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Welcome to The Literary Pig's blog - a safe haven for all those afflicted with
the unbearable urge to write.

Monday, 19 December 2016

This writing life

This writing life can be wonderful ...
moments of success come like shooting stars and always deserve celebration.

This writing life can shoot that star down ...
when rejection emails pop into your inbox (usually on a Friday afternoon) and competition stories fail to get a mention, then a stock of chocolate always helps.

This writing life is made bearable ...
by those who love and support us at home.

This writing life is only possible ...
because of our writing chums. Claire Plaisted has written a beautiful post on how 'Supportive writing friends are like lighthouses', and says it so much better than I ever could here.  I'd like to take this opportunity to thank my collective lighthouses: Richard, Bea and Zoe. We meet once a month to share and review work, to cheer each other when there's success and to let each other rant when the writing life gets tough - and there is always cake.

Finally, I'd like to especially thank my constant lighthouse: Wendy. Her beacon of good advice is always shining. When I have good news or bad, then Wendy is the first to hear it, usually first thing in the morning via WhatsApp. And without her I'd probably be ready to give up this writing life ...

Monday, 5 December 2016

Writing 30 flashes in 30 days

At the beginning of November I set out my challenge to write 30 pieces of flash fiction in 30 days - my own mini version of NaNoWriMo. What I hadn't thought through was having to come up with 30 unique story ideas, that was the real challenge. Well reader, I did it. Now I have 30 new flash stories to work on or even expand into longer pieces. I'm very happy with that. As you can see the whole experience has wiped out LitPig ...
And for all the obsessives amongst you here are the stats:
30 flash stories completed, a total of 7,560 words
Smallest = 11 words
Longest = 1,000 words
1 competition win: Write Invite 'Off the grid' (12 November), read it here
1 story on Paragraph Planet 'Backstroke' (75 words)
3 stories longlisted (to date) on Ad Hoc Fiction
9 other stories submitted to competitions/open windows, including: Tears in the Fence, The A3 Review, Blink Ink magazine, 1000 words challenge, Just Write, Retreat West ...
3 drabbles (100 words exactly) ready for Reader's Digest 100 word story competition

December I'll be working on some of these flash stories and taking time out to catch up on reading. Currently, I'm enjoying Melanie Whipman's new collection Llama Sutra. I hope she'll be on the blog in the New Year to talk about her writing and the collection.

Did you set yourself a NaNoWriMo writing challenge for November? How did you get on?

Monday, 14 November 2016

Short Story Masterclass with Melanie Whipman

I met Melanie Whipman during my MA in Creative Writing at Chichester University where she's an Associate Lecturer. She is currently completing her PhD there and her debut short story collection Llma Sutra (published by Ink Tears Press) is now available. When it comes to writing short stories then Melanie is an expert so I was really looking forward to her Short Story Masterclass, a day devoted to the art of the short story.
The Masterclass was held at Lingwood House, Churt, in Surrey (see photo right) - a perfect rural location for a day of writing. No traffic or noise distractions, just a lovely garden to explore if we needed
inspiration. Attendees started arriving for 10am and we soon knew a little about each other before Melanie reigned us in to focus on short stories. Up until lunch we discussed what makes a good short story and also considered the importance of character versus plot. There was work to do and an interesting exercise involving all five senses, later developed into exploring a character. All of the group had the makings of a short story from this short writing exercise - I was very impressed at how effective it was.
We rested our writing brains over a tasty lunch of home-made quiches and salad, followed by pudding and coffee. Coffee and tea (and biscuits) kept us well nourished all day. The afternoon session allowed us to consider the importance of setting in the short story. We then worked through several writing exercises using setting and character mood. Many of us returned to the characters we'd created in the morning to further expand their stories. I'm not usually a fan of writing to order and often hit a blank with 'on the spot' exercises, but I found Melanie's techniques worked for me and I ended up with several pages of prose that I can develop further (and have done so post the class!).
Ring fencing time to focus a day on short story writing worked for me and I left feeling motivated and re-invigorated to get writing short stories again. With the added bonus of the bones of a new story beginning to emerge after the writing exercises. The setting was idyllic. The atmosphere relaxed, friendly and encouraging where everyone got the chance to share their ideas and thoughts. There was no pressure to read out any of the work from the exercises, but our group were all happy to do so as it felt like being amongst friends. Interestingly, not all the group wrote short stories and all of the content and exercises made sense for longer fiction too - so I think we all got a great deal out of the Masterclass.
Melanie is running this Masterclass again (January 2017) and other writing workshops are scheduled, full details are on her website here. Once a quarter she organises Live Lit evenings at The Hollybush, Frensham (Surrey), where I often read along with other writers (prose and poetry). These are always fun evenings, read more here. Hope to see you there one evening! The next one is 21st November ...

Melanie Whipman is a writer and lecturer who specialises in the short story form. Her fiction has been broadcast on Radio 4, has won various literary prizes and has been published in numerous magazines and anthologies. She runs creative writing courses in Farnham, and is an Associate Lecturer and PhD student at the University of Chichester. She is also Commissioning Editor for The Story Player. 
Her debut short story collection ‘Llama Sutra’ is due out in November with Ink Tears Press.
You can find her at www.melaniewhipman.com, and can order her book here: http://www.inktears.com/book-llamasutra/
You can also join the launch for Llama Sutra - a joint launch party is being held with Joanna Campbell for her collection When Planets Slip Their Tracks. Full details on Facebook here.

All photographs provided and reproduced here with the kind permission of Melanie Whipman.

Monday, 7 November 2016

30 days of Flash

November is NaNoWriMo month when many writers set themselves the challenge to write 50,000 words of a novel. I actually did this (and met the target) back in 2011, but swore NEVER AGAIN for various reasons. There seems to be more and more alternative November challenges popping up: a poem a day, 50,000 words but all on short stories etc. One that caught my interest is on Facebook: Flash Nano 2016, where a group of writes have set out to write one flash story a day.
October turned into a writing fast for me, not by design, yet somehow I slipped into a limbo state as I waited for feedback on my crime novel. I'd planned to start other projects and simply failed to get anything off the ground. On 1 November I was determined to write something. ANYTHING. I strapped myself down and managed a new 500 word story. The next day was my monthly goal setting session with writing chum Wendy and I had to come up with a November goal - particularly since I'd failed to meet October's target. Foolishly I made a snap decision and told her I would join the Flash nano challenge and write a new flash story every day: 30 days of Flash!
'So,' said Wendy, 'you've had a complete block on ideas for October and now you're going to need 30 different ideas - one a day - to meet this challenge?' (OK, she may have been a little blunter than this in reality).
'Yes,' I replied, beaming like a madwoman. 'It's going to be fun!'
And it has been tremendous fun. It's only day 7 of the challenge, but I have written a unique new story every day so far. I'm treating this as an opportunity to try out genres I never usually write ie horror, scifi etc. I'm also experimenting with word count from 50 up to 500. On the plus side I should end up with 30 new pieces which I could submit or perhaps adapt into longer stories. The ambitious side of me is already planning a new challenge: to place all 30 pieces. I may not confess that one to Wendy ...
If you fancy writing some Flash and are wondering about opportunities for submissions then here's a short list of some of my favourites - all FREE (there are hundreds more & competitions too if you have the time to search them out):
Blink-Ink - 50 words
Paragraph Planet - 75 word stories
Readers' Digest 100 Word story - closes 20 Feb 2017
Spelk - up to 500 words, submissions open again mid November
Smoke Long Quarterly - up to 1,000 words
http://www.smokelong.com/Jellyfish Review - up to 1,000 words

Watch out for National Flash Fiction Day in 2017 which runs competitions and opportunities for publication. Left is the 2016 anthology A Box of Stars Beneath the Bed, which includes 2 of my flash stories ...

Monday, 24 October 2016

Short story success

Most of this year I've been immersed in finishing my second novel and sadly have spent little time writing new short stories. This hasn't stopped me continuing to submit to competitions, magazines/journals and anthologies - thankfully this diligence has paid off in the last few months. October saw the publication of the HOPE themed issue for  POPSHOT magazine (you can buy it here), which includes my dystopian short story Footprints. I highly recommend this magazine (subscription is only £10 per annum) as each story or poem is beautifully illustrated by a specially commissioned piece of artwork. My story has a wonderful full page illustration by artist MIKE LEES (see above).
My success with POPSHOT is a story in itself as I've religiously sent stories to each open submission for the last two years. Perseverance does find it's own reward in the end.
I've also been lucky enough to have short stories on several competition short lists. I was particularly chuffed to make the final seven for the EXETER Story Prize (see results here), because the inaugural winner was my writing pal Richard Buxton. Richard is a member of my writing workshop group (we meet every month to review & critique each other's work), a talented writer of both fiction and non-fiction and a master storyteller. We were hoping that I'd bring home a second trophy for our group to admire, but sadly my story didn't make the top three.
Another example of perseverance is the BRIGHTON Prize (read more here) organised by Rattle Tales. This is the third year I've entered (for short story) and was delighted to make the final eleven of the shortlisted stories. The prize giving is on 28 October in Brighton, where I'm looking forward to meeting many of the other short listed writers and chatting over a glass of something chilled. My story will also be published in next year's Rattle Tales anthology.
On Friday I learned more good news. Another competition I've pursued for several years is the International WILLESDEN HERALD Short Story Prize, coveting the highly desirable Willesden Herald mug (first prize plus bottle of champagne). My short story is amongst the final ten short listed and will feature in the next anthology (read more here).

I may not make the podium for either of these latter competitions but that's not the point, making the short list for prestigious competitions is all good publicity for your writing. At least for a couple of days your name can be circulating on Twitter and Facebook etc. I make no apologies for shouting about success. A little buzz can't hurt and it helps to make up for the weeks/months when all you hear is rejection and 'not quite right for us'.
Have you had any good writing news lately? Do share!

Monday, 10 October 2016

Turning to crime

This summer I've been busy finishing and editing a second novel (a crime mystery), I also found time to squeeze in a couple of writing events: Winchester Writer's Conference and the Festival of Writing (FoW) in York. The photo above shows a tiny Joanna Cannon (in red) giving her concluding speech at FoW, which was incredibly honest and motivating. Jo Cannon famously won the Friday Night Live event at FoW in 2014, following which she was offered representation by seven agents. She chose  Susan Armstrong (Conville and Walsh) and this year her bestselling debut 'The Trouble with Goats and Sheep' was published by Borough Press.

I didn't attend the whole of the Winchester weekend but did travel down for the Friday Masterclass and had two 1-2-1s (an agent and a commissioning editor). Madeleine Milburn's Masterclass on 'Pitching' was excellent. I didn't think there was much more I could learn about this process and boy was I wrong. Madeleine led some excellent exercises and used real examples throughout - these were the most valuable part of the day. If you ever get the chance to hear Madeleine talk then grab it, she knows the business inside out and is also rather lovely too.

Several writing friends had shared that the York held Festival of Writing was THE event to attend if you were seriously seeking an agent. I saved up the pennies and bought a weekend ticket for all events and two 1-2-1s. I also paid for an additional 1-2-1 meeting with a book doctor (a professional editor). I won't dwell on the train journey to York (it took >7hours!) but thankfully I arrived in time for dinner and Friday Night Live. The weekend was a whirlwind of talks/workshops/1-2-1s and lots of socialising/networking with other writers. I did need several days on my own when I got back - just to quieten my head. I considered the cost and investment in my writing career and I think it has been worth it. It was lovely to catch up with some writing pals and also meet new friends too - some of whom I think will be the names of the future. The quality of speakers and workshops/panels etc were excellent. The accommodation was basic student rooms but you don't spend much time there anyway. I was impressed by the overall organisation, friendliness of the event and the food was pretty good considering there were >400 delegates. I took advantage of the free competitions running for the weekend and was delighted to be shortlisted (final 7) for the Best Opening Chapter competition, which got my name read out during the Gala Dinner on Saturday night.

Both events are expensive but the included 1-2-1s are worth the cost - a 10-15 min opportunity to get face-to-face feedback on your writing from industry experts. These offer the chance to meet agents, making it so much easier to then approach by email or sidle up to them in the buffet/bar queue. Also look out for Early Bird Rates. When registration opens for FoW there is usually a short period when you can get a 20% discount.

What I gained from these events
I pitched two novels: literary and crime mystery at 1-2-1s at both these events. Discussing my literary novel with a book doctor I realised it is probably time to 'rest' it from the submission carousel. The editor was enthusiastic about my writing (immersive and transports the reader), she 'got' it and my aims, but suggested it was unlikely to attract an agent seeking a commercial debut because it's just too gentle and quiet. This matched much of the feedback I'd been getting from agents. From the annotations on my extract I also realised what to expect when working with a professional editor.  I thought I'd sent her a near perfect, polished piece and yet she'd commented on several areas on page 1 alone. Scary.

The crime novel has been a delight to write, almost fun (if you can ever call writing fun) and a different experience for me as I purposely set out to write a more commercial novel. Over the spring and summer I've pitched this novel to a number of agents and to date every one has asked to read the finished manuscript. That's a 100% hit rate. Tweeting about how the novel also attracted attention and I was approached directly by an agent who after reading the opening has called in the whole manuscript. So you can see why I'm turning to crime ...

What do you think about writing conferences? Have you found them useful / value for money? Let me know what you think.

Monday, 5 September 2016

Do screenwriters have more fun?

London Screenwriters' Festival, 31 August: Masterclass in Advanced Structure with John Yorke

Never pre-judge an event's audience, that's a lesson I learned last Wednesday at the London Screenwriters' Festival. I'd signed up for a day's Masterclass with TV/Film writer John Yorke on Advanced Structure (Screenwriting) and expected to be one of the oldest attendees as screenwriting tends to be a young writers genre. On arriving at Regents University I was overwhelmed to find myself in a packed auditorium (circa 200 people) with writers of all ages and backgrounds - many were novelists/short story writers like myself but huge fans of John Yorke's book Into the Woods and obsessed with STRUCTURE. Men are usually outnumbered 10:1 at the writing events I've been to but here there was true equality, well in numbers anyway.
I was there because I'm keen to write more drama (and yes, one day a screenplay) and I have a fascination with structure in storytelling, on which John Yorke is an expert. He was introduced onto the stage with a standing ovation, clapping, cheering and the sort of welcome not usually produced by a gentile audience of writers. Clearly, screenwriting is the glamour end of the writing profession. This was a quality set-up too with a sound system booming out Film music and a massive screen - thankfully there was air conditioning, which worked. Impressively, John Yorke talked without notes all day and happily took questions at any time.

John took us through the basics of structure: 3 and 5 acts, as well as touching upon the theories of Christopher Vogler, Christopher Booker, Robert McKee, Freytag and John Truby (to name a few). I'm not going to reproduce the detail here as you can get a idea of the content by reading Into the Woods. I'd read his book the week before and this really helped, as suddenly his examples were being brought to life - literally, as he showed numerous film and TV clips. Interestingly, he also gave examples to demonstrate how the laws of storytelling and use of structure have been hijacked by the politicians. He used speeches by Ronald Reagan and Michelle Obama to highlight this. We learned that Michelle owed a debt to Cicero (Roman orator, born 106 BC) and his classic 6 part speech structure (or her speech writers did...)
I wanted to cheer when John Yorke said "Structural theory should apply to all narrative forms" and that basically all stories have a Beginning / Middle / End or Set up / Confrontation / Resolution ie a 3 Act structure. This is something to remember when editing a short story or novel. He believes most writers don't plan structure, it just happens as an innate part of the writing process. Structure and order is not imposed on the stories we write or tell because "We are incapable of NOT ordering the world." Basically, human beings thrive on order even in their virtual lives of storytelling.
For me the epiphany moment was when he talked about the MIDPOINT of a story. The midpoint should occur exactly half way through, it is the moment of most significant change ie a life changing moment for your protagonist or main character. It's point in the story where the stakes are raised and the character's life is changed forever. Find the midpoint and suddenly everything clicks. This is something I need to think about while editing my second novel and John's words here really helped me to plan what I need to do. He also talked about how the second half of a story should really be the consequences of what happened at the midpoint - again sound and sensible advice for any writer.

For the last session we watched a 30min Panorama documentary The Taliban Hunters concerning the Karachi police's struggle with Taliban terrorists. Our mission was then (in groups of 4) to outline a screenplay for our film version of the story we wanted to tell from the facts. 30 mins to come up with a pitch for a Hollywood blockbuster. My group had a lot of fun and though we didn't get to pitch our film (we planned to cast Tom Hiddleston as the rogue Western reporter learning tough lessons in Karachi) it was an interesting exercise in collaborative writing. Most of us writing novels or short stories write in isolation and it can be a lonely business. Many TV series and films are created by a team of writers and I can see the attraction. Brainstorming and then getting excited as our ideas evolved and triggered more from each new suggestion was a liberating experience. Perhaps, not to everyone's taste or style of writing but I really enjoyed it and it has made me think about how I would want to approach a screenplay if I ever take the plunge. I would be very interesting in a collaboration with other writers.
Six teams got to pitch their blockbusters to John Yorke and 2 other screenwriters who really knew their stuff.  The pointers given easily applied to pitching a novel and I listened avidly to the feedback. Get in quick with the title and then the hook. Cut out all detail - that can come later - but sell the protagonist and the problem they have to solve. If you can label your film/novel/TV show in some way, then go for it. One guy pitched his film as "The Untouchables meets Training Day in Karachi" - that was all they needed, he'd sold his idea with one line. "I'd want to see that film," said one judge. Okay, not my cup of tea but I'm not a Hollywood Producer looking for the next hot script.
As John signed my copy of his book I slipped in a question about the novel I'm editing. It has 3 protagonsists, so 3 midpoints in the story and I asked him if they should all come exactly at the centre of the book or should this be the midpoint for the main protagonist. He came up with several excellent suggestions for me to think through. I need to check but spookily I think I may already written the storyline to match one of his scenarios.
On Friday I'm off to York for the Festival of Writing. I have 3 one-to-one sessions booked (2 agents and an editor) so I do feel better equipped to 'sell' my novels.
The final act of a well structured story is the hero's journey home. I did make it home, despite the efforts of Southern Rail, but that folks is another story ...
Finally, as you can see LitPig recommends John Yorke's Into the Woods - How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them. Honestly, you don't have to wannabe a screenwriter to enjoy this book, it really does apply to all forms of storytelling.
Is anyone else out there going to the Festival of Writing? Let me know, as it would be lovely to meet you there.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

In a flash

Saturday 25 June is in my diary for two good reasons. Firstly, it's Handsome Hubby's birthday - enough said. And once again it's that fabulous annual event NATIONAL FLASH FICTION DAY (NFFD) organised by Calum Kerr and his team of flashers.

I'm a flash fiction addict. Love writing it. Love reading it. Love talking about it! This year I was delighted to learn two of my flash stories have made it into the NFFD anthology: A box full of stars beneath the bed. The anthology contains flash fiction from 100 words up to 500 from lots of well known names. Some stories have been commissioned from writers such as Claire Fuller, Paul McVeigh, Sarah Hilary and master flasher himself, Calum Kerr. This is now available in paperback and Kindle, you can buy it here.

There are organised events taking place on the day and you can read about how to join in here or follow on Twitter @Nationalflashfd. A regular event for #NFFD is the online Flash Flood Journal where a flash story is published on the NFFD blog every 10-15 mins throughout the day (24 hours of flash fiction!). You can link to each story via Twitter. I have a story flooding out at 1pm on Saturday, just in time for lunch. Hope you enjoy it.

If you've not read any flash before or know nothing about this genre then please do dip in and read some of the stories released on the day. I am always amazed and delighted by how much beauty/humour/pathos etc can be squeezed into such small word counts. Many flash stories are miniature gems that can indeed sparkle like a box of stars beneath the bed ...

Monday, 13 June 2016

Let Suzanne Conboy-Hill tell you a story

LitPig is tickled pink to welcome Dr Suzanne Conboy-Hill to the blog today. Suzanne is a talented and imaginative writer, as well as being an all-round clever person ... read on to learn why ...
Dr Suzanne Conboy-Hill was a clinical psychologist for adults with intellectual disabilities for almost thirty years, working in NHS community services in London and Sussex. Latterly, as a writer of fiction, her observations of the impact of limited literacy on inclusion, communication, and exposure to the imaginings of others via written language led to thoughts about how that might be changed. This book is the result of one of those threads of thought. As a writer, she is a Lascaux Short Fiction Finalist, Flash Fiction Chronicles Finalist, and Best of the Net nominee. Her stories – some SF, some speculative, and some based in grim realism -  have been published by Zouch Magazine, Full of Crow, Fine Linen Literary Journal, and the Lascaux 2014 anthology amongst others. She lives in the UK, holds degrees in several specialist areas of psychology and an MA in Creative Writing from the university of Lancaster. Here is her website http://www.conboy-hill.co.uk/[1
Q. When you first approached me about this concept I was really excited to know I was  going to be part of the first Readalongreads anthology. Can you tell us something about the project and your objectives for the anthology.
It goes right back to working with adults with intellectual disability whose literacy is often severely compromised. I’d spent a lot of time assessing people for decisional capacity or facing eviction or criminal prosecution for failing to adhere to written contracts they’d been given, and it was clear to me that while many of them could read the words at a technical level, their fluency was so impaired that meaning was non-existent. Sometimes sensitive and confidential material had been read to them by someone else which made it invasive and unsafe. I thought there had to be a better way.
At the same time, there was the problem of reading for fun. How do you make ‘adult literacy’ attractive when there’s no decent fiction aimed at people like yourself? It was obvious to me that people had a mental life that included imagination (and why would they not?) simply by the reality of having to keep up with the soaps myself so as not to get caught out in a re-enactment of a current storyline. I’d called an ambulance once for a young woman draped over the chairs looking pale and floppy only to hear of that exact scenario in the previous night’s EastEnders! People clearly wanted and enjoyed fiction.
The solution – or an approach to one – came with the ubiquity of smart phones, and the appearance of QR codes that could take you straight to a website without having to type in the address. I thought then about how a voice file that someone could listen to in private via their ear buds could support (not take the place of) reading and no one would be any the wiser about their difficulties. I thought too about adding voice files to the collections of short stories and poems some groups had already published but presumably could no longer access unless they could read. This was the basis of what was going to be a small demonstration booklet for local distribution and that became the anthology now sitting there on Amazon!
Q. What were the technical challenges for putting this together? How did you overcome them?
There weren’t as many of these as there could have been as I’d already published a couple of books via Lulu so I knew the ropes reasonably well. The main issue for me was re-publication rights, and securing a host site for the sound. I’d asked people to confirm that they had the rights to the work they wanted included, but there were some very last minute hiccups with a couple of contributions and so I wrote to all the publishers involved so there could be no doubt. If I do this again, that will be the very first priority! As to the sound files; I needed a host site I could control because, while SoundCloud is good, it runs tracks on one after the other and some aren’t even from your own list. This meant setting up something new and Readalongreads came into being; a place where I could also post updates and promotional material. There’s even a science page if anyone feels so inclined!
Q. Producing the anthology is only one part of the story. How are you promoting ‘Let Me Tell You a Story’? I believe you recently had a breakthrough with Lulu …
Yes! Bless ‘em, they wrote a little piece and put it out on LinkedIn and Facebook so I’ve taken a screenshot I can send out elsewhere. But promotion is surely the devil’s work? Like most writers, I’m not a natural seller so plugging via Facebook, twitter, blogs and the like is excruciating because I’m aware I’m shoving it at the same crowd all the time. Luckily, with an anthology there’s a range of contributors I can promote which makes it a little easier but it’s still quite limited in its scope. To maximise exposure, I’ve printed flyers that describe the book and link to Ian MacMillan’s Foreword (by QR of course!) and I’m sending these out to bookshops. I’m also sending copies of the book to libraries with the aim of eventually covering the country via key libraries in each county. The risk is they’ll bin it but I can hope they don’t, and if they have it there’s at least a fighting chance of it getting on the shelves. Then there’s reviews. I’m sending copies to some key ‘names’, plus literacy groups, psychology contacts, and the tech community because – pause for a trumpet blowing moment – I think this is a world first and I’d like to hear what those kinds of communities think about the QR/text idea itself as a support for literacy as well as an enhancer of the reading experience. Luckily, none of this needs to be done overnight so it can be drip-fed for as long as necessary.
Q. And what next for Readalong? Where would you like to see this initiative develop?
My ambition for this has always been to launch the technique and use the anthology as a reference. Getting the quality of content is a massive bonus and I can’t thank the contributors enough. Two of them have international standing: Phillippa Yaa de Villiers the commissioned poet for Commonwealth Day at Westminster Abbey in 2014 and Nguyen Phan Que Mai for the UN’s International Women’s Day event in 2016.
Thank you, Suzanne. And now here's the important details ...
You can buy the anthology Let Me Tell You a Story here and from Amazon here.
Find out more about Readalongreads here
Suzanne tweets: @strayficshion @demtigerpaw @GQinterview

Monday, 6 June 2016

A bun fest!

In the last few weeks I seem to have followed in Jane Austen's footsteps. First, a visit to the Cobb at Lyme Regis and last week I was in Bath, helping our son move out of his uni house (it took 2 cars to bring home his stuff!). In Bath I achieved two ambitions: meeting an online writing friend, Diane Simmons (@scooterwriter), in the flesh AND eating a Bath bun at the famous Sally Lunn bun shop where we met up (see above left - the oldest house in Bath built in 1482 and lived in by Sally Lunn in 1680). Mine came with cinnamon butter (see above right), but I found it rather sickly.

The last few weeks have given me some good reasons to eat buns. I've always said on here how important it is to celebrate the small stuff i.e. any glimmer of writing success. Well, here's why I've been celebrating (with buns of course):
Soundwork Audio Play competition: my play 'Sleep Diary' was shortlisted, making the final six. Sadly, it didn't win but I'm still pleased with its success. (The winning plays will be produced so watch out for that). I have to thank Patsy Collins for mentioning this competition on her wonderful blog - wouldn't have know about the opportunity otherwise!

National Flash Fiction Day 100-word Micro story competition: came Highly Commended. You can read the story here. The story evolved from a workshop exercise when I found Railway Land, read more here.

Take-a-Break Fiction Feast published my story 'Something in the Canal' in this month's (July) issue. It even got a special mention from the magazine's editor and features on the front cover!

Finally, while driving home from Bath I picked up an email from Ashley Stokes at Unthank books. A short story of mine has been selected to be part of Unthology 10 (an anthology to be published July 2017). This is a very prestigious anthology and I'm so pleased that my Commonwealth Writers shortlisted story 'Household Gods' has found a permanent home.

This week it's Teacake Wednesday with Wendy Clarke. I'm looking forward to reviewing May, setting new goals for June and feasting on even more buns!
Now where does the quote: 'There will be buns for tea?' originally come from? Leave a comment if you think you know. (Sorry, no bun prizes even if you do know.)

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

A Dorset interlude

I've just returned from a fabulous week in Dorset. The plan was to get novel #2 to 60K words before leaving and happily I hit that target. That meant a week free from writing to walk, indulge in pub lunches (& Dorset beer), cream teas and lots of reading. You'll be pleased to know all those goals were also achieved. After a complete break from writing my head emptied (in a good way) and I'm already back on the novel with a target of 65K words by the end of May. I did hope to find some inspiration for new short stories during the break, but unlike my writing chum, Wendy (read here about her Italian holiday), nothing surfaced. I've learned not to push ideas, knowing they will come ... usually when least expected.

For now here's some photos of Dorset:

We stayed in Chideock in Greenwich Cottage, literally 15 min walk from the sea and the South Coast path. This was the view from our bedroom (left). Greenwich and Chideock cottages are owned by the lovely Heather and Alan, who welcomed us on arrival. Plus they left milk, wine and cookies! If you fancy a break in Dorset then I'd highly recommend either of their two cottages for a base.
A bonus was the local bus services, which ran on time and were reasonably priced. We took the bus to Bridport on market day and walked down to West Bay (above right) for lunch. Then back along the South Coat path to Seatown and Chideock.
Another day we took the bus to Lyme Regis and again walked back along the cliffs ... over Golden Cap (>700 ft).
Eventually we made it to Colmore's Hill (below), which seemed to appear wherever we walked in this part of Dorset. An atmospheric spot on top and 360 degree views (on a clear day!).
From there we descended into Hell Lane (right), as spooky as it looks.
The weather got a little damp for our last day so we returned to Lyme Regis as tourists, taking pasties to eat on the Cobb. I reckon these were the steps (below) that Louisa Musgrove tumbled down in Jane Austen's Persuasion (Chapter 12), into the arms of Captain Wentworth. What do you think? Apparently, Lord Tennyson, on visiting Lyme wanted to be shown the "exact spot where Louisa Musgrove fell" - so clearly I was in good company!

Monday, 11 April 2016

Finding Railway Land

I was intrigued by writer Helen Yendall's recent blog post 'Twitter: Useful Tool or (yet another) Waste of Time? (read it here). Intrigued because it prompted some comments from those who clearly are not Twitter fans. I love it and I want to share a story of how I met some lovely writers, found a secret treasure and got inspired to write some new flash fiction ...

If it wasn't for Twitter then I wouldn't have learned ...
... how Waterstones in Lewes (East Sussex) has a section dedicated to short stories
... that the Lewes Short Story Club meet there (10-12noon) on the first Sunday of every month to read and discuss 3 short stories (and their writers) ... I've subsequently learned coffee and cake may be involved.
... how the Club (organised by mega talented superwoman, Holly Dawson) was running a Short Story workshop with Vanessa Gebbie on Saturday (9 April)
... that the workshop would be held at Railway Land, a secret and very special nature reserve right in the heart of Lewes (definitely a place I need to explore further)
... that I would meet a whole new bunch of writers (aged from 16 to 93. Yes, 93 and still writing. Ruth was an inspiration to us all!) - short story lovers who keenly soaked up Vanessa's wisdom
... from the morning workshop how I've missed writing really short stories and flash fiction and I need to make time for other writing projects (as well as the novel!)

So you can see I'd probably land on the side of Twitter as a 'Useful Tool'. I've also met lots of lovely people in the Twitterverse. Many who are becoming friends and others who I'll never meet, but I still feel some kinship with simply because they are writers. You can celebrate others' success, cheer friends on with their challenges or commiserate when those dreaded rejections come in. Yes, it can be hijacked by political commentators or trolls, but you don't have to follow them or read their tweets. You can use Twitter as you wish.

Now I'll be watching my Twitter timeline for news of the next Lewes Short Story Club meeting, as I really hope to join in with the short story natter. Sounds a perfect way to spend Sunday morning and perhaps I can persuade hubby to come along - with the promise of lunch somewhere in Lewes afterwards...

Finally, the workshop inspired LitPig to start reading Lydia Davis's collection of very very short stories: Can't and Won't. Davis is either barking mad or a genius. I think she may be both. This is a brilliant collection. Imaginative, whimsical and funny - VERY FUNNY.
LitPig also highly recommends Short Circuit, a collection of essays on the craft of short story writing (edited by Vanessa Gebbie). This was my bible during the MA and often quoted in module assignments. Definitely, one guide every short story writer needs on their bookshelf.

Monday, 4 April 2016

A golden target

Last week I sold my first story of 2016. Cause for celebration - ALWAYS - but also a milestone as this marked my 50th story scheduled for publication. Even more reason to celebrate was that this piece was a departure for me from literary fiction to write a commercial ghost story - a gamble that came off since I sold it to Take-a-Break Fiction Feast (a monthly fiction magazine that pays a good rate). The story was originally penned for my writing workshop group. Over the Christmas holidays we set ourselves a challenge to write a ghost story, something I rarely attempt. I had a lot of fun reading a variety of ghostly short stories to get myself into a spooky mood. The end result is I will be providing a very generous supply of buns for my workshop buddies next time we meet at my house. Once again, this demonstrates the merits of writing workshops - story sales and buns ...

Another piece of good news was making the long list for the prestigious Thresholds International Feature competition (read more here). This was the third time I'd entered and the first time for making the long list of 15. My feature The Golden Contract (recommending The Great Automatic Grammatizer, a short story by Roald Dahl) sadly didn't make the final short list of 6, but I'm hoping it will still be published on the Thresholds site later this year, which happens to be Roald Dahl's centenary anniversary (born 1916). Don't worry, I will be shouting about this if it happens ...

And since good news comes along in threes ... (rejections come all the time, they're not polite enough to form orderly groups) ... a short story of mine squeezed onto the Fish International Short Story long list (read more here). Okay, so it had plenty of company (480 stories long listed in total out of 1400), but who's counting. I got my name on the Fish Publishing website and I'll celebrate that!

More buns please ...

Monday, 21 March 2016

What's your brand?

I recently spent a terrific day out in Brighton at the first Beach Hut Writing Academy's Write by the Beach event. The sun shone and the event was hosted in a gorgeous Regency building, Angel House,
on the promenade. Sometimes it's good to escape the writing cave and spend a day with other human beings, if they're also writers and you can learn stuff then all the better. One of the recurring themes that came up in several talks was branding.
The first speaker was the excellent Simon Toyne, energetic and enthused he certainly woke us up. Simon is a bestselling Brighton author (read more here) who knows the value of great storytelling. He believes every writer should ask: what is your brand? This is partly knowing your genre, but also your point of difference - your unique skill and experience to tell your story. I never dreamed that Tescos is the biggest volume seller of books. A book's cover is critical to brand recognition in a supermarket outlet.
Brand recognition can be:
A big name author
Cover / Title
The shout or tag line
Blurb inside the flap
First line

Any writer seeking an agent or publisher for their novel knows to prepare an elevator pitch. The snappy couple of lines that will sell your novel. Simon also recommended we have a 'shout line' ready - this suggests the story but doesn't tell it. Ask a question which the reader has to read the book to learn the answer, keep it short and simple. His example came from the first book of his new series: Solomon Creed.

How do you save someone who is already dead?
I went with Wendy Clarke and met several of her RNA writing chums - all very friendly and keen to talk about writing projects. But when asked 'what do you write?' I stumbled and mumbled, staring at my feet. Why? Because I couldn't immediately settle on an answer. I don't write romantic fiction, so can't call myself a romance writer. OK, but what could I call myself, what is my brand? I have several projects in progress: subbing an upmarket fiction novel to agents/publishers, writing a second novel (crime), writing literary short stories and collating a short story collection and also collaborating with a poet/illustrator friend to create a children's picture book (fairy tale). I settled on answering with: literary fiction ... this can kill a conversation dead, but thankfully I was still welcomed and nobody ran for the exit.
So, I need to work on my branding or at least be clear of my brand for a particular event or audience.
Do you think a writer needs branding? What's your brand? Or do you have several?

Monday, 14 March 2016

One down for Operation Agent

Operation Agent is a success ... my good friend and writing buddy, Wendy Clarke, recently announced the fabulous news that she has signed with literary agent, Eve White, of Eve White Literary Agency, which makes it seem doubly real.
Finding an agent was one of Wendy's ambitions for 2016 so she's well on the way to having a very successful year. Her profile is now up on Eve's website here.

As you can LitPig is pretty chuffed about Wendy's news (I've always thought he has a little piggy crush on our Wendy) and is ready to celebrate in style. Please raise a glass to my talented friend. Her success is well deserved and there can only be more to come ... which happily means even more opportunities to celebrate!

You can also read Wendy's inspirational blog post (here) about how one of her writing dreams came true when she found her agent.

Monday, 15 February 2016

Head space

One of my best thumbed writing guides is Simon Whaley's The Positively Productive Writer packed with top tips and sensible advice on How to Reject Rejection and Enjoy Positive Steps to Publication. Simon also writes regularly for Writing Magazine and his feature Productivity Leap in the February issue really resonated with me. He quotes from author David Allen's bestselling book Getting Things Done: How To Achieve Stress-free Productivity and I picked up how  one of the biggest blocks to writing is overloading our brains with too much information. Simon writes: 'Our brain is not designed to be a filing cabinet. It quickly becomes cluttered and confusion sets in.' He then goes on to advise: 'Clear the brain of the clutter and you give it the space in which to be creative, and therefore more productive.'

Six years ago my head was chock full of clutter, work clutter, and I wasn't writing anything because there simply wasn't any room in my head for creative thinking. I made a life changing decision to leave my job, end my twenty year career and become a stay-at-home mum. A wonderful side affect of this decision was that suddenly my head emptied of those buzzing, nagging thoughts that once clogged it (and kept me awake most nights). I began to daydream again. I had head space to think creatively and story ideas flooded in. That's when my writing career seriously began.

Six years on I'm still writing but I do need to consciously give myself head space to think creatively. My favourite day is Monday as I go for a lunchtime swim (1 hour) where I just allow my thoughts to wander. This is the time of the week when I can plot and plan out storylines. I've recently started working on a second novel and my weekly swim is the time when I work through what I'm going to write for the rest of the week. Walking and running also help, along with gardening and washing the dishes, as these activities all seem to clear head space giving me that valuable creative thinking time. But swimming is definitely the most productivity activity I can do to help kick start my writing each week.

What do you do to create head space? Please share your top tips?
As you can see LitPig highly recommends Simon Whaley's The Positively Productive Writer. If you haven't got a copy then do check it out.

Monday, 1 February 2016

Celebrate the small stuff

2016 has started quietly for me with little news on submissions. Sometimes this is the hardest part of writing, the long periods of radio silence without any feedback. Rejections are tough, but at least they're a sign that someone out there read your work - they sort of validate your existence as a writer. I'm trying to ignore the booming silence and immerse myself in a new project, writing my next novel - the first is out there in submission land with literary agents. Like my writing buddy Wendy I've realised I can't just sit back and wait on feedback, I had to start writing the next one.

During these quiet times I sometimes have a quick flick through my clippings folder. This is where I stuff all acceptance emails, printouts from shortlists and any other successes. As you can see after almost 6 years of writing it's pretty full - time to start a new folder. That has to be something to celebrate!

And now I have something to add to the new folder ... after recently hearing that my short story Ancient Wing has been selected for the next RATTLE TALES event on 11 February (Live short stories and flash fiction at The Brunswick pub, Hove, full details here). I will be reading the story so I'd better get practising.

Monday, 18 January 2016

The best diet you'll ever read

We woke to a smattering of snow yesterday morning so stayed in a bed a little longer to read. Handsome Hubby is reading The Organized Brain by Daniel J. Levitin (he likes his reading light and fluffy!) and shared these wonderful snippets from the book:
  • 1 hour of daydreaming uses 11 calories
  • 1 hour of reading uses 45 calories
  • 1 hour attending an academic lecture uses 64 calories (though I slept through most of mine)
Wow! Makes you wonder how many calories 1 hour of writing burns up? In the name of research I noted the number of pages I could read in 1 hour: 45. That's 1 calorie per page. Now I think publishers and bookshops are missing a trick here. Why don't they put helpful stickers on books showing the calorie usage? This could help to sell the bigger books i.e. Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall at 650 pages would burn up 650 calories - more if you read faster than me.

I also calculated I needed to read for 5 solid hours to burn off the consumption of this plateful of Co-op brownie bites. Actually, yesterday I made have achieved that ...

Here's another fact from hubby's fascinating book: the only cells in a woman's body that are fuelled solely by glucose are brain cells. Interestingly, for men it's brain cells and cells of the testes that need only glucose for energy ... I'm not making any comment here merely repeating the facts ...

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

2016: Beyond the comfort zone

Always feels good to get off the blocks at the start of a new year, the writing blocks that is. Last week I wrote a new short story (3,000 words), a contemporary ghost story. It was a theme chosen for the first workshop group meeting of 2016 and I had a lot of fun writing it. Took me out of my comfort zone as I rarely write ghost stories. This got me thinking about what I want to achieve in 2016 with writing goals and all that ... I need to move out of my comfort zone, which is writing short stories, and ... well you read the list further down this post.

Setting the goals has to be done as a joint effort with writer Wendy Clarke, we met at our favourite tearooms (spookily discovering that we'd met to set 2015 goals on exactly the same date a year
before) and got stuck into the task (and teacakes of course - they're obligatory). You can read Wendy's 2016 targets here.

Before defining new goals it's essential to assess how you did on the previous ones. These were my aims for 2015 ... with outcomes.
1. Finish and submit dissertation for MA. YES! Submitted with a week to spare.
2. Identify a list of Literary Agents I would like to work with. YES. And still working on it...
3. Complete editing/polishing of novel and begin submission to identified agents. YES.
4. >50 short stories published (currently at 43). NOT QUITE - 48 end of 2015 (lesson learned, and I can hear Joanna Campbell nagging - don't set goals that you have no control over!)

And this is what I hope/want/ache to achieve in 2016 ...

1. Strive to do whatever I can to find an agent i.e. get the first novel out into submission land.
2. Complete first draft of second novel by end of the year.
3. Write at least one new radio drama.
4. Attend York Festival of Writing (September).

I have lots of other things I want to get underway in 2016, but these are the headlines as it were.
Goal 1. is in progress with Operation Agent and I bet Wendy that whoever finds an agent first buys the other a slap-up lunch. Okay, I know I'm fairly safe on that one - I've just read her novel and loved it.

Have you set any writing new goals for 2016? Please share ...

Monday, 4 January 2016

The life history of a short story

You can read my short story Through the Arched Window in January's issue (no. 171) of Writers' Forum magazine, as it came 2nd in the monthly competition. This was a big TICK for me as I've been shortlisted 4 times before and kept submitting - tenacity paid off with this placement (and a cheque for £150!). But this was no fluke ... this story has a history and I want to share this to highlight the importance of: editing (and re-writing), listening to feedback and not giving up on a story you believe in. Fetch yourself a cup of tea and settle down to read the history of a short story ...
Throughout all its drafts Through the Arched Window has kept the same title. The inspiration for the story comes from my obsession with arched windows, which is odd as we don't have any in our house, and fond memories of watching Playschool with my mum when little (more on this later). In my short story notebook where I catalogue everything I submit this story is numbered 25 out of 121. This immediately gives away its age - it was originally written in June 2011 and one of the first stories I ever submitted to the Bridport competition (it didn't do anything and to date none of my stories have made the shortlist ... sigh).
It's second outing was more successful, a finalist in The New Writer's short story prize (March 2012). Being named in dispatches showed me this could be a good story so I continued submitting to various competitions. Various edits and tweaks were made to the story between each outing but I never significantly changed the overall storyline.
Move on four years and after a serious edit the story made the long list of the 2015 Exeter Writers' Short Story Prize. This was another good sign that I was on the right track with the piece. Disappointingly, it didn't go any higher and I was stumped as what else I could do with it.
Back in 2015 I blogged about the power of workshops and living up to my words I ran this story past my writing gang (Bea, Richard and Zoe - they know who they are). They all seemed to love it, but each had pertinent comments on the narrative which had to be addressed. They all felt the same about one aspect too. Within the story I referenced, several times, Playschool a children's TV show from the 70s. Even mentioned Hamble, Big Ted et al and 'going through' the storytelling windows ie. the round/square/arched windows. (Hands up if you remember any of this.) They all remembered the show (despite the range in ages within our little group) but suggested this may not be true for all readers and I could confuse or, worse, alienate others with these details. I always listen to my workshop mates - because they are all very talented writers - and took out the references to the TV show. However, I did keep the title and the motif of the arched window running through the story - it still made sense within the context of the plot and for those who did remember the show it would perhaps add an extra layer of resonance.
The narrative did still need pruning, I softened the main character, Helena, and cut down her list of names - all suggestions from my workshop group. However, the overall plotline has changed little from that first draft of June 2011. The ninth time I submitted this story was to Writers' Forum and ... well, you know the rest. What I've learned from this is: you can never stop editing and improving a piece, listen to feedback from writers you trust and ... DON'T GIVE UP- a good story will always find a good home.
Have you had success with a short story or piece of writing that you weren't prepared to give up on? Please share - we love to hear your writing stories too!