"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...

Monday, 28 February 2011

Flash NON Fiction competition with a great prize

Arvon - the ground breaking residential creative writing course people - are offering a whole week away as first prize in their new competition. 

Here's the details from their website (click on the title to go straight there).

Edith Wharton would compose in bed on a writing board propped upon her lap, while Roald Dahl conjured his creations in a shed at the bottom of his garden...
When we posed the question to some of our tutors, we had a fabulous response. Penelope Shuttle likes writing in the attic, Isy Suttie in a messy bedroom amidst dirty clothes, while Simon Armitage admits his favourite place to write is in his head.
Now we're inviting you to take part in Arvon's 2011 competition to win an Arvon week of your choice.
To enter, please send in a piece of flash fiction or poetry that describes your favourite writing place. The winning entry will be chosen by Sunday Times journalist Cathy Galvin.
Send your story on a postcard with your contact details to:
Postcard Competition
The Arvon Foundation
Free Word Centre
60 Farringdon Road
London, EC1R 3GA
Closing date is 21 May 2011.
Instead of an entry fee to take part in this competition, the Arvon Foundation would be grateful for a suggested donation of £5.00 to support its charitable work. Cheques should be made payable to The Arvon Foundation.
Where do you write?
Me? ...tried both the dedicated office at bottom of garden and corner of dining room table with the television blaring in the background ...when it's not working they are too cold, too warm, too isolated, too noisy...when it is working then I think anywhere I can plug the laptop will do.

Not convinced by Simon Armitage:  writing in your head is not the same as writing on the page. One is creating, dreaming, gathering together the stuff that might eventually solidify into a poem or a sentence. One is clouds: the other is concrete.

HUMAN TRAFFICKING one small way of protesting

I don't intend to use this blog as a platform for rants (although the temptation to just shriek what? you can not be serious! is often simmering beneath the surface...) but this is a petition I think we can all get behind because the EU has developed new regulations and the UK has yet to sign up to them. And it's especially relevant now because the Olympic Games are apparently going to be a wonderful money-making, misery-making opportunity for modern slave traders.

It doesn't bear thinking about, does it? But that's what we have to do.

The petition text:
Dear David Cameron and Nick Clegg, 
Please guarantee the UK government opts in to the EU Directive on Human Trafficking to ensure that trafficking into and within the EU stops and that those involved are properly prosecuted. Please make sure that the UK opts in to new rules to help stop trafficking.

This petition has been organised by 38 Degrees and you can sign it by clicking on the title of this post. They are working with other organisations such as The Anti-Slavery International, the Independent on Sunday and ECPAT UK to convince the Coalition not to opt out of the new rules.

25043 people had signed when I put my name down...they are hoping for 40000.

A bit about the organsiation behind it
I have only just heard about 38 Degrees (thanks to an email from a friend) but it was launched in May 2009, inspired by the impact of groups like MoveOn.org in the United States, GetUp.org.au in Australia and Avaaz.org around the world. These groups have used the internet to allow nearly 9 million people to voice their concerns and 38 Degrees is bringing the same campaigning approach to the UK, making it quick and easy for people to take action.
Here are a few of the campaigns 38 Degrees have been working on:
I don't know if signing petitions or going on demonstrations achieves anything but I am convinced that it's better than doing nothing.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

NEWS STORY or REGURGITATED PRESS RELEASE? There's a website that will help you tell the difference

I have slightly mixed feelings about this as I occasionally teach a class on how to write a press release that is so like a 'proper' news story that it will get published just the way you've written it. Good PR is about getting the message across and winning those all important column inches, of course, and in the case of my students the message is usually something along the lines of local-author-signs-books-at-out-of-town-community-centre and they need all the help they can get to have anyone pop along who hasn't been bribed by the promise of a pint afterwards or is related by blood...
But what about the big stories? Are they the product of a journalist asking questions or a very biased press release?
You can find out by visiting Churnalism, an independant website set up by a media charity. (Click on the title of this post to go straight there.) All you have do is paste in any news story that raises your suspicions.
‘Churnalism’ is defined as a news article that is published as journalism, but is essentially a press release without much added.
I predict that we are going to see more and more churned out stories as staffing levels in editorial departments are slashed. And when it comes to things that matter we do need people to ask questions.

How to Kickstart Your Comedy Writing Career

Many scriptwriters and comedian started their career by contributing ideas and one liners to topical sketch shows. The BBC have a new one starting in the summer and they will be actively seeking new writing each week. Newsjack takes a comical look at the week's news stories and the pilot will be broadcast on Thursday 4 June at 11pm on BBC Radio 7. The series proper will begin a fortnight later.
If you want to write for Newsjack, here are a few simple guidelines
    * Listen to the show. It will be available on iPlayer after broadcast.
    * Submit your material for each show on or before noon on Monday each week
    * Be funny

 For more information click on the title of this post
laughing sailor
 Photo was taken in Brighton Sealife Centre in 2007 by AtomicShed - featured here under the wonderful creative commons license

Sunday, 20 February 2011


As the Crime Editor of Ireland’s biggest selling Sunday newspaper, Niamh O’Connor is writing about the gangs and deprived inner city tower locks she’s knows only too well from her day job.  This a fast paced thriller with a very likable heroine. Jo Birmingham not only has a troubled teenage son but also a year old baby and she juggles career ambitions with single motherhood. The fact that her ex husband is also her boss doesn’t exactly help.  In this novel she is on the track of a serial killer with a very detailed knowledge of scripture – nothing as basic as the seven deadly sins.
It takes a lot of hard work to be an easy read and this books slips down as easily a crème caramel.  I would have liked a bit more stretch marks and worries about childcare but I like Jo and her ex husband comes across as edgy, sexy and attractive – attributes that are hard to communicate when all you have is words .
Niamh O’Connor feel very strongly about the way victims are treated and joins with Rape Crisis campaigners in arguing that they should have separate legal representation.  As does Jo Birmingham  who continually argues the case with government departments. It would have been more effective to have that issue developed as part of the story – show don’t tell – but perhaps she will do that in future novels.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Vote for the Oddest

It's not the kind of literary award that makes an author's heart beat faster but last year's winner of The Diagram Prize (otherwise known as the odd book title competition) received a big sales boost because of the international attention.
For some reason, Crocheting Adventures with Hyperbolic Planes, was selling only half a dozen copies a week in America before the award. Afterward it peaked at just under 100 copies in seven days (although I suspect sales have been a little uneven since then).

Now you have a chance to give another author the kind of publicity that money can't buy.  This is the shortlist for the 31st annual award and if you click on the title of this post you will be taken to The Bookseller's website where you can cast your vote.
The Shortlist:
8th International Friction Stir Welding Symposium Proceedings
Various authors (TWI)

The Generosity of the Dead
Graciela Nowenstein (Ashgate)

The Italian's One-night Love Child
Cathy Williams (Mills & Boon)

Managing a Dental Practice the Genghis Khan Way
Michael R Young (Radcliffe)

Myth of the Social Volcano
Martin King Whyte (Stanford University Press)

What Color Is Your Dog?
Joel Silverman (Kennel Club)

I don't see how the Dental Practice one can win - it's far too good and this is a competition for UNintentional odd titles. Mr Young knew exactly what he was doing when he linked the Mongolian Emperor with mouth washes and root canal work. I don't think the Mills and Boon entry is odd enough: I am sure I read Bedded by the Italian Stallion when I was judging The Love Story of 2010 and surely that has far stronger claims...
I wondered if The Generosity of the Dead was another vampire romance but it turns out to be about organ donations in France. The Social Volcano is the idea that popular anger about inequality in China will erupt and topple the Communist Party. Mr King Whyte obviously doesn't think it will.
The dog book seemed the least promising until I found out it was about teaching readers to train their dog according to its  "colour" personality.
Dogs apparently come in five colors. RED is "off the wall".... ORANGE is "high strung".....  YELLOW is "mellow yellow".... GREEN is "apprehensive".... BLUE is "skittish and very afraid". Actually it probably contains a lot of commonsense and is a just a new way of re-packaging the idea that one size does not fit all and training that suits one dog won't work for another.
I haven't the heart to find out what Friction Stir really is. (I'm ignoring the welding element.) I'm hoping it might be fiction with attitude...what do you think?

Friday, 18 February 2011

Romance and Holy Water

If you're in Brighton on February 24 2011 you can catch author Michael Arditti reading from Jubilate at The Dome. It's his 8th novel and is the first set in the pilgrimage town of Lourdes since Zola wrote about it back in the 1890s. Jubilate is a tale of illicit love in extreme circumstances.  The author's chosen an extraordinary setting and truth be told I am mad with myself for not thinking of it first..
I haven't read it yet but it definitely sounds like my kind of thing
And it's been getting some very good notices. Here's the last line from The Independent review:
Closing this novel after reading the last page, one briefly believes in miracles, at least of the human redemption kind.
By the way, I would recommend every last word ever written by Zola and at the beginning of his novel Lourdes there is a perfect example of flashback.
The opening scene is a crowded train of pilgrims en route to Lourdes  and a priest reflects on why each of the passengers are making the journey - in essence an introduction to the main characters. The back stories are rich in detail but we never forget that we are rattling through the French countryside because every so often the priest's thoughts are interrupted: someone knocks against him, there's a train announcement, he is offered refreshment...so we have a perfect balance between the flashbacks and the 'now' of the story. 
Read it if you want to see how flashbacks should be done.

A chance to be ebook published

I've just heard about Espresso Books. It's a brand new ebook publisher set up by a fellow veteran of the Goldsmiths Creative Writing MA. (If you are thinking of doing a Masters in creative writing yourself feel free to drop me a line, I'd be happy to share my experiences...But I digress, this post is about getting your work out there to the people who really matter - readers).

Anyway, the wonderful thing about being brand new is that Espresso Books  are hungry for new manuscripts. AND because they are publishing in digital format only, they pay 40% royalties on all sales. 
This is what they have to say:
We publish commercial fiction and popular non-fiction, aimed at the mass market.
We normally want at least 10,000 words per ebook (you’re welcome to query us with something shorter, though). There’s no maximum word limit.
We’re looking for:
  • Short story collections (typically totalling around 20,000 words per collection)
  • Novellas in any genre
  • Full-length novels in any genre
  • Children’s fiction
  • Popular non-fiction, from 15,000 words upwards
  • Poetry collections
(If you’ve got something that doesn’t fit into any of those categories, drop us an email – submissions@espressobooks.com – and we’ll let you know if we’re interested.)
We’re particularly keen to promote new voices, so we accept unsolicited submissions.
Please follow these guidelines when preparing your work for submission:
  • Send all work as a .doc, .docx or .rtf attachment. (See our FAQ for help with this.) It doesn’t need to be double-spaced.
  • Send us at least the first 5,000 words of your novel/non-fiction book. You may send more – if you have a complete manuscript, send us the whole thing. For a short story collection, please send at least two complete stories. For a poetry collection, please send at least four poems.
  • Give us a brief synopsis of your entire novel, or an outline of your non-fiction book.
  • Let us know roughly how long the whole book is, in words (e.g. 60,000 words).
  • Please include any illustrations or diagrams. We cannot supply these.
We edit all the books we published, though we’ll give you a chance to approve our changes prior to publication. We’ll also produce a cover design for the ebook: let us know if you’d like to supply your own artwork.
We can only accept submissions by email. Please don’t send your work on disk or on paper through the post – we won’t read it and won’t be able to return it either.
Send all submissions to submissions@espressobooks.com with the word “Submission” and the title of your work included in the subject line.
Worth thinking about I think you'll agree....you can go to Espresso Books website by clicking on the title of this post...Good luck 

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

On Blake's Steps

An open poetry reading on the site of Blake's birth
The organisers say that all are welcome to perform.
 Sunday Feb 2O at William Blake House, 8 Marshall Street, Soho, W1 (Oxford Circus tube) 2pm Free
N.B. On Blake's Steps is, as always, an outdoor event so dress inappropriately and bring your own scandalously cheap alcohol. (Blake doesn't care if it's an 'Alcohol Restriction Zone'). If the weather's biblical I gather that everyone will decamp to The John Snow on Broadwick Street.
"The Angel that presided o'er my birth
Said 'Little creature formed of Joy and Mirth,
Go Love without the help of any king on earth"

Monday, 14 February 2011

For Valentine's Day...

...the most profound expression of affection that has ever appeared in a poem. 
I like you more than I would like 
To have a cigarette.
From Wendy Cope's Giving Up Smoking

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Writing competitions...maximising your chances

A fair dollop of luck is involved in winning a writing competition but - in the words of Dizzy Gillespie - it's funny how the harder you work the luckier you get...
  • Make sure you're in with a chance by actually entering rather than simply dreaming about entering.
  • Make sure it's polished. It's a waste of time and effort to send anything that is less than your best work.  Join a writers group, go to an adult education class or cultivate the friendship of other writers and share your work. 
  • Do NOT ask someone you love for an opinion. They say it's wonderful and you'll think to yourself: what do they know. They say they weren't so sure about the second page and you'll think to yourself: what do they know.
  • Make sure you follow all the rules to the letter - don't kid yourself that it doesn't matter. The organisers of popular competitions will be actively looking for a reason to exclude entries in order to come up with a reasonable long list. The judges won't even get to read your brilliant story if you have submitted it single spaced on white paper when the rules clearly say double spaced on pink.
  • Make sure you give yourself plenty of time. Fool yourself and put the deadline in your diary a week earlier than it is in reality. Make it two weeks early if you are entering by snail mail.
  • Make sure you're strong enough to take rejection. Poet and novelist Tobias Hill says he followed the example of the hyrda of Greek legend when he entered writing competitions at the beginning of his writing career. Every time he didn't get to the short list he sent off two more competition entries. 
And finally...spend as little time as possible waiting to hear.  Work on something else (I must admit I find that very hard) and follow this sensible advice from the Australian Writers Resource (http://www.austwriters.com/AWRfiles/competitions.htm) 
 Stories and poetry that has been placed first (or any placing) in another competition will often not qualify. Does that mean you can send one entry simultaneously to more than one competition?... a commonly accepted view that you can BUT if your entry is placed in one competition then the onus is on you to inform the other competition organisers if that entry no longer meets their entry requirements.

QUOTE FOR THE WEEK "Showing up is 80 percent of life” --- Woody Allen The New York Times, August 21 1977

Ever been to Italy?

Ever walked through the back streets of Naples....or listened to the quiet of a Venetian backwater after dark...or the stars of the opera at Verona...or strolled up and down, up and down, up and down the strand at Lido di Jesolo after supper...
The Posara Prize - run by Watermill Courses in Tuscany - is a free to enter writing competition for original, unpublished pieces of no more than 2,000 words, with the theme of 'A Foreigner in Italy'. The work can be fiction or non-fiction: the important thing is to capture the emotion of Italy, as seen through an outsider's eyes.
You can write about the people, the countryside, art, architecture, food and wine – in fact, anything that makes Italy interesting, inspiring, exasperating or even frightening.
The winner will receive a prize of £1,000 which isn't at all bad...but the closing date is quite soon Monday February 28 so get your pen and write...
Click on the title of this post for the full rules and the official entry form

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Bless me Father --- there's an App for that.

A Good Confession is set in the early 1960s just before The Beatles and Vatican II and everything started to change. But I thought the central theme was pretty timeless...a love affair between young widow and a Catholic priest. It's not a will-they-won't-they kind of book. You know that they do from the first page and that's deliberate...I was interested in how two decent, sincere people cope when they break the rules of the club they belong to, when they go against the religion they believe in and the culture they are part of...
I guess that's pretty universal and I've been invited to speak at a synagogue about the book's themes but - because my characters are Catholics - confession plays a big part in their world, hence the title and a major scene about a third of the way through....
But I was thinking of whispering behind a wooden screen to a face you can't see, and the smell of old incense. Today I hear that the Catholic Church has approved an iPhone app for confession. It's on sale through iTunes for £1.19 ($1.99) and is described as "the perfect aid for every penitent."

Lisa Simpson - one of the world's great critics

And now she has her own book club blog. Click on the title of this post to visit this very new start up which is aiming to collect all Lisa's literary references. It needs help - so far they have only scratched the surface but here's a gem.

Lisa imagining what life in jail would be like...

  • Guard: Bookmobile.
  • Lisa Simpson: Got any Joyce Carol Oates?
  • Guard: Nothing but Danielle Steele.
  • Lisa Simpson: Noooo!

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

A role model for all grandmothers

Click on the title to view a news video of a robbery in progress. In the first few scenes look out for the figure in red on the opposite side of the road.
Reminds me of the old saying about the difference between fiction and non fiction.  
Fiction has to be believable...

Got a legend in the family? A Scottish legend?

Scottish Book Trust and BBC Radio Scotland want true stories about a relative who has become legendary. They say a Family Legend could be your granny or someone from long before living memory. They could have been the all-time Scrabble champion, fought in a war or made the best birthday cakes. 
 Capture the character of your Family Legend in writing and it could be broadcast on BBC Radio Scotland or published in a book. The deadline for entries is 31st March 2011. Find out more and read some of the stories already submitted...

Beryl gets her Booker

Novelist Beryl Bainbridge became a Dame (which never sounds nearly as dashing as the male equivalent) but never won the Booker despite being nominated a record five times. 
1973 The Dressmaker was shortlisted but was beaten by JG Farrell's The Siege of Krishnapur.
1974 The Bottle Factory Outing was a contender but the joint winners were Nadine Gordimer for The Conservationist and Stanley Middleton for Holiday.
1990  An Awfully Big Adventure was listed but  the prize went to AS Byatt for Possession.  
1996 Every Man For Himself was beaten by Graham Swift's Last Orders 
1998, Master Georgie was shortlisted the year  Ian McEwan won with Amsterdam.
Beryl died last summer which means that her final novel The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress, to be published sometime this summer, won't be considered for the prize as the rules say it can't be awarded posthumously. 
But Man Booker are making amends by organinsing the Best of Beryl prize, decided by public vote, which pits her five shortlisted novels against one another. 
Voting starts today and you can have your say by clicking on the title of this post.
The winning title will be announced at a ceremony in April. 

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Going UP

The Bookseller compile The Accelerator Chart of books that have increased their sales and been on sale for at least two weeks. This week Jo Shapcott tops the poll by a long way which isn't bad for a poetry book priced at £9.99. The next week she sold 2,008 copies.
And it cheered me to see that one of the MOG books by Judith Kerr and written in 1970 was in third place because of sales over Christmas - my children grew up with them and we had our very own Mog for several years, a beautiful and highly intelligent tabby.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

‘I’m an accessory in The Great Transworld Crime Caper!’

I like crime fiction. 
I've been for a drink in The Oxford Arms in Edinburgh (but I didn't order Inspector Rebus' favourite - a pint of heavy) and wouldn't miss any of the televised versions of Wallander (I eventually warmed to all the actors playing the troubled Swedish detective created by all-round-good-guy Henning Mankell but the definitive version has to belong to Krister Henrikson).

But I am no expert, even though I plodded my way through Agatha Christie's repertoire by age nine thanks to the large print section in the adult library. 
I don't even usually want to work out who's done what. I'm not that into puzzles.
I want character. 
I want atmosphere. 
I want drama.
I probably want to be scared a bit, or at least feel that something serious has happened and that someone is trying to make sense of it.
All this is a ramble towards introducing the latest promotion by Transworld. They are giving away three free crime books (and you get to choose from the list below) to anyone willing to write a review and you don't even need to have a blog; a review on Amazon would do fine. I've signed up and in due course I will post my reviews here...let me know if you are doing the same and we can compare notes...

Here's Transworld explaining how it works - you can go to the website and join by clicking on the title of this post.

We want you to be the judge, jury and executioner of the titles listed below.
We will have a two week registration period ending the 14th February, Valentine’s Day which will make us repent our sins and feel the love! Pick three books from the list below to read and review on a venue of your choice (Amazon, blog, etc) The challenge will finish on the 31st March whereby we will dust for fingerprints, weigh up our case and post up some of the best (or worst) reviews that we’ve had in.
And the books you can choose from are...

1. Full Dark House by Christopher Fowler
2. Sacrifice by S. J. Bolton
3. Blacklands by Belinda Bauer
4. Birdman by Mo Hayder
5. The Chemistry of Death by Simon Beckett
6. Past Caring by Robert Goddard
7. Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin
8. Echoes from the Dead by Johan Theorin
9. The Surgeon by Tess Gerritsen
10. If I Never See You Again by Niamh O’Connor
11. The Accident Man by Tom Cain
12. The Business of Dying Simon Kernick