Tuesday, 17 December 2013

The Yellow Room 500 Word Flash Competition Winners

Flash Fiction Helps You Write Better says the caption on the image I've selected for this post. I certainly believe that's true. I think the essence of a great piece of fiction is what you don't say. Allow your reader to work it out for themselves and that way your reader will gain much more satisfaction from the story. Nowhere demonstrates this more completely than the Flash Fiction piece. There are so few words, there isn't room for background detail, lots of dialogue, character development or plot. The writer is aiming for a snapshot of a moment in time. The reader is left wondering, What's really going on here? It's what isn't said that's the most important thing.

Nothing demonstrates this more perfectly than the first three prizewinning stories, Brain Freeze by Freya Morris, Missing by Carol Warham and About Life by Amanda Huggins.

It took me a long time to judge this competition. You'd have thought it would have taken me less time, as the stories were less than 500 words each. However, I had to allow them to stew a while. Brain Freeze didn't grab me as much as some of the other entries on the first reading. Then I couldn't get the images out of my head and I wondered why. On re-reading, I noticed so much more was going on than I first realised. I then began to dwell more on the central character and what his life was like. At first glance it is a story about a man sitting on a bench eating an ice cream. Then we learn that he should be at work. He is a schoolmaster and should have been taking assembly that morning. So what has happened to make this usually responsible and upstanding man neglect his duties in this way? I'll let you read the story so that you can make up your own mind. Each time I read this story I gained more insight. A superb piece of writing. So simple, yet so effective.

Missing was another slow-burner. The first time I read this story, I wasn't sure what was going on. I almost completely missed the point. It was that last line: 'In the middle of the playground lies a small shiny, red buckle shoe, forgotten, lost.' that grabbed my attention. I couldn't get the image out of my head. On re-reading this story, I noticed more and more detail. In fact, it was the attention to detail that had me hooked. This is a highly atmospheric piece and there are several powerful images. The way the writer personifies the elements such as the breeze made this particular reader sit up and take note. Stylistically, this is a difficult one to pull off, but Carol did so, effortlessly. This story has great resonance and tugs strongly on the reader's emotions.

About Life drew me in the first time I read it. That first line: 'The fields are crouched low in the winter sunlight' is wonderful. I knew from the outset that this writer has a wonderful feel for language; something I always look for in a winning story. Her characters leap off the page and we immediately empathise with both of them. Again, this writer pays great attention to detail. Every gesture; every word; every action has significance. Amanda Huggins doesn't have to tell us how these characters feel about the tragedy in their lives or how they'll cope in the future, she shows us with unflinching honesty. The ending could have been clichéd, but Amanda shies away from the easy option and creates a more believable character as a result.

Tantric Twister by Tracy Fells deserves a special mention, because it has an excellent twist.  Again, both the characters and the situation are real and true. The story also raises a smile and brings hope. Recklessness, fun and sex aren't just for the young, but also for the young at heart. I also love the title!

Judging this competition has taught me so much about Flash Fiction and has made me eager to write more Flash pieces myself. Thank you to all who took part.

Monday, 9 December 2013

The Yellow Room Flash Competition Shortlist

I've now drawn up a shortlist from the twenty-eight longlisted Flash pieces entered in The Yellow Room 500 Word Flash Competition:

About Life
Black Soles
Brain Freeze
Carrying a Torch
He Brought Me Orchids
Identity Crisis
Talking About Horses
Tantric Twister
Underneath Her Clothes
Where There's Life

I have also been a guest on two blogs this past week. Susan Howe kindly asked me to write an article about the WriteOnSite Competition, which you can read here. I was also delighted to be interviewed by Vanessa Gebbie for her blog. Both helped to give sales of my short story collection, Twisted Sheets, a bit of a boost over the weekend.

I hope to be able to announce the Flash Competition winners by the end of this week.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

The Yellow Room Flash Competition Longlist

Better late than never... Here are the 28 longlisted stories in The Yellow Room Autumn Flash Competition:
Underneath Her Clothes
The Box
Where There's Life
Black Soles
Brain Freeze 
After The Event 
The Bridge
About Life
Closing The Door
Carrying A Torch
The Tooth
Sugar and Spice
Lost and Found
He Brought Me Orchids
Granny Smith
Talking About Horses
Penny For The Guy
Identity Crisis
Tantric Twister

I hope to have the shortlist drawn up by tomorrow.

In other news.... I've just received my first 5 star review on Amazon for my short story collection, Twisted Sheets.

Friday, 29 November 2013

Twisted Sheets on Kindle!

I'm thrilled to announce that I've bitten the bullet and published my short story collection, Twisted Sheets on Kindle. I decided to have a go at publishing it yesterday evening and couldn't believe how easy it was to upload and create a cover via Amazon Kindle Publishing Direct.

I had the collection all ready to go, as I'd entered it in The Scott Prize last year, then submitted it to Cinnamon Press. The latter gave me great feedback and I came close to being taken on by them. This gave me confidence in the collection as a whole. Most of the short stories in the collection have either previously been published or have done well in short story competitions. Several of them are prizewinning stories.

Today has been great fun, as I organised a last minute launch party on Facebook. There was lots of virtual champagne, canapés and laughter! Thanks to those of you who came along to wish me well!

The e-book went on sale at around 8pm yesterday and already it's Number 34 in the Kindle Bestselling Short Stories Chart alongside the likes of Terry Pratchett and Victoria Hislop. It's also Number 68 in the Kindle Bestselling Literary Fiction Chart just above Maeve Binchy! I can't believe how many people have purchased it already. I'm now hoping I get some positive reviews.


Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Time... and Time Again....

Most days I ask myself the question, what would I do more of if I had the time? The answer is always the same. I'd read more and I'd write more. So what do I spend most days doing? Reading? Writing? No! My days disappear in vague swathes of nothingness, it seems.

I admit I spend more time on Facebook than I should. I also watch far too many TV dramas. I have thought about banning both from my daily life, but then I would feel strangely cut off from the world.

My only appointment to write (when I turn up at the computer at a set time) occurs most Saturdays at 5.30pm. I am addicted to the Write-Invite competitions, as most of you know. That way I know I will write something new at least once a week.

This is all very well for short stories, but for someone who dreams of getting a novel published, this isn't too helpful. Most weeks I ask myself whether I am cut out to be a novelist. I am an impatient person. I like to complete a task in the shortest time possible and, in the case of writing a piece of fiction, get it out there to earn its keep as soon as possible.

Novels don't work like that. They rarely come fully formed. I struggle with writing longer pieces of fiction. I tend to lose my way. I fall in love with my characters, but they're soon hanging around not knowing what to do with themselves. A bit like me, really. Do I get that admin finished or shall I nip out to Sainsbury's for a few bits? Shall I read for an hour or put some washing in and hoover up? Oh, and I really should get that critique finished and promote The Yellow Room a bit more. You see how it goes?

This is why I can't keep up-to-date with my blog. I usually end up moaning about where the times goes or about not being able to finish anything!

Goal setting and list making has never really been my thing. I go through phases of being disciplined like this, then it all falls apart. I hate anything regimented or set in stone. I guess I'm a bit of a drifter and a dreamer. Oh well... time to get the tea on.....

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

The Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival Part Two

I think Saturday was my favourite day of the whole festival. Once more the sun shone and the temperatures soared. I made the mistake of wearing my ‘too long’ hippy-look maxi and spent much of the day turning to the person behind me (usually male) to politely inform them that they were standing on my dress. 
After a hearty breakfast at The Cairn, Sally and I ventured forth once more to The Old Swan. I was particularly excited about seeing Ian Rankin and couldn’t help thinking of my friend, Sharon (aka Effie Merryl), who would have given her right arm to be there. I wish she had been, for several reasons, but mainly because she could have done the introductions. I now wish I’d been brave enough to speak to Ian when he sat on the next table talking to my ‘new friend’ Lauren Sarno. Oh well! 
Ian Rankin was in conversation with William McIlvanney, who, I gathered, was a bit of a legend in the crime writing world. William is from Glasgow, and I did have trouble understanding his broad accent. Apparently, he is the Godfather of Tartan Noir. Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels were inspired by McIlvanney, who treated us to an extract from one of his own gritty books. I was surprised at the literary style, although the violent scene wasn’t to my taste. I don’t really ‘do’ gangsters, preferring my crime to be a little less hard-boiled. 
Sally and I then had the good fortune to bump into Carole Blake and her handsome assistant, Tom Witcomb. I was delighted that Carole recognised me from Twitter and Facebook. Sally had met Carole before and had had lunch with her, so they nattered away like old friends. I got so carried away that I totally forgot about which talk we were going to next, so surreptitiously had a glance at my programme to realise I was in danger of missing Val McDermid in conversation with forensic anthropologist, Professor Sue Black. Fortunately, Carole also remembered she had to be somewhere else, so we said our goodbyes. There were no seats remaining in the main part of the ballroom, but lots to spare in the garden room at the back. I was relieved to see two large flat screens right in front of us, so that we could get a good view of the two friends in conversation. I could have listened to their easy banter all day. Sue Black had some fascinating stories to tell, including one in which she was responsible for bringing back two prostitutes’ decapitated heads from Verona to Dundee, where they had the specialist equipment and expertise to help identify them. She had put the buckets containing the decomposing heads into two Gucci bags and had two letters, one in English, one in Italian, explaining why they were in her possession and stating that she could not be physically separated from the heads in case of contaminating the evidence. Her experiences at border controls and customs were hilarious. I think my favourite was when the stewardess on the flight from Verona to Heathrow asked Sue to put the Gucci bags in the overhead luggage rack. Sue refused and showed the stewardess the letter. The stewardess then promptly moved her to Business Class where Sue had a seat as far away from anyone else as possible and was then ignored by the stewardesses for the rest of the flight. She didn’t even receive so much as a glass of water.
Val McDermid asked Sue how she came to be interested in bones. Sue explained her fear of rodents and how she’d do anything to avoid having to dissect them. She veered towards a study of anatomy, as a result. I found it amusing that she hadn’t heard of some well known crime authors and books! Sue said there was only one occasion when her work encroached on her personal life and that was when a middle-aged man was dancing with her daughter at her prom. Sue said she watched his hands very closely (having spent a lot of time at work studying images on paedophiles’ hard-drives for identification purposes). It transpired that the man dancing with her daughter was the father of her boyfriend and all was well. Val asked whether Sue had found this out after she’d decked him!
I was fascinated to learn that someone’s ethnicity can be determined by examining hair, nails and bone, which tells the history of that person’s diet. For example, in the case of the 7/7 bombers, Sue and her team could prove that the bombers had never been to Pakistan to an Al Queda training camp and could pinpoint their home and background to Leeds. 
There was also a good dollop of ‘pubic scalps’ in this talk, which almost put me off my lunch. I was relieved to see fresh tuna steak wasn’t on the menu!
On the subject of lunch, I was surprised to learn that lunch on Friday and Saturday were included in the price of our Rover Ticket. On both days we were offered a roast dinner as well as a vegetarian option followed by either cheesecake, chocolate mousse or fruit salad. It wasn’t gourmet cuisine, but I enjoyed mine very much! 
I was sorry to miss out on the New Blood panel chaired by Val McDermid, but there is a limit to how much you can squeeze in at these festivals. We had a post-lunch glass of wine in the bar, then headed off for ‘Vera’. Ann Cleeves hosted this session and was in conversation with the executive producer of the popular TV crime drama, Elaine Collins, screenwriter Paul Rutman and none other than Oscar nominee, Brenda Blethyn. As soon as we took our seats fairly near the front, I decided I needed the Ladies. Who should I meet coming down the stairs from the Green Room, but Brenda Blethyn herself! She smiled at me, said hello then followed me into the Ladies. I was noticeably star-struck, I’m sure. 
This was one of my favourite events of the weekend. My husband and I love ‘Vera’, and mimic Vera Stanhope’s accent and diction at every opportunity, often second-guessing what she’s going to say next. I was surprised to learn that Brenda Blethyn spends five months of the year filming Vera in and around Alnmouth and Newcastle. The indoor scenes are filmed at the former Swan Hunter shipyard. Ann Cleeves, who wrote the books the series are based on, went from obscurity to fame by pure chance. Elaine Collins told us that ITV were looking for a new detective series to replace A Touch Of Frost and they wanted a female detective. Elaine read dozens of crime books, but discarded them, as she couldn’t find what she was looking for. Then, by chance, she came across Ann Cleeves’ The Crow Trap in a charity shop, read it and knew instantly that she’d found ITV’s new detective. Ann then explained how the character, Vera Stanhope came to be. Ann was writing about three females sitting round a table talking and got stuck. She remembered Raymond Chandler’s advice that if you get stuck, have a man burst into a room with a gun. She said she didn’t like guns, so had a scruffy female walk into the room instead. Vera Stanhope was born, complete with old overcoat and padded waistcoat.
Saturday afternoon was wonderful! Sally and I joined Susannah Rickards, Phil Jones, Lauren Sarno and others on a table laden with wine. We met some lovely people and Lauren invited us to join her in a bottle of Prosecco. We laughed, swapped stories about our writing, talked about fashion, mobile phones and dodgy signals only to be interrupted by James Bond, complete with tuxedo and black tie. No, not the man himself, of course, but our Lee Child ticket blagger who was dressed for the License To Thrill Dinner. Susannah saved the day and took on the role of his minder, as he used my Rover Ticket to gain entry to see one of his favourite authors. I never did get so much as a glass of wine for my trouble!
Sally and I then staggered off towards town where we were due to meet my friend,  Mandy Huggins at L’Albero Delle Noci, a fantastic little Mediterranean restaurant with a cosy ambience in Cheltenham Crescent. Even though Mandy was sitting outside, we still managed to walk past her without seeing her and I had to phone her for instructions of how to get there! The food and service were excellent. Somehow we managed to consume two bottles of Pinot Grigio between us, talking non-stop about Bruce Springsteen, writing, books, travel and goodness knows what else! Little did we know that we needn’t have rushed, as Kate Atkinson wasn’t due to speak until 8.30pm. My programme stated it was 8pm. Still, at least it gave Susannah and Mandy time to finish the complimentary lollipops!
I have to confess I was a little disappointed in Kate. I’m sure I was the only one, however. I don’t think Mark Lawson got the best out of her. Or maybe I’d just read too many interviews with her in the press and therefore there were no surprises. Or maybe I’d had too much wine and couldn’t take it all in. Anyway, I loved her latest novel, Life After Life and relished every snippet of information she gave us about writing it. Apparently, there is a bibliography on Kate Atkinson’s website of all the books she used in her research, so that was something new I learned!
Afterwards we joined the long queue at the bar and I bought a very mediocre bottle of warm Sauvignon Blanc to share. Sally managed another hour with us, before surrendering and going back to The Cairn, not before Mandy had treated us to an hilarious impression of her B&B landlady. The wine magically seemed to improve as Mandy and I gossiped well into the night, although I was rather disappointed not to be surrounded by well-known crime writers, but they were all embroiled in the late night quiz. I watched Mandy stagger off back towards the town and I wended my way back up the hill to The Cairn in the company of Catriona MacPherson who was lovely. I’d already marked her out as an author whose books were right up my street (crime fiction set in the 30s and 40s). Her witty asides and sharp wit had kept me entertained when she sat next to me during the Victorian Crime panel the day before.
Despite waking at 4.45am fretting about my son going off Inter-Railing and worrying that someone had hiked up my bar bill (I’d left my room number passcard thingy lying about The Cairn), I woke again at 8.15am ready for breakfast and eager to attend the Slaughtering the Sacred Cows panel at 10am. Mandy Huggins texted me to say she was running late (hangover, more like!), so would meet me after the talk. 
The Sunday morning panel introduced me to crime writers I hadn’t read: Stuart McBride (who was hilarious), Catriona MacPherson (very witty and dry), Manda Scott (who sat in the lotus position throughout) and Cathi Unsworth. I’d been admiring a lady wearing vintage hairdo and clothes over the weekend, not realising it was Cathi. What a great look! No surprise that she lived in Camden! Mandy told me that Cathi is also a reader/editor for Take A Break’s Fiction Feast. Interesting! I loved the sound of Cathi’s books, particularly when she told us a fan had written in saying she’d made Great Yarmouth sound interesting. I gathered her books are edgy and drenched in popular culture. In other words, just my cup of tea. There followed a fascinating discussion about pushing the boundaries of crime fiction and this reassured me that maybe, just maybe, I, too, might get away with my novel not being in the conventional crime novel mould.
And that was it! I hadn’t the stamina for Charlaine Harris, although I was assured that she was an excellent writer and an entertaining speaker. I met up with Mandy again, who was now in panic mode about getting a number for a Bruce Springsteen concert in Leeds on Wednesday (Mandy is a huge Bruce fan). We had a freebie coffee, briefly reconnected with Cath Bore and Katie, before heading off to the town in search of lunch. We decided that, as the queue wasn’t very long, we’d treat ourselves to lunch in Betty’s. The tinkly piano music was perfect for a Sunday afternoon.
Now it’s Tuesday and I’m suffering withdrawal symptoms. I haven’t enjoyed a weekend as much in a very long time. I’d forgotten how thrilling it is to be in the company of other writers and to be immersed in the world of books.
Roll on next year! 

Monday, 22 July 2013

The Theakston's Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, Harrogate 2013 - Part One

Val McDermid chatting outside the entrance to The Old Swan

This was my third visit to The Harrogate Crime Writers’ Festival. The first time I went to the festival was in 2005 when it was held at The Cedar Court Hotel. Coincidentally, Ruth Rendell was the first speaker I saw that year, too. The second time I attended was in 2006,  and the festival had moved to The Old Swan. The first speaker I saw that year was Kate Atkinson, whose talk was also one of the highlights this year. 
Sally 'I Used To Live In Harrogate' Zigmond
My constant companion at all three festivals was Sally (I Used To Live In Harrogate) Zigmond (previously known as That Sally Bloody Zigmond, as she used to win every short story competition going). This was the first year we’d stayed at a hotel for the Crime Writers’ Festival (as Sally used to live in Harrogate, you know and she kindly put me up in her lovely home in previous years) and bought a Weekend Rover Ticket and oh, how much more we got out of the event as a result. We stayed at The Cairn (more of which later). Oh, and before I continue, please don’t think I’m being rude to Sally. We’re at that stage in our friendship where we can say what we like to each other without causing offence (a bit like Ruth Rendell/Jeanette Winterson and Val McDermid/Sue Black, if I dare compare myself to such literary greats).
We both arrived in Harrogate on Thursday and naturally aimed straight for the bar at The Cairn and my first Theakston’s of the weekend. From there we made our way to The Old Swan to pick up our goody bags, groaning with free books, which we then had to lug around for the rest of the evening. We were delighted that Denise Mina won the Crime Novel of the Year Award with her ‘really hard won book’ Gods and Beasts, particularly as she was the only female on the shortlist. At the opening party Sally and I stood on the periphery, sipping our pints of Old Peculier and we were just wondering whether we’d ever see anyone we knew, when a pretty blonde lady peered at me with interest and then approached and tentatively asked, ‘Are you Jo Derrick?’. She looked vaguely familiar, so I was thrilled to discover it was none other than Susannah Rickards (winner of The Scott Prize in 2010 with Hot Kitchen Snow http://www.amazon.co.uk/Susannah-Rickards/e/B00466TWYO), whose work I’d first published in Quality Women’s Fiction some years previously and more recently in The Yellow Room. It transpires that Susannah has written a crime novel and secured a well-known agent who stood just feet away from us (the formidable looking Jane Gregory). It was wonderful to meet Susannah and I lost count of the number of times I bumped into her over the weekend. We ended up spending rather a lot of time together drinking wine and discussing writing in the next three days, which was brilliant. I’m pleased to say we got on like a house on fire! 
Susanna Rickards

On Friday we awoke to another fabulous day weather-wise and excited about seeing one of our literary heroines, Jeanette Winterson interview Ruth Rendell (or Baroness Rendell Of Babergh CBE, as she is otherwise known). It was heart-warming to witness their wonderfully intimate relationship as they shared a fair amount of banter and leg-pulling. I got the impression that Jeanette saw Ruth as something of a mother-figure. She began by telling us how Ruth first gave her refuge in the 1980s when Jeanette needed space to write her second novel, then proceeded to ask Ruth about her writing, which spans a total of fifty years. I did feel rather queasy when the discussion turned to female genital mutilation, a practice which Baroness Rendell is fighting hard to put an end to. All in all, it was a great start to the festival, making me want to revisit the Barbara Vine (the pseudonym Ruth Rendell uses for her psychological crime thrillers) novels in particular. 
Now I apologise for not bringing you an in-depth account of each of the talks, interviews and panels, but I didn’t take notes! Unforgivable really, especially as I had my notebook in my handbag. I promise to do better next time. My memory isn’t what it was, so I can only bring you a scanty overview. I confess I find panels rather trying, as opinions and insights are batted backwards and forwards between the authors taking part. The heat in the ballroom at The Old Swan was unbearable at times, particularly in the afternoons when temperatures hovered around the 30 degrees centigrade mark and an audience of a few hundred people were crammed in like sardines! This became The Festival of the Fan, as I’ve never seen so many hand-held fans being wafted in one room before. It was like something out of a regency novel. Even the panelists were using them, which created a bizarre Apocalypse Now soundtrack to the proceedings as their microphones picked up the gentle thwack-thwack fanning movement. 

Sally and I attended a fascinating dissection of Victorian Crime with Kate Colquhoun, Lyndsay Faye, Kate Summerscale and Andrew Taylor. Old Sherlock Holmes has a lot to answer for, as one particular panelist dominated the proceedings. We opted out of Social Media: Who Are You? choosing to sit in the bar with a bottle of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc instead. This was a double-edged sword, as we were ‘treated’ to a discourse on crime authors with a gregarious Glaswegian with a fine line in blagging a ticket for Lee Child. As with most of the Harrogate delegates we met, the gentleman asked where we were from, prompting Sally to stress that she used to live in Harrogate and I was told, for the first time in my life, that I had a ‘neutral’ accent.
We listened to diverse opinions on the nature of evil in the Touching Evil panel with Michael Ridpath, Belinda Bauer, Nicci French, Alex Marwood and Stav Sherez. I came away grateful that a) I wasn’t married to Sean French, b) annoyed at Michael Ridpath’s casual misogyny and c) vowing to read the novels of Belinda Bauer and Alex Marwood. 
Sally had had enough at this point and said she needed an early night. I think this was simply an excuse to escape me blathering on any more about my crime novel (that I still haven’t finished) and moaning about the bar prices. I took the opportunity to dash back to my room to change into yet another maxi dress (I resembled a magician pulling them out of a hat like rabbits) before setting out in search of a meal. On the way back down the hill towards town I met Susannah Rickards and her newly-made friend Lauren Sarno. They kindly invited me to join them for dinner, so I accompanied them back to their hotel, The Majestic where I waited in the beautiful foyer for them to freshen up. I was just cursing the organisers of the festival for dumping me in the inferior Cairn Hotel, when Susannah and Lauren reappeared with two more Festival delegates in tow; Cath Bore, whom I’d met earlier - we are ‘Friends’ on Facebook - and who instilled serious maxi dress envy in me when she appeared wearing a stunning purple one; and Katie, a prolific crime novel reader. 
Cath Bore
The Majestic Hotel Foyer
There were murmurs of Wagamama’s, which piqued my interest, never having eaten there before, but we found ourselves lured into a rather mediocre bar and grill where I was presented with chicken, which had been cooked under a brick (!) and a few thick chips. (I can’t believe that a restaurant in this day and age presents food minus at least a few peas and some greenery.) We rashly ordered two bottles of wine, which was a bit much considering we had to be at another talk by 8.30pm, but I manned up and finished it off for them. It was the least I could do. 
Sally Zigmond and I had been disappointed that Susan Hill had cancelled earlier in the week to be replaced by Peter James, but in hindsight I’m glad she did, if only to hear Val McDermid singing a rendition of Bonnie Tyler’s I Need A Hero (Val proved to have a pretty good voice!). 
Peter James is a born raconteur. His background is fascinating (his mother was a Jewish refugee who came over to England in the late 1930s with ‘Jude’ stamped on her passport and a suitcase full of gloving leathers. She ended up being glove-maker to the Queen) and anyone who calls Martin Amis a tw*t is all right by me. Peter James was snubbed by Amis at a literary event in 2010, having known him when they went to the same ‘crammer’ in the 1960s. As revenge and following a bet with Ian Rankin on Twitter, Peter wrote Amis into his next book, giving him a very small penis. (Amis Smallbone is ridiculed by a prostitute, who compares his manhood to a stubby pencil. The gangster he is staying with says, “You’ve always traded on being your dad’s son, but you was never half the man he was.”)

Some of you will know that Peter James’s books are set mostly in Brighton. He told the audience that Brighton is a magnet for criminals and is the drug-injecting capital of the UK (son’s girlfriend who has applied to Brighton Art College take note). I was particularly intrigued by the existence of ‘knocker boys’ who dupe pensioners into selling their heirlooms for a fraction of their value. 
Lots of laughs later, I headed back to The Cairn and was greeted by a particularly bad ‘pub singer’ in the foyer doing a poor rendition of Islands In The Stream and a middle-aged lady dancing alone while her husband looked on lasciviously. I just hoped my room wasn’t next to theirs. I got as far away from the ‘entertainment’ as possible and ordered a glass of wine while swapping ‘Gromit’ expressions with a Scottish lady who obviously had escaped the foyer seating area for similar reasons. I was then joined by two lovely Swedish librarians who I’d met in the lunch queue at The Old Swan earlier in the day and we proceeded to talk books and Britain.
This blog is going to have to be at least a two-parter! More tomorrow!

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Chocolate Heartache

Every other Wednesday I receive an organic veg box from Riverford. Today was one of those moments when I pick up the box and groan. Not one, but two aubergines! I never know what to do with them apart from put them in a curry or soup. Then I had a bright idea. I have a cookery book by Harry Eastwood, which tells you how to make cakes using vegetables. I quickly scanned the index for 'aubergines' and found Chocolate Heartache cake, using two aubergines. Excellent! I even had the rest of the ingredients (including 300g of 70% chocolate) in my cupboards and just enough eggs. Phew! I haven't finished making it yet, but I'm sure it will taste divine with a cup of tea later.

In other news..... I've become a little obsessed with history... specifically the Second World War. This is partly because my unfinished pocket novel is set in that era and I need to do lots of research, and partly because I've just finished Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, which now ranks amongst my top ten reads of all time. Now I'm avidly seeking out novels set in a similar time period (1910 to 1945) and was pleased to discover there are still two Persephone books in my collection I haven't yet read (High Wages by Dorothy Whipple and A Very Great Profession: The Women's Novel 1914-39 by Nicola Beauman). I'm currently reading Dawn Chorus by Joan Wyndham (her diaries are also brilliant!). All this has made me wonder whether I can actually finish the crime novel I'm rewriting for the millionth time or whether I should set about writing an historical novel. It's interesting how our tastes and inclinations change as both a reader and a writer as we get older.

Some of you will be relieved to hear that Issue 9 of The Yellow Room goes off to the typesetter this afternoon! I will then revamp the website a little, as I now want to sell PDF versions of some of the earlier issues in order to help cover printing costs. Some subscribers may have noticed that their subscriptions have automatically been cancelled by Paypal. Do not panic! I will contacting all subscribers to let them know the current status of their subscription and when they need to renew.

In future, there will only be two windows per year for submitting to The Yellow Room - in September and February. The plan is to publish more competition winners than previously. Payment can now only be a free subscription.

Friday, 24 May 2013

The Yellow Room 1000 Word Spring Competition Longlist

I can't believe how long it's been since I last blogged! I'm also pleased to report how much better I've been feeling since taking a daily dose of Soya Isoflavones!

I've been focusing on submitting stories to the women's magazines in the last couple of months, as well as returning to do Write Invite every Saturday. I'm pleased to report that I've had two stories accepted by Woman's Weekly and I've been a runner-up, but not yet a winner, a few times in the Write Invite Competition. I haven't been entering as many short story competitions as last year, but still like to enter my favourite ones like Word Hut and Multi Story.

Issue 9 of The Yellow Room should be published this summer. It was put on hold while I gave my office a good de-cluttering. I've also been busy with my son's 18th birthday celebrations (his birthday was on 13th May). I can't believe he's now officially an adult. He's now in the throes of A2 exams.

Anyway, without further a do, here is the longlist for latest Yellow Room Competition. I hope to announce the shortlist and the winners in the next few days.

A Lesson For The Teacher
A Year of Rain
Bob Marley and A Fear of Needles
Brighton Beach Sundays
Crossing the Bridge
Earth Mother
Full Time
Just A Thought
Last Respects
Let’s Pretend It’s The Ritz
Me and DG
Peace of Mind
Rebooting Dougie Mason
Snap Decision
Stars and Beetles
Swamp Monster
Swopping Beads
The Corner
The Danger of Cake Crumbs
The Good Daughter
The Knot of Faith
The Lost Art of Conversation
The Map of Us
The Pony
The Right Castenets
The Trouble With Virgins
There Are No Reasons
To Be The Beach
White Lilies

Thursday, 14 March 2013

From One Extreme To Another

I don't look like the lady in the photograph, but I probably felt just as good when I went for my run this morning. Talk about from one extreme to another. If you read yesterday's post, then you'll know how negative and menopausal I was feeling. I woke up this morning feeling great, despite a few night sweats! Could this be down to the red wine I treated myself to last night? Or could it be the soya milk latte I had? Or the Alpro soya yogurt? Perhaps it's the sunshine? Or is it just a fluke?

I've come to the conclusion that I have to take each day as it comes. I'm a bit of a stickler for routine, so I get upset when I don't feel up to doing the things I usually do on a set day (like always running three miles on a  Wednesday and a Friday). I felt like running this morning, so that's what I did. Who knows how I'll feel tomorrow?

Anyway, I'm off to do some stretches, then a shower before working on some edits for my pocket novel. I hope to send off a story to The Word Hut Competition today and possibly one to Woman's Weekly Fiction Special. My plan is to bombard the latter with submissions until they have to say yes!!

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Mid-Life Inertia!

I'm back! I think!

I can only apologise for not blogging more frequently of late, but I've been struck down by lethargy and inertia. It's my age, m'dears. I've been plagued with horrendous night sweats/shivers and hot flushes during the day as well as extreme tiredness. I can't seem to function normally at all. I even had to cancel my run today (this happens quite often).

The menopause has also affected my creativity. Self-doubt seems more overwhelming than usual and I haven't got the get-up-and-go to make myself sit at the keyboard and write. I can totally identify with the main character in Sue Townsend's novel, The Woman Who Went To Bed For A Year. That's exactly what I'd like to do. Go to bed and stay there.

Last year I was driven by that big number: 50. I was determined to make a go of my writing with a 'now or never' attitude. I entered practically every short story competition I could find, and I had a fair amount of success. Then something happened. I can't pinpoint the day or the week or the month, but I seemed to grind to a halt. The long winter didn't help, and spring still seems a long way off even though we're well into March. At least the sun is shining today, despite being bitterly cold and there being the odd flurry of snow.

There's a line from Carole King's song, It's Too Late: 'Something inside has died and I can't hide..' That's kind of how I feel. I can't summon up the energy to feel remotely excited about anything, so it makes it rather difficult to pursue my writing goals. I realise this is just a phase and it will pass, but it's an unpleasant phase. There's also the loss of youth, looks, vitality and memory to cope with! Add to that a growing awareness of my own mortality and the outlook is pretty depressing!

Anyway, there were two pleasant surprises in the post today. A signed hardback copy of Kate Atkinson's latest novel, Life After Life (a freebie from The Harrogate Crime Writers Festival Events team) and a copy of To The Edge Of There And Back, the 2011/12 Whittaker Prize Anthology featuring one of my short stories, Metal Guru. And I did write... just a few lines......

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Guest Blog: Madalyn Morgan Interview

I first came across Madalyn on the Really Relaxed Writers Facebook page and I was intrigued by the cover of her novel, Foxden Acres when I saw a post about it. It immediately conjured up the flavour of the era Madalyn was writing about - The Second World War. Another writer friend, Amanda Huggins, had read Foxden Acres and recommended it, so I downloaded it onto my Kindle. Before I had a chance to start reading it, I contacted Madalyn and asked if I could interview her for this blog. Madalyn has been an actress for over thirty years, performing on television and in the West End. She is also a radio journalist, and has written articles for newspapers, including The Daily Mail, The Islington Gazette, and the Leicester Mercury.

Is Foxden Acres your first novel and if so, what made you want to write it?
I began writing Foxden Acres after my mother asked me to find the Polish pilot who had made her a Wellington bomber out of brass, during the Second World War.  Franek had escaped Poland to fly with the RAF and stayed with my grandparent s while Bitteswell Aerodrome – two miles away – was being made ready to accommodate allied and Commonwealth Air Force personnel.  Franek had died, but I found his son and my mother was able to give him the Wellington.  Coincidences do happen because, at that time, I was doing a correspondence writing course and the next module was biography.  I wrote a biography about my mum, which my tutor liked, but she said that because mum and I were both unknown, I should turn it into a fiction.  And I shall one day.  
Foxden Acres is my first novel.  At least it’s the first that I’ve completed and had published.  I’ve plotted several  contemporary novels,  and half-written one that has the working title, ‘Forty-Two into Twenty-Eight Won’t Go.’  But I need to finish the other books in the Dudley sisters quartet.  Foxden Acres is the first of four books about the lives of four very different sisters during the Second World War.
Foxden Acres is about love, strength and crossing the class and gender divide.  Bess Dudley, the daughter of a groom and a trainee teacher, is in love with James Hadleigh, the heir to the Foxden Estate.  When she’s told that James is engaged to socially acceptable Annabel Hadleigh, Bess accepts a teaching post in London.  War breaks out, the children are evacuated, and Bess returns to Foxden to organise a troop of Land Girls.  Flying Officer James Foxden falls in love with Bess.  But Bess has got to know and respect Annabel.  Can she be with James if it means breaking her friend’s heart?  Besides, Bess has a shameful secret that she has vowed to keep from James at any cost…
The second book, Applause, is about blind ambition – and is Margot Dudley’s story.  Margot marries her childhood sweetheart and leaves Foxden to live with him in London.  She is fiercely ambitious and works her way from being an usherette in a West End theatre, to leading lady of the show.  However, she soon finds herself caught up in a web of deceit, black-market racketeers, Nazis, drugs and alcohol.  
The third book, China Blue, is about love and courage – and is Claire Dudley’s story.  While in the WAAF Claire is seconded to the Royal Air Force’s Advanced Air Strike Force.  She falls in love with Mitchell ‘Mitch’ McKenzie, an American Airman who is shot down parachuting into France.  At the end of the war, working in a liberated POW camp in Hamburg she is told that Mitch is still alive.  Do miracles happen?
The fourth book, The Bletchley Secret, is about strength and determination – and is the youngest sister, Ena Dudley’s story.  Ena works in a factory building components for machines bound for Bletchley Park during WWII.  The Bletchley Secret costs her the love of her life.  Some years after the war has ended, Ena, now happily married, is running a hotel with her husband when she encounters someone from her past.

Had you had experience of writing short stories or articles before moving on to the novel? If so, how easy or difficult was it to make the switch?

Writing short stories is the most difficult medium.  I respect writers who have mastered the art of short story writing.  I find the discipline incredibly difficult.  I spent the first couple of years of my writing career juggling acting with writing articles and short stories (as well as trying to write my first novel).  Articles I liked because I enjoyed the research and, with practice, I mastered the art of writing them.  Novel writing I loved, because I could get lost in another world, but short stories?  I couldn’t give them away – and still can’t.  It took me a long time, but eventually I got my act together and decided to concentrate on what I enjoyed most.  And from then on, I became more successful at novel writing.  There are writers who can write novels and short stories equally well.  I take off my hat to them.

Is Foxden based on a real place? If so, where is it?

I based the Foxden Estate on the Cromwell Estate where my maternal grandfather (who I sadly never knew because he died before I was born) was Second Horseman to Lord Cromwell - the 5th Baron Cromwell.  Last year I went to a charity fund-raiser there and the present owner (whose husband bought the estate in the late 1960s) took me to the stables where my grandfather had been a groom.  It was a really weird and wonderful experience.  The stables were exactly as I had envisaged.  Walking past the main stable block to the foaling stable, I had an excited, yet very warm, feeling.  And, although the groom’s quarters had been turned into two apartments, from the outside they looked exactly as I had described them.  From what my hostess told me, the interior had been the same as the land girl’s billet - until the conversion.  And, if that wasn’t enough to make the hairs on my arms bristle, the music room (which in Foxden Acres is the ballroom) has steps leading down to a lawn, which in turn leads down to the lake.  I mentioned to her that in my novel I call the lawn, the peacock lawn, and to my astonishment she told me that they had once kept peacocks and they had been allowed to roam freely on the lawn.  I have never seen peacocks on the lawn. I have seen the lake from the public footpath that leads from the church to the village.  I was christened in the church (not that I remember) and twelve years later, I was confirmed there.

I based Bess’s father on my late grandfather.  He was an amazing horseman who built bridges on horseback during the First Wold War.  He accompanied Lord Cromwell to polo matches all over the country – travelling with the horses of course.  He rode at the side of Lady Cromwell, who wouldn't hunt without him.  King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, The late Queen Mother, often visited the Cromwell Estate.  My grandfather accompanied Lord Cromwell and the King, riding behind them with fresh horses.  As they passed the cottage, His Royal Highness would acknowledge my grandmother with a nod.  My mother told me that she and her siblings often saw the Princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret, looking out of the Hall's nursery window.  They would wave to them and the young Princesses would wave back.

Foxden Acres is set in World War 2.  Did you have to do a lot of research and where did you start?

I did tons of research, but I loved it.  If you set a story in a well-known period in time like The Second World War, you have to know what happened and when. You can’t go shopping to Selfridges if it had been bombed the day before. It’s the same for the sisters.  Because there are four stories, I had to be careful about their timelines. When they are together in the first story, they must be in the other stories.  Not easy. I have kept a diary for each of them, so time will tell.  I’ve been an actress for thirty-odd years and the research needed before you can be a character on stage is similar to what’s needed to write a book.  In both professions you need the Five Ws.  Who are you, where are you, what are you doing, when and why.  

What made you set your novel in a different era as opposed to the present?  Were there any particular difficulties you encountered such as capturing the way people spoke at the time?
I have a great deal of respect for the men and women who lived and fought in the Second World War.  And, I love the 1930s.  I should have been born in the era.  Seriously, my mother used to tell me about the work she did, and the friends she had during the war.  Although it was a horrific time, people pulled together.  I think life was short in those days, and everyone knew it.  Young woman said goodbye to their sweethearts not knowing if they would see them again.  So they made the best of every day, every hour, every minute.  My mum and her friends worked hard, but had a lot of fun too.  Every weekend there was a dance somewhere.  My mother was good with hair and at lunchtime she would curl, or wave, in her workmate’s hair, ready for the dance that night.  After work they would go home and have tea, get washed and changed, and then cycle to the dance wearing scarves round their heads.  In the cloakroom mum would brush out their waves and curls before going into the dance hall.  

Which of the main characters in Foxden Acres is your favourite?  Which qualities do you think would make readers identify with that character.

Bess is my favourite character.  Bess is strong and capable, as well as sensitive and caring.  She is a decent hard working woman who is not afraid to go for what she wants.  She’s bright and ambitious, without being selfish.  And she’s loyal.  I love Bess’s strength.  Most of the women I know are strong.  Women are able to put up with a lot.  In times of crisis, like a war, it's the women who hold the family together.
I love the gorgeous James of course, but Tom, Bess’s older brother, is my favourite man.  Tom always has a twinkle in his eye, and he’s generous to a fault.  He’s brave too.  Sensitive and very brave.

Did you write a detailed outline for Foxden Acres before you started writing or are you a 'seat of the pants' kind of writer?
I plot everything.  The story changes as you’re writing it.  That’s where it gets exciting.  The characters take on lives of their own, and then – and I’m sure you’ve experienced it, Jo - the writer flies.  I believe there has to be a solid foundation to every story.  If there isn’t, and you lose your way; have what they call, writer’s block, you don’t have anything to fall back on.

It can be difficult being self-motivated and disciplined enough to finish a first draft of a novel.  Did you find this to be the case and did you set yourself a series of targets?
Yes,  I made rules, but broke them.  The thing is you need to write every day and read every day.  Reading good books inspired me to get on and do it.  I have deadlines for my articles, and I meet them, but left to my own devices…    I’m going to Caerleon this year to do, Advanced Novel Writing with Lesley Horton.  Lesley’s course was, Novel writing Moving It On, last year.  That’s where I took Applause, my second novel.  This year it needs to be finished before July.  I’m 50,000 words in, and another 50,000 or thereabouts to go.  Lesley Horton is fabulous.  Working with her is my incentive to get the first draft of Applause finished.

What made you decide to publish the novel on Kindle first?  Do you have an agent? 
I've come close to getting an agent three times.  The first asked for the rest of the manuscript after reading the first three chapters.  However, it was sent back within 36 hours, with leaflet advertising their self-help book on how to present a manuscript – signed, Office Manager.  The office manager had clearly not read my letter thanking the agent for asking for the rest of the novel.  The second agent was lovely.  She said it had taken her a long time to decide not to take me and gave me some very good advice, which I have used – and she was right.  She has asked to see, Applause.  Whether she remembers me by then we’ll have to see.  And the last agent kept me ‘exclusive’ for five months, before telling me to rewrite the first three chapters and submit them again.  That was when I decided I had waited long enough.  But I didn’t just dash out and self-publish.  Debbie Viggiano was my beta reader.  And she was brilliant.  She made me work harder than anyone has before.  Then, before I published, I sent the manuscript to Alison Neale, The Proof Fairy http://www.theprooffairy.com/proofreading-services/  and then to Rebecca Emin http://ramblingsofarustywriter.blogspot.co.uk/p/self-publishing-solutions  to upload onto Kindle.  I did not want to risk there being any writing, printing, or formatting mistakes.    

What advice would you give to would-be novelists starting out?
Join a writing group.  Like-minded people are supportive, especially when you are starting out.  And, do a college course.  I did a correspondence course with The Writers Bureau.  Research and find a course that suites you.  A correspondence course suited me, because I was working full time to pay the mortgage, as well as doing the odd television job.  Above all, read!  You learn so much from reading.  Read anything and everything that is well written.  I don’t believe in the theory that even badly written books can help you.  At the beginning of your writing career, it’s too easy to pick up bad habits.  There are thousands of well-written books out there.  Why would anyone want to read rubbish?

I believe that Foxden Acres is the first in a series of novels based on the Dudley sisters.  Was it your intention from the beginning to write a series of books and why?
Yes and no.  Originally, it was my intention to write about four sisters based on a family I knew, but that idea went out of the window early on.  However, 160,000 words – and growing – meant the first draft of Foxden Acres was longer than Doctor Who’s scarf.  So, I went back to the idea of four sisters, and four stories.  Each story is linked, but each will stand on its own and can be read in any order.

Before I published Foxden Acres I set up a dedicated website.  And I’m very active on both blogs.

Foxden Acres website: https://sites.google.com/site/foxdenacresbymadalynmorgan/
My Fiction Blog:  http://madalynmorgansfiction.blogspot.co.uk/
My Non-Fiction Blog.  http://madalynmorgan.blogspot.co.uk/
My Website:  www.madalyn@madalynmorgan.com
Raiders Broadcast Radio website - www.raidersbroadcast.com

Thank you for doing the interview, Madalyn, and good luck with promoting Foxden Acres.