"A word after a word after a word is power" - Margaret Atwood


A blog for readers and writers

A blog about the stories we tell each other and how we tell them...

Saturday, 27 February 2010

Book clubs can change your life

If you are thinking of setting up a book club or reading group there is practical advice available from Voluntary Arts Ireland. Click on the title of this post to download a copy of a new booklet that helps you to set up a new group, and gives ideas about choosing books.
I am positive that belonging to a book club helped me get a place on the MA in Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmiths in 2003. AND that was the start of a new career and a new life...
Ok, I presume that my portfolio of writing had something to do with being accepted but in the interview I was able to demonstrate a breadth of reading - Gogol and James Elroy, Annie Proulx and Emily Bronte - that was entirely due to being introduced to a range of literature I probably wouldn't have encountered on my own. 
More than that, in the pub I had to put into words why I loved/hated/was indifferent to each month's choice and that was good preparation for being in a classroom.
And there are only two ways to learn how to write: 
  1. write 
  2. read
(Courses, mentors, qualifications, groups can help and support the emerging writer but there is no way of short circuiting those basic elements: if you want to write you actually have to write - as opposed to just thinking about it - and you have to read, anything, everything...just read)
Next weekend there is a festival in Ennis, County Clare entirely devoted to Irish Book Clubs - more power to them!

PRECIOUS Seen the film? Read the screen play

Precious was adapted from the novel PUSH by Sapphire. Film makers Lionsgate have posted the screen play on their website. Click on the title of this post to go there and see how the film looks on the page.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

And a competition for older people

Two more free and age restricted competitions –  this time for the over 60s  - organized by Bookbite website - part of Booktrust, the British charity that promotes reading.
The 'Letter I Wish I'd Written'
 Write a letter that you wish you had written to someone in the past in no more than 500 words. You must also submit a paragraph of no more than 50 words explaining how such a letter may have affected your life if you had written it in the past.
Prize: There are 25 prizes of a £100 book token.
My Story
Write a story relating to an event that actually happened in your life in no more than 750 words .Prize: 1st prize – £500 worth of National Book Token gift vouchers; 2nd prize – £350 worth of National Book Token gift vouchers; and 3rd prize – £150 worth of National Book Token gift vouchers..
Deadline for both competitions is March 31 2010
Check out the website for the full rules by clicking on the title of this post.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Wicked Young People's Writing Award

GOOD news that there is a new national competition for British writers between the age of 5 and 25 -- no other competition has anything like that range and I especially like the Gregory Maguire Award, a special category for 17 to 25 year olds.  The task is to re-work an old story, give it a new slant - just as he did when he wrote Wicked from the perspective of the wicked witch of the west from the Wizard of Oz.  

I often set an exercise along these lines in class.
Last term I used Hansel and Gretal because I wanted to explore K
urt Vonnegut's advice: you should start a story as near to the end as possible.  

Every student was told where to begin their tale...such as
  • alone in the forest 
  • finding the gingerbread house
  • Gretal shoving the witch into the oven
It was great fun and instructive, but what stands out for me is a student who was asked to start her version when the step mother urges the father to abandon his children. 
The wicked caricature of fairy tale was transformed into a powerless and vulnerable woman 
trying to save the children from the real danger at home - a violent and authoritarian father. 
It was powerful writing but I have a horrible feeling that the student might miss the 25 year old age limit by a whisker. 
Never mind, good writing is good writing, even if it doesn't fit into a competition category

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Raymond Carver and Dostoevsky

The American magazine POETS & WRITERS is celebrating its 40th birthday by publishing articles from its archive on the P&W home page every week.
Here is an extract from Tobias Wolff's appreciation of Raymond Carver, published shortly after the writer's tragically early death from lung cancer at the age of 50.
He used to love telling the story about Dostoevsky’s last-minute reprieve, and I always had the sense he was talking about himself, too. He took nothing for granted. Every new day, every moment with his friends, every new story and poem was an astonishment to him. 
I was a bit vague about what happened to Dostoevsky so I looked it up. Here is a pared down version of events. I am sure Carver told a better tale.
Dostoevsky's writing career began in the 1840s while he was a civil servant. His first novel Poor People was a great success, but his second,The Double, wasn't. In November 1849 he was convicted of plotting against the Russian state and on December 22, 1849, was led out before a firing squad. 
Imagine the sound of soldiers' feet. Imagine the bitter cold of the air and the feel of the shovel as it bit into the hard earth. 
At the last moment he was reprieved. 
He spent the next four years in a Siberian labour camp and after that served as a soldier on the Mongolian frontier - which can't have been an easy tour of duty.  Sixteen years after he thought he was going to be executed he published Crime and Punishment, then came The Possessed . In 1880 he published The Brothers Karamazov and died knowing that it had had won popular acclaim.
I don't suppose Dostoevsky lived every moment of the extra 31 years that were given to him with joy in his heart. I don't suppose he woke every morning with a burst of explosive emotion because he was alive to see the light. But some days he did. 
Some days he must have.  

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Sussex Writers Support Haitian Survivors

I will be part of the Sussex Writers Performance at Dorset Gardens Methodist Church, (Off St James's Street), Kemp Town, Brighton, BN2 1RL.    
SUNDAY 28th FEBRUARY 6.15pm for 6.30 pm start. 
Free - all donations will go to two charities supporting the people of Haiti 
Performers include:
Debbie Waldon started acting at New Venture Theatre in Brighton. She is currently filming a new Simon Pegg movie. She has several published pieces.
Pam Vincent is a prize-winning poet. Born in the Bronx, Pam came over to London to study Keats and stayed. She's written poetry and prose, including Losing It, which won the Scintilla short poems contest in 2003 and 'Getting away from Mama,' published in 'Uncut Diamonds' by the Maia Press that same year. 
Selwyn Veater is a local poet who has had about 40 poems published in magazines.
Evlynn Sharp is a poet, visiting lecturer and creative writing tutor in the community. Her plays have been performed in theatres such as the Birmingham Rep and recorded by the Riverside Studio. CDs include Awakening Love and River in the Heart. She has given poetry performances in the UK, Eire and Berlin.
Jane Rusbridge  her debut novel, The Devil's Music, is published by Bloomsbury. She lives in West Sussex and is associate lecturer in English at the University of Chichester.
Marie-Claire Menary is currently working on a novel and also writes poetry, short stories, flash fiction. She has just completed three articles commissioned for Leaf Books' new creative writing magazine. She lives in Hove and teaches English for bread-and-butter.
Anne Marr is a former journalist who has also worked in local government and for  charities in England and Scotland. She now lives in Seaford and is re-writing her   fantasy novel with support from tutor Umi Sinha at Hillcrest Community Centre, Newhaven. Anne is a member of New Writing South.
Ged Duncan is sometimes to be found in a cabin in Dorset, sometimes in a garret
in Brighton. He is the author of the Sydney the Smuggler trilogy. 
Hansa Chudasama is currently writing a collection of short stories about her family and their lives in a small town in Kenya spanning over three generation and continents

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Flag Counter

This blog is a six week old experiment and when I discovered the flag counter this evening I just had to add it to the site.  I've had just under 1000 visitors so far and I do get a kick out of seeing where they have come from. So this is hello to Colorado, USA and Wiltshire, England; to Berlin and Madrid; the Isle of Wight and Carlisle; to the readers and writers of Arizona, Galway and Hawaii; of London, Brighton and Dublin...to the places I have never been and want to visit one day....to the places I already know...and the precious few I love...it's going to be fun seeing the flags arrive.

Love Story of 2010

I was delighted to join the panel of judges for The Love Story of the Year. The award is made by the Romantic Novelists Association for a shorter romance where there is a strong emphasis on the developing central relationship. The reading public have chosen the following shortlist (and they've given us a tough job):
  • The Notorious Mr Hurst, Louise Allen, Harlequin Mills & Boon
  • Animal Instincts, Nell Dixon, Little Black Dress
  • Always the Bridesmaid, Nina Harrington, Harlequin Mills & Boon
  • Fair Deception, Jan Jones, Robert Hale
  • The Wedding Party, Sophie King, Hodder
  • Claimed for the Italian’s Revenge, Natalie Rivers, Harlequin Mills & Boon
The award ceremony will be on Tuesday March 16 2010 at the Royal Garden Hotel, in Kensington, London.

Reasons to be cheerful

Thriller writer Jason Pinter recently wrote on the world famous Huffington Post blog.
Never before has it been easier to find a new release or an out-of-print backlist title, from the comfort of your local independent to the ease of an online retailer to the portability of an e-reader. And never has it been easier for a book lover to communicate with their fellow readers and even authors themselves.
Today author Andrew Croft was equally optimistic when asked at the United Authors meeting about the future for books.
Publishers and bookshops as we know them may disappear. What other commodity has shops exclusively devoted to them? Tescos and WH Smiths will survive - and the small independents which offer such a special service - but the High Street book shops will vanish. But writers will be the driving force. There will always be a need for people who can write vividly and with clarity.

Marketing for Authors

A wonderful day spent in idyllic surroundings with very good company...and it was work. Pure Work.
United Authors UK - the West Sussex branch of the Society of Authors - organised lunch and a meeting at Rowfant House. The subject was marketing and the speakers were Rae Hardy (Head of textbook marketing at Palgrave Macmillan) and author and ghostwriter  Andrew Croft. He has published around 80 books, a dozen of which have been Sunday Times number one bestsellers. One title has sold around four million copies worldwide.
Here's a very partial and very succinct sketch of their talks
Rae Hardy
As an author you are selling to three people
  • the gatekeeper (the shop owner/the campus retailer)
  • the decision maker (the lecturer who recommends the textbook to students, the reviewer who recommends to readers)
  • the purchaser
Andrew Croft
Writers are craftsmen and women and an important part of the craft is discovering what the market wants and delivering it. You also have to find ways of selling yourself - differentiating the brand. The internet has made it all so much easier, but you can't use blogs or twitter purely as a market place where you shout buy me, buy me. The public is not stupid and will spot a cynical marketing strategy. 


Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Photograph of the Month at the National Portrait Gallery

Check out this fantastic photograph of novelist Margaret Forster which has been chosen as February 2010 photograph of the month by the National Portrait Gallery in London. It was taken by Joanne O'Brien, a truly gifted photographer whose work has appeared in many forms including Across The Water, a groundbreaking book on the experience of Irish women emigrating to Britain and A Matter of Minutes, about Bloody Sunday. When she was working on a Home Office project six or seven years ago she had to produce a series of photographs about a day in the life of a court and she was short of a magistrate.  It was the only modellng job I've ever had...
You can find out more about Joanne and her work by clicking on the title of this post

Writing for BBC SOAPS

John Yorke, Controller Drama Production & New Talent, will answer questions about writing for continuing drama shows  such as EastEnders, Casualty and Doctors  as well as the BBC Writers Academy in a Q&A session with Kate Rowland, BBC Creative Director of New Writing.
WHEN: Thursday 4 March 2010 from 6:00pm - 7:30pm 
WHERE: The Drill Hall, 16 Chenies street, London WC1E 7EX
 Tickets are free.To add your name to the guest list email writersroom.events@bbc.co.uk.

Monday, 15 February 2010

In my experience, those who beg for mercy seldom deserve it

That's the first line. 
Write the rest of the story and enter Alibi's new crime fiction competition.
Length: between 2,500 - 5,000 words long
Prize:Three finalists will win tickets to Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, Harrogate (with travel and accommodation included), where they'll get to the chance to rub shoulders with leading authors and agents of the crime writing world. The winner will be announced during the weekend and will win a Sony e-reader, a library of 100 crime books including a signed Stuart MacBride back catalogue and they'll also see their story turned into a special online, downloadable e-edition by HarperCollins. 
Deadline: May 16th 2010
Click on the title of this post and you will be directed to alibi's website

Crime fiction is about the restoration of order
                                                      -- P.D. James 

Travellers' Tales Festival

When: Saturday and Sunday 20th and 21st February 

Where The Royal Geographical Society, Exhibition Road, London
How much: quite a lot but it depends what you go to - you can pick and mix but there's a discount for the whole weekend.
Ccheck out the website or

Tonight - the art of networking

If I was in London tonight I would definitely go to this event organised by Spread the Word. 
I would get the chance to get all nostalgic chilling out in a Fleet Street pub. Some of my best moments (so far) happened in Fleet Street.  My first job was at 21 Fleet Street, next door to the Cock Tavern..At 16 editorial assistant, fetcher of messages and maker of numerous cups of tea 
The event is billed as a chance to practice your meeting and greeting skills and that does sound like a good idea. Especially if networking doesn't come naturally.
WHEN  15 February 6.30pm -- 9pm COST £7 - it is regular event so check out the website for similar evenings in the future
WHERE The Punch Tavern in Fleet Street (on the corner of Farringdon Street)
WHO Spread the Word is a development agency for London writers

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Stories and Symbols and Sheets of Computer Paper

Clearing out the loft this afternoon, a stray sheet of computer paper drifted out of a box. It looks antique with its crude dot matrix printing, perforations and ribbon of holes trimming both edges. I can date it with a fair amount of  precision as it was the product of a mandatory computing unit at North London University (now London Metropolitan University) because no graduate was allowed to leave without at least a nodding acquaintance with word processing.
And what did this message from the past say?
It was a selection of quotes from Mary Robinson, the inspirational Irish President who was elected against the odds, against all conventional wisdom, in 1990.  Her election is thought to be the first time that voters in the Irish Republic made a personal choice rather than cast their ballot according to which side their family fought on in the Civil War 70 years earlier.
She made many memorable speeches as President (and still does as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights) and I have yet to meet anyone who is Irish and gay who doesn't cherish her words when Gay Rights were finally established in Irish law (welcome to the family of Ireland...you were always part of us even if we didn't recognise it...).
But it is this part of her inaugural speech that has such resonance of writers and story tellers...
Symbols give us our identity, our self image, our way of explaining ourself to ourselves and to others. Symbols in turn determine the kind of stories we tell; and the stories we tell determine the kind of history we make and re-make.

Irish Writers Centre in Dublin

I was sorry to hear that the Irish Writers Centre in Dublin did not get a grant from the Arts Council this year. I gather that this puts a question mark over its future.
This is what they had to say about the decision in the their email newsletter
Dublin has lodged an application to UNESCO for a special designation as a ‘City of Literature’. If this is granted, Dublin, and Ireland, will be able to exploit this status to enhance its cultural profile and its attraction to cultural tourists. But the designation will be granted and maintained, not in recognition of our glorious tradition, but on the vibrancy of the contemporary writing environment and on the infrastructure that exists to sustain and develop that vibrancy. In view of this, the decision of the Arts Council to jeopardise the Irish Writers’ Centre is myopic in the extreme. 

The most borrowed authors

Here's the top ten most borrowed library authors over the last decade....Dan Brown -- of Da Vinci Code fame - came in at 351st place in the library lending league. (That man owes me two hours of my time...) 

1. Jacqueline Wilson (16 million)
2. Danielle Steel (14 million)
3. Catherine Cookson (14 million)
4. Josephine Cox (13 million)
5. James Patterson (11 million)
6. RL Stine (10 million)
7. Mick Inkpen (10 million)
8. Janet & Allan Ahlberg (9 million)
9. Roald Dahl (8 million)
10. Agatha Christie (8 million)

The Magic of Libraries

February is the month that Public Lending Rights are paid and this is the first year I will be getting a cheque.  Although I already know how much it is - they email a month earlier with the total - it is still pretty exciting. The rate per loan is 6.29 pence and the minimum payment amount is £1 and the maximum £6,600 (the top figure is capped because otherwise all the money in the fund would go to the top ten authors and the rest of us -- especially newbies like me - wouldn't get a look in).  
It's a thrill to see my novel in bookshops, of course it is.  But there is something special about knowing A Good Confession is on library shelves up and down the country.  There are copies in Ballymoney, Ballymena, Magherafelt and other libraries in Northern Irealnd, it is in Tatto Heath in St Helens and Ince in Wigan. There are five copies in Cornwall and someone right now has borrowed the audio version in Deal and Tunbridge Wells and in  the Orkney Islands library. Just before Christmas I was told by a student that the hardback edition had been stolen from Hornsey library in North London. Just couldn't bear to give it back....

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

The Ghost of West Pier

Tonight in Brighton. Snow on the beach and a north wind knifing fingers and faces as the ghost of the West Pier flickers into life.  And the magic isn't diminished because you know it's all done with lasers...

Self-Publishing Day in Brighton

SELF PUBLISHING is now respectable and doesn't have to involve getting a second mortgage.  The wonderful QueenSpark Books are running a day to explain the ins and outs.  
DATE:    Saturday  13 Feb (10.15am - 3.30pm) 

LOCATION: Jubilee Library Central Brighton COST: £20 

Tickets available from the 
Dome Ticket Office at 29 New Road (01273) 709709 
Topics covered will include:
How to present your book professionally
Design, Layout & Costs
Proof Reading and copy editing
Printing your book
Marketing your book
Pros & Cons of Self-Publishing.

For more information contact:
e-mail sarah@queensparkbooks.org.uk or telephone 01273 571710 

Under the Skin of the Horror Genre

From Stephanie Meyer's Twilight Saga to Guillermo del Toro's haunting gothic films where the living can be more terrifying than the dead, horror has been remodeled, redefined, renewed...
Film journalist and author, Alan Jones (The Rough Guide to Horror Movies) and David McGillivray (journalist, stage and screenwriter and producer of many cult 1970's 'B' horror flicks) are at the Lighthouse in Brighton to discuss:

• the key ingredients of a good horror movie
• how tastes and styles have developed over the decades
• the masters of the genre and why they got it so right
• why horror is having a massive resurgence in literature, film and television.

Tuesday 16 February 2010 
6.30pm for 7pm start
At: Lighthouse, 28 Kensington St, Brighton BN1 4AJ
Entry: £3.50/£3 concs.
To book tickets in advance go to:

Sunday, 7 February 2010

For one night only ...The West Pier Appears

Thrilled to hear that on Wednesday - February 10 - the ghost of Brighton's West Pier will appear from nowhere, shimmering in the dark...

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Be short if you want to be a travel writer

I've found another travel writing quote I like.  
People who are rather more than six feet tall and nearly as broad across the shoulders often have uneventful journeys. People jump out at them from behind rocks then say things like, 'Oh. Sorry. I thought you were someone else.
-      Terry Pratchett

Travel Writing Advice

Two apparently contradictory elements are key to modern travel writing.
(1)           nobody cares what you did.
(2)           you have to be part of the narrative

The once-in-a-lifetime trip is a yawn to the reader unless there is more to it and the more is story....and the author is part of  that story because the day of the so-called neutral observer is over.
Nearly all contemporary travel writers include their own dreams and memories of childhood as well as chunks of historical data… Self reflexivity and instability…offer the writer a way to show the effects of his or her own presence in a foreign country and to expose the arbitrariness of truth and the absence of norms.

Casey Blanton, Travel Writing: The Self and the World 2002

And a quote from Ernest Hemmingway that is as useful to bear in mind when writing as when travelling….

Travel writing Competition

I like Heritage Magazine's travel writing competition because:
  • First prize is a seven day cruise around Scotland's Western Isles. 
  • There are are other goodies on offer. (Fifth prize is a box of luxury chocolates...love the thinking.)
  • It's free to enter
  • You can enter online or by post
  • It's free to enter (some things are worth repeating)

What do they want? 500 words about your experience of visiting a site of historical interest in Britain. The inspiration for your tale could be anything from a day trip to a historic city or village to a weekend spent exploring a favourite stretch of coast or countryside.
Deadline February 26 2010.  
Click on the title above to get to the website or post your entry to Reader Writing Competition, Heritage/Realm magazine, Archant House, Oriel Road, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire GL50 1BB.

Coming to RADIO FOUR...a slice of real life Brighton

'Legsy Gets a Break'
Afternoon play, BBC Radio 4, Monday 15th February, 2.15pm
Legsy Gets a Break follows a young man at a crossroads in his life after growing up in the care system.  Will family loyalty suck him into a future of serious crime or can he break away and make another life for himself? 

This drama began in 2007 as part of the Arts Council of England South East's  Radio Development Programme.  
It is based on real cases that emerged during work with youth offending teams in Brighton and Hove, West Sussex and Southampton.  This formed the basis of a five part interactive project created with Radio Berkshire.  Company Paradiso has created this latest version with Phil Gladwin, it is written by Phil Gladwin, and directed for Radio 4 by John Dryden


There have been quite a few fundraising initiatives by writers over the last few weeks. Most have been quick, urgent events in an attempt to meet the desperate need but this one - run by two Black London organisations - has a slightly longer timescale. Their anthology will come out in May and they want submissions now from poets, writers, journalists and graphic artists from all backgrounds and origins. The work must be about or inspired by Haiti, its people and its culture. Proceeds  will be donated to the Lambi Haiti Fund. 
Deadline: Thursday 18 March
Maximum Word count - Prose 2500 words. Poems 1000 words. Original work - can't have been published before.  Include a short biography.
For more information write to:wordforhaiti@googlemail.com
They are also looking for volunteer researchers, editorial team members, administrators, desktop publishing specialists and promotion PR people.  
And the rest of us can buy it when it comes out....

Thursday, 4 February 2010

INVICTUS less we forget

Invictus premiers tomorrow night in the UK but I saw it at a special screening last Sunday morning at the wonderful Duke of York Picturehouse in Brighton, one of the first cinemas in the world to opens its doors in 1910.  
I suspect Morgan Freeman would pay good money to play the role of Nelson Mandela (and perhaps he did, he is one of the producers) and as I watched the skillful, but deeply conventional, story telling  I wondered who the film was aimed at...not the millions around the world who marched and boycotted and campaigned for Mandella's release or anyone who is old enough to understand the horror of apartheid.  
They don't need it. 
I think it is aimed at the generation for whom Mandela is an old guy whose name is trotted out whenever the word hero is mentioned. This film explains why. 
Invictus is propaganda on the side of the angels, education for equality, and its lack of sophistication is one of its strengths.  

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

St BRIDGET"S DAY February 1st

St. Brigid is the patroness of cattle, dairy work, and ale and today is her feast day. It is also the first day of Spring or Imbolc, a pagan celebration associated with fertility and weather divination. Imbolc is Gaelic fothe season of light and before Christianity came to Ireland Brigid was worshipped as a Celtic fertility goddess  associated with fire, healing, and holy wells. Was the 5th century nun from Kildare named after her? Or are they the same person....the pagan diety transformed into a Christian saint to appease a population reluctant to give up the goddess who ruled over the most essential things of life.  Things to do today1. Look for hedgehogs who have decided to wake up from hibernation. It is a good weather sign - but the frost looks a bit thick this morning to tempt any out of their burrow.  [This is the origin of Groundhog Day in America celebrated on February 2nd.] 2. Do only essential work today and go to the local shrine to pray. (and where is that? Well, St Brigid is the patron saint of ale...)
 3. Take stock of the household supplies (so go after sorting out the freezer)
 4. Clean the house...(I think this is unfair. If it is a woman's festival it should be: get the house cleaned by someone else, preferably male)
 5. Because St. Brigid traveled the countryside with her red-eared cow, make her welcome by placing bread and fresh butter on the window sill outside; also put out a sheaf of corn for the cow and put out rushes for her to kneel on when she blesses the household. Last night (St Brigid's Eve) you should have set the table in the kitchen to make her feel welcome.
 6. Leave a silk ribbon outside for St. Brigid to bless; it is used to cure illness.
 7. Make the bogha Bride (St. Brigid's Cross). Though a Christian symbol, St. Brigid's Cross might come from the pagan sunwheel. It is made from rushes or straw saved from last year's harvest. Put it above a door because it is supposed to protect the house from fire and evil.
Beannachtaí lá le Bríde dhuit!
[Photo](Thanks to the Anam Care Blog - see the link in the right hand column -  for much of this information and reminding me this morning that today is MY day)