also encouraging them to think for themselves and follow through their ideas.

I had a wonderful time. All the students were happy to answer all my questions and let me examine their work. They were so polite and enthusiastic, a credit to their school. All their work will be displayed at the ShortStoryVille festival in Bristol on Saturday 14th July and a recording of me reading the story will (hopefully, if I can work out how to email it) be playing in the background.

I never imagined being involved in anything as amazing as that when I dreamed up this strange little story about how the things we expect to go one way, in a straightforward direction, often divert us off course in a way we could not have envisaged. The other theme is that we should never underestimate what others might know about us, or plan to do with us, given the chance!

In a nutshell, anything can happen any time. And often when you least expect it. 

Saturday, 30 June 2012

First Step, Final Step

This week I finished the first draft of the novel, all 100,500 words of it, and realised I had taken only the first step. It's quite a big step, I think, but still a first. I have put the whole thing away, together with all the books I used for research, the (now nonsensical) notes on scraps of paper and character cards, until 1st August. That gives me a few weeks to allow my heart to turn cold towards it. I'll sit down and read it with detachment and make copious notes. I feel a special new notebook wending its way here to make a home with me. A really nice one.

And in the same week of this first step towards producing a book, my eldest daughter took the final one of her degree course at Cardiff University. She achieved a First and we couldn't be more proud of her. Not just for this wonderful result, but for the wonderful girl she is. She has overcome serious personal setbacks to reach this stage of her life and never once given up. And it was a hard road to tread at times. Her result is a triumph for her as a person, as well as an accolade for her hard work. She is also very beautiful and has a smile that, if it were the last thing I ever saw while gripping to the edge of a cliff by my fingernails like Mufasa in the Lion King, I would be smiling back.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

The Joy of Coloured Card

I have, rather late in the day, discovered how useful it is to have long strips of firm card on which to write details about the characters in my novel. It's better than scraps of paper or a notepad for this purpose because it means you have an excuse to buy beautiful, ready-cut and over-priced strips of card in lots of gorgeous colours. Also, because of their brightness and beauty, I don't lose them. Furthermore, the people in the novel who form a natural group, such as the main family or their foreign relatives or their neighbours or their friends, can each have their own colour. So when I'm struggling to recall aspects of a minor character's life/personality/habits from an earlier chapter, I can just find their colour and check the facts or add to them. All at a glance. (Or I could if I'd discovered this at the beginning.)
I don't usually make any lists or plans whatsoever, but I do love my cards. Just as I love my very weird spreadsheet for its coloured boxes. It may have something to do with colour. I have very bad eyesight, so perhaps I need things that stand out well.
Writing the novel, I reached the stage where I couldn't remember tiny quirks and individual characteristics, so now everything is added to the cards, if I remember to stop and do it. I also have a card for the street where they live. To a small extent, it forms a character of its own.
The other wonderful thing is that it gives a legitimate reason to procrastinate. I'm sure it's better for me to duplicate information on a blue or purple or pink piece of card when I need a pause from writing, than to wander through Amazon yet again, clicking away and adding to the ridiculously tall tower of books waiting to be read. I might count them one day, when I'm procrastinating again.



Monday, 4 June 2012

Bewildering Walls

Well, I've reached almost 80,000 words of the novel now and loved every moment of writing it. I don't want it to end in some ways, but I'm really excited about reading it through for the first time. I'm going to leave it for a month first and try to approach it in a collected, detached and critical way. I'm aiming to reach about 100K and probably delete about 10% of that. All of which seems very mathematical and organised for me, but I think that's how it will go. Or maybe I've been reading Stephen King's On Writing again. I'm pretty sure he says that's a reasonable aim. There will certainly be some deleting.

With the last 20K or so still to write, I was having great fun with it this week, having reached a crucial part of the main character's journey, the part I had looked forward to so much. And I had to stop. I hit a brick wall. Which is ironic, since the theme is walls, both physical and emotional. And here was mine.

It made me laugh to start with, this wall. I was supposed to be the author, steering and guiding my people up to and over their walls. And I'd met one I couldn't circumvent for them, bringing the whole process to a ridiculous stop. I spent the day trying to sort it out. The problem was that this turned out to be an historical novel. Initially, I planned to bring in a thread or two from history and just sort of weave them loosely into the fiction. But the history-aspect grew and grew. And I discovered that I'd set the whole thing a year late for the story-line I wanted. But changing the year would mean changing dozens of details, a painstaking editorial job that might really challenge my hitherto positive attitude to the whole work.

I paced and seethed, ate a lot of cereal and drank a lot of coffee. I was angry that I'd overlooked the details that might have shown me much earlier that I was heading the wrong way. I then stopped being a twit and tried looking at the problem with great care, researching my research before ploughing ahead with these massive, sweeping changes.

And I discovered I was OK! It was such a huge relief. I had panicked, misunderstood some facts and tied myself in knots for nothing. It was just a matter of not reading some information properly. My original research had been in order after all. (I think.) So I can carry on as planned and hopefully reach the end very soon before I put it away for that important month's break. I'll try to read it through in one sitting, setting aside a whole day to do so, without any nit-picking alterations, just being a reader rather than a writer and getting the feel of the whole thing. Then I'll get down to the cutting and developing and stitching disconnected bits together.

This novel began as a short story that became a favourite of mine. It was shortlisted several times in competitions, but never placed. I began to wonder if that might be because it wasn't complete as a short story. Maybe it was the beginning of something more, an introduction to something bigger. I liked the characters and wanted to know what happened to them next. They've kept me entertained ever since, so even if nothing further happens, I will have had a brilliant time writing it and learned a lot from it as an exercise.

I heard last month that I'd been shortlisted in the William Trevor/Elizabeth Bowen short story competition. I don't think I've got any further than that. But it was good to be in the final twenty five in that particular competition, since William Trevor is my hero. And I came second in the latest Yellow Room competition, which I was very happy about. I love the fiction in that magazine.
I'm also excited to have been invited to meet pupils at Henbury School in Bristol later this month. They have created artwork for ShortStoryVille, organised by The Bristol Short Story Prize. The details are here. They chose my story from the 2010 anthology as inspiration for their art and it's such a thrill to know that and to get the chance to meet them. The story was surreal, involving a man who became an ostrich. It's rare for me to write anything surreal, but sometimes I get the urge and it paid off that time. However, I've never managed to interest anyone in my story of a lady who levitates. Maybe that one was just too silly. I'm looking forward to seeing how the students have interpreted the image of the man/ostrich.

I'm still trying to write short stories as well as the novel, but it's hard to fit both in. Mostly I just choose whichever jostles for position with the most urgency. I love both so much. The pleasure I get from writing never diminishes. When I'm immersed, I always wonder why I spend so much time procrastinating first. The writing is such a joy, even when I get it wrong, that it's odd to think I've sat there putting it off with visits to Amazon etc. I'm not on Facebook any more and I haven't ever really got into Twitter, but I still lose a lot of time gazing at things on the screen that have little to do with writing. However hard it gets at times, it's never as hard as the realisation that it's midday and not a word has been typed yet!

I hope you're all enjoying the bank-holiday break. It's nice not be rushing about. Having said that, we've been laying a floor and finding it very hard work in a large room that has no straight walls or true corners. Walls again!

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Of Internet Loss, Not Getting To Edinburgh, Poorly Child, Wounded Cat and Two High Spots

I just wanted to say a huge sorry for being so absent this last couple of weeks. We have lost our Broadband connection, having asked for an upgrade. BT agreed to try to improve our service when we found the Internet was slowing down a lot in the evenings. The day they carried out the upgrade, we lost the connection completely. I have spent hundreds of hours on the phone waiting in queues or talking to engineers who all say they haven't a clue what to do and will elevate our case to the next team. We have been elevated so much I feel as if I'm perched on Everest waiting for the next call/visit. It has still not been resolved, but my husband has found a way of giving us a bit of Internet with a mobile Broadband stick. We can't do big downloads or watch videos, but we can at last catch up a bit.
While this has been going on, our kitten has been spayed (and is recovering well). One of our adult cats has been wounded by a bite of some sort, as well as developing a dreadful infection in his eye (he is on the mend, but requires dozens of different tablets and creams). So I have been ricocheting between the BT people and the vet's surgery.
My middle daughter fell ill with headaches and dizziness during this time and we went to the doctor for appointments and blood tests as well as to the optician for eye-sight checks. (She has low blood-pressure and her eyes are travelling in opposite directions, so she needs glasses with a prism in the lens.)
I was hoping to travel to Edinburgh on Monday. having been invited to an awards ceremony. I had a story shortlisted in the Scottish Association of Writers' competition. As you can already imagine, I wasn't very well placed to be travelling from Gloucestershire to Edinburgh at this particular time, so had to let them know I wouldn't be able to come. They were so lovely and understanding. They sent me an email the next day (I hadn't mentioned we had no Internet), but luckily my husband checked my inbox for me while he was at work and was able to let me know I came second in the competition. And the lovely judge read out my story too. So that was a welcome and unexpected high spot in an otherwise trying time. I was really pleased and the people I was eventually able to email back when my husband's android phone allowed us a bit of temporary Internet were so sweet. 
There was a coincidence too. My story was called The Biology Lesson and featured a biology teacher, perhaps not surprisingly. One of the other entrants, incredibly, had once taught a girl called Joanna Campbell, who went on to become a biology teacher. 
So, apologies for not being able to keep up with all your lovely blog posts, but hopefully next week will be calmer and there will be some Internet too. I didn't realise how much I depended on it. I only use it for blogging and emails and news. I don't use Facebook any more. But I do look up various pieces of information for research, particularly for my novel. 
The good news is that while I was waiting for men to call or stroking cats with large patches of shaved fur, I was able to read the whole of Frances Garrood's wonderful book Dead Ernest. I loved it so much and couldn't put it down. So that was the other high spot of my week. Thank you, Frances, for keeping me so well entertained.

Monday, 9 April 2012

Sunshine On A Cloudy Day

Joanne Fox, or the lovely Harvey, to be precise, has kindly sent me the Sunshine Award, so many thanks to them both and here are the six things that make me happy:

1) Rain. I love teeming rain and strong wind. I enjoy a good storm whipping the world up beyond my window. I realise I'm enjoying this perilous weather from the comfort of my own home. However, I don't mind being caught up in it for the joy of coming in to dry off and warm up. I like the smell of damp clothes steaming and the hot cup of tea that restores me. My mother always worries about damp. She is a fanatic about keeping it at bay. It's a foe that waits around corners with its foot out to trip her up. She wouldn't let me lie on our lawn - in 1976 of all summers - in case the grass was damp and I developed rheumatism.

2) The three very different smiles of my three daughters. One smile reveals an entire soul. Another is open to a thousand interpretations. The third is often shy, but can erupt like a volcano of infectious sparkling joy.

3) William Trevor's short stories. If I were marooned on a desert island, I would take this collection with me and be perfectly content for some considerable time. He breaks some of the rules about writing, but it simply doesn't matter.

4) Our cats. I love their aloof and indignant nature, the way they rule our home and get away with it. I enjoy their fur brushing against my legs and the way the chubby one settles in my lap and forces me to stroke his cheeks and the back of his neck, keeping me in the chair for ages even when I was just about to get up. They remind me of how important it is to stop and stare, especially when I watch them gazing out of the window.

5) On a topical note, I love researching the sixties for my novel. It brings back so many happy memories of my childhood. I must be careful not to overload the writing with too much detail. It's hard to resist throwing in a chain-belt here and a pale lipstick there. However, I'm sure these fashions have made a comeback. I seem to wear lots of sixties-inspired things. Or have I left that wardrobe clear-out a tad too long?

6) It has to be writing! I love it with a passion that I don't need to explain to all you lovely writers who know exactly how much happiness it brings us all. Especially those moments when the pieces of a story tumble into place and you want to shout it from the rooftops.

If I could add a seventh, it would have to be Walnut Whips, but only the plain chocolate kind. Very hard to track down.

Thank you Joanne and Harvey. I feel very happy just thinking about these things.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Lucky Seven

Thank you, Teresa, for tagging me with Lucky Seven! I've enjoyed locating seven lines on page 77 of my WIP, from line seven onwards. This WIP is a family saga with two main settings, a very poignant theme and hopefully quite a lot of humour. That's to say, it sometimes makes me laugh. But that might be from sheer desperation! I tend to laugh when things are really awful, so there's no guarantee that this WIP is working, but I'm having a lot of fun writing it!
Here is the extract. The story is set in 1967, hence the party-line reference. Or do party-lines still exist? And I remember our first telephone in the mid-sixties was primrose. My mother loved it!

***

The car won't start the next day and Dad takes Victor round all the mechanics and little garages in the big greasy telephone book Mrs Cramp lent us, one after another, until they find someone available on a holiday weekend. Dad doesn't like telephones. “Damned voices crackling in my ear. Bloody party-line butting in. Smells funny too,” he always says, wrinkling his nose at the damp mouthpiece.
Our telephone at home is primrose-yellow, Grandma's pride and joy. She saved the Green Shield stamps for a tiny hall-table to keep it on. It's as thin as matchwood, this bow-legged table, like an ailing old man. It would fall over whenever we brush past if the weight of the telephone didn't anchor it.

***
I'm about a third of the way through this novel, but as a result of that I am neglecting my short stories. I really miss them and keep trying to fit them in, but I'm enjoying this so much and find it easier to keep going if I work on it every day.

I have also overcome my fears of writing a synopsis, having had to produce one, together with the first chapter, for the competition with Good Housekeeping magazine. I have been sculpting the first chapter of this WIP into the best shape I can and putting off the synopsis. Then I realised I had to submit by the end of this month so was forced to write it. And I discovered a lot more about the novel as a result. It's been extremely useful, because although my short stories are pantsed, I think I do need a little bit of direction for novels. Not so much plot as a general sense of where it might all head and why, just a rough guide. That way I can still be a pantser, but within an open framework of sorts.
Compiling the synopsis has helped me think about future chapters, the possibilities for the ending and the relative importance of minor characters and the sub-plot. I feel more confident about maintaining the momentum now that the WIP feels as if it has a purpose.
I have also been helped by using the Hero's Journey. I'll post about that next time.

Many thanks again, Teresa, for thinking of me. I really enjoyed reading your seven lines and they had a truly cliffhanging quality. I can't wait to read on!

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Tagging

Here are my eleven questions for tagging:

1) How would you cope if you were stuck in a broken-down lift?
2) Do you suffer from road rage?
3) Which era would you prefer to have been born in?
4) What is the item of clothing you have loved wearing most?
5) Have you ever hated a holiday and why?
6) Which meal would be your worst nightmare to eat?
7) Do you like toast very brown or pale?
8) What do you do if you can't sleep?
9) Have you ever hidden when a friend knocks on your door?
10) When you sit down to write, do you keep getting up again for valid reasons, such as urgently-required biscuits? And then wonder how you ever manage to finish a story?
11) Who is the short story writer whose work you could read over and over again, both for pleasure or inspiration?


Many thanks and looking forward to the answers.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Being Tagged

I have enjoyed being tagged by Teresa Ashby and thinking of answers to her eleven questions:


1. Do you wish you’d been born someone else?

No. I do like being me.

2. Who would you most like to have breakfast with?

Keith Richards of The Stones. Or the amazing writer, William Trevor.

3. Favourite subject at school?

English.

4. Favourite television programme?

Twin Peaks. Also, 2000 Acres Of Sky.

5. Do you believe in ghosts?

Yes.

6. What is your star sign?

Leo.

7. Which Star Trek series was the best?

I must confess I have never seen a single episode of Star Trek.

8. If you could be a character from a book, who would you be?

Sophia in Our Spoons Came From Woolworth's by Barbara Comyns

9. What is your favourite animal?

The cat in all its forms.

10. Least favourite vegetable?

Corn on the cob.

11. Why?

All that gnawing and the ghastly smell of it.


I shall have to work out how to do the links-thing before thinking of eleven questions to pass on!


Many thanks in the meantime, Teresa! I enjoyed this very much and I'll do my questions in the next post.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Kreativ Blogger Award!

Grateful thanks go to Teresa Ashby, http://teresaashby.blogspot.com/ for her kindness in sending me this lovely award.

Here are some things you may not know about me:

1) When I was in the sixth-form, I was asked to help new girls in the First Year who were considered to be 'remedial readers'. One girl struggled with her reading so much that she had no confidence at all. She believed she would never learn to read and her parents were worried. I taught her in the dinner-hour once a week. I don't think anyone had ever told her that she could do it, but it was clear that she really wanted to.
The day before I left school, I was summoned to see the Head of English, a huge and terrifying woman. I thought she'd spotted me sneaking out early the day before to avoid P.E. I was shaking with fear.
But she told me the little girl's parents had contacted her to say how pleased they were with the reading progress she had made and they wanted her to pass on their thanks.
I can't think of any work I've done since that has proved more rewarding than that.

2) I am painfully, cripplingly shy. As an adult, I strive to conceal it, but as a child, I simply didn't talk to anyone and hid whenever the doorbell or telephone rang.

3) I love make-up. I put it all on every morning. I think it's the ritual I like. That and the fact that I am very vain. My husband has noticed that I even put it on before going into the garden to let the chickens out.

4) As a teenager, I wasn't allowed friends in my bedroom. And I wasn't allowed friends round at all when my parents were out at work. But one day when I was alone, my boyfriend appeared on the doorstep and, with fear and trepidation, I invited him to my room to see my guitar. Honestly!
I heard my father come home unexpectedly early and had to tell Pete to keep very still and quiet, while I went downstairs and pretended everything was normal. I couldn't sneak him out while my father was pottering around and cooking tea, so I went back up in a state of great tension. Pete was quaking in his Doc Martens.
"Keep playing," he urged, pointing at the guitar. "Then your Dad will think you're just up here acting normally."
All I knew was 'Whiter Shade Of Pale'. I played it about ninety times until my Dad disappeared into another room, clear of the staircase and escape route.
I made Pete take off his Doc Martens and creep downstairs, avoiding the step that creaked.
I pushed him out of the back door and then hared round to the front room where Dad was sitting to draw the curtains before he spotted Pete legging it down the road.
We got away with it. But never again!

5) On my first night at university, I stayed in my room in the hall of residence, too scared to emerge and go to eat in the dining hall with everyone else. I listened to them all walking along the corridor, talking away as if they'd already known each other for years, but couldn't bring myself to join them. I was so hungry I couldn't sleep.
In the morning I listened for the girl opposite me to come out of her door and crept out at the same moment. She was so friendly and sweet I almost cried with relief. And rage at myself for being so timid the night before.

6) The other reason for waiting for someone to walk with was that I have never possessed any sense of direction at all. Alone, I wouldn't have found the dining hall or my way back from it.
I am more likely to notice a particular blade of grass or the tilt of an unsteady litter-bin than I am to absorb which way I'm going.
The phrase, 'Retrace your steps', means nothing to me, since I take no notice of where I've planted them on the way to anywhere.

7) My father and I were once so absorbed in reading at the kitchen table (he was studying the racing page in the newspaper and I was glued to 'Mandy'), that we just lifted our feet up and tucked them under us when the floor flooded.
My mother had opened the fridge to defrost it and then disappeared to do other things. It must have gone into a sudden meltdown, but we were too engrossed to worry about it. I did spot a small puddle initially and my father suggested we point it out to my mother upon her return. After that, we just kept turning our pages and made sure we kept our socks dry.
She was not impressed when she had to paddle her way back in.

Thank you for this trip down Memory Lane, Teresa! I've enjoyed reminiscing!

Saturday, 18 February 2012

On Staring

I have always tended to look at things quite hard. Not necessarily the obvious things worthy of being looked at, such as the Grand Canyon or an amazing birthday cake or tiny new-born rabbits. I am fortunate enough to have seen all of these, but I find everything somehow significant.
As a result, I am not very quick on the uptake, my mind always distracted and drifting. Acquaintances complain that I don't see them in shops, even when they wave madly at me. And when I'm in the car, apparently I do not return the greetings people give me as they drive past.
I have always been this way inclined, always in a daydream, always finding a different angle from which to consider something or making up stories in my head. As a student, I was teased for being very quiet throughout a picnic to celebrate the end of exams and then suddenly saying, "I wonder what an ant thinks?"
I had been watching ants crawling through long grass, stumbling and struggling and never giving up, and I am ashamed to admit I found this more intriguing than the cider-sodden conversation around me.
Well, now I know why I am like this. According to the amazing writer, Flannery O'Connor:

'...there is a certain grain of stupidity that the writer of fiction can hardly do without, and this is the quality of having to stare, of not getting the point at once.'

She feels that writers watch constantly for the amazing magic within everyday things. This is the imagination at work.
Writers are always writing, even when they are at work, asleep or socialising. Our eyes are open all the time, despite everyone I know thinking the exact opposite of me!
We are letting in ideas, looking for the sense of all that we observe. We open ourselves to the world and, because it's instinctive, we never take a day off. And that is a comforting thought. If our lives become busy and sometimes don't allow for much actual writing-time, we are nevertheless still at work on it, storing the magic for later.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Taking Criticism

I have recently begun asking more often for critiques when entering those competitions that offer them.
I used to be afraid of critiques, even though they are always constructive and helpful. But I have learnt to stop being so cowardly and I welcome them now, taking on board the useful responses and suggestions they provide.
My English teacher for A Level taught us Practical Criticism and one of the things I remember her saying is that the word 'criticism' doesn't just mean pointing out negatives. It means a fair and comprehensive assessment, highlighting all that you have done well, along with those areas which could be improved.
I think I have found it hard to face critiques in the past because of the 'if only' feeling.
'If only I'd worked on that story a bit longer/a bit harder/spotted the less successful moments which, now they've been pointed out, appear obvious.'
But now, after feeling a little annoyed with myself and vowing to try harder in future, I nod sagely at the advice given and return to work on the story with a new sense of purpose.
I really like being asked to do a re-write for a magazine. In fact, I absolutely love those.
First of all, this marvellous feedback is free.
Secondly, the 'if only' problem is averted. This is a chance to actually work on the snags and iron them all out, allowing the possibility (though not, of course, the guarantee) that this story could still be accepted.
My mistakes and weaknesses within that story are aired for me, but without the door to a sale already being closed. That is perfect for someone like me, who can take criticism well enough, provided it is given while I'm still able to seize it and make full use of it.
Having said that, it is still helpful to be given the reason why a story has not succeeded and a rewrite is not being offered. Then I can sink my teeth into it all over again and make lots of changes, usually tearing things out and trimming off the gristle. After all, lots of stories find a home after three or four attempts. Maybe the initial rejection fires a spark that relights and relaunches it.
Being long-or short-listed also helps. It shows that the story, while not placed in the top three or whatever, is still worthy of further work and more outings.
So I feel I can take criticism quite well, as long as it is well-intentioned and can be put to good use. If it saves a story from being set aside or turns a mediocre attempt into a worthwhile read, then I am very happy to listen to advice.
The only time I can't take negative remarks is when people make them directly to me, unsolicited, after a story has been published!
Maybe I'm much too sensitive, but I always work on the basis that if I can't say something positive to the delighted author whose work has successfully reached the printed page, then it's best to say nothing.


Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Catching Up!

Well, first of all, my apologies for promising to post more often this year and then not doing so at all throughout January. At least I'm fitting this in before we move into the second month.

My reason is that I have been fierce with myself about finishing the novel and haven't left any space in my head for thinking about much else, apart from as many short stories as I can squeeze in. Today I completed a very, very rough first draft of almost 80,000 words. I have tried to print it out for a read-through, but our new kitten jumped on the paper-tray and triggered a jam. So it's stuck in there until Husband's return later. Is Fate trying to tell me something ?

I can't say I feel pleased with the novel at this stage and I'm not sure whether that's a good thing, in that I'm aware I have tons more work to do and shouldn't assume it's anywhere near finished, or a bad thing - ie, it's awful.
I won't mind if it's awful. Well, I will, of course, but I'll try not to. I've enjoyed the experience and will have gained a lot from it. I haven't completely neglected the short stories and can't wait to devote some extra time to them now. I could use this novel as a springboard for the next one, for which I have an idea already, taking with me all that I have learnt.

So, what have I learnt? I think the most important thing is that I needed a bit more of a plot than I actually had. What I had was an idea. I expanded as I went along, but floundered at times, which made me feel a touch insecure about the whole thing, like a gymnast's major wobble on the balance beam. Next time, I would write down a few more notes first to check that I really did have a clear plot that would engage me throughout and therefore engage the reader too. I know I can iron out some of the kinks to steady things, but I don't know whether that will be enough to save it.
I have also learnt that if I put my mind to it, I can write more words than I thought I could. If I take an hour at a time and determine to write for that whole hour without being distracted, I really concentrate, lose myself in it and the writing flows as a result. I can always lose myself in short story writing, but I've had to try harder to focus for three months on this one piece of work. I'm too used to leaving characters behind after a few days, so it's strange living with them all the time. And I worry that if I'm tiring of them, the reader will feel the same. I hope that when I read through it, they will seem fresher. I think I should leave the read-through for a couple of weeks and come back to them when I've had a chance to distance myself. And to retrieve the scrunched paper from the printer.

At the moment I can't help mulling over the bits I think are good and wondering if I should turn them into short stories!

I am reading Della Galton's Moving On From Short Story To Novel, but should have done so before I began! However, I'm sure it will be very helpful as I continue to revise what I have written.

I have recently become addicted to Dorothy Whipple's books, both short stories and novels. I loved Someone At A Distance. I think her writing is beautiful. I know some readers might consider it a little old-fashioned, but I can't help loving that.
And I enjoyed Aimee Bender's The Particular Sadness Of Lemon Cake. Unusual and moving.
As always, the more I read, the more inspired to write I feel. I have had some good competition results and more sales recently. I put that down to all the extra reading I have been fitting in, often at 4am. I keep waking up at that time, so I've put it to good use!