Monday, 17 August 2015

Magical Holidays

I've just got back from a magical week at Swanwick Writers' Summer School in Derbyshire.

It's only half an hour for me, which means I can usually get there with the help of a friend. My nerve damage (result of a car crash 20 odd years ago) limits how long I can cope with the vibration of a car, train, plane, horse, elephant, go-cart.

This year I was especially blessed as my pain levels remained bearable and I managed to stay the whole week.

Here I am by the lake, enjoying an impromptu music session with the wonderful Della Galton.

I was posing, not actually playing, as my shoulders aren't really up to it.     

Swanwick is a truly magical place; a place out of normal time. Each time I arrive, I feel I've never been away and each time I return home, I feel bereft.

Swanwick is where, for one week in the year, I get to live in a writers' community and learn and play and muck about and maybe even write a few words. It's my holiday. Then I come back to my normal life. Ouch.
My mission this year is to move back into the city for a bit. I'll have lots of people to visit when I feel lonesome. And one day I'll achieve my dream of living in an intentional community. That's my true quest.

Until then, I need to let the joy of Swanwick, and the friends I have there, live in my heart, alongside all my friends nearby and further afield - then I won't feel so much like a Dickensian character shut up in her flea infested garret, scratching away with her quill.

PS No sign of the little buggers, I may be in the clear. Woohoo. Now to book a professional deep clean.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Aliens among us


Aliens among us

Did you know that fleas can lurk, unseen, for up to nine months?

‘I’ll spray round the whole house,’ says the pest control man as he assesses how bad my situation is. ‘Should be sorted in six weeks.’

Six weeks?

Small black dots jump with glee onto his white leg protectors. They jump off, disappointed. Then they find my bare ankles. Their squeaks of joy send messages to the others, who hatch, ready for dinner.

The older ones are too busy to feed; they’re squatting in the corners of the room, in the cracks in the kitchen floor, in my wool basket, squeezing out hundreds of eggs.

‘I’ll set a bomb off too, that’ll cover every surface,’ says the man.

A bomb?

He walks into the kitchen, brushing his legs clear of the hopeful juveniles. ‘I’ve seen worse, but it’s pretty bad.’
Trying not to sound too tremulous, I ask, ‘How does it all work? How can I be sure they’ll be gone?’

For someone who voluntarily marooned herself on an uninhabited desert island for a month, I’m surprised at how squeamish I am about my new house guests. Out in Micronesia, I coped with centipedes as long and thick as garden hoses, spiders the size of small dogs and mosquito clouds so dense they formed thunderheads.

So why are these little buggers getting me hopping?

It’s the lurking.

The adults lay eggs, hundreds of eggs. They hatch in a couple of days and little maggoty larvae then crawl away from the light into crevices. After three larval stages they pupate. This is where they begin to resemble the creatures in Ridley Scott’s Aliens. They hatch when they detect warmth, vibration or carbon dioxide!

At the pupa stage they are almost impossible to kill. To make them hatch and die, you need to be in the same room, breathing, walking, willing to risk the case opening and a flappy spider thing jumping on your face and wrapping its…no, sorry… got carried away.

The idea is that the impervious pupae hatch when they detect you nearby and then the chemical in your house kills them.

That’s the hope anyway. I’ve just had the second spraying and bombing, and have to wait for the next cycle to hatch and die before I can be pronounced clear.

Till then, I’m tempted to stay upstairs and write my memoir about sleeping among poisonous insects and trying to catch enough fish for my supper – almost pleasant memories in contrast.

Saturday, 25 July 2015

Guest Blog with Alex Davis

Today - a special treat.

Drum roll please ...

Announcing the one - the only - Alex Davis. Alex has been a great help to me in my writing career. His new book The Last War is out now. 

over to you Alex...

The days are counting down on the July Blog Swap trail, and over the next few days I wanted to put some extracts from The Last War out there. Hopefully these'll give a nice flavour of the low-tech, neo-biblical kind of sci-fi I was angling for. So here's a little taster from Chapter Five, where violence comes to Genem for the first time...


Within hours, the clearing is witness to a scene unlike any in the short history of Genem. Larders have been emptied, and food lies on crude tables where both men and women eat greedily. None think about the next sunup. They eat as they have never eaten, gorging until their stomachs grow bloated. In one corner an unseen man has overstuffed himself more than any other, and vomits loudly into a stand of trees. Some of the food lies on the floor, trodden upon by bare feet, but still is devoured by hungry hands and mouths. 'Let us eat! Eat like we shall never eat again!' a high-pitched voice cries, and instantly the feeding frenzy intensifies.

But feasting is not the only act of pleasure evident around the temple. To one side a dancing circle has broken out, three women playing their simplest of drums with a fervour that sucks the crowd into a hypnotic rhythm. None of the Noukari have ever danced before, and the movements are jerky, often arrhythmic. Some find the beat to the music, other simply fling limbs and heads around with abandon, not caring what the music is but for the fact that there is music. The result is a swirling mass of bodies, some pressing against each other, others seeking isolation, their own space to explore the movement of their bodies. Each is lost in a new world, a world of sound and ecstasy.

Apius watches the dancers from the sidelines, choosing not to join them. He knows that he is the originator of this ceremony, but must not partake of it himself. No – a Re'Nuck must not debase himself like this. He has a duty to his followers. They must know this pleasure, they must find it at the heart of them to forget duty and endless work. This is significant, he knows, and he must take in every aspect of the sights before him without losing himself.

At the outer edge of the clearing there is a small clutch of men, only four or five, but what they do is so extraordinary that he cannot help but watch.

They are fighting.

The Re'Nuck moves in more closely, and the offence and defence pauses for a moment. But Apius just nods and bids them to continue. None of them question further, and the slowest to respond to the Re'Nuck's command find their faces crushed with clenched fists.

Fighting, Apius thinks to himself. What an unlikely outcome. Only in this moment, freed of all their rules and strictures, have they seen fit to fight. He would not even recognise it had he not heard and seen the creatures of the forest doing the very same thing, from the small and clumsy Echen through to the vicious duels of the Hiyel. It seems to be the way of nature, he reflects, the way of all life. Perhaps there is even something unnatural in the fact they have never fought.

To find out more about The Last War, visit

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Learning to Write a Memoir

There's a summary of tips at the end of this blog.

Last year I enjoyed two gratifying writing experiences.  I won a place to meet a literary agent through a conference hosted by Writing East Midlands.

I was also long listed for the Mslexia memoir competition 2014.

I contacted Bridgett Holding a tutor at Swanwick Writer's Summer School, and paid for a full read-through and feedback.  It was worth every penny. The things I learned from Bridget included:

·     Avoid unnecessary use of multiple level back-story. Some back-story will be inevitable, but it's best limited to one time period only.

Example; I feel elated.  Why do I feel elated?  Because this afternoon I took my first bungee jump, that's why. I was terrified as I stood there on the bridge, the safety harness tight around my middle.  I'm sure everyone could hear my teeth chattering in terror.

This is standard diary style.  You are in one place, remembering events that took place earlier.  Problems arise when, in the middle of remembering events, you have an earlier memory.  This will lead to reader confusion.

Example; I feel elated. Why do I feel elated?  Because this afternoon I took my first bungee jump.  I was terrified as I stood there on the bridge, the safety harness tight around my middle. 
The first time I took a bungee jump was when I was forty years old.  Blaa blaa, memory of the previous jump.

·     One way round the back-story problem is to start with an adrenaline-packed prologue and then begin chapter 1 in normal chronological order.

·     Any memories you do include must be relevant to the story. Watch out for details that are only there to please a much loved aunt/friend/hamster.

While I was doing major rewrite number three, I came across the Mslexia competition.  First prize: lots of money and a book deal.  Oh yes.

Surely there was no point in entering my memoir at this stage of its development, especially bearing in mind the huge entrance feet of £25?  Never known to be risk averse, I entered anyway.

When I got the e-mail from Mslexia, I assumed it was one of those 'that was interesting but...' reactions.  Then I noticed the word congratulations in the first few words.  I stopped breathing.  Then I hooted with delight.  I'd been long-listed.

A month later I found out that I had not been short-listed because the editor wasn't sure which of the many themes in my memoir was meant to be the main one. 

·     It doesn't matter how many threads a memoir contains, it must have one major theme.  That theme must run through the story like the writing in a stick of rock. 

Ultimately when you write a memoir, it is not about you, the author.  It is about the reader.  He or she needs to be able to relate to the emotional/psychological/spiritual/physical journey of the author.  The more universal your theme, the more the reader will be able to identify with the story and the more satisfied they will be.  A satisfied reader leads to a successful author.

I'd always wanted my memoir to be written in diary style.  I like the refreshing sense of immediacy, but there’s a fundamental limitation to diary style.  It must be possible for the author to be in a position where they can write.  Since my memoir took place in 1989 on a desert island, my technology of choice was a notebook and pen.  There is no realistic way I could write about swimming alongside hammerhead sharks.  (I didn't actually meet a hammerhead shark but I did have reef shark almost brush against my knees).  The only way to talk about this kind of thing is to do it in a reflective style after the event.

So, I decided to go for the non-diary style (I'm also dairy free - which is another story).
Now my character has the freedom to write anywhere, at any time. I'm now embarking on a major rewrite number four. 

·     Think about chronology.  Avoid overlapping, multiple layers of memory.
·     Memories must be relevant.  
·     Diary style is immediate, and exciting, but can constrain the style.  A writer can only write what is happening or has happened when she or he has pen and paper or technology of choice to hand - not while they are in the middle of a bungee jump.
·     Non-diary style allows the writer to describe a bungee jump at any point in the action.  We can be with her as she plummets to the river, feeling the harness going alarmingly loose before suddenly gripping at the base of the jump without having an unconscious anxiety about where her notebook is.
·     Memoirs are not an excuse for personal indulgence.  Well, okay they can be if you don't intend to publish.  Of course you can write what you like and thoroughly enjoy yourself, however agents are looking for universal themes.  They want memoirs that allow reader identification.
·     One theme must stand out and run through the whole story.  There can be many other threads, but they must all play a minor role compared to the main theme.