Archive for July, 2009

Final sessions

Today was kind of sad. It felt like last night was the grand climax, and today’s two morning workshops were kind of tacked on like an afterthought. But even so, Della Galton stuffed lots of information into our exhausted brains. I was gobsmacked to hear that People’s Friend get about 200 stories submitted each week, and about 85% of them are rejected immediately because they aren’t suitable. Apparently this is typical. So if you’re planning to write fiction for women’s magazines, do your market research.

Della did have me persuaded for a few minutes that there is an industry standard for the use of coloured paperclips – pink for romance, blue for sad, green if there’s a twist, etc… What can I say, I’m one of the few people I know who believed it when I was told they’re taking ‘gullible’ out of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Home again

I feel like I’m in another world. How bizarre life is. You can be having fun with a whole bunch of new friends, then a few hours later you’re back at home, picking up wet bath towels after a once-more-vanished son.

All I can say is, I’ve had an amazing time. Thank you to Anne and Gerry and Richard, and all my lovely new friends (hiya Jenny, Christine, Katey, Karen, Jacqueline, Pamela, Barbara, Penny, Angela, Ian, Kevin, Elaine, Catherine, and lots and lots more people I’ve nattered to whose names have dribbled out of my jellified brain), and the published writers who were so generous with their time and advice, and, well, everyone. You’ve all done so much to encourage this fledgling writer, and I’ll see you all next year 🙂

I’m glad I blogged all the way through, because writing this now makes me almost feel like I’m still there. If you’re reading this and you were there, leave a comment or email me at pip at oldbat dot co dot uk (substituting the appropriate punctuation)…


If you do the twitter thing, I recommend you toddle along there and search on #fridayflash. Anyone with a blog can post a short (<1000 words) story on any Friday and tweet a link to it with the #fridayflash hashtag. There's a growing community of writers doing this, we all read and comment on each others' stories. It's really great.

If you're not a twit, you can join the #fridayflash group on Facebook, or go to J M Strother’s blog on a Saturday or Sunday where he posts a summary (this is last week’s).

It’s another great way to meet new writers!

Time for bed…

I’m shattered. Goodnight all.

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Anne and Gerry Hobbs

This needs to go at the top, because everyone should read it. It’s the 25th year that Anne and Gerry have run this holiday, and while I’m glad I’ve finally discovered it, I’m sorry I missed out on the previous 24 years. I’ve had the most wonderful time, it’s a lovely atmosphere, and I’ve met many new friends. Anne and Gerry were deservedly showered with gifts and thanks this evening, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard such a loud and long round of applause.

I can’t write poems like Les Baynton and Stephen Wade, or dedicate a book to them as Kate Walker did, but I take great pleasure in extending heartfelt thanks to Anne and Gerry. They’ve made this aspiring writer’s summer. And I can’t wait for next year.

Yes, I’ve booked for next year. I know I can’t really afford it, but with the this-week-only £40 discount I couldn’t not do it – where else would you get five nights full board (and I mean full board, the food is limitless!) and a packed programme of excellent talks and courses for £360? It’s great value even at full price.

The dreaded book room

Browsing through the books this morning (I only bought one – Consider the Lilies by Carol Fenlon, which looks fantastic), I spotted Niemals auf ex – a German translation of One Glass Is Never Enough by Jane Wenham-Jones, and was delighted to find the line:

Magst du Morrisdancing?

Can you imagine the look on a German reader’s face?

Another delegate caught me this morning and said they’d read my blog. I’m finding this really quite exciting – must remember that I can communicate with people face to face as well as from the anonymity of a computer screen (which isn’t that anonymous because people know who I am now – gulp – must be very careful what I say).

More short story writing

Della Galton’s course continued in fine style. Snippets I’ve gleaned from it so far include:

  • We are in the entertainment industry. We don’t want to make our readers feel bad!
  • Characters have to solve their problems for themselves, not have someone else sort them out.
  • Intrigue the reader, don’t tell them exactly what’s going on, they’ll want to read on to find out.
  • Readers never skip dialogue, so have important information spoken by a character.

And last, but by no means least:

  • Don’t kill off your main character in the first paragraph 🙂

She’s covered character and plot, idea generation, and dialogue in a remarkable amount of detail in three hour-long sessions. I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s sessions on market research and presentation – hopefully these will help me work out how to actually get some money from this writing lark.

Zoe Sharp – Criminal Tendencies

Crime author Zoe Sharp (who assures us she doesn’t have criminal tendencies really) gave a highly professional and entertaining talk about her life and writing. The extent to which crime authors go to research their stories never ceases to amaze me – examining the blood spatter after nearly severing your own finger with a saw seems slightly obsessive!

Some of the bits and bobs I wrote down:

  • American copy editors have strange ideas about the English language.
  • There are only a restricted number of plots but an infinite number of characters – the interaction of character with plot is what makes each book unique.
  • Elmore Leonard quote: ‘Leave out the bits readers skip over.’
  • There is a crime sub-genre called ‘cutting edge cosy’! (I got a couple of Google hits when I spelt ‘cosy’ with a z.)

I also learned about Atlanta Nights – a how-not-to-do-it novel written by a bunch of SF and fantasy authors under the name Travis Tea, and submitted to PublishAmerica to show the company up as vanity publishers. Despite the sheer awfulness of the novel (I’ve downloaded it from the link on the wikipedia page, it’s truly dire) PublishAmerica accepted it for publication. Their current #1 bestseller doesn’t look like it’ll be much better… even the blurb appears to have major inconsistencies.

Zoe raved so much about the characterisation worksheet Kate Walker had handed out in her class that morning, I asked Kate if it was possible to get a copy. She is the most kind and wonderful person – rather than telling me to just go and buy her book (I had already bought one of her other ones, or I might have done that) she went off in search of a sheet and brought it back for me. Not only was her generosity overwhelming, but the worksheet is jolly good too!

Emotional Wisdom

Caught up with the lady who’d made my day yesterday by saying she’d read my blog (Catherine Burrows – thanks again!), and off we toddled to the workshop on discovering emotional wisdom, run by Judith Kingdon. I’d been discussing which session to go to over tea, and decided that some light relief might be in order, rather than a hard-working session on how to redraft novels or converting a story to a TV script.

It was certainly interesting. I got more out of it than I expected to – examining what situations would evoke emotions (anger, excitement, happiness, calm, fear, sadness, disgust) in a character and then analysing that to identify their particular values was quite a useful exercise. I’m not sure that applying therapeutic techniques (such as Transactional Analysis) to characters is a particularly useful thing to do, but on the other hand identifying patterns of behaviour in their relationships and getting them to break those patterns to achieve better outcomes might work. I shall try it and report back at some point.

The other important lesson from this session was that the main character in my novel is a miserable cow, and needs something to kick her up the backside PDQ. Mind you, Jane Pollard had already told me that.

Update on errant son

He’s just reported on his facebook status that he’s been food shopping for the first time in his life. So I assume he’s safe and well. Until I get hold of him, anyway.

Radio 4 prog you may have missed…

… especially if you’re here at Caerleon …

Today’s Frequently Asked Questions looks like it’s well worth catching up with on iPlayer:

Ian Samson traces the relationship between authors and their readers through the changing nature of the correspondence between them. He asks his fellow writers whether festivals, promotional tours and the advent of the internet have altered their role.

More radio news

I quizzed Elaine Everest about her imminent appearance (is there an audio version of that?) on Woman’s Hour on August 14th. It’s related to this story in the Daily Express about the horrors of having redundant husbands hanging around the house while trying to write.

What were you doing when…

Kate Bush sang Wuthering Heights on Top of the Pops, introduced by Dave Lee Travis (remember the Hairy Cornflake?)? Catherine Fitzsimmons can remember – she was embroidering eyes on a rag doll. So there.

We were trying to think of other interesting events where people might remember their location/activity at the time – any ideas?

The Cwmbach Male Choir

Wow. What can I say? Approximately 66 Welshmen singing their hearts out. I say approximately because I came up with a different answer every time I counted. The singing was just wonderful, the compere told some stonking jokes, and the choir president gave a fascinating and moving history of the choir and its links with Paul Robeson. I hadn’t realised there were strong parallels and associations between the South Wales miners and the American Civil Rights movement. The related solos were wonderful.

Ah’m tired of livin’
An’ skeered of dyin’,
But ol’ man river,
He jes’ keeps rolling’ along.

I’ve just checked out the Cwmbach Male Choir website, it’s worth a look if you’re interested, and if you were there this evening, sign the guestbook.

I think one of the most impressive things about the choir was the speed with which they adjourned to the bar once the last number was finished. No chance of an encore!

And so to bed

I did try to hang around in the bar, and stay awake for the dancing, but I’m just too tired. I’m guessing people will be partying until dawn, so I’m going to leave them to it and take myself off to bed.

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Apologies for the loooong post today, but lots happened!


View from the window of my room

View from the window of my room

It’s wet outside!

I’m glad I didn’t book to go on any of today’s afternoon excursions (Barry Island, Hay on Wye, and somewhere else I’ve forgotten). I don’t feel guilty that I’ve spent the afternoon in my room reading and writing, unlike so many people I’ve spoken to who decided it was just too rainy to do anything else.

How much to write a day?

Something I’ve been musing about is the best writing routine for me. You may have gathered I lack self-discipline… setting a word count target hasn’t worked too badly, and planning each day the evening before is pretty good too, but I still don’t spend nearly enough time writing. I’ve heard Jeffrey Archer writes in 2-hour blocks, 4 a day with a break in between.

Katie Fforde says she increases the word count of her current project by 1000 words every day. She always starts by editing the previous day’s work, and if she decides it’s rubbish and deletes it all she has to write 2000 words. Sometimes she gets it done in 3 hours, other times it takes longer.

Simon Whaley’s target is 1500 words a day, or 750 if he’s busy for half a day.

I think when I get back from all this gadding about, I need to sit down with myself and work out how best to focus myself. I might try Simon Whaley’s idea of writing a detailed diary for a fortnight – there are days I’m super-productive, it’d be nice to know what provokes them. And if that works, I shall reward Mr Whaley by buying one of his books (not sure which one though).

Morning classes

The last of the Novel Writing classes was all about sex. What fun! There are lots of things to bear in mind, but most important of all seems to be to treat sex scenes the same way as any other scene. They have to have a purpose, the characters will have their own motivations, their reactions will be based on their backstory.

We all had to get into groups to write a short piece of dialogue for a sex scene, cramming as much emotion and depth in as possible… interestingly everyone chose to write either leading up to the sex itself, or afterwards. Which just goes to show that the actual deed isn’t the important bit, and in most cases can be left to the reader’s imagination – if you’re writing a sex scene, put in as much detail as you’re comfortable with, and it doesn’t matter if that isn’t very much. In fact, it’s probably better that way.

What a fantastic course that was. I’m very grateful to Jane Pollard for the effort she put in and the generous help she gave us all. Not grateful enough to buy her books, as I don’t like historical romantic fiction, but I may well use her critiquing service if she sets it up, as the feedback she gave me on my synopsis and first chapter was invaluable. A lovely lady.

After coffee I joined the first of Della Galton’s How to Write and Sell Short Stories course. I’ve read and enjoyed her book of the same title so was looking forward to this.

Della didn’t disappoint. Among lots of useful nuggets, she introduced us to the Idea Creator. As every short story is basically about a character and a problem, you generate a list of characters and a list of problems, select a random item from each list, then write! Easy as that! We had a go, and ended up having to write an opening paragraph of a story about a gravedigger and a storm. I’ll include mine here just for fun – I might even turn it into a proper story, it has potential…

Charlie shivered in the cold morning air as he looked down into the open grave. How on earth had that trolley got there? Not just the trolley, mind. It was still full of bulging plastic bags. He wasn’t surprised that the overnight storm had ripped the tarpaulin away, but the wind surely hadn’t been strong enough to blow someone’s weekly groceries up the hill from Tesco. More to the point, how was he going to drag it all out before Mrs Frost’s funeral?

Our homework is to write an opening paragraph for a story about a nurse and her cantankerous mother-in-law. I like this way of generating ideas. The possibilities are literally endless.

Interlude – the joys of parenthood

Had a text message from my ex. My 16 year old son did a runner yesterday afternoon, the little sod. Is it too late to put him up for adoption?

He has been seen since, but is refusing to go back to his dad’s. Thankfully he’s staying with a friend, not having wild parties at my house – my ex was good enough to check for me!

Coming Out of The Garrett – How to Network, Make Friends and Influence People

An uproarious evening got off to a good start with the incomparable (and possibly certifiable) Jane Wenham-Jones. She says she’s never done stand-up, but if the writing ever fails to pay she could go for it. Jane is entering the Funny Women Awards on 23rd August at the Camden Fringe heat – she practised her act on us, after handing out bread rolls to be thrown at her and instructing us to glare rather than laugh. If I were a betting woman, I’d put money on her to go through to the next round, if not win the thing outright. None of us succeeded in keeping a straight face.

A couple of Good Things came to light before Jane’s talk:

  • Elaine Everest, one of the happy crowd at Caerleon, has been invited to be on Woman’s Hour on August 14th (I haven’t had a chance to find out what she’ll be talking about but it’ll be good, so listen in).
  • Someone (sorry, didn’t catch your name, but thank you, you made my day!) spotted me and said, ‘Ooh, so you’re the Old Bat, I’ve been reading your blog!’ 😀 😀 😀


Les Baynton (who, according to his website, was crowned Derby Beer King at the 2004 Derby Festival – well done!) hosted the Poetry Slam, which was absolutely fantastic. I didn’t get everyone’s full names (apologies), but all were wonderful:

  • Doreen Shand gave us two lovely poems, I particularly liked the one about April Showers (so gentle in comparison to Welsh Monsoons).
  • Wendy who lives in Corfu but wants to live in Swansea came third with her poems about Ithaca (‘the sleeting rain of Wales oozes self-pity’) and groping Greek men.
  • Angela Lansbury and her glove puppets read a couple of comic poems about weddings.
  • Heather Chandler told us about the whale-watching trip that kept her from Caerleon last year.
  • Katie the Kitten read lovely poems including one about her grandmother – ‘she drank wishes from a teacup’
  • Barry the Bold lowered the tone very effectively and poetically.
  • Danny Boy the Devon Bard received fourth prize for his epic poem about Barry and his van, and another tone-lowering poem.
  • Beautiful Brenda told us the real story of Jack and the Beanstalk (and his tights).
  • ‘Hey Jude’ won second prize for a beautiful poem about going home after a hard day’s work, and another about a junior hairdresser (‘I just shampoos’) with a murky past.
  • Clive the Virgin hastened to assure us he was a poetry virgin, then read an evocative and emotional poem about Oradour-sur-Glane which almost had me in tears.
  • Frantic Fran deservedly won first prize for a wonderful poem extolling the virtues of the endangered colon (the punctuation mark, silly). ‘The colon rules, the dash must die.’ (she’d hate my blog!) Fran, if you read this, I’d love a copy of that poem… (where do you stand on ellipses?)
  • Karen Spencer managed to make mathematics exciting, thus proving that poems can be written to demonstrate absolutely anything.
  • Viv the Vivacious stood up and begged us not to look at her knees (so of course we all did), then read a reaction to ‘poncey poets’ (my phrase) which includes a line I love: ‘What makes the accessible in any way worse?’
  • White Witch Margaret gave us a poem about food (just possibly based around the bountiful nature of the food here at Caerleon, much of which is making a home on my hips as I type), followed by two about drink.

They were all amazing. And the ‘serious poets’ (Les Baynton, Carol Fenlon, Pauline Barbieri and Stephen Wade (who I can’t find a website for) were fantastic too. I was so carried away listening to them that I only made one note – a couple of lines from one of Carol’s poems:
I fell in love with a ninja turtle
He was just so hard and horny.

which particularly tickled me for some reason!

The Russians

What can I say? You had to be there. Vladimir Vilicutoff, Tatiana Ripemoff and Dmitri Todgeroff were BRILLIANT!

Спасибо товарищи!

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Novel Writing day 2

Jane Pollard continued her excellent course on novel writing in the morning. She played a rather neat trick on us – gave us 15 minutes to ‘storyboard’ a scene and write a page of dialogue for it, then after we’d read out our work she said, ‘Just look what you can get done in fifteen minutes. You have no excuse for not finding time to write.’ Which was a fair point, I thought!

She talked a bit more about developing character, mentioned the technique of interviewing each character, then went into how to structure a plot. I’m not sure I agree with her on this bit, but am willing to give it a try… the idea is that, given a 15 chapter book, it is structured as follows:

  • Chapter 1 Setup (snapshot of main character’s life), followed by Inciting Incident (the thing that turns their life into chaos)
  • Chapters 2-13 Rising conflict (main character keeps trying to achieve goal, things get in the way)
  • Chapter 14 Crisis (all seems lost)
  • Chapter 15 Climax (one last effort sorts things out) followed by Resolution (tidy up loose ends)

I don’t have too much of a problem with the structure, but I have an instinctive reaction against its formulaic nature. Anyway, the next job is to ‘storyboard’ the scenes, and Jane gave us a useful outline of what needs to be done for each scene, which I shall definitely try out.

One pertinent piece of information – publishers at the moment won’t consider first novels much above 90,000 words.

Panel session

The afternoon panel session involved Kate Walker, Simon Whaley, Stephen Wade, Jane Wenham-Jones, and Lynne Hackles, all fielding questions from the audience.

The first question was ‘Where do you get inspiration from when ideas aren’t coming?’

  • KW and JWJ immediately responded ‘Alcohol’.
  • JWJ suggested to go and do something else but keep thinking about the subject, let your unconscious sort it out. She also said not to use it as an excuse not to write.
  • KW recommended ironing.
  • SW’s suggestion was to go for a 30 minute walk.

Another question was ‘What is the one piece of advice you’ve always remembered?’

  • JWJ – Write. Every day. Keep doing it.
  • SW – About poetry, ‘the more words, the more lies’ (edit ruthlessly). About writing in general, learn how to be objective and judge your own work.
  • LH – Grow a thick skin, don’t take rejection personally.
  • KW – Any non-form rejection is positive – if they’ve taken the time to respond they think you’re worth bothering with.

Someone asked ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ After a universal groan from panel and audience alike, the following emerged:

  • SW – there are stories all around you. If you’re a writer you need to be receptive to them.
  • KW – eavesdropping and being observant of people and how they behave.
  • LH – thinking ‘I wonder…’ about everything.

There were many more questions and answers, I think these were the most useful though.


A talk about internet networking this time (not me going and inflicting myself on unsuspecting fellow delegates) by Anita Loughrey. Basically saying that a professional and up-to-date online presence is highly desirable for any writer:

  • Allows you to publicise yourself and your books.
  • Location to direct people to for information about you.
  • Available worldwide, all the time.

Yep. That’s about right. She showed us how to set up a blog, gave a quick rundown of Facebook, and gave us some tips about blogging, one of which I regularly ignore (apparently 250 words is enough for a blog post. I know this. I can’t stop myself though.)

Book buying

It just had to be done. I bought Being a Professional Writer by Stephen Wade and Kate Walker, and Writing from Life – How to Turn Your Personal Experience into Profitable Prose by Lynne Hackles. They’d all had useful things to say at the panel session, friends who’d been on their courses recommended them as Good Eggs, and the books looked vaguely interesting. And there were conference discounts.

I went for dinner congratulating myself on not spending a fortune on books. There are many in the book room I could be interested in.

Lucy Mangan – Problems, Panics and Points to Ponder

The evening talk was wonderful. Lucy is such a lovely person, she takes the art of self-deprecation to extremes but everything she said was fascinating and funny. I’d been cudgelling myself about where I’d heard her name – of course, she’s a Guardian columnist.

She gave lots of interesting hints and tips, e.g.

  • If you get writer’s block, do a sudoku puzzle.
  • Don’t turn down opportunities (she phrased it, ‘don’t be a dick’).
  • Acknowledge some things won’t come naturally to you.
  • Write everything down (ideas, thoughts, observations, etc).

Much of what she said was about how to muster up the confidence to write. I don’t believe she was ever as nervous as she says she was, she carried the whole room with her throughout her talk, and I was lucky to make it back to the book room in time to buy copies of her books before they ran out. Yes, that’s right, I bought two more books. But they were at conference prices.

I have now subscribed to her blog on the Guardian website, and will likely be awake all night reading My Family and Other Disasters and Hopscotch and Handbags.

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Refridgeration – is it worth it?

Oh my goodness. That fridge. I have never heard such a collection of noises emanating from white goods. Yes, I expect it to click on and start rattling when its thermostat says it’s got too hot and bothered. But I don’t expect elemental sounds of wind swirling and whistling around imaginatively eroded columns of rock, accompanied by the rushing of spring water across pebbles!

I thought about being inspired to write a poem…

I switched it off before I went to sleep. Didn’t get to sleep till gone 2am… I reasoned that as it was already past midnight I might as well carry on reading. Not entirely sure how that made any sort of sense, but it was late and my brain was hyperactive after the quiz.

Networking – Phase 2

Spoke to someone new at breakfast – making friends is dead easy, you just find someone sitting on their own and join them. Not sure how acceptable this is, people may find it totally irritating, but it’s fun. The next thing is to pluck up courage to talk to people whose names I recognise – agents and authors and people like that. I’m going to do this writing thing, all of it, lock stock and barrel, even if it means a major character change.

Novel writing course

My morning was taken up with the first two sessions of Jane Pollard’s excellent novel writing course (where I finally caught up with Kevin). She writes as Jane Jackson, and has had several romantic and historical Cornwall-based novels published. She is also an experienced writing teacher, and it shows… in the space of a couple of hours I learned an awful lot of useful practical techniques that I haven’t yet picked up from anywhere else. Little things like how to write a single paragraph to set a scene – five sentences using all five senses, and mention the effect of the lighting. The latter tip is incredibly useful. So much can be conveyed by a short description of how a scene is lit:

The orange light from the setting sun cast diamond shadows across the polished wooden handpumps.

So you know you’re in a pub in the early evening, it’s old because it has leaded windows and old-fashioned handpumps, an atmosphere of dim lighting is created (because you can see the shadows of the lead strips).

Jane has obviously spent hours and hours and hours preparing for this course – she’s not only read and red-inked all 25 submitted synopses and first chapters, but she’s given each of us a three page printed report as well. And it’s all really useful and pertinent stuff. What a generous person… I shall learn a lot from her. Including that I need to do a bit of re-thinking about my novel before I get much further in.

…I suppose it should be obvious that the reader has to actually care about the main character… so maybe I should make her a bit more likeable…

A Productive Writer is a Positive Writer

and vice versa. Simon Whaley’s afternoon talk was very amusing, and very professional. Most of what he said was stuff I’ve heard before (you’ve probably heard it too): positive thinking, setting realistic long-term goals and breaking them down into medium-term and short-term goals, rewarding yourself when you achieve a goal, putting the work in, etc. It didn’t do me any harm whatsoever to hear it again though, and putting it in a specific writing context was useful.

I was quite surprised to hear someone behind me grumbling, ‘Shut up and get on with it,’ while Simon was being introduced. Didn’t seem to be any call for that, it was the only incidence of anything resembling unacceptable behaviour I’ve witnessed so far. Everyone else has been very friendly and positive.

Become your character

An excellent hour-long session run by Sue Moorcroft, which was very well attended. She gave us very sparse information about a character (mine was male, age 40, his wife was dying, he was scared) and we had five minutes to write a quick character sketch. She then demonstrated how to fill out those characters by interviewing them – three volunteers went out to the front and had to answer questions in the persona of their characters for ten minutes or so.

These questions ranged from simple details such as:
– What music do you like?
– How many brothers and sisters do you have?
– What are your hobbies?
– Where do you go on holiday?
to rather more deep and profound questions like:
– What are your hopes and fears?
– Why did you stay with your wife if you hate her so much?
– Does your wish to have a baby come from you, or your mum’s wish for grandchildren?
– What would you do if money wasn’t a problem?

It strikes me this is a particularly useful way of really understanding your character. You need a friend or two to fire questions at you, so maybe it’s something I might suggest we try in my writing group. I’d love to do it myself, I was too nervous to volunteer though. I know, girly wuss. I’ve promised myself next time anyone asks for a volunteer for anything I’ll be the first to step forwards (that’s anything writing-related, just in case anyone gets any ideas).

I tried to work out a way of doing this if there isn’t a handy friend around. The lady sitting next to me suggested getting someone to write out a set of questions to be asked to all such characters – this is a starting point but I think maybe it needs to be fine-tuned to follow interesting avenues which will be character-specific. [This is possibly an idea for a software tool?] My thought was to get two characters in mind and have them interview each other. This could lead to disintegration of personality though.

Katie Fforde – the evening talk

Katie Fforde gave a lovely talk then took lots of questions. The highlight was the first question, from a man who’d obviously confused her with someone else: ‘What exactly is erotic fiction?’ She did answer the question once the initial hilarity had died down, to her credit.

Main other points:

  • Plots are essential to link characters, settings and themes.
  • Characters are even more important, they must be realistic and likeable enough for the reader to be able to relate to them (i.e. not perfect or flawless).
  • When doing research, talk to people and try things out, don’t just read about it.
  • Tips for plotting: do mini-synopses for the next few chapters, or start plotting at the end if you’re struggling.

I am an old fogey

It’s 9.20pm and I’m ready for bed. I was going to do some writing, but I’m soooooo tired…

Thoughts at the end of the second day:

  • I’m enjoying this more than I thought I would (I’d anticipated being overcome with shyness and spending most of my time alone).
  • All the sessions I’ve been to have been interesting at the very least, and most have been extremely useful.
  • There are some extremely strange people in the world.
  • If anyone’s interested, contributions towards the fees for next year would be most welcome as birthday or Christmas presents 🙂

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I’m going to be reverting to a journal-style blog for the week. It is writing-related though…

WTF is wh@c?

I have to admit, when Kevin Machin, aka Captain Black mentioned wh@c I didn’t know what he was talking about, let alone realise that I too was booked to attend the same event. Of course, he meant the Summer Writers’ Holiday at Caerleon. D’oh.

Getting there

I arrived mid-afternoon, exhausted and slightly hung over, in Wet Wales. Some information about arrival time and where to report to would have been helpful, but I muddled through. Left home when I’d woken up sufficiently to drive, and wandered around Caerleon Campus looking lost until I found someone who told me where to go. As it were.

Oh my goodness. I’d forgotten how grotty student accommodation is. This is my room:

Room at Caerleon

Room at Caerleon

(There are more bottles of diet coke hiding behind the fridge, don’t worry, I shall not die of caffeine withdrawal)

What’s to come

There is a fantastic programme for the week ahead. I was hoping to get some writing done as well, but I suspect I won’t have much time. Breakfast is served 8-8.45 (AAAAARRRRRGGGGGHHHHH!!!!!) and morning workshops start at 9.30 – I may miss breakfast on more than one occasion. Luckily I brought cereal bars to cover just that possibility. Events are spaced throughout the day and carry on till 9pm, followed by late events in the bar. I am greatly looking forward to everything… but I do have to say I’d have preferred the events to be more squished up to give a couple of hours for writing… ah, there’s no pleasing some people.

Actually, I’ve just noticed there’s an hour and a half between the after-tea sessions and dinner, which is pretty much what I’m after. And I don’t have to stay out boozing all night, so I should just stop complaining, miserable old bat that I am…

I’m very much looking forward to the courses I’ve booked myself on – ‘Novel writing – moving it on’ and ‘How to write and sell short stories’. A bit nervous about the former, as I had to submit the first chapter of my novel to the course leader, and it’s very much a draft at the moment. I can’t read it myself without cringing.

Initial recce

After a wander around the maze that is the main building, I tried to break into what looked like a bar, and was pointed towards a more effective (i.e. less locked) door by a very nice lady from Ashby-de-la-Zouch. Chatted with said lady for a while, learned all sorts of useful Nottingham area stuff (ironic that I had to go to Wales to discover it!), then back to dingy digs to contemplate my dire uselessness at small-talk and try to prevent myself from getting depressed. One of the things I must learn if I’m ever going to be a successful author is how to talk to people and network and promote myself. Yargh.

Networking phase 1

Went over for the free wine at 6, and forced myself to chat to some people. Seemed to work OK, other people aren’t really as scary as they seem! Dinner was pretty good for a student restaurant. I haven’t had potato croquettes for DECADES! They’re not nearly as luscious as I remember them, although that would be difficult.

I think I spotted Kevin… not sure though. Will have to check out his name badge tomorrow.

First talk – Teresa Chris – The Real Writer

Teresa is an agent, and thus someone who really knows what she’s talking about. She was well worth listening to. Sadly she didn’t read out entire letters to show us how not to approach an agent, but she did say someone had written to her saying they’d just perpetrated their new novel. Superb!

Brief notes from her talk:

  • Real writers have ‘served their apprenticeship’, learned the craft, honed their skills, found their voice.
  • The majority of the book market at the moment is in supermarkets.
  • Publishers are looking for feelgood novels at the moment.
  • Books that succeed have been pushed by publishers – typically a small percentage of any publisher’s list.
  • Don’t bother submitting a novel to anyone before it’s finished.
  • Most publishers these days only take submissions from agents.
  • Publishers want authors that will produce several books that are reasonably similar – to build up a readership.
  • You don’t need to prove you’ve got more novels up your sleeve when you submit – this is generally assumed if your work is good.

The Quiz

Helen Yendall and Christine Cherry ran a fantastic literary quiz – 20 pictures to identify and 60 questions on a wide range of topics. Our team (The Parrots – not sure why!) did quite well, we came third out of about 10 teams. Thankfully we didn’t have to attempt the tie breaker, which was ‘how many lines are there in Hamlet’, although we’d have had quite a good bash at it.

I am most proud of getting the answer to this question right:
What colour hat is worn in Jenny Joseph’s poem ‘Warning’?
If you can answer this correctly without looking the poem up you’ll have the right to be as smug as I am!

And so to bed

I wish I’d thought to bring a bedside light with me. The only light sources are a bare fluorescent tube (way too bright) and the light in the en suite (with a noisy fan associated). Still, I think I won’t have any trouble getting to sleep. Waking up tomorrow, now that’s another matter.

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I didn’t believe it when Mum said she had a dog. When my brother and I were small, we pleaded for a pet of some sort. We had images of a faithful playful Labrador, a constant companion in our adventures, but hell, even a guinea pig would have done.

Mum wouldn’t even discuss it with us. So when she left that voicemail telling me all about the latest parish council meeting, and, ‘Oh, by the way, I’ve got a dog,’ I didn’t know what to think. I texted my sister, who confirmed the story. Many questions back and forth elicited the information that it was brown, small, thin, female, had all its limbs, and was a rescue dog named Truffles.

I called Mum later in the week. ‘So is this dog going to help you with the sheep?’ She has a flock of sheep and a field. Apparently sheep don’t count as pets.

‘No, it’s not that sort of dog.’

‘When are you going to find time to take it for walks?’

‘It doesn’t need much exercise, just sits around by the fire.’

‘Are you going senile?’

She put the phone down. Fair enough, I guess.

A few months later she sent me a photo of Truffles. Her body is a squashed conical tube, her legs and tail are long and thin and they bend in strange places, she has a springy neck, droopy jowls, pop-out eyes, and ears like huge leaves sticking out to the sides of her long flat head. Oh, and she’s made of metal. Not a real dog.

Ha ha. Big joke.

* * *

This summer, like every summer, the kids and I have come to stay with Mum for a week. We love being here, in the country, away from noise and pollution and crowds. Mum’s written her usual list of jobs to be done – sawing logs, cutting hedges, pulling up thistles, fixing the field gate, collecting flints to fill a ditch. It’s a matter of honour that we cross everything off before we go home.

One job that’s always on the list is feeding the lambs. By this time of year they’re independent of their mothers, but they need supplements so they bulk up in time for the winter slaughter. The boys are a bit squeamish about the whole thing, but they’ll happily tuck into the delicious roast dinners that are the end product.

Part of the tradition is that we count the lambs every time we go up to feed them. This is mostly to keep the kids entertained. It’s quite difficult to keep track of twenty-three hyperactive bundles of wool. This year though, lambs are vanishing. The first evening we were here, we counted twenty-two. Mum was sure we’d missed one, but after several recounts she admitted we were right. We searched the field, but there was no sign of the missing lamb, alive or dead.

The third evening, there were twenty-one, and yesterday we only counted twenty. By this time we were all getting quite upset. Back at the cottage, the boys made lemon drizzle cake while Mum and I discussed the fate of the lambs. It’s unlikely to be human thieves. They wouldn’t steal one lamb at a time. Foxes, Mum reckons. Apparently they’ve become a real problem since the hunting ban. It could be badgers, but they’re untidy eaters and would leave a mess. A fox will pick the lamb up and take it elsewhere. One of her friends called, she thinks it’s farm dogs that have got a taste for warm flesh, but Mum doesn’t believe that.

* * *

This morning I woke early and came downstairs to find the back door slightly open. Burglars, was my first thought, but nothing seemed to be missing. Oh well. Maybe my eldest son sneaked out for a smoke last night and forgot to shut the door. I took my breakfast into the living room.

The boys had left the room in a mess. Cushions scattered on the floor, the TV on mute, half-empty glasses of milk on the floor. Why they can’t pick up after themselves is beyond me. It doesn’t take long. So I switched the TV off, put the cushions back on the sofa and took the dirty glasses out to the kitchen. When I returned, I noticed Truffles, the rusty iron pseudo-dog, was lying on its side.

As I was replacing it on its feet, I saw a tuft of white lambswool caught in the spring of its neck. And a dribble of dried blood down the side of its jaw.

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On Being a Novelist

No rest for the author

I’m in Dorset, on holiday. Less time for blogging, as all my spare time is taken up with keeping up the momentum on my novel. And even there I’m failing miserably. Not managing to reach my target of 1000 words a day at the moment, but I’m doing an awful lot of thinking. That’s my excuse, and I keep trying to persuade myself it’s valid.

How on earth does one write a novel?

To be honest, I have absolutely no idea.

Should one read while writing? Yes, of course. Or no, that would be foolish. Take your pick.

Edit as you go? Generally not approved of. But some people think it’s ok.

Plotting or panting? Know your story in great detail before writing a word. Or just write by the seat of your pants.

Characters – how much to know? Everything. Or sketches that gain detail as you write.

And so on and so on. There is so much conflicting advice around, I’ve decided to ignore it all and just get on with it. The novel I’m writing has been churning around in my head for nearly three years now, and I started the first chapter, erm, can’t remember when but before I’d done any writing classes (and it shows).

The plan is to get the first draft done in the next few months. I’m hoping to finish it by sometime in October. Then I’ll tackle the fun part – editing/revising. At the moment the stuff I’m churning out is awful. Absolutely appalling, and I really hope no-one ever sees it. I shall have to write it into my will that my netbook and all backups are to be destroyed. One valid reason for not reading while writing is to avoid the crushing feelings of inadequacy. But at the moment I’m successfully persuading myself the second draft will be brilliant. And at that point I might let a carefully selected friend or two read and comment.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I need to get the first draft done. So how am I going to do that?


I know the basic plot outline, that’s been in my head the whole time. It is very basic in some places. If it was a sock and my grandmother was still alive, she’d darn it.

I’ve attempted to fill in some of the gaps. I spent a couple of happy days sitting in front of my wardrobe doors with a pile of post-it notes and some coloured Sharpies, getting an outline in place. That was a good start. But now, 20000 words in, I’m discovering that I need to re-do that exercise.

What’s happening is, I’m planning the next couple of scenes as I write, and only vaguely following the outline. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, I’m worried that the novel might be veering off course. For a short story that’s no problem, but I don’t have time to write this novel to see where it ends up, then re-write it if that doesn’t work.


I’ve got some backstory worked out, and I have an image in my mind of most of the characters. Problem is, trying to distinguish between them. In the first few chapters there are two motherly types, who speak the same way and do the same things – this is Not Good, and the fact that I didn’t realise it was happening as I was writing means I’m going to have to put a bit more effort into developing my characters before I let them loose on the page.

And new characters keep creeping in while my back’s turned. Not sure what to do about them – would electric fences work to keep them out? My current rule is, they can come in as long as they bring a bottle.

Background research

I’m not being completely idle while on holiday. The novel is set in rural West Dorset (it is not a coincidence that this is where my mother lives and where I spent a lot of my childhood), and while we’re here I’m dragging the kids and my mother around all sorts of places so I can soak up the atmosphere and take photos of trees and fields and prehistoric monuments. Mother has gone to bed early today, very tired, bless her. Not before lending me many of her local history books though!

Just f****** do it

This is by far the best advice I can offer so far (from my months of experience). But then I’m an arch-procrastinator, so I need to be told to STOP MESSING ABOUT AND GET ON WITH IT.

Right. Enough of this, I have another 723 words to write today. I’ll just check email, twitter and facebook first…

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‘Why aren’t you ready yet?’

Jenny starts to cry.

She has spent hours perfecting her outfit, styling her hair, applying makeup.

She pats her eyes dry, wary of mascara runs, then slaps him as hard as she can.

‘Ouch,’ he says. ‘That hurt!’

Jenny laughs. She’s pleased she’s inflicted pain.

‘What’s funny?’ he says.

This is the last time he will make her cry.

She turns her back on him and picks up the knife.




Humming a tune, Jenny blanks him from her thoughts.

She needs to cook those vegetables, their guests will arrive soon.

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More poetic thoughts

What is Proper Poetry?

Well, I know I’ve got a long way to go to become a Proper Poet… but I’m now struggling to work out how to get there. I’m not even quite sure where ‘there’ is any more.

I keep making the excuse that I haven’t been reading and writing poetry for long, so I don’t quite get it. On the other hand, I’d argue that most people haven’t been reading and writing poetry for long, so surely I’m more representative of the potential audience than many poets? And surely it makes sense to write so that the audience can understand you? The prime function of poetry is to communicate, after all.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying my poetry’s better than Carol Ann Duffy’s. In fact, she’s a case in point. Her poems do communicate superbly, I read them and I know she’s told me something, made me feel something I wouldn’t otherwise have felt. There are other poets around whose work I read and re-read and really try to understand, and I get nothing. The language is beautiful, the sounds are gorgeous, but I don’t get any meaning from them. Which leaves me wondering why I bothered reading them.

Strip right down

The modern fashion in poetry is for minimalism and free verse. (Despite the undeniable fact that there are brilliant form poets around (Wendy Cope, for example), the use of strict rhyme and metre seems to be frowned on – if you’re going to write a sonnet it had better be as good as Shakespeare’s, otherwise don’t bother.) There’s a great movement afoot to ‘trust the reader’ – they’ll be able to work out what you mean, explaining it to them is not the done thing.

For example, I wrote a bloody awful poem full of teenage angst… I’ll bare my soul to you and show you a verse, with the suggested cuts in strikethrough font.

Tears in my mother’s eyes
when he told her my secret
drowned me in suddenness.
She voiced no reaction
didn’t touch me for days.
I turned away, didn’t see
that her lungs were filling
with salt water
and she couldn’t breathe.

I agree that the verse is rubbish. I know I always write too much, in prose and in poetry, and I’m working on that. But strip it down that far? To me, that leaves too little for the reader to get hold of. I’ve heard people talking about poetry say, ‘I don’t understand it but I love it,’ but I really struggle with that. I need to have some level of understanding. And

She didn’t touch me for days
her lungs filling with salt water.

is a lovely pair of lines but it doesn’t actually say very much to me, and I wrote the blasted things!

Am I wrong?

Or am I just a different kind of right? There can’t just be One True Path to the heights of poetic excellence, it doesn’t make sense.

Someone explain it to me! Please?

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