23 December, 2014

Happy Christmas and a Merry 2015!

It's been an odd year for me this year - life-changing in more ways than one. For the first time since I started writing about five years ago, writing was not my priority. Despite this, 2014 hasn't been a total flop! In case you haven't managed to catch up with all 76 blog posts this year, here are my highlights...

In January, I announced that I had signed a non-traditional publishing deal with Thistle Publishing and then needed your advice on whether I should change the title of my novel, The Art of Letting Go. In February you discussed with me which books you haven't enjoyed despite common wisdom being that they are brilliant. Then in March my life changed completely when my wonderful son, Digory, was born, and I wrote him a letter about storytelling.

In April I took part in a podcast about novel-writing with Steve Dunne, and won a prize in a short story competition (Chudleigh Phoenix). I revealed my new website in May and the cover of my novel in July, just a week or two before The Art of Letting Go was published. I followed this up with a blog tour in August, along with being runner-up in Txtlit that month. Later in the year I received a certificate of distinction in the Mere Literary Festival timed flash fiction competition and rounded-off my story-telling by taking part in Simon P Clark's 1225 story challenge.

Along the way the readers of this blog - many of them brilliant writers - have discussed topics such as learning poetry, the absence of futuristic Booker Prize winners and why we bother studying literature in schools at all.

It's been a busy year! What have been your highlights?

As with last year, I'm not setting many goals for 2015. I'd love to finish the first draft of the novel I'm currently working on during my baby's nap times, and to enter a few flash fiction competitions, but my only real goals are to keep writing, keep reading great literature, and keep talking to fellow writers and readers about what we're passionate about. What are you aims for 2015?

God bless you all in the coming year and may you have a joyful Christmas!

16 December, 2014

Beautiful Sentences

The website Buzzfeed asked readers to nominate what they thought were the most beautiful lines in literature recently. They then compiled a list of 51 of the ones they were sent. You can read the whole list here.

My favourite ones on the list varied from the wonderful possibility of "Let the wild rumpus start!" from Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, to the romantic "Once upon a time there was a boy who loved a girl, and her laughter was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering." from The History of Love by Nicole Krauss.

But of course, there are so many fabulous and beautiful lines in literature. I celebrate some of them in my Quotable Friday series. And I wear another of them round my neck. I have a necklace of an open birdcage and it was inspired by the line from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, "I am no bird, and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will."

There are certain writers - Charles Dickens, John Steinbeck, Gabriel Garcia Marquez - who seem to be able to create beautiful lines in everything they write. I am both jealous of them and so thankful that they existed and they spent some of their existence writing! Who do you think they most beautiful wordsmiths are? What are your favourite lines in literature (poetry is included, of course)?

09 December, 2014

A Christmas Story - 1225 Challenge

The children's author and blogging friend of mine, Simon P Clark, has set us a writing challenge. Last year he challenged us all to write a story of 1031 words for Halloween and, I kid you not, somebody who penned a short story for that ended up getting a book deal with Penguin based on the strength of it! In short, it's worth taking part in Simon's challenges.

This year, our task is to write a story either in 1225 words, or with some sort of connection to the number 1225 (the date of Christmas written the American way round!) As my Halloween Zombie Cautionary Tale was such a success, I thought I'd give this a go. And as I'm chronically short of writing time and long on idiocy, I also thought I'd challenge myself to write my story in less than an hour. First person to spot the link to 1225, gets a signed copy of my novel for themselves or someone they know! So now I proudly present to you...

Wise Man Four


“Only you could lose a star.” Melchior glared at Graham. “I’ll take the first watch, you said. You guys leave it to me.

“Not my fault.” Graham scuffed at the sand with the toe of his sandal. “S’cloudy.”

Everyone looked up at the clear night sky. A plethora of stars – perhaps even two plethora – shone above them. Orion looked down smugly. Ursa Major edged towards the horizon.

“Two hours you were on watch,” Caspar said. “Seven bleeding months following a star, and you lose it in less time than it takes Balthazar to point his camel in the right direction.”

“Wandering stars is different.” Graham pouted. “You take your eye off them and they wander off. And it was cloudy earlier, so there.”

“Of course it was.” Caspar rolled his eyes. “Just like it was windy when it was your turn to get the fire going. And it was early-closing when it was your turn to choose a present for the Messiah.”

“There were queues for the bank,” Graham said. “Anyway, the Messiah needs socks as much as the rest of us, don’t he? Not my fault I were the last Wise Man to get picked. Wh...”

“Wise Man? Huh!” Melchior picked up the box of frankincense he’d had engraved with hearts and bunnies for the baby king. “You think you’re a Wise Man? You’re a joke. What about that time you swore you’d invented the next biggest thing in stellar navigation?”

Out of the corner of his eye, Graham saw Caspar and Balthazar exchange glances with a snigger. His face grew hot even in the freezing night air. It was hard being a genius. He’d been born before his time, he knew he had. 

“Fine. You know what?” He grabbed his knapsack and started untying his camel. “You guys go on and find this messiah bloke, and I’ll follow the stars – the ones that DON’T bloody move all the time – back home and work on my invention.” He tightened Keith’s saddle and hauled himself up. “And, for your information, there are plenty of people out there who think using celestial satellites to navigate shouldn’t be limited to the stars, sun and moon.” He dug his heels in and the camel rose to his feet. “Come on Keith. We’re not wanted here.”

“If you think anybody’s going to go for your idea of shooting some sort of new satellite into the sky and then asking it to tell us the right way to go, you’re stupider than I thought,” Balthazar called after him, as Graham turned Keith eastwards. “What next, Graham? Get it to read out step-by-step instructions? Make it tell people where to go using a celebrity voice, perhaps?”

“Voices like Herod?” Caspar joined in. “You going to get the King to tell people to turn left at the fifth sand dune or make a u-turn at the next oasis? Tell you what – when we find the Messiah we’ll ask him if he’s got a mo to record some directions for your new navigation system.”

Everyone laughed. Still blushing, but with head held high, Graham rode away from the other three. They’d soon see. While they were chasing after a star, he’d be creating his very own star to guide people. In six months nobody would even remember they existed; he – Graham the Magus – would be a world-famous inventor. Give it a couple of millennia and kids would be taught about him in school. There might even be an annual GrahamDay, where they dressed up as him and acted out his life story for their parents. Yes. He spurred Keith into a trot. He had history to be making.

* * *

05 December, 2014

Quotable Friday (39)

A discussion point this week! Last week the death was announced of the great wrier PD James. PD James was most famous for her series of crime novels about the detective Adam Dalgliesh, but she also became known for her advice and insight into being a writer. There are so many quotations I could use from both her fiction and her interviews, but I picked this short one because I'd like to know whether you think it's true or not...

"All fiction is largely autobiographical and much autobiography is, of course, fiction."

As a writer or a reader, do you think fiction is ever NOT autobiographical in some way? Must a writer's own life affect the way they write their characters and plot?

02 December, 2014

World Book Night 2015

As is becoming tradition on this blog, I want to draw your attention to the list of books being given away for the next World Book Night. WBN is an annual event where copies of 20 different books are given away by volunteers to people who might not necessarily have the money, ability or knowledge to buy these books for themselves. The 20 books for 2015 have just been announced and, as usual, it looks like a fabulous mix of genres and style. Here they are:

  • Custard Tarts and Broken Hearts - Mary Gibson
  • Honour - Elif Shafak
  • Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death - MC Beaton
  • Chickenfeed - Minette Walters
  • Dead Man Talking - Roddy Doyle
  • The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry - Rachel Joyce
  • Street Cat Bob - James Bowen
  • Water for Elephants - Sara Gruen
  •  Skellig - David Almond
  • After the Fall - Charity Norman
  • Queen's Gambit - Elizabeth Freemantle
  • Spring Tide - Cilla and Rold Borjlind
  • Prime Suspect - Lynda La Plante
  • Essential Poems from the Staying Alive Trilogy - edited by Neil Astley
  • The Martian - Andy Weir
  • My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece - Annabel Pitcher
  • The Moaning of Life - Karl Pilkington
  • When God Was a Rabbit - Sarah Winman
  • Escape from Camp 14 - Blaine Harde
  • Assassin's Apprentice - Robin Hobb

A couple of years ago I had to admit I'd only read four of the 2013 list. Now I must confess I've read even fewer of this year's! I'm pretty sure I read Skellig as a child, and I recently read The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Although I've never read any Agatha Raisin books, I do love a bit of gently-comic cosy crime and have listened to most of them on the radio (Penelope Keith makes the most perfect Agatha). Id' recommend any of those three, but I can't vouch for the others. Have you read any of them? Would you recommend the ones you know? I am tempted by My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece and When God Was a Rabbit.

This is what World Book Night have to say on the process of choosing the books each year: "When choosing the World Book Night titles, what we look for in books is simple – good, enjoyable, highly readable books with strong compelling narratives. When considering our list we’re looking also look to include books across a variety of genres, fiction and non-fiction as well as books aimed at young adults."

You can find out more about the books and the choosing process, see lists of previous books and even apply to give out books yourself on the WBN website.

26 November, 2014

Author Interview by Jane Davis

No blog from me today, because you can read an interview with me instead, over on the website of Jane Davis. Jane is an award-winning author herself, but also interviews a lot of other authors about all sorts of things. In my interview I talk about reading challenges, my favourtie fictional characters and coming to terms with being called creative - among other things. Please do go and have a read - you can find it here.

22 November, 2014

Archive Day - Letter to my Son

Today it is #archiveday on Twitter - a day when people re-post an old blog post. I thought a little bit about which post I should go for. I played with the idea of re-posting That Would Be Myself  - a rant about grammar and language hang-ups - as this was one of my posts that got the biggest response. But I decided instead to re-post the letter I wrote to my son when he was abot six weeks old. It's nothing to do with writing, but it's everything to do with storytelling and... well... it makes me happy. So here it is:

Our Dear Digory,

You are a story waiting to be told. You are the clean blank page in the fresh notebook; the hopeful, frightening words ‘Chapter One’ written large on the top line. You are a tale more fantastic than fiction and more magical than the myths told round campfires. 

How can it be that you – so tiny – have taken over my story so entirely? In my life,  every chapter from now until The End can never be the same because of you. Daddy and I, our own books bound together inextricably, now find ourselves captivated by the opening lines of your story. And I wish I could write it for you. I wish I could abandon my book mid-sentence; break off and leave it to write yours – to make sure the structure and shape, the characters and twists are perfect. But I can’t. You must write it yourself.

If I wrote your life, I would create a fantasy world for you. I would set your story in a land where the sun never set on sadness, and where the moon watched over you at night. There would be no enchanted forest of thorns, nor wicked witches to place you under a curse. Evil stepmothers would be banished, dragons would lie down with lambs. There would be no Black Moment, no All-is-Lost. It would be a story with many heroes and no villains. And nobody would want to hear the tale, because it wouldn’t be a true story. It would be a prison. 

In these early chapters of yours, Daddy and I are the vocabulary that underlies every sentence. We are the heroes who can fight away fears. I know it can’t last. That is a parent’s curse. We must give you the words and the grammar, the inspiration and the imagination, and then we must let you write your story your way. We must love you more fiercely with each passing chapter, while gradually retreating from the tale. For a few pages we may be the villains: the keepers of keys, the setters of curfews, the curtailers of freedom. Then, all too soon, we will not even be that. We must retreat to be minor characters among your cast of friends and rivals, popping up every few pages to remind you how much we love you, knowing we’ll never really be able to make you understand. Before long you won’t look to me for comfort when you come across something new; you won’t need Daddy to rock you to sleep in his arms. And we will be sad, and we will be excited. And you will not even mark these passing moments. You will be too busy writing your tale.

You learned to smile last week, Digory. Soon you will learn so many other things – more important than walking, or reading, or tying your shoelaces. You will learn how to face rejection and how to be disappointed. You will learn that you are fallible. You will discover how marvellous it is to laugh until you can’t breathe and how to sit in silence with someone who fits into your story perfectly, as Daddy fits mine. You will learn how to be gracious in victory and how to get over defeat. You will know you are as self-centred and confused as the rest of mankind. You will know you are as beautiful as any human ever was.

So I don’t wish for your life to be free from dragons and witches, curses and thorns. I only pray that you know how to meet them. When they appear in your tale, meet them with courage and gentleness and, when the page turns, leave them behind. I feel as if I should have words of wisdom to impart to you as you start out. But I find there’s only one thing I have to tell you. There’s one secret that I hope will help you to enjoy life. It’s this: nobody really knows what they’re doing; we’re all just making up our stories as we go along. Isn’t that marvellous? Doesn’t that make you free? I hope so.

As I write this you are lying in your basket just a few feet away, gurgling at the monkeys decorating the wall and gradually falling asleep. And there’s so much I want to tell you when I look at you. I want to teach you every lesson from every mistake I’ve ever made to save you from making them yourself. But until you write your story I won’t know which lessons you need to learn. I must let you lead the way. So instead I should end on a quotation from a great piece of literature for you to carry with you through life. And however hard I think, I can’t think of a better one than this passage from Happy Birthday To You! by Dr. Seuss – “Today you are you, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is youer than you.” 

That’s why you need to write your own story: you are the only you there is. Be kind. Be gentle. Be compassionate. But don’t let anybody else write your story for you, or try to write anybody else’s. For if you don’t write your tale, it will never be told. And there is no greater tragedy than an untold story. Write your story, Digory. Write it well. Be free.

20 November, 2014

Meeting Your Heroes

Does meeting a writer you admire (or even one you don't), change the way you feel about their books?

We might meet authors at festivals, book-signings or other literary events, but we now also have the opportunity to connect with them instantly online via their blogs or social media. Twitter in particular has opened up a whole new world of interaction. Neil Gaiman, for example, has 2.9 million followers on Twitter and has tweeted to those followers over 75 000 times - mixing author news with personal snapshots of his life. By all accounts he is as friendly, generous and gracious in the real world as he is online, but being a writer isn't a synonym for being a person everybody loves. What happens if you don't like what an author says on Twitter or in an interview? Does it ruin the magic of their books?

When I first joined Twitter I started following an author of a book I'd read that week. It was a good book and his name was fresh in my mind and so I thought I'd start my life on Twitter with him. Within a week I'd stopped following him and I've been reluctant to follow other authors ever since. Why? Because he expressed political views that were, to me, repugnant. I tried not to let this cloud my opinion of the book I'd just read, but I haven't made any effort to read another of his. His [very conservative, right-wing, pro-gun] views are now associated in my mind with his name.

There was a mini-news storm earlier this year when Jeanette Winterson tweeted "Rabbit ate my parsley. I am eating the rabbit". Rabbit-lovers everywhere were outraged, vowing never to read her books again. I found that absurd, but was it really more absurd than me being turned-off a writer for his political views that were nothing to do with his writing?

It's the same with our own media presence, of course. I usually avoid expressing political or religious views publically, not only because they are private and I hate conflict, but also because I am aware that I can and will be judged by readers, editors and publishers by what I put in the public domain. And so I should be. If we choose to make things public, we can't protest when people form an opinion of us based on those things.

Have you ever met an author or followed them on social media only to be disappointed by their attitude or what they say? Have you ever met or written to a writer who has been gracious and charming? I'd love to know who the good authors to follow on Twitter are!

12 November, 2014

Book Group

Last night I attended my first book group. I was not there just as a participant, however. I was there as the author of the book! One of the local book groups decided to read my novel The Art of Letting Go and invited me along to their meeting (after they'd had an hour to discuss it without having to be polite!) to tell them more about it.

It was such an enjoyable thing to do, although bizarre and unnerving at the same time. I guessed everyone would be polite about it (which they were), but I was dreading the awkwardness that would occur if they were only polite about it! Luckily, they were positively enthusiastic. I'm sure some people enjoyed The Art of Letting Go more than others, but they all had interesting insights into how the characters made them feel. I even felt as if I learned something about my book by listening to a group of intelligent people discuss the motivations and desires behind my character's actions. It was certainly interesting to listen to people disagree about why Ben wanted to paint God, or what Rosemary was really looking for. My characters appear just as complicated and messy to me as they do to other readers, and it was amazing and encouraging to hear how other people had engaged with them, believed in them, given them a life of their own.

On the whole, I don't think I was a particularly insightful guest author. My comments along the lines of "don't know, I just thought it was kind of cool to put that in", or "my friend said something to me about thunderstorms, so I thought I'd write about a thunderstorm", weren't perhaps the stuff TED talks are made of, but I was honest at least! And if I'm even more honest with myself, I have to say that I still feel a bit of a fraud talking to people as an author. I don't feel as if I've earned the right yet, to call myself by the A-word. I don't have an interesting creative process, or some fascinating insights into the mind of a writer. I just make up stories and write them down.

The most enjoyable part of the evening for me, was hearing how my novel moved people. Different people were moved - even, perhaps, tearful - at different points in the book. I don't think I could get a bigger compliment than that if I were to win the Man Booker. To have made people stop and think - no - to have made them stop and feel, is all I wanted to do. I hope this won't be the last time I speak about my book as an author, but for a first time, I had fun!

07 November, 2014

Quotable Friday (38)

Whenever I do interviews (and I'm making that sound like it's often and not that I've done about three in my entire life) I get a question along the lines of "Why does fiction matter?" I tend to ramble on about fiction reflecting the real world and/or providing escapism from the real world. Luckily, there are more eloquent writers than me out there. This week on Buzzfeed, there was a list of quotations from writers on the importance of reading. You can read the full list here. This one was my favourite, from Madeleine L'Engle:

"A book too, can be a star, explosive material capable of stirring up fresh life endlessly, a living fire to lighten the darkness, leading out into the expanding universe."

And just a re-cap of my favourite quotation about the importance of books, from CS Lewis, that wasn't on the list and I've almost certainly shared before, but that I can't get enough of:

"Since it is so likely that [children] will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter, but darker."

Clearly lighting the darkness is something that resonate with me. What do you think are the most important reasons for writing or reading?

04 November, 2014

Mere Literary Festival

Last week I received a certificate of distinction for my entry into the Mere Literary Festival timed flash fiction competition. I was one of six shortlisted entries in this quirky competition. I'm not yet sure how many entries there were, but last year they had over 130 so I'm pleased!

It's exciting for me to have done well in this competition because my story was the first complete bit of fiction I've managed to write since my baby was born in March. I've been working on a novel for the last couple of months but feeling a bit disheartened about how long it's going to take me even to write a first draft during Digory's morning nap! I needed a very short challenge to inspire me but not distract me for too long.

When I heard about Mere's flash competition I knew I wanted to enter. I love to enter themed competitions as I enjoy knowing that we are all trying to think of a unique interpretation of the same thing. Mere was not only themed but it was timed - something much more unusual. The phrase we all had to include in our work ("the end of the line") was revealed on Thursday 25th September and entries had to arrive by post no later than Friday 3rd October - giving everybody one week to write their 350-word piece. As it happened, I was away on a long weekend that week and Mondays are always frantic, so I didn't find out what the phrase was until Monday evening. This meant I wrote my draft on Tuesday, edited on Wednesday morning and posted on Wednesday afternoon! Not ideal for a competition entry but I was so elated to have finished a bit of fiction at last, I didn't care!

You can find out whot he winners were here. The winning stories and judges report will be available soon.

31 October, 2014

Happy Halloween (again)!

In an act of sheer laziness, I am re-posting this "poem" from last year. Actually, I'm posting it a day early because it's not so much a Halloween poem as an All Saints' Day poem. I wrote it last year for a blog series Simon P Clark (author of new hit children's novel, Eren) was running, and I think you'll agree it's something pretty special...

Sean, Who Thought Not Going to Bed Was Funny But Found Out It’s Really Not Funny At All If You Happen To Be A Zombie.

Sean was an almost-perfect child –
He wasn’t loud, mad, bad or wild.
He’d just one flaw (it has to be said):
Sean would never go to bed.
On All Saints’ Day, when they’d had their fun
And the Undead New Year had just begun
While his Zombie pals returned to the grave,
Sean laughed and said, “I’m feeling brave!
“I’m off to mock vampires, turning to stone,
And terrify old ladies who live on their own.”
What he couldn’t have known (but should have guessed)
Is that on November the 1st Saints come off best.
Down they came to eat up sinners,
With cheese graters, knives and salad spinners.
They swooped Sean up with the Hound of Hell
And made him in to a b├ęchamel.
So next Halloween, if you’re a ghost or a ghoul,
Try to remember this one simple rule:
Be sure to be back in your grave by dawn,
Or you’ll end up in lasagne, just like Sean.

28 October, 2014

Thanks for Being a Writer

Have you ever been thanked for being a writer?

I recently sent out a few copies of my novel The Art of Letting Go as part of a giveaway I was running. Yesterday I receieved a lovely postcard from one of the people who got a copy, and I thought I'd share it. Not only was it wonderful to get a thank-you card at all - all the way from Canada as well - but the card itself was a special "thanks for writing" card.

Here's what it looks like...

On the back are these words:

Magic is all around us
But it takes special eyes

to pull it from the everyday
and turn it into something that
will make a child smile.

All this technology
all these advancements

yet the very best time of day
is when I curl up with a book,
a child, and our imaginations,

Keep writing,
what more can I say?

So if you're a writer who has written a book I've enjoyed, shared the journey of writing with me, or simply encouraged and inspired other writers and readers through what you do... Thank-you for writing!

20 October, 2014

Back to Future Books

Before the winner of the Man Booker Prize was announced this year, The Guardian released an interesting infographic on their Twitter feed showing when the previous winning novels were set. I think you should be able to see it here, whether or not you are on Twitter, but just in case, here are the stats in list form:

  • Set in the present: 16 winners
  • Set in a mixture of past and present: 10 winners
  • Set in the recent past: 9 winners
  • Set in the historical past: 12 winners
  • Set in the future: 0 winners
That's right - no Booker-winning novel has ever been set in the future. And, to be honest, I can't think of many good books that are set in the future. Can you? Within the last year or so I did read The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, however, which is set in the not-too-distant future and, as with all her books, it was brilliant.

I think I associate the future with sci-fi - slick technology and metallic jumpsuits. That's not the sort of book I'm interested in. But - as The Handmaid's Tale proves - the future, and books set in it, might not be anything like that at all. In fact, I suppose one of my favourite books - 1984 - is set in the future (or it was when it was written) and is definitely not about some glorious age of adventure!

So my mission for the next six months is to read at least one book set in the future. Do you have any recommendations for me?

16 October, 2014

Quotable Friday (37)

The Man Booker Prize was awarded this week. It went to the Tasmanian author Richard Flanagan for his book The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Anyone read it?

Immediately after the award ceremony, the thing everyone was talking about was his speech. You can read it in full on The Guardian website here (it's short), but I thought I'd pick out a couple of the best quotations from it for a topical Quotable Friday.

"Novels are not content. Nor are they are a mirror to life or an explanation of life or a guide to life.
Novels are life, or they are nothing."

"To be a writer is to journey into humility. It is to be defeated by ever greater things."

08 October, 2014

Influential Books

In Writing Magazine this month there is a little news article about a list that's been drawn up of the top 20 most influential books written by women. The #ThisBook campaign was created by the organisers of the Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction and voted for by members of the public.

We are all used to seeing lists like these - most popular/ best-selling/ most loved/ most donated to charity/ most borrowed from the library etc. etc. But the word "influential" interested me. According to this prize, an influential book is one that has "impacted, shaped or changed readers' lives". Can you think of a novel that has done this for you? I find it hard to think of one that has shaped or changed by life, although there are many books that have impacted me - haunted me for days or weeks (or more) after I've read them. On this blog I've run a blog series on "The Book..." - guest posts on books that have impacted the reader, from Roger Red Hat to The Great Divorce (click on 'The Book' tag below to see all the posts).

As a writer, influence is a different matter. In any art form, people talk about an artist's influences as something that can be seen through their work. It has become a cliche now for authors to say they don't want to be "the next JK Rowling/Iain Banks/Stephen King/whoever", they want to be the first one of themselves. I think it's obvious enough that we all want to be good writers in our own right, and not seen as jumping on any stylistic bandwagon. But that doesn't mean it's bad to be influenced by great writers. It's OK for political writers to be influenced by Orwell, or fantasy writers to adopt a flippant tone reminiscent of Terry Pratchett, so long as it's not an imitation.

So, are you influenced in your writing? I don't think I have any particular authors that have a deep impact on my (current!) style, but I have conciously tried to learn from published authors when it comes to certain aspects of my writing: the stark, brilliant descriptive power of John Steinbeck; the poetic prose of Gabriel Garcia Marquez; the gripping familiarity of Lionel Shriver; the suspense of Gillian Flynn. I wouldn't say any of that is obvious in my writing yet though!

So, back to the list of influential women writers. I have read the 13 green ones on the list and loved most of them. How about you? Am I missing out on the books I haven't read yet?

  • To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
  • The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood
  • Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte
  • Harry Potter - JK Rowling
  • Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte
  • Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen
  • Rebecca - Daphne du Maurier
  • Little Women - Louisa May Alcott
  • The Secret History - Donna Tartt
  • I Capture The Castle - Dodie Smith
  • The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath
  • Beloved - Toni Morrison
  • Gone With the Wind - Margaret Mitchell
  • We Need to Talk About Kevin - Lionel Shriver
  • The Time Traveller's Wife - Audrey Niffenegger
  • Middlemarch - George Eliot
  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings - Maya Angelou
  • The Golden Notebook - Doris Lessing
  • The Colour Purple - Alice Walker
  • The Women's Room - Marilyn French

03 October, 2014

Learning Poetry

I don't write about poetry on this blog very much. This is mostly because a) I know so very little about it and b) some people who might read this blog do know quite a lot about it. However, it was National Poetry Day yesterday so I thought I'd branch out.

My knowledge of poetry is limited. I don't read a lot of it, although when I do read it I wonder why I don't read more! I recently got out my tattered old copy of The Nation's Favourite Twentieth Century Poems which I loved reading as a teen. I was only meant to be looking up a line from Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night by Dylan Thomas, to check I was quoting it correctly in a story I was writing, but of course I ended up reading for ages. It's full of humorous, romantic, sad and fascinating verses.

Michael Gove - the last education secretary here in the UK - said children should learn poetry by heart because "poetry is a piece of art you can own forever". Of course this meant that people, including certain poets, had to disagree with him because it's practically illegal here to agree with Michael Gove, but I personally think he's right in this case (Just this one, Mr. Gove. Just this one.) Poetry is great for language skills, public speaking skills, memory and enjoyment! What do you think? Did you learn poetry at school? Can you still remember any? I remember falling in love with Mid-Term Break by Seamus Heaney and Cousin Kate by Christina Rosetti in my English lessons.

I don't think I could choose a favourite poem. As with classical music, it would be something terribly mainstream anyway as I only know the popular stuff! I wrote out He Wishes For The Cloths Of Heaven by WB Yeats on my chest-of-drawers so I could read it in bed when I was about 16, and I can still remember it now. Other poems I learned by heart just for the pure joy of it include:
  • If - Rudyard Kipling
  • Not Waving But Drowning - Stevie Smith
  • Ballad of the Bread Man - Charles Causley
  • Still I Rise - Maya Angelou
  • Slough - Sir John Betjeman (I love all of his!)
I am also in love with the recording of WH Auden's poem Night Mail - you can hear it here - described by some as early hip-hop! Oooh, so many poems. What are your favourites?

I'll leave you with a poem I wrote on my bedside table in my teens because it summed up much of what I felt about life. I am an optimist!

Sometimes by Sheenagh Pugh

Sometimes things don't go, after all,
from bad to worse. Some years, muscadel
faces down frost; green thrives; the crops don't fail,
sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well.

A people sometimes will step back from war;
elect an honest man; decide they care
enough, that they can't leave some stranger poor.
Some men become what they were born for.

Sometimes our best efforts do not go
amiss; sometimes we do as we meant to.
The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow
that seemed hard frozen: may it happen for you.

30 September, 2014

Txtlit Again!

I'm pleased to say that I was a runner-up in the August edition of Txtlit.

I've talked about Txtlit before on this blog, but for those who haven't heard of it, it is a monthly competition to write a story in the length of a text message. There is a theme to stick to and entrants must use proper English - no text language. It's so quick to write an entry and only costs £1 to enter so I always intend to enter every month, but so far I average about once a year!

I've been lucky enough to win Txtlit a couple of times before and been a runner-up a few more times. The theme for August was 'The Other Side' and you can read the winning entry and the runners-up here - each story takes about 10 seconds to read!

18 September, 2014

Planet Agent

Despite the massive and fast-moving changes to the world of book publishing, most writers I know still want to go down the traditional route of finding themselves an agent and have that agent fix them a publishing deal. There is tonnes of information out there about how best to approach agents and why having one is both hard to achieve and enormously beneficial for most writers. But how do you know which agents to approach?

The Writers' and Artists' Yearbook has been a valuable resource for a long, long time, but there are more modern ways of finding out which agents represent your genre and are looking for new clients too. Or at least, there should be. Agent Hunter is a brilliant website for UK-based writers looking for representation. It is the brainchild of The Writers' Workshop which is itself a fantastic organisation. But even they can only work with what they've been given. If agents don't provide enough information then it's going to be hard to know whether to submit to them. This is an annoying problem for writers, and Agent Hunter are now fighting back. With statistics.

If you've read my blog more than about three times, you'll know that I love a good bit of data. Agent Hunter has tonnes of it and they've used it all to create this rather lovely infographic about Planet Agent - what does the world of literary agents look like in the UK today? It's an interesting graphic, go and look at it. Right now. I'll wait for you...

Did you look at it? Good. So you'll know then that the most common names for agents are Caroline and John, and that there are 170 agencies in the UK. You'll have also noticed that the major part of this inforgraphic is about transparency. Are agents providing enough information? Agent Hunter have launched their Manifesto for Change, urging agencies to get on top of this problem. How can writers connect with the right agents if they don't know what they want? Why should writers connect with agents when they don't even have a photo or basic preference information? It's a waste of everybody's time.

I won't rehash everything they've said so well here. You can read the manifesto itself (it is, essentially, a longer version of the inforgraphic). But I'd be interested to know what frustrations you've had with approaching agents.

I am fortunate to be represented by David Haviland at the Andrew Lownie Agency, which is one of five picked out by Agent Hunter for having good transparency. (Andrew Lownie himself has the most clients of any UK agent and consistently makes more publishing deals than any other agent in the world). I had my time of frustration though. The thing that used to annoy me most was the widespread advice to address your submissions to a named agent, but then to find that an agency I really wanted to approach had no information on which agent might be interested in the kind of thing I wrote! It felt as if I was on the back foot from the start. What are your experiences of approaching agents?

12 September, 2014

How Long is Too Long?

How long should a book be?

Two articles on book length have recently come to my attention. There was a blog post by the excellent Writers' Workshop giving guidelines for the word counts found in different types of book, and there was this article in The Guardian about the comments Ian McEwan made on how "very few relly long novels earn their length".

The Writers' Workshop recommend most adult fiction books to be between 75 000 and 120 000 words. These are generous boundaries. When I was writing The Art of Letting Go, the guidelines I found suggested 80 000 to 100 000 for general fiction, with the top end of the range more usual for crime, and up to 120 000 for fantasy or history. (The Art of Letting Go is 87 000 words - 250 pages - if you were wondering).

There will always be exceptions, of course. Some of the most famous classics - War and Peace, Ulysses, The Pillars of the Earth - are much longer than this.* One of the top books of the last year, The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt is a whopping 880 pages. A few years ago I read the longest work of fiction ever written in the English language, A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth, and I loved it. But here's the point - an extremely long novel, has to be extremely good. I think this was what Ian McEwan was saying.

I am willing to bet that most agents get regular submissions from people who have written either historical or fantasy books - probably "the first in The Moon Rider Trilogy" or something like that (because everybody seems to want to write a trilogy) - which run to 200 000 words or more. The trouble is they are unlikely to have earned their length. "Epic" should not be a synonym for "badly edited and undisciplined writing". Of course, if you are an amazing writer you will still get a contract, but agents and editors already get 99% more submissions than they are going to take on; they are looking for reasons to reject you.

I have enjoyed many long books, but in most there have been sections I could've done without - battle plans in War and Peace, parliamentary debates in A Suitable Boy. On the whole, if books are going to break the word count "rules", I prefer them to be shorter.

What do you think? Are big books going out of fashion except as The Great American Novel, as Ian McEwan says? Do they put you off? Or do you like to get your teeth into something epic?

*There are exceptions the other way too. The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes won the Booker Prize despite being only 150 pages.

08 September, 2014

Goodreads Giveaway!

You can now enter to win one of ten signed copies of my novel on Goodreads. If you've been following this blog and liked the sound of my book and/or wanted to support me, but also been inundated with other books you've been meaning to buy, now's your chance to get a copy of The Art of Letting Go for free! Alternatively, if you've stumbled across this blog by accident, you can read more about the novel here... and then enter!

Goodreads Book Giveaway

The Art of Letting Go by Chloe Banks

The Art of Letting Go

by Chloe Banks

Giveaway ends October 05, 2014.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter to win

05 September, 2014

Quotable Friday (36)

A last-minute Quotable Friday this week, in honour of the book I'm reading. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce was a huge hit a couple of years ago and, with a title like that, I've been meaning to read it for ages. When I saw it on the library shelf last week I couldn't resist. It's marvellous. I haven't finished yet, but I adore it and I what I love most about the writing is the way she has of describing things. Her descriptions of weather, locations, people or events are so simple and yet they are so fresh too. There is not the whiff of a cliche in this book.

I am fortunate enough never to have experienced the death of somebody very close to me, but I was still moved by her description of grief (in what is an uplifting book in general!). It shows perfectly what I mean about her writing...

"I know in my head that she has gone, but I still keep looking. The only difference is that I am getting used to the pain. It's like discovering a great hole in the ground. To begin with, you forget it's there and you keep falling in. After a while, it's still there, but you learn to walk round it."

03 September, 2014

Recommended Writing Competitions

Are there any short story or flash fiction competitions you would recommend?

I'm a big fan of having a go at short stories, even if it's not your main form of writing. In writing short stories, not only do you learn about the art of characterisation, backstory without waffle, and beautiful, effective descriptions, but you also have to learn how to be economical with your prose - something a lot of novelists could learn from! The other huge benefit is the shorter form gives you more opportunity to go wrong. It might take you a year to write a terrible first draft of a novel and be ready to start again; it might only take you a few days or weeks to do the same with a short story. You can go through the editing and refining process - and all it teaches you - much quicker.

I'm also a big fan of competitions. They are a great way of helping you to assess your own writing. A story that gets ignored in a massive competition might get shortlisted in a smaller one; a story that didn't win on draft three might only need one more re-write to claim a prize in another competition a month later.

When I first started writing I entered a lot of short story competitions. In recent years, focussing on novel-writing and having a baby have reduced my short fiction output dramatically, but I still try to keep my hand in and I am looking for recommendations of good competitons to try. So what makes a good competition?

The answer is probably different for different writers, but for me a competition needs to...
  • Have good communication with the entrants. This means a definite deadline not only for the entries but also for the results. There is nothing more maddening than entering a short story competition and still having no idea when you might find out if you've won something three months later. 
  • Publish shortlists and/or longlists. This isn't an absolute necessity, but I think it's a good thing to do. There will be writers (such as me) who get a huge boost from knowing they nearly got a prize, even when they didn't win.
  • Have entry fees that are in proportion to the prize money. This isn't so much about value for money as knowing the organisers actually value what the writers are doing and aren't just out to make some dosh. £10 entry fees for a total prize fund of £50 is not cool.

I like to mix and match entering big, prestigious competitions - Fish, Bridport, Costa, Bath, Bristol etc. - with smaller local ones, open theme with set themes, and flash fiction with full short stories. This way I can work on different aspects of my writing and work out what level my writing is at. What do you look for?

After writing the opening to this blog post I went to pick up the actual post from the doormat only to find that Writing Magazine have their competition special this month. I'm obviously on trend with my blog posts for once! If you fancy a go at some competitions now is the time to grab a copy of WM. I shall be perusing the listings as soon as I can, but I'd love your input too. Which competitions would you recommend that I either enter or avoid?

28 August, 2014

Getting Down to Business

It's a common observation now that being a writer means running a business. This doesn't apply if you are just writing for your own private enjoyment, of course, but if you have any aspirations of being even semi-professional, the days when you could sit in the attic and be creative while other people did the nasty, common publicity stuff for you are long gone.

At the very least, writers nowadays are expected to be active on social media in some way. Twitter is increasingly becoming a must-have and most writers now have their own blogs. Facebook pages, Goodreads accounts, and e-mail lists are also popular (have you subscribed to my e-mail list? You can, just over on the side bar, look!). But for me, I like to have something a bit more tangible as well - something real to hold. Enter the Business Card.

Business cards might be a bit old-fashioned, but I liked the idea of having something professional-looking for when people ask about my novel. Instead of getting tongue-tied and then apologetically scribbling something illegible on the back of a receipt, I could whip out a business card holder and look all suave and sophisticated. OK, so I haven't got the knack of taking out one card at a time, which means I whip out a card and then spend ages trying to get the second card I whipped out by mistake back in the holder. OK, so I've forgotten even to get the cards out on pretty much every appropriate occasion so far. But the point is... I have cards! And, courtesy of my husband, they match my website! What do you think?

It's been just over a month since my novel was published. Doing any sort of promotional work while looking after a baby who doesn't really like daytime naps has been a challenge, but I've been blessed with friends and family who have taken it upon themselves to spread the word as well. Be assured if this is you, I am so grateful! I've done a blog tour and a newspaper interview, a flyer for the local area and I'm about to do a Goodreads giveaway (so if you didn't think I was worth spending money on, your chance to read my book is coming!). What else have you seen authors do? Have you found anything particularly useful when promoting one of your own books?

22 August, 2014

Blog Tour - Dan Purdue and Suzi Retlaff

I have a confession. Despite tweeting about it, I totally forgot to post a link here on the day I did a book stop at Dan's blog. Please please make him forgive me by going over and seeing what I had to say about being flexible as a writer. Please.

While we are confessing things. Today I had my final book stop with Suzi and we talked about secrets! Confess a secret of your own, or tell me your favourite line in literature, and you could win a copy of my book. Thank you for following the tour!

18 August, 2014

Blog Tour - Tom Benson

Today, I stopped by the blog of Tom Benson to talk epistolary novels. Or, if you're like me, you might want to call them "those novel written as letters between the characters". Letters form an important part of my novel - if you'd like to know why, please do go and read my post and leave a comment. Thank-you!

11 August, 2014

Blog Tour - Simon P Clark

Today I am over on the blog of children's author Simon P Clark as part of my The Art of Letting Go book tour. Simon's much-anticipated debut book, Eren, is out next month - I've already pre-ordered my copy!

In my post I'm talking about why the geology of Sussex nearly ruined my novel and how to make sure you're never invited to dinner ever again. Do go and check it out!

07 August, 2014

Blog Tour - Freya Morris

The next stop on my book tour for The Art of Letting Go is over at the blog of Freya Morris. Freya is one of my best blogging buddies and has been a fountin of enthusiasm and helpfulness over the last few months in particular. She also happens to be a pretty excellent writer herself. So please do go and support us both by reading what I have to say on the subject of voice and structure, and why I wrote my novel using four different viewpoints.

04 August, 2014

Blog Tour - Derek Thompson

My blog tour starts in earnest today on the fabulous blog belonging to Derek Thompson. Please do go and read about how three failures eventually made a successful novel for me!

31 July, 2014

Blog Tour!

This blog will be going quiet for the next few weeks, as my blogging efforts are going on tour! To celebrate the publication of my debut novel The Art of Letting Go, several lovely people have offered to host a post of mine on their own blogs. If you support me by reading this blog, please do go and support me and them by reading the posts on their blogs too - I'll be posting links here for you to follow.

Although there will be a summary of my novel each time, the blog post itself will be different on every blog. I'll be covering topics from researching things I know nothing about, to how failure resulted in a published novel, to famous secrets. I'll update this post as I confirm dates with my hosts, and I'll point you in the right direction on the day itself - so no excuses not to read!

I started off with an extract from my novel, published on Joe and Jenny Hickson's blog on publication day. Today I am being interviewed on the blog of the author Martyn Beardsley (he of Sir Gadabout fame - although he writes much more!). Then I will also be visiting: