Tuesday, 6 April 2021

The Second Blue Dress

Back in October 2020, I posted The First Blue Dress about my story published in UK. Here is news of the second blue dress in the story that I wrote when I was staying in St Kilda  back in 2018. 

(That month in St Kilda was also the subject of a story which was shortlisted in a competition held by St Kilda Historical Society last year.)

I think most writers like some of their stories more than others, and this is one I'm particularly fond of, so I was delighted when it was accepted for publication. 

'Second Hand Rose,' is published by New Lit Salon Press in the USA in its new anthology Dress You Up edited by Brian Centrone. 

Whether, like a friend of mine, we order our clothes online in batches of several of the same thing, because we hate shopping, or we linger in department stores or tiny boutiques to find just the right garment or we make our own clothes, we all have a relationship with clothing and accessories. This collection brings these relationships to life and I enjoyed reading every single contribution.  

The anthology comprises twelve stories about a fashion item: there's a dress with hidden pockets, a jacket for wearing to heavy metal concerts, a statement bag, the wrong kind of school bag, a second hand dress, a wedding dress, a spectacular orange dress, a dress that billows like Marilyn Monroe's, a short hemline, a 19th century dress, a dress that's bought by the wrong person and a scarf that holds a special memory. 

My story was based on a real photo of my sister and me, where she (pictured seated) is wearing a dress similar to that in the story. I don't think I ever wore it, although many of my clothes were hand-me-downs, but the rest of the story is pure fiction! 

The pandemic caused some delays in the anthology coming to life, but the editor, the lovely Brian Centrone, kept the contributors in the loop with emails about its progress. It's worth the wait!

For details and sales: New Lit Salon Press

Tuesday, 16 March 2021

The Joy and Disappointment of a Short-listing.

I often enter a monthly competition, mentioned here which I understand usually attracts over a thousand entries. There is one winner who receives a cash prize, a few shortlisted entries whose stories are published online and a list of long-listers. There is no published longlist followed by the shortlist, followed by the winner; it's all announced on the same day. (Presumably the winner is notified individually.) In the nineteen times I've entered I have been longlisted twice. That felt pretty good. I was not expecting to get anywhere so those two listings were a nice surprise. 

But when I make a long-list with the short-list to be announced in a few days or weeks, I can't help feeling a smidgeon of hope that my entry will inch further up the ranks. Sometimes it does, sometimes not. But once I've hit a short-list that hope - which realistically should slide down because after all, only three will be placed - sneaks up a bit higher. Maybe, just maybe, I'll make the top three. Or even, could I even dare to think it, I might win. 

I hate that feeling of anticipation. Even though I tell myself not to get my hopes up, some tiny hope insists on lurking. Then of course it's usually dashed. Although one time when I did win a competition, I didn't even spot my name on the winning list and it wasn't until I opened my individual email from the organiser that I realized I'd won!

But a short-listing isn't bad going. In the last year I've made four shortlists. One went on to be Highly Commended. 

My most recent short-listing was with my second novel (the first remains unpublished) which I entered into the Hawkeye Publishing Manuscript Prize. This novel was started many years ago and was put away in my computer's 'Out of Sight Because It's Terrible' drawer after receiving some feedback from a peer critiquer that was so negative I lost faith in it. I wrote a post about it here. It came at a time that was difficult and I didn't have the energy to lick my wounds and get on with saying 'I don't have to listen to your opinions.'

I eventually picked the MS up and carried on faffing about with it but it was the Melbourne lockdown that made me really get on and complete it. I entered it into the competition. I will be receiving some feedback on it which I am looking forward to but also slightly dreading. 

But this little success has given me to believe that my MS isn't a complete waste of time. That although I know I like it, that others might like reading it too. That it has some merit and that I must polish it a little more and attempt to get it out into the wide world again. Whether I succeed or not is another matter.

Anyway, time to move on and get ready to welcome the box of kittens. If they'd consider bringing some chocolate with them, that would go down very well indeed.

Sunday, 21 February 2021

An Online Literary Festival.

This past week, some of it in a snap lockdown, has seen me spending a lot of time on my sofa or in my garden chair (the temperature has been hitting 30 for the past few days.) I've watched a good number of sessions offered by The Society of Women Writers Victoria in their For The Love of Writing Festival, celebrating their fiftieth year. The opening day was to be in person at The Library at The Dock, which I was looking forward to attending but the lockdown meant that too had to be wholly online. As the event was being filmed for those who couldn't attend in person, the transition to online was seamless. Except we didn't get to sample the lovely celebration cake made by one of the members!

Fifty events provided plenty of choice from early morning exercises for writers who spend hours sitting at their computers to hints and tips on getting published, bi-lingual writers talking about writing in different languages and how this affects their work, writing for young people, writing poetry, memoir, illustrating books and of course plenty of author events. 

There was even an online cookery lesson followed by a food writing (and eating) discussion. 

I couldn't attend all the events but I will be able to catch up on some I missed as they were all filmed and links will be available for a short time to ticket holders. 

For me the highlights included hearing keynote speaker Rosalie Ham talk about her writing, Kate Leeming's incredible cycling expeditions, from across Siberia, around Africa, around and into the interior of Australia and her plans to cross Antarctica. 

I enjoyed the presentation by Madwomen, Bridgette Burton and Christina Costigan, who set up an independent theatre company, Baggage Productions, and I was fascinated by Sue Smethurst's talk, Why Truth is Stranger and Better than Fiction, about her non-fiction books including The Freedom Circus, the story of her husband's grandparents death-defying act to escape the Nazis and start a new life in Australia.

Pip Williams talking about The Dictionary of Lost Words, which I read last year and nominated as one of my top reads (along with thousands of other people I suspect) was fascinating. Pip told us how, as dyslexic child, using dictionaries was a nightmare for her! Now she owns a copy of the first volume of The Oxford English Dictionary minus the famous word - bondmaiden - which is the basis of her wonderful novel. 

The talk with Lucinda Hawksley and doyenne of theatre and cinema, Miriam Margolyes, on Dickens' Women, both fictional and real, was informative and great fun with Miriam doing impromptu performances from her stage show of Sairey Gamp, Miss Havisham and Miss Wade. The audience was very disappointed to hear that Miriam would not be doing another live tour of Dickens' Women.

Susanna Fullerton, President of the Jane Austen Society of Australia, gave a pre-recorded lecture on Jane Austen which was full of interesting insights. I've studied Jane Austen and her works quite a bit but learned plenty of new information. 

Jo Oliver's talk about her biography of artist, Jessie Trail, published last year was another highlight. She traced Jessie's life, career and travels from when she met artist, Tom Roberts, in Mentone, near where I live now, and also mentions when she visited him in Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, near where I used to live!  

All in all, it's been a busy and stimulating week and even without the lockdown until Wednesday, I admit I wouldn't have wandered far from my sofa or garden chair!

See here for information about The Society of Women Writers Victoria

Wednesday, 27 January 2021

Furious Fiction.

On the first Friday of every month The Australia Writers Centre runs a flash fiction competition. 

Each has a set of criteria and writers have a maximum of 55 hours to write up to 500 words and submit their story. Sometimes I just can't come up with anything, other months I manage to get something in. 

This January the criteria spoke volumes to me. Reading of the appalling numbers of Covid-19 in the UK swamping the NHS including the hospital group where I worked and many of my former colleagues still do, this story almost wrote itself. The fact that the first Friday of January was also the 1st of January was significant. 

The criteria:

  • Each story had to begin at sunrise.
  • Each story had to use the words SIGNATURE, PATIENT, BICYCLE. (Longer variations were permitted.)
  • Each story had to include a character who has to make a CHOICE.
I was quite furious as I wrote my first Furious Fiction of the year.  I didn't win, or get shortlisted but did make it to the longlist, which for a competition that attracts hundreds of entries, apparently represents about the top 3% so I'm pretty happy! This story is for all those at the frontline of the NHS. 

Remember The Best Thing.

Today’s best thing will probably be the sunrise. You left home in the dark, to pedal your old bicycle to work because your partner needs the car. You left early anticipating the hill. You surprised yourself by not needing to dismount and push it. As you neared the top, breathing hard, you saw the magnificent sunrise – shepherd’s warning maybe – but beautiful none the less.

You have two critical patients in resus. Both need to transfer to Intensive Care for ventilation. There’s only one bed available.

You’re fed up with people who claim doctors think they’re God. How many times have you heard the tired old joke about the difference between God and a consultant? But it’s down to you now to choose which one gets the ventilator. And you know that later today there’ll be more who won’t even get a 50% chance.

At the end of each difficult day –there hasn’t been any other for months– you think of the best thing that happened. Sometimes it’s just that you actually got to drink a decent cup of coffee during your shift. Usually if there’s coffee at all, it’s the crap from the vending machine or a tasteless brew made from the last congealing granules in the bottom of an old jar in the staff room.

This morning, you stopped by the pond to take a breather, to gaze and admire. You revelled in the glorious feeling of freedom. London has its moments. You took a deep breath and watched it plume on the frosty air as you exhaled. You heard birdsong – there’s hardly any traffic on New Year bank holiday mornings.

As you pushed off for the last leg down the hill to the hospital, you envisaged the state of the Emergency Department. There’d be drunks sleeping it off from last night’s revels, cuts and bruises from alcohol induced falls, wounds from fights. You’ve seen it all before. But this year there’s the added factor. How many of them are now positive? If there’s a demographic that won’t be responsibly socially distancing, it’s those crowding into the centre of London to see in the New Year with the help of alcohol.

As you approached the hospital, you counted the ambulances stacking up.

And now, kitted out in full PPE – which, while vital, only impedes the normal examinations you need to make, you have to choose. An elderly, but previously fit man, tested positive, gasping for breath. Or the young reveller, with a near-lethal cocktail of drugs and alcohol in his system and severely depressed respiration. He has a history – he frequents the department. You’ve revived him on more than one occasion. He’s only alive because of your previous interventions.

You make your decisions based on clinical evidence. You are not God. But you wish you were so everybody would get what they so desperately need. You remember that one good thing happened today. Your signature on the form denotes you’ve made your choice. You trust it’s the right one..

Monday, 28 December 2020

This Year's Reading in Lockdown.

Like many of us, my reading increased this year, eight months of which were in some degree of lockdown. When I totted up the books I'd read I was surprised to find it fewer than I'd anticipated, coming in at 70 although that includes the wonderfully mighty tome of A Suitable Boy. I'm so glad I read it before the drama series popped up on Netflix, which I loved, although I felt Lata's mother was not so large as life as in the book. 

I wasn't able to travel using my passport or, for several weeks, venture further than 5 km from my home, but reading took me to many parts of Australia, New Zealand, India, United States, UK, France, Sweden, Israel, Afghanistan, Kenya, Nigeria with brief visits to Thailand and Indonesia, Ethiopia and Brazil as well as in transit from Syria to UK. 

Most of my reading was set in recent years but I also travelled back to the early nineteenth century, late nineteenth century, the early twentieth century, 1920s, the 60s and even did a bit of time travel back and forth and into the future. 

My reading has been largely catching up with the dozens of fabulous Australian authors I'd not come across before, indeed, some of my reading being debut novels just out. Women authors far outweighed males in my choices, not because I was aiming to read women, (or avoid men,) but because their books  appealed to me. 

I've also read many more short stories and flash fiction than usual in online journals. While I read some brilliant flash fiction and short accounts of people's Covid lockdown experiences on 100wordsofsolitude and The Cabinet of Heed's stream-of-consciousness-special (and had a piece of mine published in the latter) I tended to avoid these after a while, opting for non-related themes. 

Here are the twelve books That came top in my enjoyment rating.

Vikram Seth: A Suitable Boy

Pip Williams: The Dictionary of Lost Words

Leah Kaminsky: The Hollow Bones

Leah Kaminsky: The Waiting Room

Charity Norman: The Secrets of Strangers

Christina Dalcher: Q

Delia Owens: Where The Crawdads Sing

Tara June Winch: The Yield

Leah Purcell: The Drover's Wife

Inga Simpson: Where The Trees Were

Craig Silvey: Jasper Jones

Joanna Nell: The Great Escape From Woodlands Nursing Home

And in case the worst happens and we get another lockdown, I still have War and Peace on my shelf and I was given an epic 933 pager for Christmas, Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. Let's hope I can read them without any constraints around me, although neither will be my first choice to read on the train as they won't fit in my bag.

Tuesday, 24 November 2020

A Very Special Book - Animals Make Us Human


Leah Kaminsky, author of two excellent novels, who I follow on Twitter began tweeting about a forthcoming book Animal Make Us Human that she and fellow author, Meg Keneally were editing.  Comprising a number of essays about animal encounters accompanied by beautiful photographs, the book was conceived to raise money for the Australian Marine Conservation Society and Australian Wildlife Conservancy. 

The plight of Australian wildlife came to prominent attention almost a year when wildfires swept through much of Australia. The loss of 173 human lives was devastating. This shocking number was massively outstripped by the loss of wildlife. An estimated 3 billion mammals, reptiles, birds were decimated. Retiles and amphibians were the hardest hit.

The desire to help raise money for the important work that conservation agencies were doing to help animals injured or orphaned by the fires along side general conservation projects resulted in the idea for the book and the call went out for contributions that soon came pouring in.  

Australia's unique wildlife has been under threat since colonisation. Massive loss of habitat and introduction of non-native species as well as hunting of animals considered to be a threat to farming has wreaked havoc on Australia's fauna for over two centuries. People are increasingly urbanized and dislocated from nature. 

My own knowledge of Australian flora and fauna is limited - something I found quite hard when I first came to live here last year. Although no expert on British wildlife, I could identify a number of trees, wild flowers, birds and butterflies. Arriving in Australia I was surrounded by plants and trees new to me. Staying in a Melbourne AirB&B three years ago, I woke to some exotic birdsong. Internet research told me it was a magpie. So different from the British magpies that rattled away in my North London garden ash tree, I wasn't sure if I could believe the information, but observation soon showed me it was indeed the large Australian magpie.

The first bird I saw in the tiny garden of my new house just over a year ago was a - blackbird. I'm very pleased to hear his beautiful song as he sits in a tree-top and sings his heart out but I confess I was hoping for a uniquely Australian bird. They soon arrived. Not many, but so far the garden has hosted  red wattlebirds, a very noisy little wattlebird, butcherbirds, a pied currawong, (seen and heard only once) annoying little common mynahs (non-natives) and nearby I see and hear beautiful rainbow lorikeets, magpies, magpie-larks, galahs, sulphur crested cockatoos and, once, a sighting of a beautiful blue superb fairy wren. Venturing further with my sister, an expert birder, I saw and learned to identify a number more, although she saw far more than I did!

Back in my garden, skinks and huge woodlice hide beneath stones and golden orb spiders spin webs. A few butterflies flit around (not yet all identified as they will not keep still) and bees visit my lavender. 

Encounters with mammals have been more limited. The lettuce and tomato-seedling eating possums bouncing over my roof at night did not endear themselves to me, but now my tomatoes are flourishing in a cage and my lettuce garden lives in a hanging basket we are on better terms. Sometimes at night we examine each other through my window.

Before lockdown, I met the famous bats/flying foxes of Kew (who now have their own Twitter account after a very nasty local MP suggested exterminating them.) On our walk in Cranborne Gardens, my sister and I encountered a large wallaby, and on our trip on Puffing Billy the train stopped for an echidna to take its time to cross the line. I've encountered an Australian fur-seal having a bask in the sun on a hot day and enjoyed seeing pods of dolphins on a cold grey day while walking the Bay Trail. Now we are able to get out and about I hope my wildlife encounters will significantly increase.

Reading this beautiful book, my knowledge and appreciation of Australia's wildlife is developing rapidly. I've learned of species I'd not been aware of and am learning more about their habitat and nature but this isn't a text book. It's a book of wildlife encounters, some by experts who are studying animal behaviour, others by writers, many of whom have written books I've mentioned on previous blog posts, who have enjoyed unexpected relationships with the animals who live in their gardens or local environment. 

This important book is also a call to help make us all more aware of the plight of Australian wildlife. I for one don't want my granddaughters to read about animals that once lived in the country of their birth but are now extinct.

This is a book to dip in and out of, to savour and to come back to again and again. It's fast becoming one of my precious books.  

Animal Make Us Human, published by Penguin Life 2020 is widely available in bookshops. 


Thursday, 22 October 2020

The First Blue Dress

This week sees the publication of one of my short stories. Another is to be published in the very near future. The two stories are written in different styles and were submitted to different publications at different times and accepted at different times so it wasn't until news of their publication coincided that I realised both stories featured blue dresses. Very different dresses though. One is a dull blue with white spots, which the wearer hates. The other is a beautiful long dress, the colour of bluebells, which the wearer loves but feels might not be suitable for a midweek morning. 

A Girl Can Dream is published this week in Yours Magazine (edition 361) in the UK. 

The story, originally titled A Dress Made for Dancing was inspired by a real person I met through my work. Cathy, a wheelchair user also had dysarthria, a speech impairment, as does my story's Cathy. She also had an admirer called Alan but the rest is imaginary. One memory of the real Cathy, which isn't in my story, is how her speech would improve after a vodka and orange or two when we went for a jaunt to the pub. Sadly, it didn't prove to be an efficacious universal therapy tool for speech and language therapists. 

Both Cathy and Alan died many years ago but I deliberately used their names in their memory. I hope they would both approve of the story.  

Having said that, there have been a number of edits to my original story. One or two are fine, but many  I hate. I wasn't surprised to see it changed from my first tense to past tense but the number of clichés, including its new title, that are now dotted throughout are horrible. The final sentence too, has been changed into another cliché! My image of Cathy in her beautiful blue dress was a lot more glamorous than the illustration. I wanted my story to show a wheelchair user looking absolutely fabulous, and I think the blue cardigan (which was originally a little shrug) is more like the warm winter cardigan I've been wearing during lockdown than anything Cathy would have chosen!