Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Writer's Process Blog Tour

Huge thanks to the lovely Lisa Goll, who invited me to take part in this blog tour. Lisa runs the London Writers' Cafe, a London-based writing group I'm a member of and which, if I'm honest, I would be quite lost without. It's a lively, friendly community with regular meet-ups, events, guest speakers, workshops, and if you are a writer who lives in (or near) London, it's definitely worth checking out. You can read what Lisa had tosay about her own writing here, and now it's my turn to answer the same questions.......

What am I working on?

I have a terrible tendency to flit between lots of projects at once, which means that nothing ever gets finished. So this year I'm trying to focus on just one of those things and am compiling a collection of short stories. (Of course that means I still get to flit between several different projects, just much shorter ones.  Sneaky, isn't it?)  I'm working from a short-list of about fourteen stories – some finished, others less so – but I'm not sure yet if they'll all make the final cut.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I think (or hope, at least) that I've started to find a distinct voice. The stories I have gathered together are all quite old fashioned in tone - they're generally written in the third person, with a very distant narrator, and although the settings are contemporary, the content is fairly old fashioned too. They are full of love triangles and plucky underdogs and people who are too proud or vain or selfish or so on getting exactly what they deserve. I'm a bit nervous about using the term, but one way to describe them would be as modern day 'morality tales'.  They are set (for the most part) in the real world but it's a reality where slightly fantastical things sometimes happen. Not quite often enough to be classed as magical realism, probably, and I don't stray too far into the realms of the supernatural (there are no goblins or dwarves), but I think it's fair to say that  there's a certain amount of suspension of disbelief needed sometimes.

Why do I write what I do?

It happened completely by accident. When I first started writing I formed a writing group with some friends I'd met through a creative writing class, and we would met once a month or so to share our responses to a particular writing prompt or task. The thing I struggle with the most is plot, so when it was my turn to set the prompt I cheated and suggested that we all try and write a modern version of a fairy tale. That way, I reasoned, I wouldn't have to worry too much about a plot because I could just pinch one.

The story I ended up with contains some shoes, but apart from that it bears very little resemblance to Cinderella, which it was going to be based on. I strayed completely away from the original plot, and eventually wrangled one of my own into submission instead. Writing a fairy tale didn't solve the problem it was supposed to, but it gave me so much more than that. I discovered I loved playing with the form and found myself trying to sound like a storyteller would, breaking away from the story every now and then to make a wry observation or share a joke with the reader. That same tone carried over into the next story I wrote (about a love triangle which is resolved with the help of a terrible cup of coffee) and it is something which has stuck with me ever since. It's a useful excuse for a multitude of sins – I can be a bit wordy, for instance and get away with telling instead of showing more often than I wouild otherwise. So I do have have to keep mysef in check occasionally and make sure I'm breaking the rules for effect, rather than just being lazy. It' a fine line, but one I really like trying to tread.

How does my writing process work?

Gosh. I've tried to write this down before – one of my stories was published by Arachne Press a couple of years ago in a collection called Stations, and I wrote this 2-part guest blog for their website, trying to capture the process I went through to write that particular story. I'm not sure how well I succeeded.

Usually, I start with a tiny idea. This might be a character or a place; a vauge concept, a snatch of dialogue, or a situation..... just about anything really. Those ideas can come from anywhere. I'm constantly eavesdropping on other people's conversations, and scribbling down things which grab my attention; I tear interesting looking articles from magazines and newspapers and I borrow from other sources quite a lot. I've written a story based on the classic 'Two Guards' puzzle (the one where one guard always lies, and one tells the truth) for example, and another where the main character's life is controlled entirely by Beatles songs.

Once I have a vauge topic or idea I often do some sort of research. The internet, of course, is great for this - I've learned all sorts of things, from how lighthouses work (it's quite complicated) to the best conditions for keeping jellyfish (curved tanks, otherwise they get stuck in the corners). This part is fun – I like finding things out, as a general rule, and I'm not really looking for answers to specific questions, so I can read the things I find interesting and ignore the things I don't. I also make lists, and ask odd questions on Twitter -any kind of information gathering which might help spark some ideas.

Then, at some point, I start to write things down. Getting started is hard. Really, really, REALLY hard. I have huge arguments with myself which go like this:

“But that's going to sound so STUPID!”
“Well, write it anyway!”
“But I can't!” “Yes you can. Just do five minutes.”
“Maybe I'll just clean the shower first......”
“....and there's this ridiculously complicated recipe I've been meaning to try.....”
“Really? You're going to cook that NOW?”
“....and now there's all this washing up.....”
“Fine. Oh, God, this is so awful I think I'm going to DIE!”
“No it's not. You'll be fine. Remember what Dave Eggers says.”

and so on.

I do start writing eventually though. And more often than not, it's that pesky Dave Eggers quote which does it. I keep it pinned above my desk, and what he says is this: “People can't read what's inside your head. They can only read the words you put down, with great love and care, on the page.” It's obvious, when you think about it, but it's painfully true.

I don't always start at the beginning, and what I write down tends to be a mix of the actual words which might eventually end up in the story, and notes about things which might happen, which I need to go back and write. At this stage, usually, I still don't know what the actual story is but there are all sorts of ideas and bits and pieces swirling around in my head, and those are what I'm trying to capture. So I just keep writing little bits of scenes which might fit here or there, or even nowhere, and moving them all around, and skipping over some bits while rewriting others. This can take place over the course of several days, or weeks, or even months and as I'm writing things I notice or read or think about slip in as well and suddenly, before I know it there are a few thousand words on the page.

Eventually, if I'm lucky, there is some sort of shift. It's hard to explain what I mean by this; it's sort of my 'Eureka' moment, except it's not quite as dramatic and it doesn't often happen in the bath. But something suddenly falls into place and I realise what it is I'm actually writing about. Once that happens I can filter through everything I've got on the page and start making decisions about what to keep and what to get rid of, and usually there are lots of gaps left to fill in. Then it's a case of editing and polishing and tinkering around until I'm happy(ish) with the result.

I write on a computer, usually, in boring old Word, but (and this is crucial) in a very specific font. I have no idea why -  I guess it's the digital equivalent of always writing in green pen, or on a particular type of paper.  I save as I go and if I've made major changes tend to save a new version, which means I end up with folders containing 20 or 30 'drafts'. That sounds like a lot, but those aren't full, finished versions – it's just whever I got to the day before, or the week before, or whenever I was last working.

So there's my process. Of course, that 'Eureka' moment doesn't always happen quickly. In fact, a lot of the time it doesn't happen at all, which means I can spend ages working on something which doesn't end up going anywhere. So it's not the most efficient process.....but it's the one which works for me. Sometimes.

And now it's time for me to pass on to two other writers, who will tell you what works for them. Yakinamac and Mr Phipps who are both regulars at London Writers' Cafe, have agreed to take up the challenge, and their posts will be online next week.

Monday, 21 April 2014

We all must have been having a LOT fun. Yes, that must be it.

Hello.  Doesn't a year go by quickly?  I say this for no other reason* than just under a year ago I rather foolishly promised to write a cryptic crossword for my friend Steven to solve.  It turns out they take AGES.  Especially if you start writing one, and then forget all about it, and then start again after a few not-so-subtle reminders, and then forget again, and then receive another reminder, and so on.

 Anyway. I finally finished it today, nearly a year after I first started, and sent it to Steven (who I'm not sure ever really expected to see it) and I thought I'd put it here too.

1. Mantra starts and ends softly to create a show of splendour (4)
5. Stephen's favourite way to cook eggs (3)
8. Get back, old boy; South Africa return is punishment for poor behaviour in public (4)
12. Novello on the piano? Why not! (4)
13. Band lost in the stars? It's a sign (3)
14. Glaswegian perhaps? Beds are unmade (4)
15. Bad worker kisses nothing to form a famous alliance (4)
16. Initially show surprise when cat becomes confused (3)
17. Moving around rings, tree loses romance (4)
18. Don't catch this if you're in a rush to hear what Dylan sings (4,5)
21. Bob's friend? She's a queen! (3)
22. Set down an old fashioned way of returning a phone call (4)
23. Honest love for a writer (4)
25. Norton and Milliband could be magazine bosses (3)
28. More than one of these spells trouble for Caesar at a cetain time of year (3)
29. This fruit will make him leave (5)
31. A lizard which cheers the girl on (6)
33. Bond's boss, fashionable with a broken leg, to chat to everyone at the party
34. After a turn in Eastenders, you'll be waiting for him all night (5)
35. Forbid the airline to go north (3)
36. I can see the comic sailor's lost his dad (3)
37. Travel on 18, for example
38. The measure of this space is that it's a music venue with no point (4)
40. Abba's music always spells trouble
41. If Dan goes by backwards, for example, the Princess Bride's rats could cause peril (9)
46. Chooses to put spinning toys into more of a spin (4)
48. Fish missing a note can still make a type of music (3)
49. Eastern Sea is choppy but will soothe pain (4)
50. Sounds like wig-maker will get the lot (4)
51. No point in being crooked, I'll wager (3)
52. Cleaner loses article, holds up plant (4)
53. Single performance starts on cello (4)
54. Substance in the ground provides options, we hear (3)
55. It will wear out after too much driving (4)


1.To cut back could mean there's just enough money for these (4)
2. Egg needs to learn to be egg shaped 3)
3. These services will break a thousand, too (4)
4. When played backwards, record contains an argument for roaming stealthily (5)
5. About a letter, two old ladies are in a state (7)
6. About that bad cheese? We covered it (6)
7. At first you only get it for a famous bear (4)
8.Raise a question as potassium is added (3)
9. At the top, she can seek retribution and take what she needs from what's left
10. Ron Bigly turns monotonously (8)
11.In two ticks I'll be near the ear (4)
19.Theodore, by including an example of poor grammar, is spoiled (7)
20. Mine and one other on the shortlist for an award (7)
24 To criticise a cooking implement (3)
25 This example's good for Easter (3)
26 management style prefered by burgulars (4,4)
        27 every other stay drips it, witch enjoys pain (8)
30 Overall, equipment efficiency put first (3)
32 Oxford professor is up, but off for some sleep (3)
33 Spoil the entrance to a sea-side resort (7)
35 River some say responsible for financial ruin (6)
39 Lazy policeman could do with one of these (1, 4)
40 In London, sounds like a farmer will fashion his old fashioned tool from cloth (4)
42 A punishment you've seen before, in which he was as bold as brass (4)
43 could describe a breakfast cereral which starts on top, we hear (4)
44 When confused I'm sure I'm often the cause computer errors (4)
45 Appear to be a Massai dagger, by the sound of it (4)
47 Initially spent in the Seychelles 

*Well, maybe that's not quite the only reason. Writing this crossword isn't the only thing I've spent the last year doing, obviously. I also ran a marathon, went to Australia (twice), and left my part-time job, among other things, but somehow didn't manage to blog about any of it. I plan to fix this.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

John Lloyd on The News Quiz

Three things about this:

1.  I had NO idea John Lloyd was responsible for The News Quiz.  Turns out he's responsible for most of my favourite things.

2. Jeremy Hardy looks nothing like I expected him to.

3. Francis Wheen, less so.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

An A+ for creativity, but not so hot on ethics

I love this story which comes via the Futility Closet website .  You can read it for yourself, but the synopsis is:

1. Australian journalist needs to fill a hole on the front page of his paper, so makes up a story about a

2. Police contact the journalist to say they've caught the (imaginary) sex-pest.

3. Journalist realises police have used his story as an excuse to charge a minor sex-offender they've had
    their eye on for a while, and feels so guilty he vows never to make up a story again.

Of course, like all good stories the devil is in the details and here the details are the nature of the invented crime, which was nothing if not creative and involved using a long wire hook to surreptitiously raise the hems of women's skirts in order to peek at their stockings.

As an aside, if you Google 'Hook Hoax' you'll discover there are all sorts of conspiracy theories suggesting that the Sandy Hook school shootings last December were a hoax perpetuated by the anti-gun lobbyists in America.  These theories were quite a big thing, apparently - the youtube videos have had over eleven million views - but I didn't know about them until this morning.  Part of me wishes I still didn't know about them.

As another aside, the Hook Hoax story also features in this book,

which I am now desperate to own.  Some entries from the index:

British Military Fainting Epidemics
Husband-Poisoning Mania
Jumping Frenchmen of Maine
Zimbabwe Zombie School
Spouse Dropping Revival
Sardine Packing Hysteria
Genital Shrinking Scares
Genital Vanishing Scares
Phantom Hat-pin Stabber

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Bits and Bobs

Sorry for the radio silence - I've been on holidays.  I meant to say I was going before I left but I ran out of time so Happy Christmas and Merry New Year and all that.  On the bright side, the burglars didn't know I was away either, so my flat is still intact.

The Bits:

1. A transcript of 'Some Days in the Life' - a twitter storytelling project I took part in last year - is now online if you want to have a look.

2.  I'll be reading from my Stations story at the Ideas Store in Whitechapel on Thursday January 17th  - details here 

3. Speaking of Stations, I was interviewed by the editor a while ago, and there is a video snippet here  where I talk about my inspiration for the story, and do an un-inentional impression of a nodding dog.  (Seriously.  If you are prone to any kind of motion sickness, you might not want to watch.)

The Bobs:

Answers  here.  How many did you get?

Tuesday, 11 December 2012


What did I get up to last weekend?  Glad you asked.  In 48 hours I went to a wine tasting, mentored at a writing workshop, attended a book launch, cooked an AMAZING game casserole (if I do say so myself) spent Friday night watching  my friends get very drunk in a pub, blew up several hundred balloons, lost my phone, argued with my husband, worried incessantly about my friend’s 18 year old son, saw two personal training clients and ran a pilates class. 

I didn’t physically do all of those things.  You might have already worked this out, especially if you know me in real life and have been wondering where I’ve kept my husband hidden all this time.  But the other thing I did last week was take part in ‘Twiction 12’, a project set up by blogger and writer Virginia Moffatt, who wanted to find out whether Twitter could be used as a medium for story telling.  The second half of that list consists of things that my fictional alter-ego, Fitness Dee, got up to.  Reading them back, I think it’s safe to say I had a better weekend than she did.  

I first heard about Twiction12 a few weeks ago, when Virginia sent out (via Twitter - where else?) a call for participants.  The main story would take place, she explained, in real time, over the first weekend in December.  She’d be playing the part of The Derby Diva - a larger-than-life single mum, whose son Jack was about to turn 18 - and was looking for people to join in, either by interacting with the characters as themselves or by creating a new one. I replied, saying I thought it would be fun to give The Diva a friend - a fitness instructor called Dee -  and so my dual life began.

Although the story proper wouldn’t happen until December Virginia was keen to establish a back story so in mid-November, the Diva started tweeting about her son Jack, and his horrible girlfriend - only known as ‘The Slag’.  Soon, Dee began to tweet too.  Establishing her character was a lot of fun.  “Porridge and blueberries for breakfast and now I’m off to the gym! Busy day ahead!” I’d merrily tweet, still tucked up in bed with a cup of tea and a croissant.  Dee nagged the Diva to come along to her pilates class, and talked about her personal training clients, and her poor neglected husband Dave. 

After a week or so Jack began to tweet, played by Virginia’s twin sister, Julia, and before long, we were joined by what might be the best comedy pairing since Rodney and Del Boy: real life participants Rosie and BigBgnome.  This larger than life pair quickly befriended everyone - signing up for Dee’s keep-fit classes, availing themselves of The Diva's staff discount in the M+S lingerie department, and scaring poor old Jack with talk of cougars.  All the while they bantered with each other, providing a lively stream of chat about Rosie’s past drinking problems, and dalliances with Dee’s husband Dave, who they knowingly referred to as ‘Big Dave’.   I have to admit I felt a genuine sense of outrage when I first read about this. That was my husband they were leering over!  A completely fictional one, perhaps, but I was livid none the less - a good sign that the story was working.

This all went on for a few days and then last Friday at 8am - Jack’s 18th birthday - the story proper began.  What followed was a roller-coaster of emotions, conflict and drama as the Diva and Jack argued and made up, then argued again, to a backdrop of Friday night drinks, a nasty encounter with The Slag’s ex, hospital visits, interfering relatives and a whole lot more.    I had a lot of fun taking part, and I’ve been thinking a lot about the experience ever since.  Telling a story collaboratively via Twitter  was very different to anything I’ve done before; but in lots of ways, it was just like ‘real’ writing, and there are some basic principles of storytelling I was reminded about over the weekend:

1. Stories require a balance of character and plot

Virginia struck this balance with the Diva beautifully - each tweet simultaneously moving the action forward and reinforcing what we had learned about the Diva.  When it came to Dee, I realised after a while that although I had established her character fairly firmly I hadn’t really created a story for her - there was nothing driving her forward. I began to plant a few seeds -a new personal training client, and a few suggestions that Dave was starting to feel a bit neglected. I also made it known that The Slag sometimes came to the gym as well, vaguely thinking she might live up to her name and start flirting with Dave.  (Little did I know that Dave was about to find himself in a whole lot more trouble than I’d bargined for.....) but in the end I didn’t really do anything with them.  This didn’t really matter as there was plenty going on with The Diva, but it doesn’t surprise me in the least that plot was the part I found the hardest - it's what I struggle with the most in my normal writing too. 

2. Characters don’t always behave the way you want them to. 

I’d originally imagined Dee as the devil on the Diva’s shoulder; she didn’t have kids of her own, and wouldn’t understand the Diva’s attachment to her son.  Being married, I thought she’d also be trying to live a little vocariously through the Diva and encouraging her to make the most of being single.  But as time went on, Dee - as fictional characters are want to do - developed a mind of her own and turned into someone quite different.  She had plenty to say about Jack’s behaviour, not to mention his taste in girlfriends - but when he was in real trouble, she showed much more of a caring side than I’d ever imagined her to have.  

3. Writing is often about finding solutions

Using Twitter as a medium posed all sorts of problems I hadn’t begun to consider.  How can you let the audience know something which one of the characters isn’t meant to know, when everything is public?  Why would the characters be tweeting each other if they were all sitting around the same table in the pub? (My solution: Dee was tweeting from the toilets, so her husband wouldn’t hear her telling The Diva how good looking ‘Hot Guy‘ was....)  Then of course there was the ‘real-time’ aspect, which meant that at times the events in my own life got in the way.  On Friday night, while Dee was at the pub I was at a wine-tasting where a particularly nice Pinot Noir proved more than a little distracting.  “And whatever did happen to Dee, who was last seen tweeting from the toilets?”  Virginia pondered in her write up the next day.  Thankfully, just as sometimes happens in ‘real’ writing, it was possible for some of the Twiction12 action to take place off-stage.  “Sorry we disappeared so suddenly last night - will explain when I see you”  Dee tweeted early the next morning. 

I had a similar problem when the key events of Sunday afternoon coincided with my own book launch. It soon became clear that my original plan to keep up with tweets while at the launch was a little over-ambitious, which meant more retrospective explanations.  Harder this time because it was Jack’s birthday party - an event which the Diva had been planning for ages, and hardly something her good friend would duck out of without explanation.

Over the course of the weekend, I constantly found myself  asking “how can I .....” and “what if she......” - exactly the same questions I ask when I’m writing stories.  The art of problem solving - getting characters out of the situations you’ve written them into - is central to the process.  

4.  Sometimes all it takes is a bit of faith

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve written a tiny detail into the beginning of a story, only to find it there waiting for me when I need it pages later.  There were some wonderful moments of serendipity during Twiction12 too.  My explanation for Dee’s silence after she left Jack’s birthday party was a lost phone.  “Never mind, found it in the car” I (she) tweeted, just as the same time as the Diva was saying she’d found it behind the wine bottles in the kitchen. 


‘This must be someone else’s phone...wonder who it belongs to?’ improvised Virginia, as the Diva.  Curiosity got the better of The Diva and she read the text messages on it, which neatly set the the story on the path to its natural conclusion.  What would have happened if Dee hadn’t lost her phone?  Or if I’d sent my tweet to say I’d found it a few minutes earlier?  We’ll never know, I suppose.  Perhaps the ending would have been the same - we  just would have got there a different way.  Call it serendipity, or call it your subconscious knowing what was going to happen all along, and paving the way - coincidences like this happen all the time when I write.  I'm very glad that they do. 

5.  Show, don't tell....

It’s an old maxim, but  one which kept springing to mind over the course of the weekend.  Especially on Saturday afternoon, when Virginia sent me an email. “Tonight Jack’s going to need his mum,but she’s ignoring his phone calls. Finally, in desperation, he’ll tweet her, but she won’t believe it’s him.  After the third time he tries, can you tell her?”

Although I’d been reading Jack’s tweets, Dee hadn’t noticed them, so this posed something of a challenge.  Why would she suddenly discover them now?  And how could I let the readers know she’d seen them, without telling the Diva too?  

Of course, Rosie and BigB had been chatting to Jack for ages so I gave Dee a reason to go and look at their timelines, then alluded to the fact that she’d discovered something she wish she hadn’t, and then had her frettting about it:  “It’s not a lie, if you just don’t tell someone something, is it?” she tweeted.  Show, don’t tell, I kept reminding myself.  Show, don’t tell.  Sometimes the old advice is the best.

6.  Good stories are all about emotions

On Saturday night I, just like Dee would have been, tensely sat and watched Jack’s timeline, wondering how much to tell the Diva.  Slowly his tweets began trickling in.  “Mum’s not answering her phone.”  “Come on Mum, PICK UP!”.  I felt my heart break a little, as this tough sweary 18 year old found himself having to beg his Mum to listen, and I wanted to shake her when she refused to believe him.  Waiting for my cue - the third tweet - I physically felt my heart starting to race.  
These emotions continued for the rest of the weekend.  I felt genuinely wounded when the Diva was cross with me the next morning ("but I'd only just found out!  And I thought about telling you..."said Dee)  and quite relieved when I heard Jack was OK. By the time the story reached its beautifully sweet epilogue on Sunday night - a three-way conversation between the Diva, Jack, and Granny May, who was a late addition to the cast (also written by Julia) I was a complete wreck. 

 This happens when I’m writing ‘real’ stories too.  I’ll get a flash of genuine emotion - sorrow, anger, happiness - and that’s when I know the story is right. If I haven’t cried at least a few tears while writing something, there’s a good chance it will be a bit rubbish. 

So, does Twitter work as a medium for telling stories?  Virginia is busy collating the tweets so you’ll be able to read them and decide for yourself.  My answer is a resounding ‘yes’.   Collaborative storytelling, in real time, certainly posed some challenges, but it was a fantastic experience and one I hope to be able to repeat one day (Twiction13, anyone?)  In the meantime, I had a ball.  I stretched myself, and I learned a lot about writing, and made some new friends.  And who knows?  One day I may even forgive them for stealing my husband.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Houston, we have lift-off.......

Actually, not Houston. You can't by Stations in Houston yet.  Or  in the rest of America.  (You can, however, buy it in Switzerland of all places.   Who knew the Swiss would be interested in our little East London railway line?)

Yes, today it's publication day:

I have to admit, I am not *entirely* sure what that means, except that some point I should probably eat some cake. 

But what I think it means is that you should be able to find copies in bookshops (PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE tell me if you see one), and if your local bookshop doesn't have a copy you can ask them to find you one.  Or you can order directly from Arachne Press.

I have never played professional basketball (this might surprise you), but today I have a pretty good idea of how this guy feels: