Monday, 12 December 2016

Ink Tears Launch!

Launch cupcakes!

It was a long haul from our village to London, especially in festive Friday afternoon traffic, but every mile was worth it. At The Sun pub in Covent Garden, we filled the cosy room upstairs with our books and cupcakes, but most importantly, it was filled to capacity with lovely, kind people who came to support Llama Sutra and When Planets Slip Their Tracks.

Many thanks go to Sara-Mae Tuson, editorial director at InkTears, and Agnes Meadows from Loose Muse for all their enthusiasm and hard work organising and hosting the event.

Melanie's beautiful book, Llama Sutra, with stunning cupcakes

Although I was meeting Melanie Whipman for the first time, I immediately felt as if we had known each other forever. Writers often have an instinctive connection with one another, but Melanie is so lovely, it would be impossible for anyone not to be entranced by her straightaway. She and I both read from our books and the audience was incredibly warm and responsive. I had found it hard to choose which story to read and the one I eventually picked demanded my dodgy northern accent. (Had to apologise to anyone hailing from Bradford.)

When Planets Slip Their Tracks with their matching (only slightly dog-eared) cupcakes, which somehow survived the journey. Melanie brought hers on the train without mishap!

I loved every minute of reading aloud and then socialising and signing books afterwards. I was overwhelmed to meet in real life some very lovely Twitter friends and fabulous fellow writers. Thank you so much to the brilliant and lovely Fiona Mitchell, CG Menon and Sarah Hegarty. I was truly overjoyed to see you there and hope we meet again soon.

Mel and I with each other's books. I'm so looking forward to reading Llama Sutra.

I was very touched and thrilled to see my cousins, Brenda and Andrea, at the event too. Staunch supporters of both my books, they have suffered a heartbreaking event this year, so to see them set aside everything they are going through to be there for Planets meant the world to me. And long-standing (I didn't say old!) friends, Ian and Janet, who were the usher and bridesmaid at my wedding thirty-two million years ago, have also been an absolute pillar of support and it was truly wonderful that they could come too.

The hubster, Adrian, did all the driving - six hours of it, including an unscheduled U-turn in the middle of Piccadilly Circus, during which, incredibly, no one hooted us. Our three daughters came with us as well, having helped with all the preparations. I know that not all writers have this amount of family support, so I feel blessed and grateful to them all for never failing to be enthusiastic. I don't really deserve it - I didn't even think to bring any food with us (apart from the hallowed cupcakes) and as soon as we pulled up in Drury Lane the girls made an emergency dash to Pret.

Thank you to our daughters, Georgia, Alexandra and Olivia, for always being there.

Books are the perfect companion for solitude, but this event was a great example of how reading also brings people together. The old-fashioned way of story-telling by reading aloud was so well received, with several people saying afterwards how relaxing and comforting it was to be read to and how it reminded them of the quiet afternoons at infant/junior school, just before home-time, when the teacher's voice softened and everyone calmed down from the excitement of the day.

Having the time of my life reading from Planets

I had a fabulous surprise when I arrived home - a very positive review from the lovely author and reviewer, Jen Campbell (no relation). She has a very informative, entertaining and highly regarded YouTube channel where she talks engagingly and intelligently about the great variety of books she reads. I was thrilled enough that she was keen to read Planets, but when I saw her speak with such enthusiasm about it here, it was the icing on the cake.

Thank you so much to all my friends and family who have showed such support for me and my writing throughout the year. Writers may disappear to work alone throughout all their early drafts, but they can't share their words single-handedly.

Monday, 21 November 2016

Ink Tears Launch

On December 9th Ink Tears are launching Melanie Whipman'a short story collection, Llama Sutra and my own When Planets Slip Their Tracks will have its (slightly belated!) launch at the same time!

The event takes place at The Sun pub in Covent Garden from 7.30 until 10.30 in the evening and both Melanie and I will be reading excerpts from our collections.

We would love to see you there for a glass of wine to celebrate the occasion.

Thursday, 29 September 2016


Fellow writer, the lovely and talented Julia Anderson, whose stories, flash fiction, poetry, essays and features have found success in many different publications and competitions, has written a magnificent essay about When Planets Slip Their Tracks, which has been published on the Thresholds website.

I am indebted to Julia, both for her support and enthusiasm for the collection and also for the care and insight with which she has analysed the stories.

Holding the book in my hand for the first time was a magical moment, but even more thrilling is the discovery that it has given pleasure. That Julia was interested enough to break down and examine the stories in detail has brought not only a sense of validation for the book, but also, since a writer's primary mission is to engage the reader, a welcome fulfilment of purpose.

With grateful thanks to Julia for writing the essay and to Thresholds for publishing it.

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Stepping forward, with caution

For two weeks I have written only in my head. Not by choice. For the first time since I began writing, I found myself restless at my desk, needing to let the characters for my next novel emerge without words. So I have walked around the village, letting them in.

Here is Woolley cantering towards me to bring back down to earth, carrots being more substantial than thoughts.

Where are my carrots?

At first I panicked, but it seems the words will arrive late to the party. For now, the whole book is an all-consuming abstract, the excitement growing as it takes on a shape. The process is beginning to produce the same - if slightly more unnerving - thrill.

I never make a plan and this is not what I'm doing now. Nothing is outlined, nothing moulded. There are no pre-cast sections or defined set-pieces. But there is a vague structure going up, a growing tension, a sense of pace. There are characters with faces and voices. There is the all-important theme, in this case the desire to protect your loved ones at all costs, which will gather the different elements together, the way a magnet attracts scattered iron filings.

Not sitting down and committing it to the screen is frustrating for someone who is criminally impatient and usually chooses to type from dawn to dusk, but I believe I understand the reason why I can't take it to the desk yet. It is because my recently completed novel was such a joy to write. Words cascaded like juice from a cut grapefruit and the entire story simply pooled together by itself. This is the encapsulated theme:

Desperate to tell those we love the truth, how many lies do we tell ourselves?

Even if it never sees the light of day, it will have been worth writing, purely for the wonder of watching it burst into life. There was not a single moment when it didn't bring pleasure to sit down and work on it. And I want so much to have the same experience this time.

These fifty-one steps lead from the village wells to the church and I only ever climb up.  Descending makes me think I will fall.

Treading with care and taking my time might not, ultimately, put me on the right path, but for now, it is the only way forward.

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! 

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Competitions - not always for the competitive

Lovely fellow blogger and author, Rosemary Gemmell, has kindly featured When Planets Slip Their Tracks in her blog post on new short story collections here . Since sharing this post, the question was raised as to how to set about having a collection published, so I thought I would explain how it happened for me.

Ever since I began writing stories for the women's magazines, I was also very keen to enter short story competitions, which gave me a chance to write slightly offbeat stories with darker themes. However, I am not a competitive person by nature and, certainly at the start, was not expecting my stories to be placed or shortlisted. My priority was to discover how my writing compared with the winning stories and also to study the valuable feedback often offered by the competition judges. As I am self-taught, this became one of the methods I adopted to learn about the craft of creative writing.

I bought various literary magazines, such as Writers' Forum and Jo Derrick's The Yellow Room, which I once blogged about here, and it became my aim to see my stories published within those beautiful, glossy pages. I devoured the high-quality fiction in these publications and made all sorts of notes to help me understand how they were structured and paced, de-constructing them sentence by sentence to appreciate how the syntax worked.

One of the first stories I had published, 'One Horse Town', which is included in my collection.

And one of my stories in The Yellow Room, also included in the collection.
One of my much-treasured copies of The Yellow Room magazine

The most important aspect, however, was to find my own voice - to write from the heart - and for this it was helpful to take part in Write On Site, the weekly online competition which requires a complete story to be written in thirty minutes. The pressure of the clock ticking away really assisted in squeezing out my true style because there was no opportunity for thinking, mulling, head-scratching or changing my mind. It must have worked well for me because whenever my piece was fortunate enough to appear in the anonymous shortlist, fellow-writers said they could recognise which was mine.

This combination of writing for magazine competitions (sometimes working on a story for months before it was ready) together with the exciting strain of regularly writing 'on demand', not only taught me about structure/pace/theme and helped to establish my own writing voice, it also resulted in a large stock of stories. The Write On Site pieces were very short of course - I am a slow typist and thirty minutes does not produce a great quantity! - but they became foundations for longer work, or even - with tweaks - stood alone as flash-fiction pieces for competitions.

After having stories published in various competition anthologies, including two in The Bristol Short Story Prize, I realised eventually that some of these might work as a collection.

Throughout my fifty-five years, I have read lots of collections by authors as diverse as Penelope Lively, Helen Simpson, William Trevor, James Joyce, Guy de Maupassant, Franz Kafka, Richard Ford, Raymond Carver and so many more I would need a separate blog post to list them all. I can even remember studying the short story form for O Levels at school, mostly Hemingway and Camus, and being in awe of authors who could achieve such a satisfying sense of 'completeness' in just a few pages. Now I had a stock of stories of my own, all of which paled into insignificance among the greats of literature, but which seemed also to have - hopefully - that same sense of completeness.

I entered the collection, then entitled 'Fed and Watered', into a competition, where it was given some wonderful feedback. However, it turned out that only American citizens were eligible to enter that particular contest - I didn't read the rules properly! It was a boost for my writing that, despite being ineligible, the judges still allowed 'Fed and Watered' to be included in the shortlist!

Not long after this, in 2012, I entered a single story, 'Open All Hours', into the Ink Tears competition and it was judged a runner-up. Ink Tears had just begun to establish a publishing arm, so that as well as championing the short story form with competitions, they were also on the verge of producing hardback collections written by some of their authors.

I was asked if I had enough stories for a collection and of course 'Fed and Watered' was ready and waiting! However, I worked on it a great deal more and changed some of the content, using mostly prize-winning stories from the four years of entering competitions, until it became 'When Planets Slip Their Tracks' and was published in hardback in January.

Competitions have certainly helped me enormously with my writing. For example, as a result of winning The London Short Story Prize, I was signed to a literary agent, Elise Dillsworth, who was one of the judging panel. And my novel, 'Tying Down the Lion', was shortlisted in a Cinnamon Press competition, which gave me enough confidence to seek publication for it.

So this was the journey I took and I hope it shows that even if you, like me, are not especially competitive by nature, entering these contests, studying the winning stories and taking careful note of the feedback, is a helpful way of honing the craft. And although there is no magic bullet, sometimes it can also lead to publication!

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Greenacre Writers and Finchley Literary Festival Short Story Competition

Thank you so much to Rosie, Lindsay and Carol of Greenacre Writers for inviting me to judge the Greenacre Writers and Finchley Literary Festival Short Story Competition.
This will be the first competition I have judged, so I am especially thrilled and excited at the prospect of immersing myself in the entries. Reading short stories is one of my favourite things to do when I'm not writing. Much as I love a good novel, I have never failed to fall under the spell of short fiction, from the Conrad and Hemingway stories I studied at school, to the collected stories of Saki I discovered for myself - slightly less collected these days now my treasured old copy is falling apart - to the short works by Franz Kafka and Thomas Mann I read at university, to the countless stories in magazines and competition anthologies that have inspired my own efforts throughout the years, and to the glorious volumes by my favourite authors - William Trevor, Penelope Lively, Dorothy Whipple, Helen Simpson and Mollie Panter-Downes. The list could go on and on.

The competition requests submissions of a maximum one thousand words on any theme and in any genre. The entry fee is £5, the closing date is May 31st and the first prize is £100. I will be at the festival in June for the announcement of the winners and will be reading an excerpt from When Planets Slip Their Tracks as well. I can hardly wait and hope to see you there!

Monday, 15 February 2016

Giveaway for Planets

There is currently a Giveaway on Goodreads for When Planets Slip Their Tracks, if anyone would like to enter. Two signed copies are waiting to be won and the Giveaway ends on Friday. Thank you everyone for all the support you constantly give - I'm overwhelmed!

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

From short story to celluloid

One of the future interests of Ink Tears, who are publishing my short story collection, is the market of short story to screenplay to films. This prompted me to think of Daphne du Maurier's harrowing short story, 'The Birds'.

Director Alfred Hitchcock retained only the title and theme when he made the film of 'The Birds'. He added special effects and a slight sub-plot. He altered the lead character from a down-to-earth farmworker trying to support and protect his family to a socialite who develops a relationship with a lawyer. He even changed the setting from nineteen-fifties rural Cornwall to San Francisco.

The original story contains no lurid description. In fact, the prose is plain and matter-of-fact. After one of the attacks by the birds we are told;

Trigg's body was close to the telephone. He must have been trying to get through to the exchange when the birds came for him.The receiver was hanging loose, the instrument torn from the wall. No sign of Mrs Trigg. She would be upstairs...He forced himself to climb the stairs, but half-way he turned and descended again. He could see her legs, protruding from the open bedroom door. Beside her were the bodies of the black-headed gulls, and an umbrella, broken.

No vivid adjectives, no lingering over the injuries. And the simple pathos of the 'umbrella, broken' is a touch of genius. Likewise, the best scenes in the film are not those showing wounds and blood, but the silent ones where the birds land and begin to gather. In both book and film, the suspense is chilling and beautifully handled.

A gathering of cormorants is apparently called a gulp - this gulp was spotted by my husband from his hotel window in Greenock, looking out over the Clyde. By coincidence, he took the picture while I was writing this post.

The power of the short story emanates from du Maurier's idea that nature might, without warning or reason, become the enemy of humankind. Each page of unadorned prose gradually unfolds the growing horror. We are with the farmer and his family every step of the way, hammering in the nails to barricade the house, blocking the chimney and dashing out between attacks to find supplies. The developing horror works so well because we can imagine ourselves in his situation while turning the pages in the comfort of home, maybe glancing out of the window at a blackbird singing from a tree or a robin pecking food from a bird-table, and wondering, "What if...?"

Hitchcock may have rearranged many facets of the book in order to turn it into a film, but he left unchanged the most vital aspect of the story - Why? 

Both versions keep us on the edge of our seats, freezing our blood with the thought, "What went wrong - and could it ever actually happen?"

Like all great stories, the original highlights a main character battling alone against all the odds, a hero on a mission to save himself and his family when the world slips off its axis. My favourite moment is when he stands on the shore and realises the white caps on the waves are, in fact, an immense and growing number of gathering gulls.

Like many short stories, there are few characters - in this case only the protagonist and a small supporting cast - and a limited setting: the house, the neighbouring countryside and the surrounding sea. Hitchcock, however, augmented the film with many extra scenes and characters. Where the story is plain and stark, he created technicolour mayhem. The du Maurier original is, for me, far more haunting, yet the cinematic reworking created a new, compelling and unforgettable piece of drama.

In the metamorphosis from story to film, if the scenes and characters from a five-hundred page novel are changed beyond recognition from how they appear in the reader's imagination in an attempt to maximise screen appeal, the disappointment may well be enormous. With a short story, however, since time is more compacted than in novels and the number of characters reduced to a handful, it can be enlarged and elaborated, rather than trimmed. Even if the expansions and modifications are sweeping, as they are in 'The Birds', the process is slightly more understandable and forgiving. Liberties might be taken, but if the concept and final message are the same, then the outcome might still be memorable and both story and film equally, yet separately, enjoyed.

Short stories are snapshots of a moment. They are just enough. This allows their contents some flexibility within the framework. Although complete within themselves and therefore unextendable as a narrative piece, this does not preclude the possibility of fleshing out characters, dwelling deeper or longer on the key scenes, or twisting the plot a little, adding diversions along the way.

I have just watched '45 Years', the beautiful, mesmerising film of author David Constantine's 'In Another Country'. No horror this time, but a nonetheless emotionally harrowing exploration of the effect on an enduring marriage of a secret frozen in time. I am looking forward to reading his short story now and discovering the changes made in the transition from page to celluloid.

'When Planets Slip Their Tracks', my first story collection, is to be published in hardback and as an e-book very soon.