27 December, 2010

Simple Symbolism

Last night, the husband and I watched Prince Caspian on the good old iplayer. A lot of literary critics have sneered at CS Lewis for the obvious way he has packed his Narnia stories full of Christian symbolism, but in my opinion it is a beautiful example of how the messages in the stories we write don't have to be sophisticated to work. If you fill your writing with subtle messages that you're going to need to explain to the reader before they understand them, what have you really achieved? Forget for a moment whether or not the Christian message is your cup of tea and just consider Narnia...

Firstly, there is Aslan, a obvious representative of Jesus (the "Lion of Judah"), but it's the stories themselves that represent the major parts of the gospel message without preaching. In Prince Caspian, the people who want to believe in Aslan are losing heart because they have been waiting for him to come back for hundreds of years. It is only the most innocent and trusting of them, Lucy, who believes she has seen him and it is her faith that provides the strength to defeat an army. There is a wonderful scene where Prince Caspian almost calls back the White Witch to help him because he is losing faith that Aslan will ever come, it is only those around him that help him to resist by destroying her on his behalf. All the way through the characters are struggling with the questions of why Aslan isn't doing the same thing he did before and why he won't prove his existence to them. I won't insult your intelligence by explaining the messages of these plotlines, but I could go on with many more examples of concepts that will be familiar to any Christian. I think the Narnia stories could teach people about the real message of Christianity and the real struggle that faith is, more than any number of Hell-fire preachers on street corners pretending that they've got it all sorted ever could.

Phillip Pullman has a similar approach. You don't have to read very deep between the lines of His Dark Materials to find his scorching criticism of the church and organised religion. But - and here's the key point - you don't have to be anti-religious to enjoy Northern Lights or a Christian to enjoy the Narnia stories. They are not sermons but both just great stories that generations of children have loved or will love. CS Lewis was a great theologian, but he was also a good story-teller. Perhaps the fact that he wrote these stories for children dictated the simplicity, but you know, I don't think the symbolism was really for his younger readers. Both he and Pullman could teach writers of all ages that a great story with a simple subtext (that you can take or leave as you like) will win over a good story with a sophisticated subtext for most people most of the time.

20 December, 2010


I am very pleased to be able to announce a small victory in short story writing. I found out last week that I have won the first New Eastbourne Writers National Short Story Competition. I have worked my way through being runner-up and highly commended etc. etc. but this is the first time I have been the outright winner in a full-length short story competition. The theme was 'The Journey' - I like themed competitions because you are challenged to think of an interesting way to interpret it, knowing that all the other entrants are trying to do the same.

Small competitions give writers like me, the chance to improve our writing without paying extortionate entrance fees or having to go through the heart ache of months of rejections from publishers. I enter competitions pretty regularly, when I'm not working on my children's novel, and I am genuinely grateful for the effort the organisers and judges put into them, especially small writing groups like New Eastbourne Writers. Obviously, in this particular competition, the judges showed that they have impeccable taste as well!

If you are so minded, have a read of my winning entry, here.

Visit my competition page to see what else I've been up to.

17 December, 2010

What a Difference a Day Makes

Earlier this week I was lamenting the fact that I have had no feedback on my writing from anyone for a long time (or what felt like a long time) and no good feedback for even longer. I have a few stories in competitions out there, as well as having taken the daunting step of getting some of my novel professionally critiqued but I have had nothing but a couple of rejections from magazine editors for months. Well, it was all change on Wednesday.

First up, I recieved the report from the author who critiqued the first 12 000 words of my novel. He is a well-published author himself so he knows what to look for which was both exciting for me, and scary. After that sudden arrival of vulnerability into my inbox I had a phone call from a very nice lady, saying that I had won a short story competition. Although I have done pretty well in some competitions in the past (see my competition page), I have never been the outright winner of a short story event. More details to follow once they competition organisers have made the results public (they are probably still recovering their hearing from having me shriek at them in a most unprofessional manner)...

The day after that most intense quarter of an hour of my writing life, I found out I was a runner-up in last month's txtlit again. This is hardly life-changing, but it's still nice! So all-in-all this is a good writing week and has inspired me to do many things, not least, actually put some effort into designing this blog a bit better! I had been wondering what exactly I had managed to achieve in 2010, but now I'm being less grumpy I can see that the answer is, "quite a bit". It was just mostly the sort of achievement that is hard to appreciate at the time. It has been a year for digging foundations, not building sky-scrapers.

14 December, 2010

A Bitter Better Irony

The husband and I were in a well-known chain of bookstores (OK, Waterstones) on Saturday when we stumbled on the most beautiful coincidence. It was a lesson for me in not wasting time being bitter at rejection - God has far too great a sense of humour for that...

I caught sight of The People's Friend Annual on one of the tables. The PF have recently rejected two of my stories for publication in their magazine so I picked it up with a rather graceless, "They don't like my stories, so I absolutely refuse to like their stories." And then what was the first sentence I read when I flipped to a random page?

Chloe was enjoying the story immensely.

Even I had to laugh.

02 December, 2010

A Flash of Christmas

Flash fiction is a form of writing that I find oddly compelling. It's so easy to get very wrong, but the intensity of writing something in so few words means that when you hit the mark it can make something a lot more shocking/poignant/funny than a longer story could.

Recently I have entered the Chrsitmas-themed flash fiction competition, Tinsel Tales. This has a word limit of 250 words which should be plenty to get a reasonably well-formed story in. (For reference, up until this sentence, this blog post is about 100 words long). The competition is slightly different from most, as all entries are displayed annonymously on the website for people to comment on and vote for. The entries with the most votes go on to a shortlist for the judge to consider, along with a few others that the judge deems worthy of shortlisting despite not having the votes.

When I first entered this competition, I didn't read the rules properly and thought - after I had entered - that the votes were the only thing that counted. I was really disappointed. I don't like voting on competitions because it just becomes a popularity contest - whoever gets the most friends to vote for them, wins. I just wrote it off as a bad job. So it was a very pleasant surprise, on arriving home from honeymoon, to find an e-mail telling me the judge had shortlisted my entry and I had come second! Now of course, I think it is an excellent competition.

So, I would encourage you, if you have a moment or two, to take a peek at the Tinsel Tales website and choose a story to vote for. The organisers tell you to ask your friends to vote for you, but I'm not going to. If I get votes I want it to be because people actually like the story, not just because they like me. So you'll have to guess which is mine. There are only a few entries at the moment, so if you visit soon you won't have a tonne of stories to wade through. If you enjoy a story - even if you don't want to vote for it - leave a comment for the author. It's amazing how good it feels to be told someone likes what you've done, and you can comment on as many as you like.

Let me know how you get on...

23 November, 2010

On Writing

It's about time I joined in with the mass ranks of writers out there and started blogging about all my trials, tribulations and - hopefully one day - triumphs. I had intended this blog to be full of deep thoughts, but from looking at the archive it is clear that I don't have deep thoughts very often. I do however, write rather a lot. So it's time to sprinkle a little of the mundane in amongst the the ramblings.

These are some of the things that have been going on in my study recently:
1) A lot of impatient waiting to hear back from magazine editors (about my first attempts at writing women's commercial fiction) and competition judges
2) Occasional correspondances from magazine editors and competition judges of a disappointing nature
3) Preparing the first 12 000 words of my YA novel to send off to an editorial service for their advice
4) Failing to write my latest short story, 'Flicker', to my satisfaction
5) Writing flash fiction when I need a day off from Flicker
6) Throwing my hands up in despair and entering romance competitions for a joke with a story about a pensioner who causes mayhem at National Trust properties
7) Half-heartedly practising Teeline

I did do rather well in a competition a couple of months back, but that begins to seem somewhat irrelevant so many weeks - and so much rejection - later. Never mind, eh? Onwards and upwards...

So, what do you write in your study?*

*When I ask questions, it's not rhetorical. It makes me feel that writing a blog post is more than just a way to make me feel that I've achieved something today. It would humour me greatly if anyone saw fit to answer.

27 October, 2010

A Different Kind of Jesus

I have just finished reading 'The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ' by Philip Pullman. I really reccommend it if you have a couple of hours (it's that short). Knowing that Mr. Pullman is famous for his atheistic view point I was perhaps a little wary, but he is also a gentleman and doesn't seem into the point-scoring that other books have aimed for in the last few years. He also doesn't pretend that it is a text book - it is a piece of creative writing, even if it is his view point. The book is a re-telling of the gospels where Jesus and Christ are twins with conflicting personalities and it's a poweful and fascinating read.

Having said that, there are obviously things that Christians are not going to agree with (not that that justifies the hate mail that has been sent to him in any way - shame on the "Christians" who sent it). The clear suggestion is that Jesus was created into a Messiah by those who wrote the history afterwards and the question is raised as to why a loving God wouldn't make more effort to communicate with His people.

But it is not these things that stick with me (after all, most Christians will have struggled with these issues and worked through them at some point if their faith has deep roots). It is the Jesus that Philip Pullman portrayed that sticks with me. For he is not just the nice teacher that he is often made out to be. This Jesus is more like the Jesus of the bible than almost any other I've read about: controversial, radical, uncompromising. He tells people to give away their possessions and to love unconditionally and he means it. He is a man with enormous spiritual authority. And some of the things he says about church we would all do well to listen to.

The Jesus of this book does not want a church that builds fine buildings and creates a priesthood that somehow has privileged access to the scriptures. He is frightened that the church will end up killing people for their beliefs, declaring war on other nations and covering up atrocities committed agaisnt children and the weak. He fears that people will be told what to believe by priests and that the church will become a web of secrecy and fear. The image he creates of how church should be instead is something entirely different - not something perfect, but something that tries to reflect a better Kingdom by loving unconditionally. So I'll finish with my favourite bit of the book:

Lord if I thought you were listening, I'd pray for this above all: that any church set up in your name should remain poor and powerless and modest. That it should wield no authority except that of love. That it should never cast anyone out. That it should not condemn, but only forgive. That it should not be like a palace with marble walls and polished floors, and guards standing at the door, but like a tree with it's roots deep in the soil, that shelters every kind of bird and beast and gives blossom in the spring and shade in the hot sun and fruit in the season, and in time gives up its good sound wood for the carpenter; but that sheds many thousands of seeds so that new trees can grow in its place.

25 October, 2010

So Here We Are...

We've done it. The husband and I have taken the plunge and left city life for life on Dartmoor. I suppose it would have been easy to have fooled ourselves that village life would be a 1930's rural idyll, where everyone uses wicker baskets to collect their bread and the butcher's boy wraps up your sausages in brown paper. It would have been even easier to chicken out altogether and believe the scare stories that there would be nobody our own age in the village, or that we wouldn't be able to cope without the full quota of shops. But this is not the 1930s, nor a city-dweller's worst nightmare. It is just another, different way of living.

It all comes down to a question of priority. As I walked through the quiet lanes on Friday, climbing up on to an iron age hill fort, looking across amazing countryside to see church towers nestling in the valleys and castles poking out of the trees, I wasn't that worried that it is a bit of a distance to the nearest Tesco. In the morning, when the sunlight pokes its way through the mist on to the sparkling frost on the hills beyond our window, I don't mind that we have to drive a few miles to get petrol.

I am not naive enough to think that when we are snowed-in and have to rely on neighbours in their landrovers to bring us supplies, I won't long for gritted roads and nearby amenities. We may be getting deliciously used to the permanent smell of bonfires, crisp air and crystal clear tap water, but it may take longer to get used to having just a handful of small stores within walking distance (although to be fair they do provide all the essentials to survive!). There may be moments of weakness where we would value convenience over beauty and I know I will miss friends from the city more, not less as time goes on. But if we never did anything that wasn't perfect then we would never do anything at all.

God has provided everything we could want. Not just everything we need, but all the extras as well: friendly people close to our age, neighbours who bring homemade goodies round and explain the complex recycling system, a welcoming church and views to get lost in. Most importantly, He has given us a sense of peace and belonging. He meant us to come here and if we ever doubted it, we were fools. Thank God that He knows best!

16 September, 2010

The S Word

It should be easy to be a Christian and a scientist nowadays. No more burning at the stake for one thing. Then there are a wealth of scientists who have a strong faith, such as the head of the human genome project Dr. Francis Collins, and men of faith who trust in science, for example the brilliant Tom Wright, Bishop of Durham. So why does it still feel like a taboo?

Evolution, for example, is a fact accepted by most scientists as readily as the fact that the planets circle the sun (something that was of course once considered very un-Christian itself) and yet it's still difficult to admit to having full faith in the theory. I know people within my church whose opinion of scientists is that they are "arrogant and change their minds the whole time". Not only is that sweepingly condenming but also a very convenient way of belittling any science that isn't comfortable. If it's a part of science that I like, say medicines to make me well, then I'll accept it from those "arrogant" scientists, if it's something that might make me have to question some things I don't want to question, then it's just scientists changing their mind again.

I don't understand the fear. Absolutely nobody has to believe in the science that the majority of the world believe in if they don't want to, but by belittling it as a means of defence it is belittling the people who do believe in it. All truth is God's truth. There is nothing scientists could discover that would make me lose my faith so I am unafraid of science. As far as I'm concerned all scientists are doing is discovering the way in which God made this universe work. Sure, it does mean you have some questions to answer when it comes to interpreting the scriptures, but I have yet to find a problem there that is insurmountable. It is not the scientists that are creating a "God of the gaps" by picking and choosing what they want to accept.

As someone about to find a new church to be part of it's a big deal for me. I don't need people to have the same faith in science as me, but it would be nice to find somewhere where I felt like I could talk about something interesting I'd read in the news, for example, without having to vet it first to see whether it had any assumptions based on "un-biblical" science, for fear it might put me firmly in the ranks of the "arrogant" scientists or, at best, naive. A Christian dismissing science they haven't bothered to learn about is no more intelligent or less arrogant than a scientist dismissing a God they haven't tried to get to know.

14 July, 2010

Who Gets To Decide?

Over the years since I became a Christian, I have found few subjects more intriguing or uncomfortable than the issue of denominations in the church. Perhaps it's the anthropologist in me. Denominational churches pose a problem for many people seeking faith, after all, if two different Christians believe two different ways of interpreting the Bible, one of them must be wrong, right? So why should either of them be trusted?

This isn't a post, however, about how we can reconcile the denominations or about how great it would be if there was just one big church. That's both too obvious and too complicated! I think it is safe to say that nobody's faith is perfectly formed and we are all trying to muddle through the best we can. The thing I have never really understood though, is the strength of feeling against people of a different denomination. Like many things in life, it has become an "us and them" situation. I find it a particularly strong sentiment in people of non-denominational churches. There appears to be a sort of snobbery that makes people link denominational church with forced or fake religion and wants to claim the movement of the Spirit is with non-denoms only. (And, by the way, what is a denomination really? Do lots of churches belonging to a network that have their own conferences, traditions and style of service get to be "non-denominational" because they say they are?)

It's not that I think all denominations are the same or that we don't have to be on the look out for false prophets amongst us, but there just seems to be an awful lack of grace involved. I happen to believe that while training in leadership is a good thing, nobody should have to have certain academic qualifications or say certain words to become the leader of a church. I think robes and incense and formal liturgy can be a huge barrier to faith. But does this mean that I don't think Anglican vicars can be good, holy men and women who live in the Spirit, serving God? Of course not. I am horrified by how often I hear comments like, "as long as Catholic's know that they're not really Christians then they can do what they like." Sure, I too disagree very strongly with some of the Roman Catholic theology, but it never for one moment occurred to me that I got to decide who was Christian and who wasn't. I thought Christianity was to do with your relationship with Jesus - something that only you and He can truly know about.

It's the same with many other denominations, especially those that are so far from the "mainstream" they usually get referred to as a separate religion - such as Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons. I do not think that "anything goes" or, like I said, that false prophets are not a problem in our times - we can only teach what we believe to be the truth to counteract it - but I do think that salvation is up to Jesus not up to what we and our friends think when we are locked comfortably in our own circle. At the end of it all, isn't it Him who truly knows who loves Him? To paraphrase the famous line: I might not agree with everything you say, but I will defend to the death your right to call yourself a child of God.

19 February, 2010

Jukebox God

Where do we find God? Atheists may tell you that He can be found only in the deluded imaginations of the gullible. Other popular explanations include sickly-sweet sentiments where He exists in rainbows and the laughter of children, or alternatively, He manifests His presence in the tears of the oppressed. The standard answer is simply "Everywhere", which - true or not - only encourages infants to ask whether He is in the toilet.

In the Old Testament, the Israelites carried God around with them. When they stopped their wanderings and built a temple, God resided in the most holy part of that temple - a place where only the highest of the high priests could go once a year. This holy place was separated from the rest of the temple with a curtain. One of the documented phenomena occurring at the moment of Jesus's death was a tearing of this curtain, so that God was no longer separated from the worshippers. But where did He go? Did He suddenly expand from His box to fill the known universe?

For modern Christians, God's omnipresence and the ability to talk to Him whenever and wherever we like has made it possible for us to treat Him like a jukebox: we'll listen to what we want, when we want. By being "everywhere" did God intend for us to take that to mean that nowhere is especially holy? Did He mean that we no longer had to search for Him - that no more effort was needed? I don't think so. Consider if my favourite food used to be kept in a locked vault in a bank, but now it is given out for free on the shelves of the local supermarket. It couldn't be easier for me to find, but if I don't look at the shelves, then I may wander that shop for an eternity not finding what I want.

So where is God? Perhaps it is not that He is indescriminantly "everywhere" - an invisible element, floating around us. Perhaps it is that in His grace, He allows us to find Him anywhere - if only we can be bothered to look.