I Had a Brain Once: 2013 365 Challenge #211

The notebook page for my Life Writing

The notebook page for my Life Writing

I was recently invited to read a collection of short stories by author Pat Elliott. Another blogger that I follow, Sally Jenkins, also has a collection of short stories that I read and reviewed earlier in the year.

I’ve never been a short-story writer. Followers of this blog will know that I tend to the verbose, and so keeping a story to 1000 or 2000 words is almost impossible. Only once did a story come fully-formed in my mind in short format. I wrote it to see if I could break into the impenetrable womags market and, when it failed to do so, I abandoned the idea (much as I did with my attempts to write Mills & Boon).*

However, reading these collections of short stories made me wonder if I had any stories from my time studying Creative Writing at the Open University that could be worked on, partly for editing practice, and partly as a project to slot in between publishing Baby Blues and Class Act. (Have I mentioned before my short attention span? Or how addictive publishing books can be?)

Sally Jenkins Short Story Collection

Sally Jenkins Short Story Collection

So I had a gander through my assignments and did find one or two stories that I was proud of. There’s a piece of life writing, too, although I recall that I gave it to my students, when I taught Creative Writing for a couple of terms, and they tore it to shreds, so I’m guessing that needs some work (I wish I’d thought to take notes on their critique!).

There’s also an issue with the life writing in that it talks about people I know, and not always in a positive way. I have to decide whether to cut those bits out, hope those people never read my stuff, or rewrite it as fiction.

I found a collection of five poems I wrote as my final assignment in my work folder – again life writing, but this time addressed to my father after his death. Does poetry sell? Could I include them in a collection of short stories? Should I scrap the whole idea as too commercial, and stick to novels, or is it good to show your versatility as a writer? Who knows.

The other thing I discovered, going through my old study notes, is how much I actually knew (or sounded like I knew) about writing. The notes that went with the poems for my final assignment said things like this:

I believe poetry should ‘happen between tongue and teeth’ [Dunn, CD2], and I write to that end.  I like to include alliteration and enjambment to move the poem forward.  When I read these poems out loud, some of the enjambment seemed to jar the rhythm.  However I decided I liked the effect, as it mimicked the suddenness of death and how it jolts the familiar. For example ‘Like hands they wave goodbye.’ and ‘Already they are dying’ (May, lines 8 and 16).

Pat Elliott's New Collection

Pat Elliott’s New Collection

And this –

Feedback highlighted some trochees that disturbed the rhythm, so I reworked those lines. It was also suggested that I change the many 11-beat lines, but I like feminine endings [Herbert, ‘Form’, 2006, p.240] and so left these in place.


Oh my, I used to know stuff. I had a brain, once, before it turned to fromage frais through lack of sleep. I enjoyed writing poetry, too, yet I never write it now. I doubt I would have the vocabulary for it, as the first thing that disappears when I haven’t slept is my command of the English Language. Still, it was a fun trip through memory lane, and add another line to my very long list of projects to do ‘one day’.

*Please don’t take from this that I’m a quitter: I know my forte is full-length novels, but there are bills to pay, so I have tried to find enthusiasm for the more commercial routes. I failed.


Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog: 


Sky skipped alongside Claire as they walked from the car to the theatre. Dark clouds gathered in Claire’s mind, the closer they got, despite the clear twilight sky. Claire looked up at the deep blue overhead. Thank God for small mercies. Even though the seats were covered, she knew the stage was in the open, and it wasn’t likely to improve Kim’s mood if she got drenched during the performance.

Eyes darting left and right, Claire followed the throng of people, trying not to be irritated by jostling picnic baskets and raucous laughter. The intention had been to bring a picnic and come early with Sky, but Jenny hadn’t returned her until six o’clock, by which time it was too late.

As it was, they’d only managed to find a parking space by grace of the Skoda’s narrow width, squeezing in between a Range Rover and a Lexus. The car looked ill at ease, as if intimidated by its neighbours. Claire had given it a pat, and vowed to be either the first or last to leave.

“Auntie Claire?”

Looking down, Claire realised her niece had been talking to her. “Sorry, darling, I didn’t catch that.”

“Will we see Jeff? You said your friend Kim is in the play, so will Jeff be here? I liked him, he was funny.”

Claire’s stomach plummeted to her feet. Crap. It hadn’t occurred to her that she might bump into anyone she knew, never mind Kim’s husband. She shivered. The word husband raised unwelcome images of the last time she had seen her friend.

“I guess so, poppet. We’ll keep an eye out for him.” And duck behind the nearest tree if we see him.

They took their seats and Claire arranged a blanket across Sky’s knees. The girl sat wide-eyed in the dark, taking in all the details of the stage beneath them, where painted scenery nestled amid real trees.

The performance began and Claire forgot to be anxious, as the unfolding story pulled her in. Glancing sideways at Sky, she wondered if her niece would manage to follow all the complicated language or if she would be bored. The girl sat forward in her chair, one hand on her chin, the other cupping her elbow in support. With her long golden hair around her shoulders she wouldn’t have looked out of place flitting between the trees with the Queen of the Fairies.

As Act I ended, Claire felt the tension tighten beneath her ribcage. It was a long time since she’d seen or read the play, but she was certain Puck came on in the second act. Her breathing shallow, she turned her face back to the stage in time to see a red-haired puck swing down from a tree to accost a fairy.

“How now, spirit! Whither wander you?”

The voice cut through Claire, and she realised for the first time that she hadn’t been sure Kim would be on the stage. Her friend’s words from what felt like eons ago came back to her. If the director finds out I’m pregnant, he’ll give the role to the understudy. Glad that Michael’s outburst hadn’t cost Kim her job, Claire settled back to enjoy her performance.

Their seats were about twenty rows from the stage. Far enough away that Claire felt able to watch without fearing that Kim would see her in the audience. She sensed a movement next to her, and felt Sky turn to face her.

“Look, Auntie Claire, there’s Kim!”

The girl’s whisper penetrated the auditorium, and was greeted with chuckles and a few whispered demands for silence. Claire’s heart thumped loudly as she added her request to her niece to be quiet. Returning her attention to the stage, she realised that Kim was looking directly at her, and the expression on her face was unmistakeable. Her eyes burned with a fury that stopped Claire’s heart.


Don’t Force It: 2013 365 Challenge #185

Creativity in the garden

Creativity in the garden

This morning I read Kristen Lamb’s latest post about the Five common tactical errors in Self-Publishing:

I’ve read this before on Kristen’s blog, but it is always useful to have a refresher, and compare where I am against where I should be.

This is the list of common errors:

1. Publishing too soon (before understanding and honing the craft of writing)

2. No prepared platform (that is, author platform – blog/website/social media etc)

3. Believing that, “If We Write it They Will Come” (self-publishing doesn’t mean less work, but more)

4. Misusing FREE! (giving your book away for free without understanding the benefits)

5. Shopping one book to DEATH (instead of sitting down to write the next one. It usually takes 3 books to have any kind of success)

Giant paint pallet

Giant paint pallet

I agree with them all: Reading Class Act now, I can see why Mills and Boon rejected it. I sent it off way too soon. There’s so much back story at the beginning even I can’t work out what’s going on. I’m still working on the others, and learning painful lessons (like coming out of the KDP Select program with Dragon Wraiths and not selling a book for five weeks!)

The only bit I struggle with is a line she uses often (it comes here under point one): “Too many new writers do not properly understand the antagonist. They don’t grasp three-act structure, and most don’t have any idea what I mean when I mention POV, Jungian archetypes, or the phrase, “scene and sequel.””

Of course, I struggle with it because I have no idea about half those things, particularly the Jungian archetypes. I’m sure my writing would be better if I did (if I understood structure better, for example, I might be able to fix Class Act quicker). However, I think you could write a great novel without knowing what all these things are called. I know a reasonable amount about writing grammatical English but, until last week, I’d never heard of a comma splice. I have looked through my writing and, instinctively, I write to a three-act structure, I use scene and sequel and I at least understand POV, even if I don’t always use it well in my writing (Baby Blues is a prime example). 

Daughter's Masterpiece

Daughter’s Masterpiece

Before I get a hundred comments telling me I really need to understand these things – I know I do (there are some interesting posts on Jungian Archetype in the related articles below). I also accept what Kristen says, that self-published authors need to be better than traditionally published authors, to compete in the same field. I am working to get better, and I read as many writing craft books as I can fit in around my writing.

Another blog I read today, which reinforces point one (don’t publish too quickly), was over on Karen Woodward’s blog. Her post, Stephen King on Storycraft has a main message: Don’t force it.

When trying to pull a story together, wait until all the pieces click, rather than trying to make it work. I guess it’s the difference between learning scales and playing a concerto (Kristen uses music as an example of how you need to know the nuts and bolts of something to excel at it). You need to know the craft of writing, but you also need the story to flow (and these things, for me, can be mutually exclusive).

One of the great things about self-publishing is the ability to get a wide range of feedback on your novels, rather than waiting a year to find out why agents are rejecting it (assuming they even tell you.) So, yes, you can publish too soon, but you can learn from it too (I hope).

This evening I sat with a pad and pen, while Andy Murray played his nerve-wracking fifth set (I needed a distraction) and worked out an additional six scenes that should hopefully remove most of the pesky back story in Class Act. I’ve been musing on it all day and then it just clicked, without forcing it.

I don’t know if the story fits in a three-act structure or exactly who the antagonist is (harder in a romance than, say, a crime novel I think). I know it still needs a heap of work. But I really enjoyed reading it this morning: reminding myself who the characters are, and getting absorbed in the dialogue.

Now on with the work so I can hurry up and publish! Assuming my three books need to be in the same genre, I’ll only have one more to go to find success 😉


Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog:


Claire looked at her mother over the top of her mug of Earl Grey and waited for the interrogation. Her mother’s restraint thus far was beginning to unnerve her.

Perhaps it’s too early for the Spanish Inquisition stuff. Or maybe she doesn’t care that her youngest child just turned up on the door step at 7am when she was meant to be at a wedding.

She tried to remember if her mother even knew about Kim’s marriage. As she’d only found out herself a few weeks ago, it seemed likely that she hadn’t told her about it. I seem to have told all the wrong people all the wrong things.

Claire sighed, and wondered why her mother was being so reticent. I guess there’s only one thing on her mind. Deciding that was as good an opener as any, she set down the mug.

“How’s Ruth?”

“She’s okay. A bit low. Sky wants to be outside playing – now the nights are getting lighter – and she doesn’t have the strength to keep up with her. I think the poorly-parent novelty has worn off.”

Claire tried to read through her mother’s words, searching for the accusations. If they were there, her mother was adopting a subtler approach than usual. The only impression Claire got was of a tired woman battling on with the hand life had dealt her.

“I’ll stop by later, take Sky to that farm she kept raving about.” Claire recalled that she’d promised to take Sky there with Kim and Jeff, and hoped Sky’s memory wasn’t as accurate. She didn’t want to think about them, not yet. She waited for her mother to start the questions, but she had disappeared back into her own thoughts, head bowed.

“Mum, is it okay if I stay for a night or two?”

Her mother glanced up, and nodded, without speaking. Claire felt wrong-footed. In the still of the kitchen, she listened to the clock ticking until it felt like the countdown of a bomb.

The silence stretched like a gaping void, pulling her in. Oh, what the hell, she’ll find out eventually, even if she clearly doesn’t give a toss.

“It was Kim’s wedding yesterday. We had a fight.”

Her mother nodded again, without looking up.

“I’ve had an offer of work, which will mean going overseas. I came home to get my passport, and to talk it over with you and Ruth.”

Again the silent nod. Claire swallowed down an urge to scream.

“Mum, are you listening? I said I might be flying halfway round the world. Do you even care?”

Her mother raised her head at last, and Claire saw that her mother’s eyes were red and circled with dark smudges.

“Mum, are you okay?”

Her mother dropped her eyes again, as if making eye contact were too hard. She gazed at the table and twisted her fingers.

“I think your father is having an affair.”

And then she let her head fall on her hands, and her shoulders shook with sobs.


Lessons from The Wee Free Men: 2013 365 Challenge #119

Lessons to be Learned

Lessons to be Learned

I finished rereading The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett today and it was wonderful to realise it lost nothing on a second (possibly third) reading. In fact, since I’ve had a daughter of my own, I think the book has changed and grown in significance. It’s up there in the books I’d like my daughter to read as she comes into an awareness of herself.

If you don’t know Terry Pratchatt’s Discworld novels, they are based in a world that’s like a warped mirror of our own, with magic in place of science and technology. Witches hold a special place in the world: they are both central and outside life, revered and feared in equal measure. As their greatest witch – Granny Weatherwax – puts it, they guard the Edges between Dark and Light, Good and Evil, Life and Death. They have First Sight and Second Thoughts. They see what’s really there. Above all, they’re cool. I love them.

Granny Weatherwax is possibly one of the greatest characters ever invented. She gets inside your head and makes you question everything. (If you want to see Granny at her finest, read Carpe Jugulum.)

The Wee Free Men isn’t about Granny, it’s about Tiffany: a nine-year-old girl who lives on a farm on the Chalk, makes cheese and minds are younger brother. She also has First Sight and Second – even Third – Thoughts. And she has to rescue her brother from the Fairy Queen, even though she doesn’t like him very much. I won’t go into the story, just recommend you read it in words much better than mine.

My reason for writing about it here is to explain why I think it’s a must-read for any little girl (or boy possibly) coming to a sense of herself: It explores the voices that exist inside a person’s head, and the difficulty of understanding which of the many voices is Me.

Tiffany is the kind of girl who sits just outside life, watching. The Discworld Witches always are. And Terry Pratchett says That’s okay. In our society, the people in the kitchen at parties – the ones not drinking or joining in, the ones just observing – are a little bit wrong. They are considered aloof, boring, shy, weird, cold. I know because I am that person And all those labels have been applied to me. I’ve been ridiculed for not wanting to get drunk, for not letting go.

There has always been a little voice in my head that watches me and comments on my behaviour. It’s hard to get drunk and be silly when there’s a sober person in your head telling you what a pratt you’re making of yourself. As a result I don’t often drink and I’m rarely the one telling jokes. At my last place of work, and in many other situations in my life, that has meant almost complete exclusion. It’s not a nice place to be, feeling like a freak or someone who didn’t get the memo on how to have fun.

Growing up I read endlessly to live in my own world. I read Sweet Valley High and Lord of the Rings, Famous Five and Mills and Boon. Romance and action/adventure. For some reason ‘thinking’ books – what might be called literary books – didn’t come my way. I don’t know why, although I often feel the need to apologise for it, as if a ten-year-old can control the books they’re exposed to. So I read nothing that told me that having a cacophony of voices in my head was okay, was normal, whatever that is.

What The Wee Free Men explores is the notion that it’s okay to be different. That people who sit outside the group and watch – who listen to the voices in their heads – are the kind of people who speak up for things without a voice, who save the day, even if no one acknowledges it. They are strong people who won’t be beaten. I suspect my daughter may grow up to be a girl who watches, one who doesn’t follow the pack. I want her to know that’s okay. I think she’ll learn that from this book.


Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog: [Warning today’s post contains strong language.]


The car felt warm and comforting after the chill of Lavender Farm and the unexpected encounter. Claire looked across at Sky eating her ice cream; her face still showed red mottling from crying, but her eyes were calm. Kids are amazing. I’d still be crying now, if that wanker was my father. She could see her niece’s eyes were heavy and thought a sleep in the car would do her good.

Claire programmed in the SatNav and reached forwards to attach it to the windscreen. Movement in the rear-view mirror caught her eye: It was Chris. She tried to ignore his gestures, but his demeanour dragged her attention. He looked as if he was signalling for her to come out the car by herself. Intrigued – and not unwilling to go and give him a piece of her mind away from listening ears – Claire sat back in the seat and dramatically slapped her forehead.

“Sorry, Sky. I just remembered I left my mobile phone in the shop. Will you be alright here in the car for a moment, if I just run in and get it?”

Sky looked across with fear in her eyes and Claire’s stomach lurched. I really shouldn’t leave her alone, after the shock she’s had. I can hardly take her with me and use all the words I want to use though.

“How about if I lock the doors? I’ll be back before you finish your ice cream.”

After a moment, Sky nodded tentatively and pushed down the button on the door next to her. Sky reached over and locked the others, making sure she had the keys in her hand before she left the car.

It felt good to stalk over to the man who had broken her sister and niece’s hearts. Words of heat and wrath built like fire in her throat. She felt tempted to start shouting before she reached him, but he stood with his arms at his side and his head low. I want to look in his eyes and see that he’s hearing me. Besides, if I start screaming like a fishwife across the car park, Sky might hear.

She stopped three feet away from him, arms folded. Let him start. I want to hear what the bastard has to say to excuse his behaviour. Silence stretched and Claire ached to fill it with hot words. Somehow she knew the quiet was hurting Chris more, so she maintained eye contact and waited for him to speak.

“I had no choice.” His words fell between them, as if he’d pushed them out with effort.

“Bollocks. Everyone has a choice.”

“I…” He stopped and ran his hand through his hair. Claire noticed it was thinner than it used to be. “I wanted it to work. With Ruth. And Sky. And I loved them both, really. But Ruth –”

Suddenly Claire didn’t want to hear it. She’d only ever heard Ruth’s side of the story; honesty compelled her to confess that might have been skewed. Her body language must have given her away because Chris reached out a hand, before letting it drop once more to his side.

“Don’t go. Hear me out, please. Maybe you can help Sky, a little. I saw the pain I caused her.”

“Then why did you reject her? Not stay in touch? Run off with her fucking ballet teacher.” It felt good to shout at this weak man standing before her. To swear with precision and relish and watch him flinch as the truth struck him like pellets of ice.

“Because I wanted to be a Dad more than anything!” The words came out in a rush. “And Ruth wouldn’t let me. Sky was her precious daughter. From the minute she was born it was her and Sky. There was no room for me. She wouldn’t let me do anything – feed her, bathe her – I was barely allowed to touch her. Then, when she started school, Ruth became paranoid something was going to happen to her. I don’t know what she thought would happen. She went almost crazy with it.”

He stopped. Whether because he had run out of words, or because he realised telling Claire her sister was crazy was not perhaps the best move, wasn’t clear.

“Then I met Bryony. She understood. She taught Sky, knew how clingy Ruth was. I asked her for advice, initially. Then we got talking and, well. You know the rest. We have a little girl of our own now, and she’s mine.

“Sky’s still your daughter.” Claire didn’t know what else to say. She didn’t want to feel sympathy for this man. She didn’t want him to have a reason that made sense. She just wanted him to hurt and be sorry.

“Ruth didn’t want me to stay in touch. She said it would be better just the two of them. I send Sky birthday cards and Christmas cards but I don’t know if they get to her.” He inhaled deeply and wiped his hand across his face as if rubbing away the pain. “She’s looking well. I’m glad to see you taking her out in the world. Ruth keeps her too close. Sky doesn’t need me.”

Claire tried to think before speaking, to decide what to do, to interpret how she felt. Despite her best efforts, she could relate to what Chris had said. It wasn’t a stretch of the imagination to see Ruth in that role. Their own parents had been so distant and uncaring, it seemed highly plausible that Ruth wouldn’t want to let Sky out of her sight. She turned and looked back at the car, but couldn’t see inside.

“I have to go, Sky will wonder where I am. Try again, Chris. Try harder. Ruth…” She inhaled, then made a decision. “Ruth’s sick. Real sick. Sky might have need of you. Don’t make her an orphan if it comes to that.”

She watched as all the blood drained from Chris’s face, much as it had from Sky’s earlier, and felt a certain satisfaction. Digging into her purse, Claire retrieved a business card and held it out to Sky’s father. He looked into her eyes as if trying to understand her actions, then took the card and held it without looking at it.

“If you need to reach me, or want to speak to Sky – at least for the next week – you have my number. We’re staying in Hunstanton for the weekend.”

Before he could say anything, find an excuse or backtrack, Claire turned and strode back to the car, her heartbeat hammering loudly in her ears.



My Love-Affair with the Paperback: 2013 365 Challenge #81

A random selection of books

A random selection of books

It seems ironic that, on the day when my second free promotion of Dragon Wraiths goes live on kindle, I visit the charity shop and purchase a random selection of paperbacks. These books cost the same as the average ebook for a self-published author – around the £2 ($3) mark. Yet it’s unlikely that I would buy an ebook from an author I had never heard of, particularly not without a review.

My buying process was the same – I liked the front cover and genre, I read the first few pages and the blurb, and I made a decision. Not the Wendy Holden of course, I’ve got a shelf-full. But the other two are a complete gamble.Yet, even though I’m trying to self-publish as an unknown author, these books feel more ‘real’.

Oh dear.

If I feel like that, and I genuinely know that self-published ebooks can be just as good as something that’s been accepted by a publisher, no wonder Dragon Wraiths has only sold 10 copies. It’s not even like I haven’t read some awful books that were traditionally published. Many of my random charity shop purchases remain unread or unfinished. And yet I still persist in being a paperback person.

Much more attractive than a kindle

Much more attractive than a kindle

Perhaps it’s because I don’t own a kindle and reading books on a laptop, even a little one like mine, isn’t much fun. I did try my mother’s kindle but I couldn’t navigate it (it was the old sort with just a couple of buttons) and soon gave up.

I’m not dissing ebooks (that would be silly as I’m trying, badly, to sell one!). I would have loved a kindle when I was travelling, just as I would have loved an iPod. It would have saved me from days with no company (and from endless commercial radio!). A kindle/iPod combination when I was breastfeeding my kids at 2am would have been a lifesaver.

It’s just that I’ve had a paperback in my hand since I could read.

I often had an egg-sized bump on my head as a child from walking into lamp-posts because I had my nose in a book. I read everything from Mills & Boon to Gone With The Wind before I left Middle School. Reading was my life. Until I hit the real world. These days, more often than not, it’s my phone in my hand rather than a decent book, and blogs and twitter are my reading material.  

Funnily enough, I don’t miss CDs. We have boxes of them in the loft but I don’t feel bereft that the music is now all on the computer. Far from it. I love being able to mash my own selections together without having to copy and burn discs (or, even worse, sitting there with a tape-to-tape set up and a twitchy trigger finger).

With books it is different. They’re a visual medium. The font, the pictures, the creases, the chocolate stains, the warped pages where it got dropped in the bath. These are all part of the reading experience. Seeing which books end up at charity shops in droves. Seeing the ones that have hardly been touched and the ones that have been re-read a hundred times. It’s part of the book history (one of the best bits of my MA).

And so my love-affair with the paperback continues. I might be trying to sell an ebook but I’m not ready to sell-out to digital. Sorry.


Claire looked up the location of the hostel she’d just booked and swore. “That’s miles from Hathersage and I’ve still got to back for the bloody car. Stupid YHA and their stupid school trips.”

She’d been phoning round the hostels for twenty minutes while waiting for the train home, her new phone sitting happy in her hand. It turned out that several of the Peak District hostels were only open at weekends and during the school holidays for non-school visitors. Not that I really want to stay with a bunch of school kids anyway. Eventually she’d found a hostel near Bakewell that had beds free.

I’m not sure I like the name Youlgreave. That sounds prophetic. What’s going to happen to me there? I’ve already been half-frozen, lost, wedged in a rock and mugged since I started on this trip.

Something about the words you’ll grieve made her think of Ruth. I haven’t called since last week. I’d best make sure everything is okay and Sky is happy to come on the road with me.

She pulled out her new phone, smiling at the unscratched screen and brand new cover. Then she remembered she had no idea what Ruth’s phone number was. With a sigh she delved in her bag for her iPad. I really should memorise some numbers. What if they’d taken my iPad too? I’d be buggered. I barely know my own number.

Eventually she located her sister’s number and was able to call.

“Hello, Sky speaking.”

“Hello Sky, it’s Auntie Claire.” She was about to ask to speak to Ruth when she realised she’d have to talk to her niece at some point. “Um. How are you?”

“Auntie Claire! Mummy’s poorly and Nana is looking after me. She picked me up from school today. We did numbers and PE and I learned how to do a cartwheel and then Susie was mean to me but we made up. And Nana let me buy a cake on the way home to cheer Mummy up because she’s sad. Mummy says you’re taking me to the seaside! When are you coming, is it tomorrow?”

Claire held the phone away from her ear and tried to follow the rapid-fire monologue, wondering which bits she was meant to respond to. She figured the last question would be enough.

“Friday. I’ll be there on Friday Sky.”

“Yippee. I can’t wait. It’s going to be so much fun. Will you paint my nails and do my make-up? Pleeeaasse?”

“Er, sure. Yes. We can do that.” Claire thought about her make-up bag. It must be in my rucksack somewhere. I don’t remember leaving it behind. She made a mental note to buy some child-friendly products before she got to Cambridgeshire.

“Is your Mummy there, Sky?” She held the phone further away from her ear as her niece yelled “Mummy!” She heard the phone clunk, followed by the sound of running. I feel bad for disturbing her now. Maybe I should have called Mum instead, although it sounds like she’s probably there too. A shard of guilt stabbed in Claire’s chest at the thought of her mother looking after Ruth while she swanned around taking pictures and writing for the blog. Not to mention getting mugged and sleeping in noisy rooms with total strangers.

The phone clicked and there was a shuffling noise. “Claire?”

Ice slid into Claire’s stomach at the sound of her sister’s voice. She sounded twenty years older. It has been only a few days? I haven’t disappeared into some new time zone out here in the sticks?

“Ruth? How are you?” She tried to make her voice cheerful but she could hear the wobble.

A low chuckle came down the line. “I’ve been better. I’m glad you’re taking Sky. I’m going to miss her, but I need some quiet. She tries, but her nursing me is worse than her being normal.” The words came slowly, like each one needed to rise to the surface before it could be pushed down the phone-line.

“It’s the least I can do. Look do you want me to come before Friday? Give you and Mum a break?”

“No. It’s fine. I think Mum’s enjoying it in a strange way. It’s giving her so much to be a martyr about. Actually.” There was a pause. “Could you come on Thursday? Sky will be off-the-wall hyper when she finishes school. I’m not sure I can bear it. You can stay here the night if you don’t mind the sofa.”

Claire quickly tried to evaluate which would be worse, staying in the Cambridge hostel with a small child or kipping on her sister’s couch. It might be nice to spend a night away from the hostels. Carl doesn’t need to know.

“Sure sis, I’ll come Thursday. I can collect Sky from school.”

“Okay.” The phone went silent. Claire didn’t want to hang up. The words you’ll grieve thrummed in her mind. But it was clear her sister was exhausted.

“Great. I’ll see you then. And sis… take care.”


Books and Songs

Front cover

It seems appropriate, given that the fabulous Olympic Opening Ceremony spent a lot of time on literature and music, that I rediscovered two truisms this week; Reading makes you a better writer and music can be powerfully motivating.

Both activities – reading my own choice of novels and listening to my own choice of music – have become rare events since the children were born.

There are many reasons for this.

  • I tend to zone out the world entirely when I’m reading a good book; something that, until recently, hasn’t been vaguely possible. My son especially requires constant vigilance to ensure his continued good health (not because he suffers from any kind of illness, but because he likes to throw himself off high things).
  • Kids (and husbands) have an in-built sensor that alerts them when you’ve got to a good bit. Husbands you can just about tell to feck off, but it’s only on really bad days that I say that to the children.
  • Even after they’ve gone to bed, assuming I can keep my eyes open to read, the little one wakes every couple of hours, and on the rare occasion I’ve read past midnight, he’s guaranteed to be up and screaming from 1am until 5am. I had one awful night during my consumption of Hunger Games when I didn’t actually get any sleep. Not the best way to get through the following day without going to Mummy Hell in a handcart.
  • Then there has been what to read. My book club kept choosing self-help nonfiction type books, which I duly struggled through but didn’t often enjoy. I read far too many Mills & Boon in my attempt to mirror the style for The Real Gentleman, with no success. I re-read all my favourite romances when editing Pictures of Love. But I found that I had moved on, my priorities are no longer about meeting the man of my dreams, but closer to getting a good night’s sleep and maybe the chance to pee by myself. So I sought out novels about parenting but reading them was a bit of a busman’s holiday and I knew I didn’t have the skill to write anything so funny.  
  • I was also paranoid that reading books of the same genre as the one I was writing might lead to me inadvertently copying a character or piece of plot. I even read a book that had almost the same beginning as mine, which terrified me.

So I stopped reading anything but blogs and my life was poorer for it.

With music it’s the same thing. When I worked as an artist I had Classic FM on all day as background burble and when the adverts became too annoying, I switched to Radio 2, where I’ve stayed, (except between 12 and 2 as I can’t stand Jeremy Vine.)

The novelty of Radio 2 has long since worn off but I only had a radio in my old car and, besides, the kids don’t like me singing unless it’s Wheels on the Bus or Old McDonald had a farm.

Anyway, this week that all changed.

I re-read Philip Pulman’s His Dark Materials to try and banish my writer’s block on my young adult novel Dragon Wraiths. The quality of the writing is such that it automatically raised my game. Reading nothing but books for very young children, (think Gruffalo and The Hungry Caterpillar), combined with permanent sleep deprivation, has resulted in my vocabulary shrinking to that of a five-year-old. Not something Philip Pulman can be accused of.  When I finally found some time to write on Thursday I found myself using words that wouldn’t have occurred to me the week before.

I also got a new car this week, with cd player AND iPod jack. Even better, I had the chance to listen to my music in the car, on the two hour trip back from the beach yesterday (kids were asleep – we had children’s songs all the way there). Not only were some of the big numbers stirring, motivating, uplifting, I also found the same vocabulary-enhancing effect happening.

Some amazing one-liners leapt out and smothered me with goosebumps and envy.

Lines like, “On winter trees the fruit of rain is hanging trembling in the branches like a thousand diamond buds,” or “Regrets and mistakes. They are memories made,”

Mini stories in a few words, the ultimate flash fiction.

I used to use Country Music songs as examples of story arc when I was teaching Creative Writing. There’s a great Garth Brooks song, Papa Loved Mama, which is another well-executed example of flash fiction, including my favourite example of showing rather than telling rage:

“The picture in the paper showed the scene real well
Papa’s rig was buried in the local motel
The desk clerk said he saw it all real clear
He never hit the brakes and he was shifting gears.”

 It doesn’t have to be literary to be effective.

What songs and books stand out in your mind as excellent inspiration or great examples of flash fiction?

Marketing Time-line for Self-Publishing

Image representing Lulu as depicted in CrunchBaseWhile I wait (im)patiently for feedback from my beta readers I have been worrying about Marketing.

[As an aside, I have had one comment so far, from my mum, and her feedback was – it’s not as good as your last book (the one that was rejected from Mills & Boon). That’s filled me with confidence.]

I find the marketing of my book far more daunting than anything else I’ve done so far. I’ve talked before about how rubbish I am at selling myself and this includes trying to engage on social media. I am self-conscious even writing on other people’s blogs or twitter feeds (twitter still baffles me) and when I browse around people’s sites, whether on Facebook or Pinterest, I get distracted and forget why I am there.

I have searched around on the internet for advice, but it has been difficult to find a cohesive plan for things you can and should do to help market your book. Until I recently found this great post on the Lulu blog, with a timeline of things to do before you publish.

It starts 12 weeks before launch, so I’m way behind if I want to do all these things before publishing Pictures of Love in August. That said, as I haven’t had any beta reader feedback yet, I don’t know if August is still feasible. If I have a complete re-write to do, on top of finishing Dragon Wraiths by September, it is likely I will have to push back the release date.

I was going to summarise the Lulu post and include the best bits here, but as it is all very useful, I have posted the complete text below. I’m off to work out what I can do in the couple of hours a week I find time to do marketing!

Please let me know how you get on and any other ideas you have to get your book noticed.

The Post:

On Lulu’s blog there’s been a lot of talk about the “how” of marketing (Pinterest, Blogging, Twitter, writing a press release, video chat, etc.) but little focus on the “when,” which is an equally important component of a successful book marketing campaign.

Here are some general guidelines you can follow compiled in a simple marketing timeline to help you plan:

10–12 weeks out: Do your research. Find appropriate blogs and media outlets that might want to review your book and compile a list of media contacts. Come up with a list of friends who can help spread the announcement of your publication and ask each one personally for support. When you reach out to contacts, offer them a free copy of your book and ask for pre-publication quotes to be used in your book’s detail page at various online retailers.

*Expert tip: Make the first chapter of your book available for free for anyone who might want to review your book or include it in a news article. You can do this by creating a free eBook on Lulu.com that includes just the first chapter of your book as well as contact details for press inquiries.

8–10 weeks out: Draft your press release and any announcement emails you’re planning on sending out. Make sure to re-read them numerous times and get friends or family to proof them for you. Ensure that if you’ve not already done so, your Facebook page, Twitter and Pinterest account, and blog include up-to-date info on your upcoming book. Be sure that every update, post, announcement and release includes a direct link to where readers can pre-order your book. (You can use a URL shortener like bit.ly if you like). Now’s a great time to do a cover reveal on social media — unless, that is, you’re planning to work with a blogger for an exclusive reveal on someone else’s site.

6–8 weeks out: Send your press release and start pitching bloggers. This is also a good time to formally announce the release of your book online. When doing so, consider including a question on Twitter and Facebook to encourage engagement and make sure to provide a link where readers can pre-order your book. We know you already know, but double-check that landing page to make sure that your cover image, title, description and reviews are all up-to-date and grammatically correct.

4–6 weeks out: Start thinking about adding “flair” to your social media. Launch week-by-week book giveaways and poll your fans or create extra content (a book playlist, an author interview, etc.) to generate excitement. If you’ve created a video trailer, announce its premiere date on your blog and then post it about four weeks out. As the one-month mark approaches, follow-up with bloggers and other media outlets if you’ve not yet heard back from them.

2–4 weeks out: Post a teaser chapter to your blog — either all at once or split it up to tease out future buyers even longer. Announce winners of any giveaways or contests you’ve run and launch a final giveaway extravaganza (a book plus swag that relates to your book) to coincide with your book’s release date. Continue to make sure that that any good reviews and/or awards you receive are featured on your Lulu, Amazon, BN.com, etc. pages.

0–2 weeks out: You’re in the homestretch! Be prepared, if you’ve done your research right, to be doing blog interviews, updating social media frequently about not only the book, but your excitement, and featuring content and giveaways to celebrate! However, on the day your book goes on sale, give yourself a break. Leave the computer behind and enjoy a breakfast/lunch/dinner out. You deserve it.

Remember, just because your book is out doesn’t mean your marketing efforts end. Continue to look for larger news opportunities to tie your book to, update your social media outlets and blog on a regular basis so your community grows, and keep on top of awards you can submit your book for. More than anything, be creative, take risks, and, later on, hopefully reap the rewards.

Making Butterflies

Today I made butterflies.

It seemed the only productive thing to do, and they look pretty.

Sometimes when my brain is full or aching or lost I find it soothing to sew things. I am rubbish at sewing, but I like having my hands busy and my mind blank. Well, never blank, but drifting, if you know what I mean.

I seem to have reached a crisis point in my life; a quiet creeping sort of crisis that has fallen on me like fog, rather than crashing into my life like a runaway train in a disaster movie as my crises normally do. It is a fog with all sorts of horrible things lurking in it. I hate horror.

All the things I have struggled with my whole life seem to have come crunching together this week. My lack of confidence and self-belief have crunched against my delusional confident sense of self. A see-saw of I’m a crap writer, I can write, I’m a crap writer, I can write. Alongside that, my lazy self is yelling at my hardworking persona. My lazy self says It’s good enough, just move on. My hardworking persona says; you know that’s rubbish. The whole thing needs tearing apart and putting back together again. My Mummy self says, give it up and focus on the children. My working self says; you gotta earn some cash.  My sensible self says, well you aint going to do that writing, which prompts the realistic voice to pipe up; best get a proper job if money is what you want.

In the end I arrive at the same point I have reached many times in my life. I want someone else to tell me what to do. So I read some blogs, some books, a load of web pages. I read the helpful feedback on my blog and on other blogs.

And then I go slightly crazy.

They say being a writer is a lonely business, but once you tentatively reach out to the internet, there are a million voices, all offering advice. I started listening to those voices sometime last week, and now my ears are ringing worse than tinnitus.

So I asked myself, what do I want? And here are my answers, in the order they came to me:

1. I want to make money

2. I want positive feedback from my endeavours

3. I want to write

Now even in my delusional state I know that those three things are in the wrong order, and actually the middle one shouldn’t be there at all.

I know that the only way to write anything worth reading is to do it because you are passionate about it, not for financial gain.

I know that if you rely on glowing reviews to give you confidence you are destined to be miserable forever.

I know that very very few people make a living out of writing.

I know all those things as facts, but I cannot change the way I feel. I cannot still the voice that wants those three things. And because those three things are, essentially, mutually exclusive, I am frozen.

Do I go back to attempting to write Mills & Boon, as the way most likely to provide an income, if I can hit upon the style of writing they are happy with?

Do I sign up to a course, such as the HTRYN that has been recommended to me, to beat my current WIP into shape, fixing all the things I know that are wrong with it, such as lack of a decent main character (It needs  lots of work to be the novel I know it can be)?

Do I tidy my novel up around the edges and keep sending it out to agents, hoping to get lucky because, hey, I’ve read a lot worse?

Or do I pack it all in for another year, as I did when my son was born, and focus instead on being the Mummy I should be, rather than the Writer I want to be?

I have no answers.

In the meantime, I will keep making butterflies. At least the kids agreed, when they got home, that they are pretty.


I received my first rejection letter today. I feel a bit empty. Not because I care, really. Despite wild delusions that any agent would, of course, immediately demand to see the full manuscript (and who doesn’t have those?), I didn’t really expect to be accepted that quickly or easily. I anticipate many rejections before I find success (assuming I ever find it). I didn’t even expect a personalised letter detailing why my novel was rejected.

Which is lucky.

In fact, I think the real reason I feel flat is because I got a response so quickly. My Mills and Boon submission disappeared into the ether, regardless of assurances that a response would be received inside six months, and despite several attempts to elicit said response from them. Somehow that not knowing gave me hope, at least for a while. (I can safely assume that, after nine months, I am not a Mills & Boon writer!)

Maybe hope is what it is all about. Possibly that is why I have only recently sent my first submission to an agent, despite having written four novels in the last three years. Until it has been rejected, there is still the hope that your novel is the next big thing.

But here’s the rub. My novel could still be the next big thing. One rejection is just one person’s opinion. As my rejection letter was signed ‘Bryony’ rather than the name of the agent I sent my submission to, I assume my novel was perused by a reader. So that one opinion wasn’t even the agent’s.

I think the bit that leaves me feeling insecure is not knowing how far into my first three chapters the reader got before they hit the ‘no thanks’ button and moved on. What if they hated it after the first paragraph? I’ll never know.

My rejection letter recommended the services of a literary consultant. I admit I have considered getting a professional view of my work. I just can’t quite bring myself to pay someone – it makes me nervous, with hints of vanity press and the like.

Does anyone have any experience of literary consultants?

In the meantime, I shall plough on with novel #5 and eventually, after another few months, I might find the courage to send some chapters of one of my growing stack of novels to another agent.

Until then, I have hope.

Throw away the excuses

Gatorade Rain bottles lined up on a supermarke...

 “I don’t have the time,”

             “I don’t know where to start,”

                     “I just can’t write,”

“My writing is boring.”

Let’s explore the common excuses (the ones I said most often to myself) and how they can be banished.

“I don’t have the time”

To produce a 100,000-word novel in a year you need to write 274 words a day. Scan this section (down to imagination). It’s 274 words. That’s not much really, is it? To put it into context, it’s 10 tweets or 9 text messages. If you touch-type at an average speed you can type 274 words in 4 minutes (learn to touch-type if you want to become a writer, particularly if your you-time is limited.)

You’ll hear many suggestions on how to foster a daily writing habit. Anyone offering advice about writing will tell you that you must write every day. And of course, in an ideal child-free life, you could do that.

I don’t write every day. I get two days a week to do my writing, when my children go to nursery.

I am very lucky.

However, when I’m consumed by a new plot twist, I’ve been known to sneak in writing time on mummy days. I write when I’m walking the dog (being able to touch-text is handy), or I pull into a lay-by when the kids are asleep in the car and fire up the laptop. Or bribe the children with Peppa Pig so I can sit and tap out a few hundred words. (Did I mention this isn’t a blog about good parenting?)

I can’t tell you how to fit time into your day, as I have no idea about your schedule. All I’m saying is, if it matters to you, you can find the time. Sacrifice a tea break, an episode of Grey’s Anatomy or your twenty minutes of Facebook, and delve into the murky world of your imagination.

“I don’t know where to start,”

This is the excuse that scuppered me for the longest time. I owe it to the OU and their marvellous Creative Writing course that I ever got past it. I realise now that I fell into a very common trap: I was too self-critical. I tried to write whilst listening to the evil genius on my shoulder telling me how rubbish it all was, making me re-craft every line, every word.

Big mistake. Big. Huge.

The OU use a technique called Freewriting, the basic concept of which is that you tell your evil genius to go down the pub, and then you hurry up and get writing while he or she is gone. You can freewrite using a prompt, or just sit with a blank sheet of paper and write the first thing that comes to mind. I find working with a prompt is best. I’ll probably do a post on freewriting and prompts but, for now, I’ll suggest a couple of ideas that really got me going (my first novel came entirely from a freewrite using technique #1)

#1: characters from objects.

Get someone you know to write a list of random objects (a telescope, some tarot cards, a box of matches, an amber necklace, a seashell, it can be anything).

Now sit and think who might own some or all of the objects and why. Don’t analyse, just write for ten minutes without stopping.

#2: freewriting from prompts.

Take one of the following prompts and write for ten minutes without stopping (set an alarm. Do Not Stop until it rings.)

The sunshine makes me happy because…

When the kids leave home I want to…

He said it was all my fault…

“I just can’t write,”

Yes, you can. You do it already. Every time you tell someone about your day, relate a funny story you’ve heard or share something your children did this morning, you are writing.

When I first started thinking about this blog, I worried that I wasn’t one of those people who just had to write. You know, someone like Virginia Woolf, who wrote diaries, letters, stories because she was compelled to. Then I realised that I have always written; it’s just that much of it was in my head. I would retell my day, sometimes changing bits to make it the day I wished I’d had. I’d often write the conversation between me and my boss where he did appreciate all my hard work. Or, better still, the one where I told him to take a long walk off a short pier. I would construct amazing scenarios where the boy who had just dumped me drove across town and found me, just to tell me he’d made a terrible mistake.

Okay so maybe I lived in a self-delusional fantasy world, but it has given me amazing fodder for my fiction. Particularly when I tried to turn my hand to Mills & Boon. That’s for another time.

“My writing is boring.”

How do you know? Has anyone read it but you? If they have, if (like me) your friends or family suggested that maybe your writing wasn’t the most entertaining they’d ever read, then remember one key thing: you are writing your first draft.

I consider my first draft to be the rough pencil sketch that I will paint in with colour later. I hope, of course, that I won’t have to re-write it all, but I know for a fact I’ll have to work hard on some of it to move it from tedious bunkum to something worth reading.  Plenty of time to worry about that later. As I’ve said before, you can’t edit a blank page.

The important thing to focus on when you start writing is to just write. Go with the flow of the story, follow the twists and turns of the plot, and get to the finish line. When you’ve done that you can polish every sentence until it shines with brilliance. I guarantee your first draft will not be your last. And it won’t all be boring. Yes, bits of it will drag: those are the bits to shine or slash later. But parts of it will shine so bright you’ll wonder who drugged you and added them into your story when you weren’t looking. Those are the morsels that make writing addictive.

So, what are you waiting for. Get writing!