Sunday 28 June 2009

Getting Started

Most people have a tale to tell about how they got started. I don’t mean with the actual writing – I think it’s something most of us have always done. I mean how we ever got to think we might be published.

For some it is through a writing group or a course or maybe from a writing holiday where they are inspired by a particularly good writing tutor.

I’ve never belonged to a writing group and I’ve never been on a writing holiday but I always wanted to be a writer and my trigger was the right person saying the right thing to me at the right time.

I’ve just ordered Claire Rayner’s autobiography, “How Did I Get Here From There” and you know if I should thank anyone for helping me at the start it should be Claire.

As a teenager with a burning and desperate desire to write I didn’t know how to start or even if it was worth trying. I had a poem published in a school magazine and a sketch what I wrote (always wanted to say that) was used in a school production.

It was a comedy sketch and to my amazement it made people laugh. Never mind that I was so nervous I got my lines wrong during one of the performances.

Anyway, back to Claire. She was the agony aunt on the Sun newspaper at the time and I wrote to her enclosing a stamped addressed envelope and asked for her advice.

She wrote me a lovely letter in reply and I wish I’d kept it, but her advice was to get a copy of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. I had no idea such a thing existed. Our library had one current copy which as far as I remember you weren’t allowed to take out, but they also had the previous year’s edition which could be borrowed and so my mum put in for it for me.

It wasn’t so much Claire’s advice as the fact she didn’t write back and say, “Don’t be such an idiot, people like you don’t become writers. Get your head out of the clouds and take a reality check.”

The book came in dog-eared and well used and oh what a treasure it was. I’ve bought my own copies since – not every year, but every now and then and I still get the same feeling of anticipation and hope when I open it.

My parents never doubted me, but I always thought they might be biased and they were a bit inclined towards having their heads in the clouds as well. To have someone like Claire Rayner offer advice and wish me luck – well . . .

It occurred to me this morning that when I started writing, I used to write a lot about my hopes and dreams and if I wanted to vent my spleen I let rip in a good old fashioned confession story (I lost count of the number of times my poor long suffering husband said to me, “You were angry with me when you wrote this weren’t you . . ?”)

These days I seem to write more about my feelings and the past and as I grow older, more subjects become taboo for me because it’s happened too many times that something I have written about has later come true. But I’m in a gloomy mood; it hasn’t been a particularly good week for one reason and another - the only good thing I can say about it is that it could have been worse!

But today isn’t a day for feeling glum. I’m off out later – my eldest granddaughter will be two tomorrow and it’s her birthday party today.

Anyway I was just wondering who or what did it for you?

Wednesday 24 June 2009

Call for Submissions

Bridge House Publishing has several anthologies planned and they are asking for submissions in several categories including an animal anthology for charity – the charity being The Born Free Foundation.

Full details with requirements and deadlines here Bridge House Submissions

Monday 22 June 2009

Writing From Life

What a pickle I’ve been in, inspiration thin on the ground – couldn’t even think of a subject to write a post about.

And while I’m pacing up and down wringing my hands together and wailing that I’ll never write another word, that it’s all gone never to return, I catch sight of a book winking at me from the bookshelf.

“Oi,” it said. “Come here you! Stop whingeing and whining and sit down for a minute.”

I sat. I long ago learnt not to argue with books that spoke to me with an air of authority whilst patting my hand in a gesture of kindness and understanding. Besides, when I’m in that kind of mood no one else will speak to me. They all run for cover.

But books are your friends. They won’t run away.

This particular book is called Writing from Life: How to Turn your Personal Experience into Profitable Prose (available from Amazon) and it is written by Lynne Hackles who is a writer I have long admired.

Of course I read the book as soon as I got it but I don’t keep a book like Lynne’s to have it sitting on the shelf gathering dust so I dip in now and again and it always gives me something.

When I first started to write I believed there was this thing, this special secret that all published writers knew about. I thought that if I could find this elusive thing I’d be laughing.

Well I did find it after years of searching, but I’d have found it a damn sight quicker if I’d had Lynne’s book. It isn’t even a secret. It’s there for all; you just have to know where to look for it.

Whether you want to write fiction or non fiction, short stories or books, this book is invaluable. I’d go so far as to say it’s an investment.

Lynne doesn’t waste time telling you how to do all the things you already know how to do. This book is different. It’s different because she reaches inside you and pulls things out like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat.

I came away from my recent dip into Lynne’s book with two ideas for stories from my own memory bank and I know that next time I open it I’ll find more.

There’s even a piece in there about Writers Bum which sounds funny but isn’t if you’ve ever been afflicted.

As well as being a successful and experienced writer Lynne is a highly respected writing tutor and she also happens to be one of the nicest, funniest people I’ve ever met. And she’s been on telly!

So there you have it, two problems solved – what to write my next story about and what to write a post about. Thanks Lynne!

Wednesday 17 June 2009

Hay Diddle de dee

The other night I watched Jo Brand at the Hay Festival (on telly recorded of course). I have always liked Jo whether she’s doing stand-up or appearing on Question Time or Have I Got News For You – but until I saw she was on at Hay, I didn’t realise that she was a novelist.

Her birthday is one day different to mine – we’re practically twins - I like her even more! Jo was a psychiatric nurse – which is something I considered as I used to do voluntary work* at a mental health nursing home as a teenager.

It was a sort of holiday home and although there were a few permanent residents, most seemed to stay for a short while. I was told that some were there for respite care after being ill treated in other homes. If you’re old enough you may remember hearing about some homes being exposed in the early 70s for their cruelty.

I remember taking one sweet old man into a shop where he bought some postcards. “I’m going to write to my mum and dad and my family,” he told me. “I’m going to tell them where I am and when they find out, they’ll come and take me home.” And then this gentle soul asked if I could write in their addresses as he didn’t know where they were and he thought I might know. He’d been put into a home for stealing – he said it was a misunderstanding and he hadn’t stolen anything.

He was part of my group once when we were out for a walk. We went into a shop to buy some sweets and the shop owner came out from behind his counter, waving his arms about like a demented octopus and demanding we get the bloody looneys out of his shop! I never set foot in that shop again I can tell you. I don’t suppose he mourned the loss of me popping in occasionally to buy a packet of potato puffs, but I felt better about it.

I washed a lady’s hair. It was about half an inch long and she begged me to put it in rollers as I had done for her friend. I did. There wasn’t enough hair to wrap around a roller so I pinned them all over her head to her enormous excitement. I was afraid she was going to be let down, but oh the joy on her face when I’d dried her hair and she looked exactly the same. “I look beautiful,” she said. She did.

I sat out in the sunshine with another lady who was about the same age as my mum. She told me she’d been put in a home when she got pregnant and had been there ever since. “Don’t you want to get out of here?” I asked her. “No,” she said. “I’d be scared to live outside now.”

Most of the people I met had stories to tell and their stories made me sad, but I have to say that they were some of the happiest, nicest and most honest people I have ever met in my life. There were darker moments, but I don’t want to go into the dark now.

I’ve gone off track a bit haven’t I?

Jo said writing a novel was like doing homework for two years! She said a lot of other things too which, as well as the nearly being my twin thing, also made me like her more.

Also watched John O’Farrell who was interesting and entertaining. A week or so ago I watched Jacqueline Wilson whose anecdotes about working for D C Thomson were fascinating!

*(sorry about that, but I’ve always wanted to do the asterisk** thing) When I say I was a volunteer – I was doing Music*** and hated the teacher almost as much as she hated me – it was decided that as I was a disruptive influence I should be sent elsewhere and so for some lessons I joined the people doing “social services”. I think those “lessons” that weren’t really lessons and weren’t even on my timetable were some of the best.

**I had to look up how to spell asterisk . . . I’d be too embarrassed to tell you that I spelt it “asterix” at first!

***The reason I did music was because it was the only thing left after I’d made my other choices – I think, no I know the poor music teacher was even more upset about it than I was!

Ps: I read a story in My Weekly (13th June) by Julie Coffin called “Don’t Look Back” and it made my skin tingle! I’ve always liked Julie’s stories. And in Woman’s Weekly (16th June) there is a reader survey - I love the “It’s a Funny Old World” slot in the magazine (particularly when Julian Clary is the columnist).

Thursday 11 June 2009

At least no one called me Dear!

I don’t often go shopping. I don’t like shops or crowds and if I’m in the wrong frame of mind for it I go into a kind of trance and can’t think straight enough to buy anything. Some might say it’s because I’m a tightwad and panic at the thought of opening my purse, but it goes deeper than that.

Well today wasn’t too bad, but in every shop I went in at least one person came over and asked if I was all right. In Boots as I was leaving with my small bag, one of those pretty make up ladies leapt out from between the counters and bellowed “Thank you!” – Big Smile too.

Even in the foody bit of M&S someone asked if I was okay. In the Early Learning Centre I was asked three times if I needed any help, was okay, are you all right there? One of the assistants even came and relieved me of my purchases and put them behind the counter as I carried on browsing.

In Clinton Cards a woman smiled and said “Are you all right? Do you need any help?”

In W H Smith . . . oh hold on, no one spoke to me in there, they were too busy chatting to each other. But who needs help buying magazines?

On the market the lady who served me said “All right, darlin'?” but she was saying that to everyone.

I started to worry. Did I look ill? Decrepit and incapable perhaps? Was my skirt tucked in my knickers and they were trying to pluck up the courage to tell me . . . well it wasn’t that because I was wearing trousers. But perhaps they’d split up the back! Was I wearing odd shoes – I hardly dared look. I wasn’t. Maybe my hair was standing on end. Why the concern for my welfare?

I have since been told that it was nothing personal, but that shops have stepped up the customer service to try to persuade us to spend more of the money we don’t have in their shops.

This has absolutely nothing to do with writing does it? But I did buy a copy of Writing Magazine with a pretty pink cover because I noticed there was an interview with Gaynor Davies in there. And I did what I always do when I buy a writing magazine – I hid it under another magazine in case anyone saw it.

Bizarre isn’t it, but I imagine people will see me buying a writing magazine and titter behind their hands. Why? I don’t know. Perhaps because when I first started out and even when I was published, some people made unkind remarks or laughed at me. I sometimes think it was those people that gave me the determination to be a writer.

Anyway, I'm off now for a read . . .

For Jane and Big Dave!

Well this is it, best I could get. It certainly looks like water in there - my husband is certain it is - he reckons he can see ripples on the water!

No vehicles or people in sight now - just a twenty foot container a short distance away. Very difficult to get close up to it without trespassing!

Monday 8 June 2009

Rewriting on Request

So you’ve been asked to rewrite a story.

Do you:

a) Throw a strop because no one, absolutely no one has any right to tell you how your story should begin, end, whatever.

b) Panic. You don’t understand what they want you to do. Panic some more.

c) Get on with it, do the best job you can and resubmit.

d) Put it to one side and worry about it later, like next year sometime or maybe when you’ve got a bit more experience or more ink in your printer or when you’ve got more time.

First of all if you are asked to rewrite a story or just give it a little tweak it is not a guarantee of publication, but the fact that you have been asked at all means that the editor likes your work and thinks it could be publishable so you are In With A Chance! Being asked to rewrite something by an editor is a Big Thing! A very Big Thing!

I’m trying to think of cases when I’ve been asked to rewrite something and why. One that springs to mind – and it is probably one of the most common reasons for me over the years – is when the editor likes the story, but one of the main characters is too unsympathetic. If you’re going to make someone bad, then give them a reason for being bad. This all depends on the publication of course; some are more willing to take out-and-out baddies than others!

We all know people in Real Life who are thoroughly despicable for no other reason than – well they are just thoroughly despicable. But we’re not always writing about Real Life are we?

I have had endings that are too abrupt and I am probably guilty here of checking my word count and thinking Oh Hell, 250 words left to wind up the story! In this case, I’d sort out the ending then go back through the story and cut elsewhere to get the length right. You can always find surplus to cut if you have to.

I had to tweak part of a story once where I had a woman moving the dead body of the man who had been abusing her until she retaliated and killed him. It was pointed out to me that she wouldn’t be able to shift a heavy body all on her own, so I found a handy trolley or some other thing with wheels – I don’t rightly remember now, but it helped shift the body and sold the story.

Recently I rewrote a story because I’d simply carried it on too long. It should have ended two thirds of the way through, so I chopped off the surplus scenes and wrote a few sentences to wind it up. Sounds so easy doesn’t it? Well no one ever said it was easy, but it’s a lot easier than writing a whole new story from scratch.

Maybe you have to make it a bit longer. Remember it’s always easier to put on weight than take it off. I had to find 500 words recently to fatten a story up.

There are times when I do b). I don’t really understand what they want me to do. Usually if you read through the story and get to know it again, it will become obvious. But what if it doesn’t? In this case I’d rewrite (always keeping the original) and ask my husband (bless him) to read through both and give an opinion. Sometimes you really do just need someone else’s input or maybe it’s just confirmation that you’re not as daft as you think you are.

If you’re tempted to do d) don’t. Don’t rush your rewrite, but do make it a priority. The door is open and if you don’t go in or at least poke your nose round, it may well slam in your face. While you’re prevaricating Someone Else might write the same story but better and by the time you get your rewrite in, Someone Else has beaten you to it. Either that or the magazine decides not to run fiction any more.

What if you rewrite and it comes back, still not right? Try again! And the third time? Keep going. What if it comes back again with a Thanks but No Thanks? Put it down to experience and try not to hurt yourself too much as you gnash your teeth.

And for anyone considering option a) - I'd just like to say that when I've been asked to do a rewrite it has always improved the story.

And right now I have gone into a cold sweat because I have a feeling that I was asked to rewrite something and I made a note in my notebook. You should see the current page, it’s covered in things crossed out, three brief ideas for stories, four rejections to be sorted out and a shopping list for next time I go internet shopping. There are several pages of pencilled scribbles courtesy of my granddaughters. What if somewhere in that mess of a notebook there is an Important Note that I have somehow overlooked?

But that’s a subject for another post one day perhaps. Paranoia!!

Saturday 6 June 2009

Any ideas?

This has appeared in the fields over the last couple of weeks. The bank forms a sort of elongated C and there appears to be a hard flat area within the C with two grassy islands left in it.

The bank itself has what looks like concrete blocks set into it at regular intervals.

I know that they plan to dig out the fields in the background and breach the sea wall to create a new salt marsh in that area and I think it’s the beginning of a new dyke to go round the new marsh. It’s something I’m not happy about but I’m determined not to start spouting about it today!

My other half reckons it isn’t. So far he’s come up with a trout farm, a shooting range . . . or a visit from Tony Robinson.

I’m hoping someone out there will look at it and say “Oh, I’ve seen one of those – it’s a . . .”

Thursday 4 June 2009

And a Bit of the Other

Not that sort of other! Tuh what are you like?

Went to vote today. My 4 year old grandson, Lachlan, asked me why I was voting and what it was for. I was having difficulty explaining so Grandad said it for me, “We are choosing who we want to steal all our money!”

For the first time in my life I didn’t know who I was going to vote for until I was in the booth – and I came away feeling I hadn’t used my X wisely. That was a first too.

There weren't many people there. The man who gave me my voting forms helped me poke mine in the box (it was rather full by the time I got round there) then he looked embarrassed and got a stick and used that to push it in. And a lady sitting at the table opposite (for roads from H to Z) asked what a judge's hammer is called . . . for her crossword.

I still felt a certain sense of satisfaction that I'd had the opportunity to have my say, even if it was just a cross in a box.

This and That

I always said I wouldn’t blog. It didn’t appeal to me at all. Now I’m addicted to it. I’m thinking up subjects for blogs when I should be thinking up stories (and finding it just as difficult).

And it’s not just thinking up subjects – what about all those terrific blogs out there waiting to be read?

Womag’s blog is a fantastic resource. I find myself going back there again and again checking on things which got me thinking . . .

When I first started to target magazines – don’t laugh – I used to sit with a magazine and having read all the stories in it, I would then count the words in each story and make a mark at each 100. This was the kind of research I could do with a sleeping baby slung over my shoulder!

I’d make note of how many characters and scenes and the settings. My magazines would end up with notes written all over them. When I wrote a story, I knew roughly how many handwritten words would fill a page in my notebook, but when the story was finished, I’d have to count them just to be sure.

I wrote everything longhand to start with, then I’d type a draft which I’d tweak and twiddle before typing up the final copy.

Thank goodness for guidelines that most if not all magazines produce these days. And Word with its word count and spell check. And thank goodness for Womag who does such a lot of the hard work for the rest of us!