Friday, 25 December 2009

Happy Christmas!

If you take a glance up from your manuscript and arrive on this page, I suggest you rush off and pour yourself a drink, eat something wicked and say a nice thing to the next person you see.

Lots of love and
A Very Merry Christmas!

Cathie x

Come back soon!

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Go skating!

Are you sitting comfortably? Then hop over to and you can read my short story that made it to the shortlist for the Woman and Home competition.

It's about love, art, travel and shoes with kitten heels.
Oh, and the chap in the painting on the left. In a moment of serendipity I found his picture on the web when I was researching Edinburgh galleries. You can read how important he is to the story and yet, I had written a goodly amount before he turned up.

If I'd have been really clever I would have thought about including something topical. I see the winner has written a story about the effects of redundancy on a relationship. Note to self: pay attention to outside world!

Janet came to my class for a couple of terms last year. Not that she needed me, but I might as well have a little reflected glory!

Saturday, 28 November 2009

What is it about short stories?

I've just added another blog to the list below. THE ELEPHANT IN THE WRITING ROOM has got a wonderful post on the writing of short stories. It features a story by Vanessa Gebbie which I would recommend you get hold of but don't be put off reading the blog. It contains many wise words about what makes a good short story.
Go now. Go on.
Scroll down...on the left.

Monday, 23 November 2009


I've put my first chapter and synopsis in the post so, at last, I can stop thinking about that novel for a minute or two.


I have half a short story written which I would like to return to especially as I have nearly finished reading the amazing Short Circuit: A Guide to the Art of the Short Story.
I can't recommend it highly enough. In fact, I will certainly steal from the ideas and exercises. Each chapter is written by a different prize winning author and they all teach Creative Writing, so are excellent communicators. There's a little list of their own favourite stories at the end of each chapter too and space for notes at the back. It's a great textbook but is so interesting and readable that I'm practically walking round with it.

Best of all, it makes me want to flex my writing muscles. So...

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Am I still here?

I am still here! This long silence is what happens when a deadline draws near. I am going to enter my novel for the Harry Bowling prize and I have been have a late flurry of redrafting. This is in the light of a couple of critiques which have been very useful. Never be afraid of getting work critiqued at any stage! Now, I can read the first chapter without a twinge of doubt. Of course, there is the searing stab of doubt that ruptures a few organs periodically but that's a life issue as much as a writing one.

No, the twinge business has gone because I feel that the first chapter is as good as it is going to ever get. I really do. Really. No, honestly.

Wish me luck!

Sunday, 1 November 2009

This way or that?

I've started something new. Gah! All my fine words.

Don't care really. Perhaps it was the novel in a month business I keep hearing about although I hate to think what the results would be if I tried that. Very bad coccydynia, I guess. I've written a potential chapter one and am now going to make myself write an entire synposis (that was such a nice typo I'm leaving it in). I think it might save me some serious editing in the long run but maybe it won't.

I wrestle with the conflicting thoughts that say, stick with what you know and get better at it and try another way, explore new territory. Perhaps I should think of a pseudonym and do both.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

The Listing Tower of Prose

List too much and you might fall over. I have been reading a novel recently that has a great deal to recommend it. Good premise, interesting characters and dialogue but every so often it seizes up because of a list. Not a down the page shopping type list...on the contrary a beautifully written, descriptive list but still a list and during lists nothing much is happening to move the story on and worse, the reader might be admiring your list but like a kid in the supermarket, can soon get bored.

If I describe my kitchen as having washing up in the sink and a dish of half rotting grapes on the worktop you may well get the idea that I am negligent when it comes to domestic tasks and not keen on grapes. If I proceed to tell you what's in the fridge you may well maintain interest and compare it to your own fridge even. After that, listing the contents of my larder, what's in the ironing basket (I'd have to make that up as I have no ironing basket) or the ornaments on the mantelpiece start to pall.

Lists can be great if they have real bearing on the plot or are insightful to a character but if they are merely descriptive, take care.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Not zzzzz and I should be.

Bonkers day yesterday and I ought to be a state of sleeply dreamage. Instead, I'm wide awake at four in the morning.

I blame the poets. It was the same last year. I'd come home from class totally fired up with ideas and at the same time sweating about whether it was right for me to suggest they edit out that 'and'. Lovely class.

Yesterday morning I wrote a short monologue. A thousand words. Straight down. Bang. I amazed myself. It's for a competition and I thought I was close to the deadline. As it happens it isn't till the end of next week, so I am now having a leisurely redraft. It's quite soothing. Yawn.

Monday, 5 October 2009


A word of warning about emulating the habits of other novelists. I got up faithfully every morning at six to write having heard that the mind is clearer, the world is quieter, no interruptions etc. All of which is true. It's also true that never in my life have I been a lark but I enjoyed the early mornings very much. It was quieter, my mind certainly was, in fact, my mind was so quiet I'm now wondering if it was actually still asleep. Why do I think this? Because my writing was horrendously sloppy! That's why the redraft and proof have been so painful. Stupid mistakes, spelling errors (and I'm not that great when on top form), the dread repetition...

Next novel, I will write when fully awake. I might save myself a whole load of time.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Good News

Just received a lovely email from Pat Gordon, a student who came to my classes last year. She has won the monthly Writers News competition. I'm thrilled for her and pleased also that her story came directly from a piece of work I set.

I have three new classes this term. That's lots of new people and lots of new ideas. Phew! Can I keep up?

Wednesday, 23 September 2009


Down with you, new story! Get down.

It's yapping round my ankles. I've tried kicking it away but it keeps coming back. I'm considering locking it up in a new folder and occasionally throwing titbits in its direction. Do you think that will keep it at bay?

Monday, 21 September 2009

A good working environment

I have finished proofing and already am twitchy about what I'm going to write next. I must not start something new! I really mustn't. It's big displacement activity that stops me getting the novel 'out there'.

An even bigger displacement activity is that I am housesitting in the most beautiful place over looking the Exe estuary. If I turn my head I can see miles in either direction. Just watching the birds and the boats is fascinating and therefore luring me away from the page. But hey... this doesn't come round very often. Perfect weather too. I might have to stroll down the end of the garden and commune with the ducks.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009


I have given myself a deadline to finish proofing my novel before term starts. Ten days. Not long. But the truth is I can do it in a day if I put my mind to it. The danger is getting distracted into rewriting when it isn't really necessary. The worry is that I could just say the same thing in a different way. Repeat myself perhaps. Sometimes, a dalliance with more mellifluous prose inhibits the narrative thread. Sometimes, a whole new idea can feel imperative. Did you see that amazing sunset the other day? I was in the car on the way home from...

Ten days? Pfft! No prob.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Not Boating Monthly

I'm still proofing the novel. It's a slow business and I'm shocked at how sloppy I was. I've changed the title too which feels rather unnerving. It's been the same for so long that its hard to think of it with another.

Titles are tricky. One recent example is a short story that I have filed under Boating Monthly. There are no boats in the story, it isn't by the sea and only once mentions a magazine which certainly isn't Boating Monthly. In fact, I deleted all mention of Boating Monthly in the first five minutes of the story's life.

It's called The Remedy now.

Saturday, 29 August 2009

Excuses, excuses!

Long time no blog but hey, it's the holidays and I've been...well, actually I've been working really hard. It's the time of year when I have to wear a Landlady hat so time for writing is limited. I'm also writing a short story and perhaps more significantly trying to proof the final draft of the novel. I'm not good at proofing so I am printing it out a chapter at a time and going through line by line using a ruler to cover the next bit. It may sound dreary but as I get further in, I feel more and more excited by how the book is shaping up.
Just as well, because the energy required to try to get it published is more than all the effort put into writing it.

Friday, 14 August 2009

Chop chop!

I'm back home after a couple of weeks away. I didn't write more than a couple of sentences in all that time either. Tell a lie, I wrote a postcard and a birthday card. On the train home I wrote the opening to a story that I am going to scrap. It's a good story but I got the slant wrong. I think. It could be that I've written the two pages that happen before the beginning. I do that quite often, rather like going on too long after the end. Both are easy traps to fall into. Now, when I think I've finished a story, I try out different places that could serve as the beginning and the same for the end. It's amazing how many paragraphs are surplus to requirements.

One day, I might try amalgamating all the bits left over. Something serendipitous and fun might occur, like the odd shape jam tarts made from the pastry cut off a flan.

Monday, 3 August 2009


I finished my novel again last night. It's the second time and eighteen months after the first time I finished it and only about fifty percent of the original novel is still in. It saw many redrafts along the way too and now, I'm thinking that next time I need to be much clearer about what the novel is about and where it is going.
Of course, I thought I was. After the first novel (which sitteth sweetly patient in the drawer) I said the same about the second but got led astray. In hindsight, I recognised influence from authors I was reading at the time. Sudden author intervention after reading David Lodge for example. Casual slaying of the innocent, even the dog for heaven's sake, after intense watching of The Wire. Don't laugh, the impressive thing was how seamlessly I managed it!
What was I thinking? I was finding out how they did it. And that's not a bad thing, but the middle of a novel isn't the time to experiment. Sounds obvious? Yes, but I'm not sorry. I've learnt loads and dog lived to tell the tale (err, no he didn't...tell the tale, that is. He did survive, just hurt his paw. Actually the dog's female. You have to watch that sort of thing too).

Thursday, 23 July 2009

I've been framed

No more classes until the end of September! What will I do with myself until then? All manner of things, that's what I will do, all manner of things. Accounts first, even though I still have the end of a novel to be getting on with and another story is itching at the temples. Still, both will have to wait until I've finished reading a delicious novel by one of my favourite authors, Paul Auster. This one is called The Book of Illusions and I have about another hundred pages to go. I'm not going to review it here, just to say that Auster is a master story teller. He makes it all seem so simple. Try him and see. Oh, and check out page 242; in a paragraph he gives us the framework for a romance. A good exercise would be to write an actual story using his frame. I think I will...when I've finished the book that is.

ps The bit where the woman walks in the room carrying a gun...well!

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Showin' an' tellin'

I'm sure my students must get tired of the sound of my voice so here's another voice saying the same things. It ain't just me, folks!
I love the dribble analogy too.

Monday, 13 July 2009

No news is bad news

I'm feeling very grumpy about not winning the competition. Third time I've been shortlisted and still no win. Sigh. What was worse was knowing the day the story was being judged, waiting for the call and then, no call at all! Horrid.

But hey, what an ungrateful person I am. Yes, I am. I had a Macbook Air in my sights too.

Interesting how the language has changed over the years. In 2005, I was a runner-up, last year I was a finalist, this year I am shortlisted. Next year...?

Now I really am pushing my luck!

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

On being shortlisted

Last week I had a call from a lovely friend and ex-student of mine; Janet Kipling writes the very entertaining and informative yoga blog, Sex and the Citta Vritti linked to on the left. She was in a state of high excitement because she'd just heard that she'd been short listed for the Woman & Home magazine short story competition. I was thrilled for her! And also stunned because I'd just heard that I was short listed too, for the third time.

Now we are waiting to hear if either of us have won the big prize.

I confess that my ambition, Captain Burning Steel, pictured on the left at the bottom of the page, has been sharpening up her flame thrower. I'm not going to do all that coy, oh, I won't mind if I don't win, stuff. I really do want to win! I note that Janet says on her blog that she's not at all attached to winning. Sigh! I really should be a better person. Or maybe I ought to take up yoga...

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Sweating teeth

After writing the last blog, I spent a whole evening sweating over a particularly tricky chapter. Told myself I wasn't allowed to go to bed until I'd done it. My character's spat out their teeth as well as their words it seemed but I did write the bit that was most troublesome. It was the turning point in understanding of my heroine and she was in a confrontational scene. At the point where I had written the key passage, even though I hadn't finished the chapter, I went to bed.

Next morning, I romped through the rest of the chapter, easy as winking. I woke up thinking the worst was over and feeling optimistic. If I had given in the night before, I would have yet to face the difficulty.

It may well be that the whole thing gets redrafted and I end up editing out the chunk that gave me the most grief. It won't matter. What would matter is if I hung on to it because it gave me grief. It would be a poor book indeed if the reader could plot where the author got into trouble along the way.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Nothing to see here...

What? Not blogged for more than a week? Tut tut. If I were passing through here I'd be thinking that Ms Blogger has got bored or run out of ideas. Fact is, I'm rewriting the denouement (look it up or come back to a future blog) of my novel for the umpteenth time and all my focus is on that.

In the meantime, scroll down and read the poem that Faber have so kindly made available in widget form. I hope it makes you want to flex your own writing muscles.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Said, the Invincible Invisible.

Said is a superhero. In fact, I am thinking of making him come alive at the Superhero Factory linked to on the left. Said is responsible for all of our dialogue making sense in that very self effacing way of his that makes him so attractive and powerful. Said, you are my brother in arms.

Consider this dialogue:
'You've given my dialogue homework a D!' exclaimed Vlad.
'Because it was rubbish!' scoffed Ms Teacher.
'But you're supposed to be supportive and kind' Vlad protested.
'Pffft,' sneered Ms Teacher, 'I was. On a bad day you'd have got an F!'

Exclaimed, scoffed, protested and sneered. Charming words and so overwhelming in this context that if it weren't for the sheer and unmistakable brilliance of my witty dialogue, you may have slid over what the conversation was about altogether.

In some contemporary fiction, who says what, is used sparingly or missed out altogether and the reader has to take care to follow. Usually the quality of penmanship is high in these cases and Said only makes an occasional appearance for clarity's sake. (Clarity, another Superhero) When Said steps in we follow with ease. We don't get distracted away from the conversation and all's well with the world.

'Hurrah!' said Vlad, 'you've given me an A'
'That's because you're a star in the firmament that is my class and you deserved it,' said Ms Teacher, but all the while she was wondering whether Said ought to have an axe or a flame-thrower.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

BEEEEEEEEEP!!!!!! Ping...

Is touch typing on the school curriculum? It should be. And why not alongside learning to write? 
It is such a useful skill! Couldn't 'A' and 'a' be recognised on the keyboard and tapped only with the little finger of the left hand. Is that so hard? Perhaps it is. I learnt to touch type about ten years ago. I was dedicated and practised daily, keen in a way I never was when I learnt the piano. 

How text appears on a page matters. Really, really matters. At my last class I tried to demonstrate this with a very fun exercise where two aliens are having an argument. Their names are Beeper and Pingy. Beeper can only say beep and Pingy can only say ping. Punctuation was allowed along with variations on the words lettering, such as beeeep. Size, spacing and case all mattered. 

I had a lovely time. The results were fun, clearly expressive and, I hope, a first step in appreciating that there isn't one way to present text on a page. There are many. It is a question of style and content. An alien argument looks whacky. A letter has a template depending on what type of letter it is. E-mails have separated paragraphs and don't indent, like this blog and web page text. Novels come in a variety of styles but mostly there paragraphs and speech is indented and spaces are indicate new scenes or a lapse of time.

I'm such a fuss pot about all this. Isn't content much more important than presentation? Well, yes, but the teacher in me gets a little tetchy when I see the same inappropriate formatting over and over again. A general rule is that the reading of prose wants to run as smoothly as possible. The proof of the pudding is to read it out loud. So often, how something is written down, sabotages a good piece. Shame, I cry. And so unnecessary! 

Monday, 1 June 2009


On Saturday, Exeter Writers hosted an open afternoon for other writing groups in Devon. It was a jolly occasion and lots of tea and fairy cakes were consumed. Devon is the third largest county in England and it was good to see folk from as far away as Hartland and Barnstaple. Successes were shared and there were many interesting readings. It was a pleasure to be in the same room with so many people passionate about writing. 

I wonder if any research has been done into deafness within the writing profession. I am just about to start Deaf Sentence by David Lodge and on Saturday there was a frequent cry of speak up, I can't hear you! Admittedly, the acoustics were difficult and the majority of attendees must have been in possession of a bus pass but it also showed just how keen people were to listen. 

From my teaching experience I have gleaned that the best writers are often the best listeners too. A great deal of listening has to be done in class as students read their work out loud (another challenge) and while it is often entertaining, a huge amount of useful information is revealed for our delectation. Not just different ideas and content, but structural devices, use of tension and release, the effectiveness of repetition (that old chestnut) and varied syntax. Listening is a skill and can be honed. It rewards study. 

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Just make believe

I remember listening to Sebastian Faulks being asked how he managed to write about being in the trenches during WW1 so vividly and his reply was, that he simply made it up. The adverb, simply, is mine and the fact is, making things up can be quite hard work. I like to think of the imagination as being rather like a muscle. You have to keep exercising it so that it doesn't become flaccid or moribund.
Sebastian Faulks went on to describe how he imagined being in the skin of his protagonist, how would things taste, smell, what would he see and how would he be feeling. That requires effort because it has result has to be convincing and above all, real. It's no good using abstract language; he felt bad or the carnage was dreadful, that doesn't describe the real scene, that requires the reader to substitute his/her own pictures regurgitated from their own fragmentary memory. I keep saying in class, you have to be there, wherever there is they're writing about. This also includes to some extent becoming your fictional characters and for those LotR fans who dress up as Elves or Orcs, this is more than just in the imagination! (not me, I hasten to add)

So, it is important to remember that it is possible to write in the first person and have that character express views that are not yours. I am not a man, but I have just finished a story when I am thinking the man's thoughts. It is what writers do all the time. They make things up. I am not any of my characters. Sometimes I may agree with what they think and do, but not always.

Monday, 18 May 2009

Free help. Who needs it?

If you have downloaded iTunes or, like me, you are an Apple fan and have automatic access to the store, then you could do worse than download (for free) the series of podcasts entitled Roy's Writing Tools. These are fifty short podcasts of two or three minutes each during which the author Roy Peter Clark, examines one aspect of successful writing. Now, he is a journalist and as such favours the succinct, punchy style one associates with column inches, but his explanations of what does and doesn't work, backed up by succinct examples, is very useful indeed. 

Now, did you see that repetition of succinct? See Tool No 12 and my previous blog. 

Monday, 11 May 2009

Repetition again and the one about whether she's an astronaut or an actress.

Today, I'm sending off the story that I wrote during the Easter holidays. I put it aside for a few weeks and got on with something else. When I went back to the first story I found all sorts of, not exactly errors, but places that needed tightening up. I'm very good at repetition, for example, in this post I have already caught myself having written one three times. There. That's better. Now there are none and instead of three short sentences that I started this paragraph with, there are now two. Previously, I had opened with I'm sending off a story today. The one I wrote during the Easter holidays etc As yet, I don't think in beautiful syntax but I'm working on it.

Another habit I have, is to include unnecessary and distracting information. Not a good idea when writing short stories because the limited word count should force both writer and reader to look inward to the central thrust of the story and not gaze out the window during the journey. In the story I finished this week, I needed my protagonist's wife to be late home so as not to notice his detour into a strip club on his way home. Here's the sentence I wrote: Carrie was doing an evening shift at the warehouse, so wouldn't miss him. It's a perfectly ok sentence but in the redraft when I had to cut a couple of hundred words I got rid of at the warehouse. The point being that Carrie's job was not going to help move Ted's story forward one tiny bit, she could have been an astronaut or an actress. I needed to have some explanation but the slightest would do, especially as in the very next sentence we are in the strip club and suddenly, Carrie's job doesn't interest us at all.

Monday, 4 May 2009

Daily dilemma

I'm starting to think about the dilemma of my next class. That is, the dilemma of having dilemma as a theme. Should I research via Google or shall I go and look at my bookshelves in the hope that something occurs to me? Now, don't leap to the conclusion that Google is the best bet. My bookshelves are much more likely to come up with a more satisfactory way to go because I have actually read all the books on them so will therefore be able to start from a point of first hand knowing as opposed to second hand not really knowing. 
That does mean getting out of my chair and going upstairs to where my copious library resides. A trip that passes dangerously close to the kettle, will put me in sight of the piano and once upstairs, apart from on the way recognising the potential for the stair carpet to rise up and complain of neglect, I shall see the overflowing washing basket beckon. 
One of the myriad daily dilemmas I face. I'm so glad it isn't a matter of life and death. And they say you should write what you know. What? Is that you snoring?

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Ideas sausage

I have another idea. This could be a big idea, a small idea or an idea that looms out of the mist only to retreat again but rather like the story idea I had before, its dammed ticklish. When it thinks I've forgotten it, it pops up again like, well, just like a pop up advert that the computer hasn't managed to screen out. I have taken note. 

This week I have started three new classes. There was some doubt over whether there would be enough numbers but old friends have returned and much to my amazement lots of new people have signed up. Why aren't they out there gardening or surfing or flying kites? Is it because creative writing is flavour of the month, or because they are looking for love (only one success story in that genre through my classes so far...come on people!), or is it because writing is just so brilliant. Of course, it's all of these!

Anyway, the thing is, I have had a further idea that has tacked its way onto the one above and its dead simple. I have an umbrella idea for the whole novel (remind me of this in six months) and this morning I wrote a couple of pages. Later, I felt depressed. Why would anyone want to read this? What would make them turn over? On my way here, I realised they wouldn't be turning over because what I'd written was the end not the beginning. Ho hum. So all I need to do now is stick 80,000 words or so on the front. Just about as easy as writing sausage sentences, where each word starts with the last letter of the previous word. Difficulties shall leap, pinging great tears soon. Now watch here. Eventually you understand...

Don't panic, I'm not going to write a novel in sausage sentences. Give me sorting out the M&S hanger box any day. But now my ideas are starting to string themselves together,  I'm interested to know what happens. Let's hope my readers are too.

ps new link on the left to good essay by Raymond Carver. If you don't know who he is, find out.

Monday, 27 April 2009


I have the hiccups. I'm trying to think of any books I've read where a character got hiccups and can't think of one. I wonder how I hic would write it hic if I did. There doesn't hic seem to be a good hic way of describing the hic violence hic  of the spasms hic that are currently undermining my grip hic on the world. I hic should not have hic bolted my hic food. 
God, hic and I haven't even had hic a drink. Hic

Back hic tomorrow. This hic is beginning to look like a hic  telegram. Stop.

Sunday, 19 April 2009

What happened in the end?

Last night I had a dream about the process of writing (how sad is that?) in which I was in the kitchen making a story from recipe book. 2lbs of main character, sieved, with 6oz of adversity and 2oz of resolution to be kept back then warmed up and drizzled over at the end. 

I finished the story I began last week and the end that I ended up with wasn't the same end I had in mind when I started. Something serendipitous happened along the way which took me in a different direction and led to a much more effective finish.

 I've walked round with a first line in my head for nearly a month but no story to go with it. Then I had a teeny-weeny idea for the story, very weak indeed, the equivalent of woman goes to shops, looses purse, comes back, but I got started because I have great faith in the telling and more importantly, I knew that my heroine was to come out of this story stronger than when she went in. I also had a theme, because I was writing for a competition. A theme is a useful device, but it isn't rocket science to come up with one. Think of an abstract noun: love; jealousy; anger; grief; alienation. They're all themes. It is in the concrete happenings during the story that themes are revealed.

So there were my ingredients. One line, a main character, a theme and weakest of all, a plotline.
I started. I wrote about 750 words and then scrapped 700 of them, my usual bad habit of not getting on with the plot fast enough, but also a useful exercise in which I get to know my character. I kept the theme in mind which gave me certain parameters and at about half way through, turned to the web to do a little piece of research about a road name. This was when the serendipity occurred. I'm not going to say the precise nature of what it was but it meant scrapping an entire character and a very funny scene, but it was worth it.

The significant thing, now I look back, is the ability to recognise the need to change when it occurs. During the writing process for a short story, my mind is always on it, tickling away, I glance down every avenue of possibility just in case there is a fantastic vista that way, but I've learnt to glance and not linger. Occasionally there is a fantastic vista though and you just have to go look.

Altogether, for my 2,500 word story I wrote about 3,500 or even 4,000 and it took many hours. I redrafted some inner soliloquy into dialogue for more variety and hinted at something instead of saying it directly, for more intrigue. I did keep the first line though and the last line wrote itself while I was busy trying to work out what it would be. I'll let you know how I get on.

Monday, 13 April 2009

All of a Perk.

It's holiday time and I'm feeling particularly perky this morning. The internet connection here is woeful and Twitter is over capacity. The weather is cloudy and in a minute I must get the ironing board out so that my outfit for this afternoon's family party doesn't look like a complete mess (note to self, buy crinkle fabric frocks in future). 
The reason I am feeling good is because I have a story in my head. I've worried away at the premise for a while and wrote the first couple of hundred words without knowing where I was going. Suddenly, I saw a chink of light. Now I am a happy Easter bunny. I hope you are too.

Monday, 6 April 2009

Keeper of the Book List

I am the Keeper of the Book List. It was decided last night in a brief ceremony at the close of book club that involved a few cheers, gulps from the wine glasses and, I'm sure I overheard, remarks along the line of, thank God someone else is mug enough to do it. 

Yes, I'm in a book club. You mean you're not? Then pop along to your library or bookshop and find one immediately; grovel on your hands and knees when you ask to be let in or, failing that, get a few friends together and start your own. Mine is in its tenth year and going from strength to strength. I'm still not sure who is going to like what and I am often surprised by people's choices but the fact that I have now read umpteen books that otherwise I wouldn't have even registered, let alone read, has been...well, darlings, I have to say, it's been marvellous.

This weekend I read one of Patrick O'Brian's sea faring tales. I only knew of his existence because of the movie, Master and Commander, I hadn't realised that the movie was based on a compilation of several of the twenty books O'Brian wrote starring Jack Aubrey and his doctor pal, Maturin.

Now, there's only so many technical terms for bits of sailing ship that I can take. Minus a map and with my woeful knowledge of C19th history I nearly baled out several times, but the knowledge that I would be attending the group without having read it kept me going. And guess what? On P113, I suddenly started to like it. By the end, I was quite taken. It was a very odd read though. During discussion I realised that reading the previous eighteen books might have helped understand the big story, but it didn't matter really. It didn't matter that I had to re-read bits owing to their obscurity, that I didn't understand half the plot or most of the minutiae concerning the navy and sailing ships either. What I did like was the oddity of the construction and the focus on the humdrum lives, their clothes, food, manners and the description of natural history and scientific discovery. 

Riveting, I can hear you thinking. No, it isn't exactly that, but it does cast a spell and an unexpected one. I might read another, and I suspect that's how a little obsession starts. Patrick O'Brian was completely obsessed, no question. All that research, twenty books (written in longhand) with the same two characters? Perhaps that's why I like it, because from in between the lines shines forth a lifelong passion for his subject. A dull glow to begin with, by the end, I felt positively illuminated. I was very surprised. 

Good old book group. Thanks, Penny, good choice. I'll add it to the list right away and if I work out how to copy it here, I will.

Monday, 30 March 2009

The Handy Helicopter

I have just been reading Carole Blake's excellent From Pitch to Publication, required reading for someone in my position who has a novel(s) but no agent or publisher. It is a salutary experience for there is no getting away from the fact that trying to get a novel published is a very tricky business. For Lord of the Rings fans one must think of Tolkien's themes of endeavour against all odds and of maintaining hope without any guarantees. Trouble is, my little novel isn't going to save the world, at the very best it might bring a scintilla of pleasure into the lives of a very few people. But I carry on. Luckily, there is a whole host of people out there who are in the same position and recognising that we're on the same side of the battlefield, don't stab you in the back, but support and encourage. One such person is Jane Smith, whose blog I link to on the left. Now, this isn't just a plug for another blog even though I do recommend it highly. It brings me to the subject of coincidence.

Yesterday, Jane ran a blog challenge in which she invited everyone to write a pitch for their blog in 25 words. Goodness, what a lot of blogging bloggers there are out in Blogdom! It was great fun and often highly amusing but the real value was in the networking potential as most of us don't have Sam Gamgee by our side ready to carry us over rocky bits. Jane's challenge was a particularly sweet coincidence as far as I was concerned because I had just asked all my students to write a pitch for their work in order to be included in the term's anthology. How they groaned! I suggest that the louder the groan and resistance, the more valuable is the exercise. To reduce a piece of work to a sentence or two and then expect it to explode on impact is, well, challenging.

What can explode on impact is the plot device that involves coincidence. Carole Blake deplores coincidence full stop, citing it as being something that does happen in real life but rarely works in fiction. Oh dear. I have a coincidence in my novel. It isn't central to the plot by any means and doesn't involve my hero escaping in a handy helicopter when he's on the run and oh, what a good thing he had those helicopter flying lessons years ago...sorry, that's ridiculous isn't it?Nobody would do that. What? Dan Brown?

Monday, 23 March 2009

Teddy Bears in Picnic Debacle

I'm not reading enough short stories. Does that matter? Yes. It matters because the pieces I am reading profess to be short stories and they're not. They are just short pieces of writing.
Imagine reading a bed time story that went: if you go down to the woods today...and that was it. Well, I have seen some very nice descriptions of visits to woods, other countries, the shops, the beach etc. but that's not a story. If you went on, you're sure of a big surprise...then you're sure as hell going to have to tell me what it is, otherwise I will sit up in bed, demand my surprise and definitely not go to sleep. Hopefully, I will find the idea of a picnic for teddy bears endearing and be drawn in by the unexpected notion, thrilled by the little bears gallivanting and then pleased that they aren't left to themselves, but are taken home to bed by their mummies and daddies. 
There is a wholeness to the Teddy Bears' Picnic. Unlike many of the ones I am reading. A short story isn't an account, a rant, a character sketch, a memoir, a back story or chapter 1 (1st draft) of a novel. It will have a purpose, it will hook me in straight away, engage me in the middle and leave me satisfied in the end. So that's beginning, middle and end. Oh, and by the way, keep the repetition down to a minimum. Don't use your last paragraph telling me everything that you have already shown me during the story. Also, don't use your last para...

p.s. Remember though, what actually sorts the Bears from the Barbies is the nature of the telling. I might well blog about that next.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Do it anyway!

A couple of years ago I did a very wicked thing in class. I asked the students to write the opening line of a novel or a short story (I think I said it could be based on some writing they had already done) and that they should try very hard, do the best they could and therefore write a wonderful opening sentence. I said they could have ten minutes to come up with something. I have never seen so many startled rabbits but they were a game lot and bent their wills to the page. I sat, feeling like the piggy-wiggy I was, and doodled away at a piece of stream of consciousness writing I had done previously. After five minutes of feeling the temperature in the room rising, I stopped them. Their relief was palpable.

To be honest, I can't remember any of the results or whether anyone even managed to write anything at all. Now, part 2 of that exercise, was to write any old sentence but get something approximately relevant on the paper and remember that it could always be changed or cut later. Result? A squillion times better. Moral? Great Expectations lead to Great Disasters. Great disappointments. Umm...Oh dear, do I mean expectations? Am I getting into some intertextual muddle there? Shouldn't I just say if you set your sights too high? or if your standards are too exacting? Oh bum, that wasn't very good was it? What I meant was...what did I mean? God, this is a terrible mess. I can't put all this in the blog. Perhaps I should have written about something else altogether? But what? I haven't got anything else worth mentioning. Err. I know, I'll just remind everyone that the deadline to get their best, most wonderful, pieces of writing to me for the Anthology is next Friday 27th March at 12 noon.
I'll write something tomorrow, when I'm a bit clearer in the head...

or maybe I'll just do it anyway, and then I have something, as opposed, to nothing.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Just a scintilla...

If I were Mole, I'd be off to the river bank this very morning. I had the first signal when sunlight from the kitchen window made it through the slats of the blind, across the floor and up onto the screen of my computer. The first time this year. Outside, the air is soft with the sap rising. At laaaaast!
So why am I here? Well, old habits, that's why. And because my Word of the Day, courtesy of was a word that I thought I didn't know and then I discovered I did, once I read the definition. Yeah, right. Scintilla was the word. At first glance I thought it was a Latin flower name or a wicked dancing girl, but then as I read it out loud, I realised this connected to scintillate as in, my scintillating conversation or a conversation that sparkles. The definition of Scintilla, howeveris A tiny of scarcely detectable amount; the slightest particle; a trace; a spark. I am beginning to detect a trace of irony in the evolution of the word's use perhaps. How things change...
But not old habits. I'm still here and for the most part using the same old vocabulary and probably misusing quite a lot of it. I've subscribed to Word of the Day for some time, in fact, 354 days. I know that because they go to a dedicated folder, ready for me to look at, at my leisure. Of course, I don't. I think I know most of the words and use them willy nilly without thought. But sometimes, I stop and do a little investigating, make the effort to put the word into a few sentences until it becomes a smooth process and it doesn't stick out like a sore excrescence.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

'Baaa...' said the wet towel

On QI last week, I saw someone recreating the sound of a lamb being born. Just the sort of sound effect they must use a lot on The Archers for instance. It involved kneading something that looked like wet clay, in order to make the squeaky birth canal sounds, followed by dropping a wet towel a short distance onto a hard surface. Try this at home with your eyes closed and you'll hear straight away the bleat of a little lamb soon afterwards, I promise.
Or it could be the sound is the squeaking of a nib across parchment, followed by the flop of the manuscript on the table and the small cry of pleasure that the writer feels at the transmogrification of his/her thoughts into actual writing. No? God no. But wait...I do remember that sort of feeling a long, long time ago when I did use a pen and paper and writing was a new found vehicle for revealing my inner, sparkling self. Or my inner, wise/mysterious/dark/depressed/angry/grubby/tormented self (please delete as necessary).
Fortunately, with a bit of separation that years can bring (but doesn't always), I now feed some of that material into the stories I want to write where appropriate. The odd thing is that the process of redrafting is somehow reminiscent of kneading the clay, except that instead of finishing with a formless heap of wet towel, I carry on shaping the clay and end up with a pot or a story. Why, it could be a story about a lamb, or even, ewe.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Give us a squeeze

I woke in the middle of last night feeling the need for a squeeze. Not a hug, not a cuddle, definitely a squeeze. The whole business exercised me for quite a while. Would the time come one day, when it wouldn't be even possible to have a squeeze, or be squeezed or feel the financial squeeze or be someone's squeeze? Apparently so. According to a study at Reading University(link on the left) squeeze is on the list of words destined to become obsolete. Now, I'm rather fond of the word so I'll just see if I can squeeze a few in before the end of this blog. 
I can imagine poets will be fed up about the lack of squeeze, no rhyming with tease or please or freeze or wheeze. will be tough.
Of course, our language evolves along with everything else. I delight in new words as a rule, the more the merrier, the more we can exactly say what we want to say; we will be able to squeeze subtle shades from our linguistic paint tubes not just primary colours (a tad forcing that one).
But there's another particular thing I like about squeeze - it starts with a kiss and ends with a smile. It does! Go on, say it.  

Friday, 6 March 2009

Feeling a redraft

The world is changing, I can feel it in the waters. Thank you Mr Tolkein, I'll borrow your line. You have to imagine Cate Blanchett saying it though, in her best husky, Galadriel voice. If I substitute on the web for in the waters then I'll be bang up to date. If I sneak book in front of world then I will have completely redrafted the sentence. It now reads The book world is changing, I can feel it on the internet. Hmm, I might have been better to start with my own sentence after all. Redrafting can be like sitting on a whoopee cushion. 
I sense a change in the world of books and publishing akin to the revolution in the music world after the rise of the ipod. To be honest, that's because I am looking in that direction when I am on the net. I need to make it my business to know what's going on if I ever want to get published. A few years ago, I was involved in a big arts project locally. I had written a set of poems for it and was a little coy about pushing myself forward when the press officer alerted me to the fact that no one was going to knock on my door to ask me if I wrote poetry. I took it very much to heart. 
There's a lovely little piece of serendipity here. I am in my local Arts Centre (more free wifi. Yippee!) and have happed in here while there is a book launch going on yards from where I sit. When I ordered my tea I asked behind the bar who, and what book, was being launched. They had no idea. There was no signs, no info on the door. I'll go and find out in a tick, maybe, maybe not. Does it matter? Not to me much, but with a teeny bit more info, I might have bought a book and then, if I'd liked it, I might have told all my students, my book group, my writing group, my online forum friends, twitterers, facebookers plus my family and friends. I am just sooooo well connected! But I'm not going to knock on the door of someone I don't know... Word of mouth is all very well but if, and it is a big if, with the web, a book could go very far indeed. Manipulating the web is next step.
I am completely flummoxed about what to do with my latest (that sounds like I have more than two but hey, I'm bigging myself up here) novel. It is has had a couple of rejections, I have learnt from them and continued to polish and sheen is now a gleam. So? The publishing world is feeling the pinch in every direction. Printing a book is dirt cheap now, anyone can do it. Lulu, Blurb and a host of others produce high quality books. ebooks are on a meteoric rise. My US friend is ecstatic about her new Kindle 3. I'm ecstatic about the Classics app on my ipod Touch. I can read in the dark and turn the page with the lightest tap of a finger. Plus, I can eat and read without having to prop the book open and put my cutlery down every time I turn over! Hurrah! Is this the future though? Dunno. I'm going to pop along to the London Book Fair and check out the vibe (man). 

Redrafts aren't just about checking the plot makes sense, that daffodils aren't blooming in August and that the heroine only has one birthday a year (unless the story is about you know who). Redrafts are about getting right into the corners, just as a chill wind exposes naked flesh. Is the way I have written that sentence the best way to explain what I mean? Hmm, probably not, I can feel a redraft coming on.

ps. I have to say that I regard the expression bigging up as revolting. There must be another way of saying that...

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

It's all in the pupils

Have found the perfect place to write. I only have half an hour of free wifi so I won't be able to waffle a lot. It was in this cafe a couple of days ago when I was just leaving that I came face to face with a rather good looking young man in a narrow space where we had to squeeze by each other. It was one of those eyes moments. Now don't start thinking its one of those grubby moments of granny lusting after youth or an unlikely meeting of minds. No. However, it was a moment of recognition. His, not mine.
'Cathie.' he said, 'it is Cathie, isn't it?' His voice was dark and deep, setting in tremulous motion the strings of my memory...
'Heathcliff?' I thought. 
'You used to teach me the piano.'
He says his name. Oh yes! I did, I did! Blimey. That was a long time ago.
How nice he should remember me. But much more interesting is the brief story he told me of finding his sister very recently. They had been separated at birth and he was put up for adoption. She went to school only yards from where he did...he is an uncle now. He is clearly delighted. He tells me about his school chums that I also taught and their successes. I am thrilled, especially as one, very talented but troubled lad I thought might not make it past twenty is now a professional musician. And amazingly, this well brought up lad asks me about me! He wants to pass my news back to his friends. I try not to imagine how that will go. We part and I am thoroughly cheered.

And of course, there's a few nice little stories here. None of them particularly original, but that doesn't matter. But what is the story? Is it the lad finding his sister? Or the sister's story? Or is the story of the other troubled lad? Or their story through the eyes of their ageing piano teacher? I might well do the last one because I have such strong material to draw on. How about writing a steamy love story of an older woman meeting an ex pupil in a cafe? Notes on a Scandal 2 perhaps. I wish.

Whilst an encounter of that sort doesn't happen every day, daily encounters all contain stories if considered. One of my classes tends to balloon with chat every week and I console both myself and my students by saying its all fodder. Which it is. Honestly. It is!

Damn. I was going to talk about eyes, ended up talking about pupils.

Monday, 2 March 2009

Over my dead body of work

No Creative Writing teacher can ignore How NOT to write a novil: 200 mistakes to avoid at all costs if you ever want to get published by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman.  Fortunately I live in a district where unusual behaviour, such as kneeling in the street to pray or random herding of errant shopping trolleys, is not unusual, so my sudden projectile vomiting of yogurt topped flapjack and cappuccino in the local cafe didn't even turn a hair. I blame the book. It's much too funny. 
But it has me worried. If my students read this and take on board all the vital advice to be found packed tight within, I might be out of a job. In fact, they might come to my classes and complain! What about those looking in the mirror exercises I gave them. The journey to class descriptive exercise? There it is in black and white that these are old and worn clichés to be avoided! 
Yes and no. Yes, avoid putting them in a finished piece but don't stop doing them. Explore them very thoroughly. Keep having your character looking at the mirror. I have all of my characters consider their reflection. If they say to themselves, oh look, I have eyes, a nose and a mouth, then I need to consider them further. If they always thinking about how old they're looking these days then I have to get myself out of my character's head. If my character, Sally, thinks she looks like Angelina Jolie then I, as the author, have to be prepared for Angelina Jolie or even  Lara Croft to pop into the readers' mind every time they see Sally's name. Is that what you want to happen to your character? Any famous person you mention in your book comes with this sort of baggage. Similarly, if you use attributes of celebrities or well known fictional characters, your reader will jump out of your book and into someone else's. Mention a cunning plan and we think of Baldrick; describe a scar as being like forked lightning and Harry Potter stands before you. 
I hope everyone who wants to write reads How not to write a novel, but thanks to ignorance, I have a body of work behind me in which the 200 mistakes have been extensively learnt from. I regard that as invaluable training. Laser sharp prose on thin skin? Death by a thousand cuts.

Friday, 27 February 2009

Do stop to admire the view sometimes

I am a terrible back seat driver. My right foot tenses every ten seconds and takes at least nine to relax. The instructor who taught me to drive was surely a saint. How he managed to turn my gibbering self into a competent driver is testament to his heavenly status. 
Reading a good book is like going for a smooth drive. An awareness of the author's expertise drops away and there are no emergency stops every few paragraphs or U-turns across central expositions. You feel in safe hands. Plots unfold, characters speak in real voices. But sometimes, something happens which can pull you up short and take you out of the story momentarily because you want to linger. It can be a moment of high drama perhaps or exquisite beauty. I think of these moments as being akin to driving along a high-banked Devonian lane and coming across a five-bar gate through which a marvellous vista unfolds, layer on every deepening layer in to the far, far blueyonder.
Usually it's a paragraph or sentence, but occasionally just using that word in that particular place can be so arresting that I gasp. Obviously the context is overwhelmingly important but an example might serve a small purpose. In Larry's Party by Carol Shields we learn all there is to know about Larry. This is a character led novel. Each chapter is about aspects of Larry's life; his clothes, his folks, his work etc. He is likeable but in many ways unremarkable. In common with a lot of men, his work is important to him. 
This is what she says:
Years later, when his life was going badly, he came to see work as the only consolation for persisting in the world.
This sentence caused me to look up and reflect and indeed still reflect upon from time to time. Its content raises questions. Is life work? For example. But it is its construction that I find so interesting. It lies very early on in the novel but points to the future, a long way in the future, to when Larry's life is going badly. Now, Carol Shields does not say in what way it is going badly, Does he divorce? Get made redundant or in bad health? She is not specific but because we already like Larry, we want to find out. It is a signal: plot ahead. It must be quite bad too, this badness, because it is about his whole life. Carol Shields uses words that have a certain gravitas: consolation implies a lot of grieving, persisting requires effort. Without it perhaps Larry would be in mortal danger. Work saved him. Was it touch and go? Was there nothing and no one else there for Larry? I am hooked, lower my eyes and read on. The sentence could have read: 
Years later, when the going got tough, work was a great comfort.
Not the same, is it?

Thursday, 26 February 2009

You've got to learn somehow.

You know those disclaimers at the beginning of novels that say all the characters in this book are entirely imaginary etc etc.? This is mine. I didn't want to start a new blog with an apology, so I'm going to have a disclaimer instead. Here it is: if you thinks that I am writing about you, think again. The chances are it isn't just you but loads of you and me too, over and over. Who hasn't fallen into the traps that writing scatters before our every step? 

Okay, nuff o' that.

The subheading Creative Reading Matters just as much is really about what I am doing every time someone hands me a piece of work. I am asking myself questions all the time but the main one is does this work? By which I mean, is the writer conveying to me a coherent piece or do I, as the reader have to bust a gut trying to make sense of it? Pretty basic stuff, you'd think, but you'd be amazed. Often, in the class, if the writer is reading their work, then they automatically make it make sense, sometimes with little asides of explanation. This will not do, I say! There is a wealth, a mountainous treasure trove of material out there to look at and learn from. It's called books! 

The downside of writing is that you can very rarely read a book with the abandon of those pre-writing years. Read with attitude! Read with your thinking caps nailed to your head with lots of those plastic covered wiry hair grips and keep asking yourself, how did they do that? What was it about that sentence, paragraph, chapter, plot, character, description, that worked so well/not well? Why did they use that word? And why put them in that particular order? Why not write he ran hurriedly down the street?

This isn't about copying, it's about learning how to use the tools for you to make your piece of music / furniture / work of art / novel.

And its about knowing when to stop because it's getting boring. 

Wednesday, 25 February 2009


Welcome to Creative Writing Matters. This blog is primarily a continuation of the wittering on I do in my Creative Writing classes. So often, I arrive home with a head full of more pertinent thoughts than I expressed at the time. Maybe, this blog will act as a vehicle for them. 
Or I might just bung on the telly, like last night when I watched the final episode of The Wire Season 3 and I can only say the air was entirely removed from my lungs. Wonderful.

Talking of The Wire reminds me of the Oscar winning Man on Wire about the remarkable Phillipe Petit who walked between the Twin Towers on a tightrope. I saw this film with three friends and afterwards opinion was divided exactly down the middle. Man walks across wire, end of story, film could have been all over in ten minutes - that was one view. The other, including mine, was that it was completely gripping from start to finish, the feat was amazing but the man...the man was just extraordinary! Obsessional, egotistical, insane perhaps, but overwhelmingly interesting because was not as other human beings. To see him lying down on the wire. Eeeek! Above the void he is devoid of fear (Look upon the pun as a curiosity!). My point, about this film and its relevance to writing, is that there is a lot of too-ing and fro-ing theses days about whether your story should be plot led or character led. Perhaps the answer is that it is better not try to jump through hoops to suit others if hoops (or highwires) aren't your thing. Good plots with flat characters bore me to tears but they sell millions at stations and airports. Ultimately the reader decides by choosing which they like best. Occasionally, the combination of good plot and good characterisation come together. That's called alchemy. 

Pertinent thought from last night? Visual jokes don't work on paper. Jokes that involve words that sound the same but are spelt differently, don't work on the radio. I shall be delighted to be proved wrong on both counts.