Thursday, 2 November 2017

No Souvenirs, Sorry. A guest post from writer Rae Stoltenkamp.

Rae Stoltenkamp
Knowing my penchant for travel, Rae, who I met at my first writing class over ten years ago, has taken time off from her novel writing to pen a post about her travel ethos.

No Souvenirs, Sorry.

I love travelling. For me it’s all about experiencing the place I’m in: the food, people, scenery, vibe…  In a perfect world I’d go on holiday twice, even thrice a year. I’d go somewhere different every time, because how can I experience cultures of the world if I only stick to one place?  Admittedly, I’ve gone back to Italy time and again. A girl’s allowed her weaknesses. 

My list of places to visit is as long as my books to-read pile is high.  For this situation I blame the international gang who make up my friendship group, and Bill Bryson.  To date my friends hale from Hong Kong, Poland, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, France, Switzerland, USA, Brazil, Italy… I think you get the gist. So it stands to reason they want me to know the wonders of their own particular patch. And I confess, they don’t exactly have to twist my arm to make me want to visit.

But that Bill Bryson – he started me thinking about weekend jaunts as well as longer holidays. Him I totally blame for my now insatiable desire to hop over to places like Bruges, Vienna and Berlin for a quick taster.  As soon as the royalties from my self-publishing moves into regular double figures on a monthly basis, I know where I’ll be heading.

I don’t mind travelling alone as I write when I’m away and this can be a touch irritating to companions who are not writers. In recent years I’ve taken to travelling with my good friend Bev, also a writer so doesn’t mind my writerly ways. As we generally have similar interests it’s also great for shared excursions. As I get older I’ve found I want to do the shared holiday experience more and more. I like having someone to plan daily events with and if I go off to do something on my own, I can then come back to the holiday-let and narrate the day’s tales.

I usually post to my blog or Facebook page when travelling as this serves as a kind of travelogue. It’s become a pretty standard thing for me to do now. I often look back on these posts, reminisce and relive the best bits of the holiday. It takes armchair travelling to a whole other level.

The one downside of being self-employed is that I don’t get to travel as much as when I had a regular, stable income. So when I’m on the move I don’t want to be weighed down by a collection of souvenirs for friends and family. I want to spend the time taking photos of eye catching scenes, eating food never eaten before, visiting locations heard of or read about in books. I want to fully immerse myself in the experience rather than worrying I’ve not got the right pressie for Aunty B or searching round for the next souvenir shop.

Sometimes I buy an item of clothing or jewellery from the place I’ve visited so the next time I wear it I can remember where I got it and what I was doing at the time. I have a pair of black trousers I bought in Milan in 1996 which are still going strong. Chopsticks from the 100 Yen shop while visiting Japan in 2008 are regularly used when I make either Chinese or Thai food. These are the only souvenirs I’m interested in along with the copious photographs I take. So friends, family - no souvenirs. Sorry.



Rae publishes her new YA book When Rainbows Cry in early December, the second in the series following Where Rainbows Hide. For more information on Rae's novels take a look at her website.

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Thursday, 28 September 2017

The Launch of: Stories for Homes 2.

The second Stories for Homes anthology is available from today as an e-book and can be ordered here.

Following the success of the first anthology, writers were invited to donate a story for its follow up volume. I'm delighted that one of my stories is among the 55 selected from 256 that were submitted for the current edition.

With a given theme of home, writers could interpret this how they wished and as result the stories are a rich mixture; sad; funny; hard-hitting; and cosy. To put it more coherently, I quote Emma Darwin: "A cornucopia of witty, tragic, elegant, raw, heart-warming and terrifying stories that take the idea of Home, play with it as only truly talented writers can, and all to help those who have no home at all." 

The hard work (lots and lots of it) behind the scenes was (and still is) co-ordinated by Debi Alper and Sally Swingewood  ably assisted by Rachel Dunlop and Jacquleine Ward who have all done a tremendous job.

All the proceeds from this and the previous anthology go to the charity Shelter.   

We know how important this charity is but I've taken some quotations from their website:
  • 150 families are made homeless in Britain every day. 
  • With so many families becoming homeless the number of calls to our helpline from people in need of emergency accommodation has risen by 7,244 in the past year alone. That’s a rise of 10%.
  • More than four million families are one missed pay cheque away from losing their home. We need to be there to answer their call, but to do that we need your support.
So please do buy a copy, or two or three, of the anthology. There are stories by some really excellent authors, ones whose company I am very proud to be in, so this won't simply be a good deed for the day, you'll enjoy it too. I'll also be waiting for the print version, coming soon, because I really want this on my bookshelf, except of course, when I'm reading it. I'm thinking Christmas presents too!

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Forget Bournemouth, How About Samarkand?

The Ladies of Samarkand


I love travelling and I love writing so it's fortunate when the two are combined! I wrote this little piece and submitted it to a travel competition for Senior Travel Expert's website and was declared joint winner. You can read it here

I found the competition on Patsy Collins' very useful blog: Words about writing and writing about words.  I suggest you read it!


In Samarkand there were many stunning mosques, madrassahs, mausoleums and museums but for me it was the people, like the ladies above, who made the place. They took photos of us too.


I've posted some photos from some other places mentioned in my piece

Stonetown, Zanzibar
 In Stonetown I found a cafe, overlooking the sea, perfect for writing, although I didn't actually write there. I did have some great coffee though which is quite a writerly activity.


The taught us their songs too.
The school in The Gambia, where we taught the children the song, 
soon erupted into chaos as they decided to teach us one of their songs. 
It was a little more energetic than we bargained for! 
Order was eventually restored.

Khiva, Uzbekistan.

The rooftops of Khiva are a beautiful site and well worth the climb up a tower to see them. The minaret featured really is leaning a bit. Some intrepid travellers climbed up that too, but I preferred to avoid achey knees and spent the time looking at an exhibition of photos by Uzbekistan's first professional photographer which provided a fascinating account of this country.
Yummy?

A delicious selection of fried insects and arachnids in Cambodia!  They are becoming quite popular in expensive 'designer' restaurants now in Europe. One of my travelling companions ate a whole tarantula. I managed only a leg and got furry bits stuck in my teeth. We lived to tell the tale.


The Road to Mandalay.


The road to Mandalay was long and winding. Unexpected festivals blocked the way with traffic jams comprising buses, bullock carts and motorbikes but who cared, we just joined in.



PS: I'm aware the font changed. No matter how many time I tried to adjust, it wouldn't work.




Friday, 18 August 2017

When should we give up?

I don't mean giving up on writing, but when should we give up on a particular story?

Like most short story writers I've submitted to competitions and magazines and like many of us, have received more rejections than acceptances. I've resubmitted several pieces elsewhere and have sometimes received more welcome news, with a placement or even a prize.  This has often come on the story's 3rd or 4th outing. Some were resubmitted after a few tweaks, a couple went exactly as they were.

But what about those stories which (I almost said 'who') have been rejected or relegated to the non-long-list pile several times. Obviously one can re-read, examine for flaws and re-write, but when any form of success seems light-years away, what then?

We all know success isn't just about having a good, well-written story, it's also about finding the right magazine or competition. It's also about a bit, or probably quite a lot, of luck. Magazines might be a little more predictable as they give guidelines for submissions, but competitions are a trickier beast.

We are frequently advised to read previous winning stories and if these are readily available online are well worth checking out. Sometimes, though, it means purchasing an anthology, some of which come with fairly hefty price tags. There's a limit to how many we can buy but I guess if we are focusing on specific competitions, this would be money well spent.  But although the long-listers and short-listers may be the same readers, many annual competitions have a different judge each year so unless we can find previous winners selected by this judge we may still be in the dark as to what hits their prize winning criteria.

I've done my fair share of research. I read the winning stories and often think 'Wow, a worthy winner.' but I also find that many competitions select writing that I find quite bleak. I note that most of my winning or listed stories, especially flash fiction, have been my starker examples and that's not my favourite writing style. It's not that I want to write only cosy little stories, indeed, a couple of the lighter stories I've submitted to women's magazine have been considered too downbeat, and one happy-ending story which featured a main character who was physically disabled was deemed 'not suitable.'

So, where to go from here?  To search out new competitions? To rewrite the rejected stories? To keep submitting as they are? Or quietly put them to bed?  I've done all four.

What do you do in face of rejections?


Saturday, 15 July 2017

2,000 books

In November 1984 I decided, for a reason I no longer recall, to make a note of all the books I read. I wrote them down in a fat notebook along with a 1-5 star rating. Some were so good they got a 6. I also noted whether the book was my own, a library book or borrowed. By December 2012 I had to employ a new notebook. To date, I have read and recorded 2,000 books.

How I wish I had noted all those prior to November 1984, but two thousand books later I look back at my choices. They include fiction of course, plays, memoir, biographies, books of short stories and non-fiction including travel literature, but I left out textbooks relating to work or my degree.

Classics have featured throughout - from re-reads of Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy novels that I loved in my teen years to those new to me which I studied in the years I did a degree in Literature (for fun) which included Germinal, Middlemarch, and Fathers and Sons. I didn't record all the plays I studied including ten Shakespeare plays and some of Aphra Behn's, probably because I didn't read every singe word! I am nothing if not honest!

Can I remember all these books? Of course not. I often pick lighthearted books when I'm coping with a difficult patch in life as they provide not only a means of escape but add the rose-coloured tint that life sometimes needs. I may not always remember them but I enjoy them while I'm reading which makes them as valuable as those that are more memorable. One such, I can't recall which, was quite a fun read but I was shocked to find a passage in it which I'd read before. Was this blatant plagiarism? No, I was reading a book I'd read about four years previously but had remembered none of it except this particular amusing scene.

My reading style has changed - when younger I always persisted with a book, even if it was a 1-star, providing I'd got past the first chapter, but now I'll abandon it - at my age, life is too short to read something I don't enjoy or value. For that reason I - rather appropriately - abandoned The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante. The book is not in my 2,000 count. I persisted for a while but I had no time for the main character, a vile woman who ,in my view, deserved her abandonment. I also found the book unnecessarily crude to the pint of vulgarity and I'm pretty sure reading to the end wouldn't have changed my mind! People rave about this author but so far I haven't attempted any others as this foray was so unpleasant.

My recent top reads, if you are curious, appear in my final blog of each year since 2012

Just leafing through my old notebook, which is falling to bits, I see 5 star ratings included Bill Bryson's Notes From a Small Island, Jonathan Smith's Summer in February (December 96) I didn't rate the subsequent film as 5 stars though, Amitav Ghosh's The Glass Palace (May 07), Michael Cunninghams's The Hours  (February 02) Alice Walker's The Color Purple, which was a re-read for my degree, and William Broderick's A Whispered Name (July 09). Jung Chang's Wild Swans, which I read in July 1998, earned 6 stars.

One noticeable difference is that my earlier reading included more library books than bought books (both new and second-hand.) I had less money to spend on books with a small child to look after when I started my log but I think this also reflects that in recent years there have been fewer books in my local library and especially fewer books suiting my taste than there used to be. On my last visit to the much depleted library since it was recently made much smaller, I could find nothing at all that I wanted to read. How sad. I think Waterstones' 3 for 2 offers (how I miss them) were also responsible for increased purchases in the later years. These days I attend more book events and invariably buy a book or two or three, so increasing my own book stock!

Bought or borrowed (but never stolen) here's to the next 2000 so I'd better get cracking to fit them all in.






Tuesday, 4 July 2017

How to Organize a Hen Party. (Or Not.)

A review for novel about a hen party. What do I know about them? My generation didn't go in for hen parties - or if they did, I was never invited to any when my contemporaries were getting married - so the first I attended was for a younger friend about 11 years ago. No pink sashes or plastic tiaras, it was a rather sophisticated three-parter with the 'hens' invited to join any or all parts. I attended only the evening do with a lovely meal and an amazing selection of cocktails. It was all very decorous and wouldn't have made a very interesting novel. The backstory was romantic though. The bride's journey to her marriage involved a meeting of minds on her travels in her late 30s with subsequent meetings at locations between Australia and UK with Barcelona being the decision spot! She went to live in Australia with her new partner but her wedding was here in UK at the church her parents and grandparents had married in. A smiling, radiant bride-to-be, she said 'I never thought this was going to happen for me.'

The second hen party I went to was my daughter's. Her romance also involved a meeting on a holiday, romantic meetings at places between Australia and UK (Bali was the decision spot). It was he who travelled to UK, where after a couple of years they got married and now they too live in Australia. Her hen party was a three-parter too, with an afternoon visit to the cat cafe, complete with moggies, for tea, followed by cocktails. At this point I left the youngsters who set off for an evening of cabaret. I believe there was a plastic tiara and far too many cocktails, but no sashes or willy wands, so not very novelistic either.

A perfect holiday read.
That's my entire experience unless you count the group I encountered early one afternoon, where several girls, already several sheets to the wind, were tottering around in very high heels and very short skirts plus plenty of party paraphernalia. I was in the middle of Emily Benet's latest book, The Hen Party  at the time. That party too is brimming over with bride-to-be sashes, tiaras, willy wands, bottles of bubbly and far more. What's more, it's being filmed for a reality show.

I reviewed it for Greenacre Writers: The Hen Party

Emily's trademark bouncy narrative is a great holiday read and if you thought Mallorca began and ended with Magaluf and all that implies, you might be in for a surprise. But in case you're not having a holiday this year, read it anyway.




Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Have You Found Your Ideal Readers?

If you are a writer, I'm sure you are familiar with peer review and feedback on your works in progress. Writers mostly find it invaluable even when the truth hurts. But can it sometimes do more harm than good?

The initial Finish That Novel group set up by Greenacre Writers attracted some great writers and we all read and critiqued each other's work with a mix of good and critical comments. I think I'm right in saying that we all found the experience beneficial and our writing improved. I know mine did but I was fortunate in finding, by chance, my Ideal Readers - as Stephen King called them.

I joined a similar group with a different novel and here my experience was mixed. The group was less stable with a number of people joining and leaving after only a few sessions. Some people joined after several members, including me, had already presented the first few chapters. The newcomers complained that they didn't know who various characters were - in spite of us providing detailed synopses of the work so far. After a few meetings, I realized that only three members' feedback was worth considering. Of these one did not hold back in criticism but it was all constructive and extremely helpful, and another was very supportive. The third fed back so much negativity in comments it contributed to my losing confidence in my writing so much so that I left the group and abandoned the novel. This person's comments about my main character were totally at odds with how I perceived her. Was I writing this character so badly that she could be completely misjudged? Evidently so.

I'm not a snowflake so why did I crumble from these comments and criticisms? This all came at a time when I was struggling to regain health after thyroid cancer and my energy was severely depleted. My replacement thyroxine was sub-optimum leaving me on the border of depression and I was also having an extremely difficult time with a colleague at work who undermined me at every opportunity. My confidence in my abilities disappeared down the plughole. Receiving such negative feedback on top of that resulted in me losing faith with my writing altogether, that even the other members' support could not counter-effect.

I'm pleased to say that four years on, I'm in better health and feeling more assured about writing having had some good feedback on my first novel and flash-fiction pieces. The other novel, however, remained hidden in my PC files until a few weeks ago.

I'd been having a huge de-clutter and tidy up, and found the hand written notes from the feedback group. I re-read these notes and have been working on some re-writing. The extensive notes written by that first member have been used in tweaking and deleting, and have been extremely valuable.

Reading the notes from the negative critiquer with fresh eyes, I now see that this person was simply not my Ideal Reader. Far from it. Some comments are valid certainly but many are not. This reader wanted me to write a different character altogether. Actually, it seems, a different novel!

I must be honest - some points were worth considering, and perhaps deep down I knew there was a degree of truth in the harsh criticism which made it harder to hear. I am examining those comments closely to see where I can improve my characterization, but I feel free to discard anything that is not useful to me. This person was not my Ideal Reader and I now have sufficient faith in myself and my writing to throw out anything that is not beneficial in improving it.

I am not advocating surrounding yourself by people who will give unstinting praise - no-one grows in that environment. Listen to your critiquers and consider their feedback - but, please, do find the courage to disregard criticism that doesn't allow you to feel enthusiastic about your work and its development.