Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Silence Is Golden - Cheltenham June 20th

The weekend of 20th June wasn't known for the best weather this summer, but was perfectly pleasant with no rain. A relief, as Nige and I had planned a romantic weekend away to celebrate our third wedding anniversary. The children were duly dispatched to Nige's mother early on Saturday afternoon and off we went

The Hotel on the Park was suitably upmarket and we were shown to our room by the friendly receptionist. On entering the room there was music playing. Bit odd, but we thought no more about it. Unbeknown to us, this set the precedent for the whole of our Cheltenham experience.

After a suitable interlude, resisting the overpriced mini-bar (half a bottle of warm white wine on a tray - £17.50), we set off for the Everest Indian restaurant, which I'd found on the Internet and booked in advance. It looked promising from the ornate facade, but a little less so inside, despite some wonderful wooden carvings around the bar. Music again, and not the subtle tones of the sitar, but mediocre pop music from the 1960s. We ordered, and our starters arrived. I had vegetable samosas. They didn't look too bad, but when I bit into them, the peas were frozen! I sent them back and a second lot arrived, which were better, but it was obvious the restaurant wasn't up to the standard we're used to in Rugby. The main course was pretty awful, too. It's obvious, isn't it, when the food isn't completely fresh? The colours are all the same. Still, at least they didn't charge us for the samosas.

We then went in search of a nice pub to enjoy a few drinks before heading back to the hotel. Cheltenham seemed very different by night from how I remembered it a few years ago when I went to the literary festival with Sally. There were still the blaring police and ambulance sirens, though. Every pub we tried in the centre of the town had music blaring out from the many speakers dotted around the room. It was at such a volume that you had to shout above it to be heard. It didn't make for the most relaxing evening. We decided to head back towards the hotel and have a look at the two more traditional looking pubs we'd passed earlier. The first had a karaoke session in full swing and the second, a live band. We decided to take a chance on the second one. The live band was one of the most atrocious covers bands I've ever heard. They totally murdered 'I Predict A Riot' (aptly named), 'Fat Bottomed Girls', 'Give Me Shelter' and Led Zeppelin's 'Rock n' Roll'. They had two lead guitarists who were both playing in a different key for much of the time. It was pretty hilarious in the end. At least the beer was good (the wine was like vinegar). Once the band stopped, we were just saying how nice it was to sit and drink without any background music, when very loud dub reggae started blasting through the speakers. So much for that! What a night! Silence certainly isn't golden for the people of Cheltenham.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Winners of The Yellow Room Spring Competition

Finally, I've got round to posting the winners of the Spring Competition. I just missed the deadline of June 1st, but did notify them only a few days after that. I really must keep more on top of The Yellow Room otherwise it's going to get very cluttered and chaotic.

First Prize: Emergency Call by Evalyn Lee
Second Prize: Matoose Rowsay by Jenny Knight
Third Prize: Rapture in Apple Custard by Allie Rogers
Highly Commended: Wargeld by Linda Priestley

You can read top three in the next issue of The Yellow Room, which comes out in October. I still have quite a few copies of Issue 2 left.

I must try to break my Facebook habit, but if any of you want to add me as a friend, then please do so!

Monday, 22 June 2009

Grumpy Old Rock Star - Althorp Part Three

Sunday 14th June was another gorgeous sunny day. It's the first time Nige has ever attended a literary festival event and what a brilliant introduction. Despite the chaos at the entrance to Althorp house (form an orderly queue unless you're sixty-plus and very posh), we managed to get a front row seat for Rick Wakeman courtesy of a young couple who got to the front of the queue and saved us a seat.

Nige was a big Yes fan in the 1970s, so was keen to see one of his rock heroes in the flesh. I must admit I was rather shocked when this scruffy bloke with a paunch took to the podium. However, I was relieved that he wasn't going to be interviewed or read from his book (I find the latter so boring!), but was going to stand there and regale us all with his wondrous stories.

I haven't laughed so much in ages. Rick Wakeman isn't grumpy at all. He's hilarious. His comic timing is impeccable. A professional musician of 40 years, Rick has plenty of funny stories to tell. If something bizarre is going to happen, it'll happen to him. He's smuggled a KGB uniform out of Iron Curtain Russia; worn Biggles-type goggles and WW1 flying helmet singing the Dambusters theme tune while coming into land on a Lufthansa flight to Munich and unwittingly shared the same plane as Alexander Litvinenko on a flight to Moscow and back.

You couldn't wish to meet a more likeable, witty and intelligent rock star! At the signing he joked around as I tried to get Nige's camera to work, then engaged Nige in a long conversation about playing in a band, and was genuinely interested in Nige's band, what sort of music they played and so on. They were rattling away like old buddies. Two grumpy old musicians who obviously share the same outlook on life and music. They look like best mates in the photograph! Definitely an affinity there.

Nige was buzzing afterwards and realised why I love literary festivals so much. Roll on next June!

Friday, 19 June 2009

Wonderful Today - Althorp Part Two

The first thing that struck me about Pattie Boyd was how young she looks for her age (she's 64, I think!), then wondered if she'd had any work done! The second thing was how nervous she looked. I'm not surprised. The room was full to capacity. Surprising, really, as I wouldn't have thought many people had heard of Pattie Boyd. However, she was married to first George Harrison, then Eric Clapton. She inspired such songs as 'Something' written by George, then 'Layla' and 'Wonderful Tonight' by Eric. She was a successful model in the 1960s, appearing on the front cover of Vogue with Twiggy. Maybe people were there because they wanted to be in the same room as a bit player in the legend of the Beatles? I think that's probably why I was there and why I'd asked Nige to buy me a copy of her autobiography two years ago.

One of the first things Pattie said at the beginning of the interview was that George Harrison had been the love of her life. This then begged the question as to why she ran off with one of his best friends, Eric Clapton. I mean, in the looks department Eric shouldn't have stood a chance. Okay, so he may have been the better guitar player. No, Pattie admitted that Eric simply wore her down. From the moment he sent her an anonymous letter declaring his undying love, he pursued Pattie relentlessly. Her marriage to George wasn't going too well. George liked to shut himself away at their 24 bedroomed mansion, Friar Park and spent hours chanting (he'd recently become obsessed with the Hari Krishnas). I guess there's only so much chanting you can take. Life with Eric promised to be more exciting. He took her on tour with him; they went to lots of parties. The fact that he had a drug habit (cocaine predominantly) and was an alcoholic (lots of brandy!) didn't come into it at first... only later, which was why they divorced. Then came three years of therapy, so Pattie could find herself. She'd only ever been a rock star's wife for the past ten years. Her salvation came in the form of photography. She put David Bailey on the other side of the camera and asked his advice, as you do. A successful exhibition followed, and now she's a fully fledged professional snapper.

Someone asked was there anything in her life she'd change? Pattie said she wished she'd been wiser when younger. Yes, then she probably would have worked at her marriage and not given into the dubious charms of Eric. Was she still in touch with Paul and Ringo? Yes, she lived just down the road from Ringo and went to his parties. So did Paul. Paul is very happy again now, she said. He sends his love. (Great flutter of excitement for Jo, who has been a McCartney fan since puberty!)

She seemed a friendly enough kind of person. She was much posher than I expected and spoke just like Joanna Lumley. In fact, she reminded me a lot of Joanna Lumley. Interesting that they were both born in India.

The most interesting aspect of Pattie Boyd's talk was when she spoke of her relationship with Penny Junor who helped her write the book. She said that it was fraught with problems. Penny was trying to be Pattie. Spooky! They'd go out to lunch and Penny would wait to see what Pattie was ordering and order the same. The 'autobiography' went through four drafts before it was published and still I got the impression Pattie wasn't happy. 'It didn't sound like me', she said. Why didn't she write it herself? Wish I'd have asked her now.

The highlight was at the signing at the end. I had a nice little chat with Pattie, as you do, and she was very friendly. I said I'd read Eric's autobiography immediately after reading hers. 'What did you think?' she asked. I told her I was surprised at how similar their recollections were and how they both seemed to have the same perspective on the same events. 'Yes,' she said, 'Other people have told me that.' She then went on to ask me if I realised my copy of her book was a first edition? She showed me the inside cover. A little figure 1 all on its own! 'It's one of only six,' she told me. 'Hang on to that, Jo!'. Yes, I will. And now it's a signed first edition. Could be my pension!

Don't miss the final installment of the Althorp Literary Festival experience on Jo's blog soon... coming up.... Rick Wakeman, Grumpy Old Rock Star...

Althorp Literary Festival

I've been putting off writing about this. Actually, I was forced to put off writing about this due to my PC problems earlier in the week (some of you may already know that all my files and data have now been retrieved by the lovely Nige), and now it seems too much time has passed since the event to recall it in detail. I hate it when this happens! So, here's a brief summary...(in two to three parts!)...

The Althorp Literary Festival took place from Friday, 12th June until Sunday, 14th June. The weather couldn't have been better. Clear blue skies, sunshine and a cool breeze. Perfect for wandering around the grounds of a stately home in between talks. It was a pity about the swarm of greenfly, lots of which attached themselves to my hair. Very attractive!

Fern was lovely. I'd expected her to be rather smug and aloof, but she wasn't at all. She was approachable, friendly and had a twinkle in her eye. She also looked a lot slimmer and of slighter build than she does on TV. She was at Althorp to talk about her autobiography, which I'd read in the few days leading up to the talk. I was lucky enough to get a front row seat, and she made lots of eye contact with me. She certainly knows how to engage an audience. The most interesting part of her talk, for me, was when it came to the question and answer session. No, she hasn't fallen out with Phillip Schofield. And who has she interviewed who she really disliked? Mmm, think fat, grey haired restaurant critic with initials MW!! She told a great funny story about her charity cycle ride across Cuba. At the hotel one evening a fellow cyclist was given a dried up clementine segment to garnish her mojito cocktail and putting it down on the table, the woman compared it to her clitoris, which had suffered from a certain amount of saddle soreness. No, another friend said and promptly brought her first down to flatten the clementine, now that's more like it!

I guess you had to be there! Asked if her children were following in her footsteps in television, Fern mentioned her twin sons, 15, were in a rock band. She talked about their practices and gigs. Ah, so we had something in common. Matthew, my son of 14, has just joined a rock band. I could empathise! So, when I went to have my book signed, I mentioned this. Fern laid a hand on my arm, 'Wish him the best of luck from me'. Aah! Sweet!

More later.... just off for a quick run before I write up the rest!

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Crash and burn!

A total disaster here. The main PC in our house has lost my complete user profile due to a virus (only mine,no one else's). All The Yellow Room date, documents etc has gone (no back up), the website (which I can't update, as I've now lost Dreamweaver), all my email contacts and address book, my ITunes library including music I'd paid to download, all the short stories and articles I'd ever written. Fortunately, most of my novel was backed up on a memory stick.

It feels like the modern day equivalent to a house fire! Not quite as disastrous, admittedly.

I don't know where to start. I'm using Nige's laptop at present and if you need to email me, then it's qwfeditor@yahoo.co.uk.

I was going to update this blog yesterday telling you all about my lovely weekend at The Althorp Literary Festival, but all the photos I took were on the main PC. I'm trying to get some of them off the memory card onto this laptop, but I'm not the greatest when it comes to technical stuff.

I feel like crying... then going out and buying a Mac!

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

What Am I Looking For In A Short Story?

I'm often asked what sort of stories I want to publish in The Yellow Room Magazine. It's obvious, if you read the magazine, I think. Market research is key when submitting to any publication and it's worth spending a few pounds to buy, study and read a magazine cover to cover. A creative writing tutor recently asked me what I was looking for, so I had a brainstorming session. Here are the results:

Firstly, I’ll consider short stories of up to 5,000 words, although most are around 2,500. Shorter pieces are welcome, too.
I like stories written on any theme, in any genre, although I’m not that keen on sci-fi and fantasy. I have published those types of stories in the past, however.
The first paragraph of a short story must grab me. The quality of the writing has to stand out. I can usually tell just reading that first paragraph whether the standard of writing is up to The Yellow Room readers’ expectations.
Plunge the reader straight into the action. We don’t want any sort of build up or preamble or being told what has happened leading up to the main event. Show the main event and flashback later, if necessary. I want to see character in action in the first paragraph. I want to know where we are and be shown. Think film. Give your work a visual quality.
I like writers to pay good attention to detail. Those who observe and record the minutae of every day life.
I like a story to have an interesting setting. I need to feel present at the scene. I don’t like stories which begin with a character waking up or getting out of bed. That has become a cliché and isn’t at all interesting.
I’m much more interested in character than plot. The stories I like best are those which show how a character changes, no matter how subtly during the course of the story. A change in perception; a new insight into their own lives or someone else’s or a fresh perspective on an experience.
I like writers who have fun with language and play on words.
I prefer those stories written from the perspective of a mature woman. Not necessarily mature in age, rather, mature in outlook. Women who question. Women who observe and comment. Women who like to push the boundaries; take risks; eager to learn more about themselves; who learn from past mistakes; women who grow.
I have to feel empathy for the main character. I can tolerate unsympathetic characters in a story as long as they have one or two redeeming features. No one is completely good or completely bad.
I think writers can sometimes restrict themselves to their own worlds. The old cliché ‘write what you know’ is partly to blame for this.
I’ve been accused in the past of only publishing stories with domestic settings. I don’t think this is true. The majority of stories I receive for consideration, however, do have a domestic setting. My advice to writers would be ‘broaden your horizons’. Sometimes it’s necessary to get well away from our comfort zones.
Latch onto a strong emotion you’ve experienced. Try to describe it. Now put it into a context. Create a brand new setting; create characters very different from yourself.
I like writers who make good use of the five senses. I like stories which are vibrant with colour. Show me the weather and make me feel that summer breeze or raindrops on my cheek.
I am always fascinated by how a story is structured. Unusual structures in a short story are appealing, if done well. I get a lot of stories set out in the form of letters or email correspondence. That isn’t so interesting.
I think because The Yellow Room publishes stories written by women, for women, I tend to get a lot of stories about relationships. There is more to a woman’s life! And not just work! Again, ‘problems with the boss stories’ are very common.
Does the main protagonist in the story have to be female? No. I enjoy reading stories written from a male character’s perspective and have no problem with it.
The best short stories have resonance. I remember them long after I’ve finished reading them. They have the ‘X’ factor – that certain something that I can’t quite put my finger on. The images remain in my head, as do the characters. I can still remember stories I read over ten years ago because they had resonance. There’s something unusual about them; or the images are so striking they stay with you.
Layout and presentation is important. I can usually tell from the lay out alone how good the writing is going to be. Please indent each new paragraph and only leave white space between paragraphs if indicating a gap in time or change of viewpoint.
A reader shouldn’t have to work too hard to understand a story’s message. If she does have to work hard to understand it, this usually means the writing lacks clarity. I look for a clean, economical prose style with no words wasted.
I get far too many stories about illness, hospitals, old people’s homes and death. While these things are all part of life’s rich pattern, they don’t make for an uplifting reading experience in the main. I want stories with a positive message and that have a feel good factor without being schmaltzy or twee. I don’t want stories you’d find in Woman’s Weekly or People’s Friend, simply because they don’t quite have enough depth and aren’t quite adventurous enough in theme(although some of the Woman’s Weekly Fiction Special stories are getting better in that respect). I like writers to take risks with their subject matter. Up the stakes. Make me care about your characters and their situation.
In a short story there is no margin for error. Your writing comes under the microscope. Every word must count. I think this is where short story writing differs markedly from novel writing. It is more closely related to poetry in this respect.
As Sarah Dunant put it, ‘There’s no place for the writer to hide in a short story, no room for failure, for sloppy writing or muddled thought.’
So often a good short story is spoiled by the ending. I know how fiendishly difficult it is to write an ending that fits. I feel that at the end of a short story your character should reach some sort of conclusion about themselves; their world; their experience. In some ways, the end should mark a new beginning, not necessarily in a dramatic way.
Remember less is more. Sometimes what is left unsaid has greater impact than hammering the point home.
Always remember to show. Show your character’s emotions; show your character in action; show the scene in question. Allow the reader into your character’s world by showing them the details. Avoid using passive sentences. Avoid indirect speech. Be direct. We need to be there and involved right from the start.
Good dialogue is so important. What your characters say must count. Don’t sweat the small stuff when it comes to dialogue. Get straight to the point.
What of the main things I look for in a short story is emotional truth. I want to identify with a particular emotion your character experiences. I want that light bulb moment, ‘Yes, that’s exactly how I feel about that, too!’.
To be a successful short story writer, ‘You have to be utterly vulnerable on the page, and utterly ruthless in revision.’ as Chris Offutt once put it.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Spring Competition Shortlist

Just a quick entry today to let you know the 12 shortlisted entries in The Yellow Room Short Story Competition, which closed on 20th March. I've listed them in order of entry number.

Wargeld by Linda Gruchy
Games by Tom J Vowler
Bugs by Shirley Wright
Wendy Gets The All Clear by Penelope Overton
Angel by Nemone Thornes
A Very Suitable Table by Ginny Sewart
Matoose Rowsay by Jenny Knight
Significant Others by Jenny Knight
Raptures in Apple Custard by Allie Rogers
No-One by Jane Burke
Reading With Robert by Evalyn Lee
Emergency Call by Evalyn Lee

Can I also say, 'Get Well Soon!' to Sally Zigmond, who is in hospital at the moment with a broken leg. At least it gives her a good excuse to do lots of reading!