Friday 27 December 2013

My Best Reads of 2013

My 2013 top ten reads, in no particular order, chosen for enjoyment as much as literary merit are:

Flight Behaviour - Barbara Kingsolver

Island Songs – Alex Wheatle

A Virtual Love - Andrew Blackman

On Holloway Road - Andrew Blackman

The Best of Everything – Rona Jaffe

Infinite Sky – C.J. Flood

Bring Up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel

Honour – Elif Shafak

The Road to Urbino – Roma Tearne

The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared – Jonas Jonasson

Sunday 1 December 2013

The Night Father Christmas Was Confused

As Father Christmas clambered into the sleigh he heard an ominous creaking.
‘Bloomin’ elves haven’t oiled the sleigh properly,’ he muttered before realizing it was his knees that were protesting. The horrible truth was Father Christmas was getting old. He’d been doing the Christmas rounds for over a hundred years now and he should be thinking about retirement. In spite of having to work so much harder these days, as children expected so much more in their Christmas stockings than when he began the job, he was reluctant to give up.

It would be his nephew, Nicholas, who would be taking up the reins, and let’s face it, Nick just wasn’t mature enough for the job. Only two weeks ago when Father Christmas asked Nick to take the reindeer and sleigh out for a run to get the deer limbered up and ensure the sleigh was in good working order, what did he do? Had them tearing along at top speed like some boy racer, careless of not only his charges but endangering the elves in the delivery sleighs coming in and out of headquarters with supplies. Luckily there hadn’t been a nasty accident, but the reindeer were exhausted and needed double rations that night to keep up their strength, which was a waste of fuel. Mrs Christmas had had to lecture Nick on the concepts of eco-Christmas, this year’s theme, and not wasting the earth’s precious resources.
Still, there was no time to waste pondering – he must get on. This year the first round (every child worth its salt knows the whole lot can’t be done in one go) was both his favourite and the one he disliked the most. He decided to call on Happyton first to put him in a good frame of mind before going on to the dreaded Greediville. He loved the village of Happyton, where the Victorian houses had proper chimneys that he could get up and down with no bother. Even the houses that had been divided into flats and had boarded-up fireplaces presented little difficulty. Greediville was a newish town with mean little boxes for houses, full of new-fangled gadgets and not a chimney in sight.
The Happyton children always asked for good old-fashioned toys: Lego, dolls and footballs. Puzzles and board games were still popular and Father Christmas’s favourite; books. Of course these new-fangled e-readers and smartphones appeared on the older children’s lists but the girls still liked the pretty silver jewellery and silk scarves that Mrs Christmas sourced from Traidcraft workshops. The boys liked traditional sports equipment as well as new technological things that Father Christmas didn’t really understand. Chocolate – always Fairtrade from Ghana, Belize and Cote d’Ivoire – was still an enormous hit with all ages. It was so different in Greediville where the kids demanded their own computers, endless computer games, I-pods, I-pads, and who knew what else. They needed new models every year. Goodness knows why, Father Christmas had had the same mobile for about ten years and it still worked absolutely fine. Mrs Christmas had hinted that he should upgrade but so long as she was able to check he was alright, she wouldn't press the issue.  
The elves used much more up to date gadgets and lately had been using strange things called Apps – it did make things easier now the goods could be ordered online, meaning he could avoid the tiring incognito reconnoitring trips he used to make. It saved fuel but he put his foot down at the idea that it could all be delivered to headquarters by air-freight and insisted on the traditional methods.
As the sleigh flew over Greediville, Father Christmas’s heart sank. The place was blazing with lights. Each house seemed to vie with its neighbours for the gaudiest display. Many of them were crude depictions of himself and the deer. Last year Blitzen had been most upset and handed in her resignation. Still, Happyton would be the same traditional scene. But wait… what was going on here?
Coming in to land Father Christmas could see the usual Christmas tree outside the church. It was shining brightly – those low-energy bulbs were jolly good – but the houses were all in complete darkness. It was quite irresponsible to keep tree lights blazing all night, both on counts of energy and safety but it was a bit of shame not to have a few of those twinkly lights. He wondered if people who had pet hamsters could rig up their little wheels to generate enough electricity to keep low-watt bulbs glowing. The only other light he could see was from a cluster of six flickering candles in jam jars near the church door.
He negotiated the first chimney and what was this? There was the decorated tree but no presents lay beneath it. This house belonged to a large family who gave generously to each other. Every year the grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins all came to stay and lovely parcels always lay beneath the tree in anticipation of the special day.
Had they all gone away and forgotten to tell him? Or worse, had he made a mistake? Had he come a day too early? He was getting a bit forgetful lately. No, Mrs Christmas would never let him make an error like that. Then he spotted a plate of home-made mince pies – one for each of the deer and one for himself. He popped one in his mouth and placed his presents in the stockings hanging up and made his way to the next house. No brightly wrapped gifts in recycled paper here either. Every house was the same. What was happening – was Happyton no longer the generous, loving community he so admired?
Feeling rather shaken he pulled out his phone and dialled the number of the elf responsible for Happyton orders.
‘Is that Albert? What’s going on in Happyton?’
'Simples!’ said Albert. ‘Look out for the candles in jars. Must dash.’
Father Christmas made his way to the candles by the church door. Above them was a notice from the NHS Blood Doning Service. “Thank you, Happyton, for your gift of life. We collected 153 units at the special Christmastide session. Thank you also to those who gave drinks and refreshments for the donors, saving us money.”
He spotted the next cluster of candles a few yards away. Above them was another sign. “Thank you Happyton for your donations of bedding, toiletries, clothes and food. We will now be able to keep our town shelter for the homeless open for ten days over the Christmas period. Additional cash donations went to Crisis."
A third group of candles gleamed not far away and Father Christmas found another sign. This one proclaimed that Happyton’s energy saving drive throughout December had enabled the residents to Send a Cow to a family in Kenya along with several smaller gifts.
The fourth notice said “Thank you Happyton! The Time, Skills and Services Auction has raised over two thousand pounds for DEC's Ongoing Appeals. Your babysitting, gardening, computer trouble-shooting, cleaning and cooking will enable people to start rebuilding their lives in the face of disaster."
A fifth group of candles outside the school showed a poster of children from all around the world. Under the picture large multi-coloured letters spelled out “Happy Christmas and Peace on Earth to all. By not having Christmas presents from our parents this year we have funded five Shelterboxes for people in places where disaster has struck."
Father Christmas climbed back into his sleigh with a creak of his knees. He patted Prancer and Comet.
‘I’m a silly old fool,’ he told his faithful reindeer. ‘Of course the people of Happyton haven’t stopped giving. Not all gifts come wrapped in bright paper tied up with tinsel. The sleigh lifted off and Father Christmas went on his way calling his usual greeting,
                         "Merry Christmas and Peace on Earth to you all."

This an updated version of the story first published in The Greenacre Times December 2007. 



Friday 1 November 2013

Is November NaNoWriMo or NoWriNoMo?

For me it's the latter. November is Not Writing a Novel in a Month. How anybody can even contemplate this is a mystery to me. I have always presumed these intrepid writers send the kids to Grandma, take the month off work and train partners to do all the housework and shopping and keep the caffeine coming at regular intervals.

But then I discover that plenty of these NaNoWriMo writers do have other things to worry about; they get the kids to school and do the shopping and many of them go to work for at least some of the time. And they still manage to bang out over 1,000 words a day.

They must be super-organised. They have probably filled the freezer with nutritious brain food meals and have organised stocks and supplies for snacks so they don't need an emergency trip to the supermarket for teabags or light-bulbs half way through chapter 3. Perhaps friends and grand-parents have been roped in to do a bit of childminding, but even so many writers are balancing on a tightrope between life and writing. They have my admiration and I wish them all success.

So, while I may not have aspirations to write a novel during November, I have set myself the goal of writing a short story in the next month  Not 50,000 words, 2,000 will do so that's 66.6 (recurring) words a day. Should be easy peasy. Except I'm taking ages to navigate my way round a new keyboard, to say nothing of Windows 8, which I didn't even know existed until 2 days ago, and Word 2013 (which will be out if date in 2 months' time). So it might have to be a very short story.

There's also a pile of washing, another of ironing and a fair bit of dust but I bet even NaNoWriMo writers don't do that, do they?

Thursday 10 October 2013

My second novel.

During a recent de-clutter, I came across my second, third and fourth novels. Unpublished, they have lain in the loft for many years. The reason why they are unpublished is because the writings of a 10, 12 and 15 year old tend not to be publishable! The first novel, written a year before this one, may still lurk in the attic. It was illustrated too, and received an excellent review from its only reader.

The second novel featured here was my first English project at secondary school. I began and completed it in the two weeks before my 11th birthday. At approximately 1,500 words calling it a novel might be stretching reality a little, but that was the task and the given subject was life on a desert island.


The third novel, written during my pony-mad phase, was about a girl in her first job at a riding stables and falling for one of the boys who also worked there. There was plenty of drama including a riding accident which in those far off days involved someone galloping off to phone the local doctor to attend the injured rider in a the middle of a moor. Now, of course, someone would just phone the air ambulance.

The fourth was an epistolary novel about a girl who went to work as a mother’s help in a large disorganized family and of course she falls for the oldest son. Inevitably there is a misunderstanding and she thinks he’s no longer likes her so goes out with a guy she’s known forever which makes the other one jealous! Containing a smattering of 15-year-old angst, it's riveting stuff.

After these crackers, it was a mere 45 years before I attempted the next one and that has taken a lot longer than 2 weeks. A lot longer. My writing has improved a little (although I think my hand-writing was better when I was 10) and I hope that it just might be publishable.

So all you novelists out there - when did you write your first masterpiece?

Thursday 3 October 2013

Sometimes spelling and grammar doesn't matter.

I stand by my last post about good grammar and spelling, but there are times when it doesn't matter at all - the message is what counts.

This note is from a little girl with significant language and literacy difficulties, who is mastering both and is revelling in her new found skills. We've read many stories together - I used to read to her, but now she reads to me and is beginning to write her own stories.  

She has a world of literature awaiting her.

Friday 6 September 2013

Grammar With Mother.

The English language is evolving. Words come and go and pronunciation changes. This isn’t just the newer American pronunciations that have crept into English, it has been evident since there were records of our language. The Great Vowel Shift was probably the first major change in pronunciation to be studied and analysed.

A word of warning, should you ever write about this yourself, make sure you avoid typos. A fellow student on my Literature degree course handed in a beautiful essay entitled 'Causes of The Great Bowel Shit.'  He didn't even mention  Phaal as a likely candidate so was marked down.

Back to the point, grammar, too, is changing. Purists criticize what they perceive as incorrect grammar (and there is plenty of it about) but others claim that correct usage is current usage. But current usage by whom? Who or whom?

The teaching of grammar in schools seems to have disappeared years ago, but authors had a handle on it. Or perhaps it was the editors who had a handle on it. In recent years I have noticed numerous grammar and spelling errors in books. Is this because authors now have less ability in spelling and grammar or because fewer manuscripts are rigorously edited? Or perhaps modern editors haven’t learned grammar?

Six books I've read in the past couple of months, all by respected authors and published by well known publishers, have thrown up these little gems. (These have all been narrated in standard English rather than dialect.)

1. She didn't know how this would effect her.

2. He was bored of playing on the computer.

3. The class were put into teams…

4. He was laying on the unmade bed…

5. Compared to Jane’s results, she had done well.

6. He handed the letter to Peter and I.

7. None of them were going to say anything...

Readers may consider some of these acceptable but my mother, taught grammar in school 80 years ago, would have a fit. Her lessons have stayed with me far more successfully than anything I learned during my own school days where grammar was theoretical rather than practical.

Many claim the creativity of writing is more important than spelling and grammar. I recently saw a piece of flash fiction published online which conjured up a lovely picture but, for me, was spoiled by the author using 'lay' instead of 'lie.' I didn’t comment as the author's note said he hadn't written for a long time because of a crippling fear of grammar and punctuation. I have no wish to put someone off writing for life and if he wishes to pursue writing, the basic rules of grammar can be learned without, I hope, too much difficulty.

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts and comments.

PS. I use the Oxford spellings. The suffix -ize  was used in Britain before the English language hit America so it's not, as many believe, an Americanism

PPS. Regarding pronunciation you might like Shakespeare's pronunciation..

Wednesday 21 August 2013

And now for something serious...a taster.

My last post was tongue in cheek but here is a taste of my more serious short fiction. 

Chocolate in Summer

Seated at the grand piano, Margot became the woman she might have been rather than the one she was. Gone was the carping woman craving her headache pills; in her place was a maestro.

‘Oh how wonderful. You’ll have some help,’ people cooed when I muttered through clenched teeth that my mother-in-law was coming to stay. How they thought it was helpful to be driving over a hundred and fifty miles to the airport, with a two-month old breast-feeding baby in tow, I couldn’t imagine.
   She spent the entire six weeks moaning. The bedroom was too hot, too cold, the baby cried, my cooking was terrible, I didn’t iron Patrick’s shirts properly.
   ‘She’s asking for Gentleman’s Relish,’ I said to Patrick. ‘What the hell is that? I’ve never heard of it.’
   ‘Oh yes, she used to love it on toast,’ he said, frowning over our bank statement. ‘She used to put a little jar of it in my school tuck box every term. I’d sell it to one of the older boys because I hated it, and bought sweets from the tuck shop with the money. She never packed sweets. You can probably get it at Fortnums.’
   ‘Are you insane? Do you really expect me to high-tail it to London to get a jar of something for her bloody toast?’
   But make the journey I did, for Margot must be appeased, although nothing would ever make me good enough for her son.

‘Have you put Toby’s name down for Patrick’s prep school yet?’ she asked one Sunday lunchtime while I was clearing the table.
   ‘Margot, he’s barely three months old,’ I said. ‘Rather premature, don’t you think?’
   ‘These good schools are subscribed years in advance,’ she said curtly.
   ‘Besides which,’ I said, ‘I do not intend for my son to be sent away to school, even if we could afford it, which we can’t.’
   ‘Patrick, surely you can’t want your son educated in a state school?’
   ‘I rather think I do, Mother,’ he replied. ‘I have no wish to put Toby through what I endured.’
   I didn’t hear the end of that conversation because Toby began to wail, much to my relief.  I hurried off to placate my son who would not be sent away at the tender age of eight when, I hoped, he would still be wanting a story, a teddy snuggled into his bed and a goodnight kiss.

Each year, two months of summer were utter misery. As he grew older, even Toby began to dread the visit from Grandma: her headaches that demanded his utter silence; the outings that were curtailed because she felt unwell; the meals that must be just so.
   ‘Give me a hand,’ Patrick yelled down the stairs one Saturday before the impending visit. ‘I need you to hold the ladder. It’s wobbling.’ I switched off the iron, glad to have respite from squirting steam over the curtains from the spare room, Margot’s room, and plodded up the stairs, pushing my damp hair behind my ears.
   I held the ladder while Patrick inexpertly painted the room in his mother’s favourite colour.
   ‘She’ll like this,’ he said as he rolled the paint on. ‘She found the greens too bright.’ He was being tactful; ‘nauseous’ was the word she’d used. My carefully chosen two-tone green room disappeared under a coat of magnolia-meets-mushroom. The curtains would look quite wrong now but at least they would be dust and crease-free.
   A month later, I heaved Margot’s luggage up to the room. She was already lying on the bed in the delicate pose of a dying martyr.
   ‘Pull the curtains,’ she ordered. ‘There’s too much sun. Where are my pills, I think a headache is coming on.’
   ‘Do you like the new colour?’ I asked as I slid the curtains closed, banishing the few rays of sun to have graced our summer that year.
   ‘It’ll do.’
   ‘I’ve made your favourite cake so pop down for tea when you’re ready.’
   ‘I couldn’t possibly eat cake. My digestion. Some cucumber sandwiches, I think.’
   ‘I’m afraid I don’t have any cucumber. How about tomato?’
   ‘Tomato? With my delicate stomach? Good gracious girl, you should know this by now. Just run out and fetch a cucumber. It’s hardly too much to ask.’

It was when we visited my new neighbour who had invited us for coffee, that the ground shifted. Standing in their airy living room was a grand piano. Enormous, shiny and proud, it took up most of the space. Margot drifted towards it and trailed her fingers on the keys.
   ‘Do try it, if you’d like to,’ trilled the neighbour.
   To my astonishment, Margot seated herself on the padded stool and began to play. Music rippled from beneath her fingers as effortlessly as breeze on water.

   That was the day I first saw her smile.

If you would like the read the whole story it is published in The Greenacre Writers Anthology Vol 2 available from Greenacre Writers

or for just 39p  from Alfie Dog Fiction

Wednesday 7 August 2013

The Continuing Saga of Lit Ward 10.

Since the spectacular success of  Dr Read’s literary medicine - helped by the odd glass of G&T - on Lit Ward 10, his Specialist Registrar, Dr. de Licious and Staff Nurse Gorgeous had volunteered to take on the extra duty of selecting suitable medication but now the new Chief Exec had insisted he be on the selection panel.

‘Now what evidence base do you have for this book stuff?’ he asked.

Dr Read handed him a print out of Lit Ward 10 outcomes.

‘With the government trying to close libraries and the NHS, we must do all we can to fight these disastrous decisions,’ Dr Read explained. ‘This is the only dedicated adult Literary Ward in the country and so far we’ve excellent outcomes.’

‘Yes, there has been some success I’ll admit, but evidence based practice is the pillar of clinical governance...’ mumbled the Chief Exec. He hadn’t read a novel since he was at school. He vaguely recalled something called 1984. Or was in 1984 that he last read a book? He couldn’t quite remember.

The Reader Organisation and InterAct Reading Service both have anecdotal evidence of literature helping recovery from illness,’ added Dr de Licious. 'As well of course as Read Well for children.' He couldn't miss them out although he knew Dr Read had been a bit upset to find that name had already been taken.

After reading about  Friern Barnet Community Library in leafy North London, reclaimed from closure by the community and reopened with 10,000 donated books, Dr Read’s appeal for books had been similarly overwhelmed with good books, but careful selections had to be made.

‘Can’t have this,’ yelled the Chief Exec holding up a copy of Bring Up the Bodies. 'Gives quite the wrong idea. Or this.’ He pointed to a copy of Death Bed by Leigh Russell, one of Dr de Licious’s favourite thriller writers.

I Googled titles with ‘health’ in them’ said the Chief Exec’s assistant, ‘and I came up with How I Scaled the North Face of the Megapurna with a Perfectly Healthy Finger But Everything Else Sprained, Broken or Bitten Off By a Pack of Mad Yaks, but it doesn’t seem to be on Amazon. I did look.’

‘That’s because it’s a fictional book,’ explained Dr de Licious slowly (he’d noted the assistant seemed to be having some kind of processing problems), while rolling his eyes at Nurse Gorgeous.

‘Exactly, That’s what Dr Read wants, isn’t it? Fictional books.’ The Chief Exec looked cross while his assistant continued to look his normal gormless self.

‘What Dr De Licious means, is that that title is a made-up book in a book,’ said Nurse Gorgeous. ‘It’s in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Now that’s a good one for Lit Ward 10.’

‘But you said we’re having only fiction here, no travel books,’ complained the Chief Exec, who been annoyed that they’d rejected his old copy of Guide to the Most Boring Places Where You Can Park a Caravan in England. Since his promotion to Chief Exec, he’d got rid of the caravan as he didn't think it fit his new image. ‘And we shouldn’t encourage hitch-hikers, they’re scroungers, the lot of them.’

‘Here’s a safe bet, Pride and Prejudice.’ Nurse Gorgeous held up one of her favourites.

‘Out of the question,’ barked the Chief Exec. ‘Haven’t you done your mandatory training in Equality and Diversity? No prejudice is allowed on these premises whatsoever.’  He snatched the book and binned it. ‘My wife says there’s a book named after her, Emma. So I think we should have that.’

‘We do have that one. It’s a very good choice.’ Nurse Gorgeous didn’t add that Jane Austen had come up with the name some 200 years ago.

‘Excellent,’ said the Chief Exec, oblivious to the fact that it was by the same author of the book he had just tossed away. ‘So what others have names in them?’

Doctor Zhivago,’ suggested Dr de Licious with a slight smile.

‘But what’s he got to do with this project? He works in orthopaedics.’

‘That’s Dr Santiago.’

‘So why bring up this other chap then? We don’t have time to waste…Is there a book called Clarissa. That’s my mother’s name?’

‘Yes, there is, but I’m not sure we should include it,’ said Dr Read.

‘Why not?

‘Unless you are happy to have bed blockers.’

The Chief Exec shuddered. Bed-blockers were the bête noire of all chief executives and bed managers. ‘What’s it got to do with bed blockers?’ Really, literary types were a pain in the neck, going off at tangents all the time.

‘It’d take even the speediest reader a while to complete as the later editions are over a million words,’ said Dr Read. ‘Better for our community patients. Although I wouldn’t consider it for anyone with heart problems or any form of muscular weakness.’

The Chief Exec couldn’t see what that had to do with anything. ‘I think all our books should have names in the titles. My name’s Adrian. Is there a book called Adrian?’

‘There’s a whole series of Adrian Mole books,’ said Dr de Licious.

‘Excellent!’ said the Chief Exec. ‘I’m sure the hero is a worthy person. I see him as a hard working, leader of people, someone who has a vision of how things should be in the 21st century. Someone like me. Is he at all like me?’

‘Two peas in a pod,’ sighed Dr Read. 'Two peas in a pod.'

Saturday 29 June 2013

The tricky dilemma of self promotion.

There are those who self promote endlessly - their e-mails, tweets and blog posts bombard you like hail on a cold wintry day. Others leap at every chance to not just read their work at an open mic but do a spot of advertising too, when the work they are reading should do the job.

But the fact is writers do have to self promote, even those published with a big-name publisher must appear at festivals and book signings in the name of promotion. It’s all about publicity.

Self promotion works - I've bought books purely because of exposure via twitter - some were great, even if others were not and I wish I’d kept my money. And that is the problem with self promotion - it can be difficult to discriminate between the good and the awful, although the latter sometimes has poorly presented self promotion blurb to go with it.

This blog, like that of every other writer, is partly about self promotion. Without taking part in blogging and tweeting, fewer people would have heard of me. Although you will see my following is still modest, you are reading my words! But I’m still not entirely comfortable with posting my successes.

I was brought up in an era when we put other people first. As a child, if I had friends round to my house to play, I was encouraged to defer to my guests’ selection of activities and games. If we had visitors they were always served with the choicest food on the table and being a large family, my mother would whisper ‘FHB’ (Family Hold Back) when an unexpected guest sat at our dining table and she was worried about stretching the meal to an extra portion. I brought my daughter up in the same tradition even though this was the era of the 80s and 90s which was all about self, self and more self.

My parents objected to boasting and our family joke was a neighbouring family who did nothing but sing their own praises. In reality, they had very little to boast about yet they all carried on as if their achievements were spectacular. Carol’s screeching on the violin became virtuoso performances, Mark’s daubs became fine art and as for Peter’s skilled driving, let’s just say the number of dents on his old banger told their own story. If any of them are now writers, their tweets will be the avalanche engulfing all others.

Of course, I’m pleased with my achievements, so here are a few - each of the publications above contains one of my short stories or flash fiction pieces. I hope this time next year there will be a few more.

Saturday 8 June 2013

Mind the Gap...

‘What do you mean, you’re a writer?’ asked a fellow guest at a party. ‘How many books have you published?’


‘So you’re not a real writer then?’

‘I’ve had several stories published- ’

‘Well, they don’t count,’ he interrupted.

‘And some non-fiction articles-’

‘Ah yes, but do they earn you money?’

‘Yes.’ (True, although I didn’t add that several articles were for my local magazine and unpaid.)

My interrogator didn’t wait to hear more but stalked off under the impression that I was a liar and a fraud, because I wasn’t a REAL writer. I didn’t bother to pursue him to ask him why published stories didn’t count because I thought my time would be better spent turning him into a character for my next flash fiction although I do wish I’d asked him if he was a real reader. Presumably reading anything other than published books doesn’t count.

I wrote When Can You Call Yourself a Writer? a while back, but in spite of now being brave enough to call myself a writer, I’m discovering the gap, a veritable chasm, between calling myself a writer and other people calling me a writer.

I did have a moment’s glory when I met someone at a local event who, on hearing my name, said, ‘Oh, hello, I’ve read your articles.’

I wish I could tell you that he enthused over my informative, beautifully written articles and asked if I would consent to being interviewed on the BBC. But he didn’t because they were in that local magazine I mentioned and  it was only later that I realized he hadn’t even said if he thought they were any good.

Meeting fellow writers is balm to my soul. Whether part-time writers like myself or full timers who have published loads more than I have, far from considering me inferior because I'm not a ‘real writer’, they are generous with their encouragement and sometimes practical help too. The following blogs and websites of some writers I met this week, will give you an idea of what I mean.

Patsy Collins
Karen Clarke
Tracy Fells
Wendy Clarke
Helen Hunt
Alison Carter

Note to self: Repeat three times every morning ‘I’m Lindsay and I’m a writer…’

Monday 20 May 2013

Greenacre Writers Literary Festival: A personal perspective.

My day's itinerary for preparations for the Greenacre Writers Literary Festival was worked out to the minute. Boxes were lined up for transportation, lists were written and laminated so what could possibly go wrong? Waking up on Friday morning with a violent headache and the room spinning - that's what! I'll spare you details but it wasn't anything catching.

But somehow I managed the shopping with the help and support of staff at Finchley's Waitrose, printed the signs (in a bit of a haze) and helpers stepped into the breach while I had a bit of down-time so co-organizer, Rosie Canning, was able to get the second Greenacre Literary Festival off to a great start.

By the time I arrived at Friern Barnet Community Library on Friday 17th, pale but not very interesting, Miriam Halahmy's writing workshop was closing and the tables and chairs were being re-organized ready for the Open Mic.

Allen Ashley did a great job in hosting a variety of writers from all over London, one from Bristol and one from USA who read poems, flash fiction, non-fiction and extracts from novels. Lyrical, stark, humorous and serious, different styles and all sorts of themes. I loved the sheer variety - our readers ranged from those in their 20s to 70s, from writers who have lived all their lives in Finchley to those who have fled their countries of origin to avoid persecution. We all had our stories. And we all listened and learned.

And just for the record, I had gone an entire day without coffee.

Saturday dawned and I felt a little more human, as today's headache was of a lesser variety and no doubt mostly because of caffeine withdrawal and enforced starvation. By eleven o'clock Trinity Church Centre was transformed into a venue fit to host our second workshop led by Dr Josie Pearse, and the Main Event. Two hours later, with help from our Greenacre members and supporters, Rosie and I were ready to welcome our four guest authors.

CJ Flood, Gina Blaxill, Leigh Russell and Sarah Harrison fulfilled all our hopes and expectations by being entertaining and informative speakers. They all wove the festival's theme of truth and fiction into their talks and readings.

Reading about my heroine's opinion
 of scary stomach-squashing-in pants.
Photo: Emily Benet.
I was one of seven Greenacre Writers to read. There is always the dilemma of what to read. At the open Mic I'd read  a serious flash fiction relating to Mental Health Awareness week so I decided it should be '...and now for completely different...' and read the opening paragraphs of my WIP 'Do Not Exceed Fifty' chick-lit for the older woman, OK, the menopausal woman.

To my relief it went down well. As for the lady who asked, 'can I buy your book here?' it was all I could do not to fling my arms around her and have 'Lindsay's No 1 fan' tattooed on her forehead. For a few minutes I felt just a little bit famous.

But mine was only one of many readings. Rosie Canning, Liz Goes, Linda Louisa Dell, Mark Kitchenham, Mumpuni Murniati and Wendy Shillam showcased their work too, which, as at the Open Mic, explored a variety of styles and subjects. We may not yet be the million-book bestsellers that our invited guests are, but just watch this space.

The day rounded off with a panel, facilitated by Allen Ashley with Sarah Harrison, Leigh Russell, Dr Josie Pearse and Alex Wheatle, one of our fantastic speakers from last year's festival, exploring further the theme of truth and fiction. Whether a reader or a reader/writer, much was to be learned from those who have spent many years writing and perfecting their writing.

As I gave the final thanks, I felt very proud of Greenacre Writers - not only are we developing our writing skills, we have a huge talent for inviting wonderful authors who have been very generous in their support of a small festival. (Two other speakers from last year were in the audience: Emily Benet and Andrew Bradford.) But it was co-organiser Rosie Canning who got in the last word and presented me with a lovely surprise of a beautiful bouquet of flowers. And of course our GWs hadn't forgotten one for Rosie too.

Now I'm enjoying a couple of days off and guess what, I'm reading four books at once as inevitably I've started Sarah Harrison's The Flowers of the Field, Leigh Russell's Cut Short. CJ Flood's Infinite Sky and Gina Blaxill's Pretty Twisted. Oh, and yes I must re-read fellow writers' excerpts for this evening's Finish That Novel 2 meeting. And note to self  'I must Finish That Novel.'

The official and more objective account with lots more pictures can be found at

For a really detailed account, read Morgen Bailey

Sunday 28 April 2013

Launch of Greenacre Writers Anthology Vol 2.

You can get good coffee and yummy cakes in Cafe Buzz in North Finchley (and lots more) but today customers had a literary feast too. Ten members of Finchley's Greenacre Writers read flash fiction and extracts of their stories published in the second volume of The Greenacre Writers Anthology.

Amy receives her copy of the anthology

The anthology features the top six stories from our short story competition last year and we were delighted that one of our runners up, Amy Flinders, was able to attend the launch to receive her prize of a copy of the anthology.

Twelve stories and two poems from Greenacre Writers are also included, showing the diverse styles of our members. If you would like to buy a copy go to Greenacre Writers

Taking a break from readings for chatting and a top up of coffee.

The atmosphere was great and Cafe Buzz owner, Helen Michael, said she hoped to hold more readings, so watch this space.

Cafe Buzz is at 783 High Road, North Finchley, N12 8JY.

Wednesday 17 April 2013

A book related month

Today I picked up my box of World Book Night books: 20 copies of Sebastian Barry's The Secret Scripture. These will be distributed to people who either can't readily access books or tend not to read and so are missing out on the opportunity to discover new and different realities. Like all other WBN givers, I hope to enable people to try reading something new and perhaps to develop a love for reading.

Reading can help people through difficult and dark times - CS Lewis' quote: 'We read to know we are not alone,' sums it up. Reading can help educate - take just the first four words of that quote and that says it all. Reading can enable us to gain knowledge, form opinions and open up our world. Reading can take us anywhere in the world and out of it too. What else can do that?

In a couple of weeks time I'll be celebrating the launch of Greenacre Writers second anthology, which contains 18 short stories and, in the spirit of all the WBN books, 2 poems as well.  Join other members of Greenacre Writers and me at Cafe Buzz, on Sunday 28th April at 3.00pm to hear some of the authors reading brief extracts and buy a copy or two. Cafe Buzz, 783 High Road, North Finchley, N12 8JY.

Then to round off a literary month, on 17th and 18th May we'll be holding the second Greenacre Writers Literary Festival. Do join us.

Saturday 16 March 2013

Greenacre Writers Literary Festival 2013

These are the books I bought at last year's Greenacre Writers Mini Literary Festival. They were all great reads so I know I'm going to be adding to my library in May at this year's not so Mini Literary Festival with another great line up of authors.

Greenacre Writers is based in Finchley, North London which up till now doesn't feature hugely in literature. While it may not feature in many novels, I can attest that there is some great writing happening in Finchley and let's not forget that Dickens apparently wrote Martin Chuzzlewit here in Bow Lane and that Mr Garland, one of his characters in The Old Curiosity Shop, lives in Finchley. One of our invited speakers is a local author and Finchley gets a mention in one of her books too so here's to putting Finchley on the literary map.

For information on the forthcoming festival see Greenacre Writers Literary Festival 2013

Sunday 24 February 2013

World Book Night 2013

Today 20,000 readers are excited about April 23rd. They have been selected to give away a million books. Each will give out 20 of their selected title from a list of 20.

I'm lucky enough to have been selected for the third year and this year I'll be giving out The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry.

These books are for people who don't read, for people who can't easily get hold of books. If you are homeless, in a mental health unit, in a care home or in prison accessing books can be hard, so many books are distributed in such locations.

But it's not only about those who cannot access books. There are people who could, but don't. The National Literacy Trust claims that  a third of UK's children do not have books of their own. When I worked with children with speech and language problems, I discovered the grim reality of this for myself, and sadly, homes without books are on the increase. Children without books are likely to have parents without books and WBN aims to help rectify this.

In WBN's first year I gave away Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance, and last year Marcus Zusack's The Book Thief.  Some of my books went to Homeless in Action Barnet, some to North London Hospice and some to patients and staff at Chase Farm Hospital. Some were donated to Friern Barnet Community Library, the People's Library that is stocked with books donated by locals. If they don't already have a copy of The Secret Scripture, that will be the destination of one or two of my copies on April 23rd.

Friday 8 February 2013

Finding Timbuktu

Lindsay in Timbuktu
I wrote a little section of my first novel in Timbuktu...but this is a little travel piece about my journey to that far off city.

Timbuktu hit international headlines in March 2012 with news of a coup led by the (MNLA) National Movement for the Liberation of Asawad, the northern territory of Mali. The Tuareg have sought independence for this region since 1916 and now, achieving their aim, they declared independence in April 2012 although it was not recognized nationally or internationally. In July 2012, they lost control when the extremist Islamist group, MOJWA, invaded Timbuktu who have since destroyed many of the city's shrines and many of its treasured academic manuscripts. Peace in Timbuktu has long been fragile but for a few years, the fabled city was attainable.

Spotting the word ‘Timbuktu’ in my atlas was a revelation. I’d always thought it was a mythical city, so on my discovery at the age of 12, I determined that one day I would go there. Never mind that it seemed utterly inaccessible, nestled in the southern Sahara Desert, somehow I would find Timbuktu.

Djenne's Mosque and Monday market
It was forty years before I made the journey! From Mali’s capital Bamako, a small group of us travelled by road via Ségou to Djenné. An overnight stop here enabled us to see the famous Great Mosque, the world’s largest dried earth building and enjoy the vibrant Monday market. People travelled from miles away for the weekly market, selling and buying everything the Malian household could need. A spectacle of colour, we found dried gourds, woven baskets, gaudy plastic bowls and metal cooking pots alongside brooms made from leaves. Racks of patterned fabrics nestled against piles of every grain, spice, fruit and vegetable that Mali can offer.

We stuffed ourselves with delicious fried plantain and sugared dough balls from the market stalls, not worrying too much that the oil used for frying them looked as if it had been drained from the engine of an old bus. We stocked up on fruit for later.

Children approached us to ask where we were from.
‘England, Angleterre.’
‘Beckham!’ they replied kicking imaginary footballs.

On the road again we made a detour to Sangha and Dogon Country, where we spent a few fascinating days, and then doubled back to Mopti where the real purpose for my journey began.

Our home for three days
Pushing our way through the bustling crowds we found our home for the next three days waiting at the water’s edge with its crew of three and most importantly, our cook. We chugged off up the Niger in our pinasse, one among countless river craft: motorized barges piled with goods, sailing boats with voluminous patched sails, pirogues shunted by pole through the shallow waters, and the small boats of the Bozo fishermen. We passed villages where life took place at the river’s edge. Women washed clothes or pots and pans, young children played and swam, older ones led cattle to the water and everyone waved and greeted us, ‘Ca va?’

As the sun began to sink, our crew steered the pinasse to the banks of the river to moor it for the night. Down the precariously narrow gangplank we carried our tents, folding chairs, cooking utensils, oil lamps and, not to be forgotten, the shovel! (‘What did you do about a loo?’ I would be asked by people who couldn’t understand the concept of camping in a tent that doesn’t have rooms. ‘A handy dune and a shovel’.) By the time we had got our tents up, the sun had disappeared leaving a warm velvety darkness. Our cook produced a delicious meal from very few ingredients, followed by fresh fruit we had bought at one of the villages.

A billion stars shone overhead and I saw the bright arc of a shooting star. I fell asleep to the insistent croaking of bullfrogs.

Next day back on the river was much the same but there wasn’t a moment of boredom. Life on the banks of the Niger is vibrant, intense and ever changing. On board we sat three abreast with a plank table in front of us (one converting to the gangplank, the others to our campsite dining table) and here the only way to the loo - no shovel required - was an inelegant scramble on to the edge of the boat and shuffling along the six inch wide plank to the stern while hanging on to the roof for all you were worth if you wanted to avoid a dip in the water.

Cook bought supper’s main ingredient - two large Capitaine fish from a passing fisherman. A few hours later he produced yet another delectable evening meal as we pitched our tents for a second night beneath the eerie light of the enormous pale moon.

By mid afternoon of our third day on the Niger, the scenery became less green and more desert for we were now in the Sahel. We had seen hippos in the river and now spotted camels on the shore.

Disembarking was a transformation from the quiet lull of river travel to the bustle of the busy little port of Korioume. Transferring to battered Land Cruisers we drove through desert scrub. As buildings came into view we met three haughty Tuareg, immaculately dressed in sky-blue  robes, riding their camels at a smart gallop. We had arrived in Timbuktu.

Making my way down the main street, its sand pitted with tyre tracks and a thousand footprints that would be obliterated by morning, Timbuktu, fabled city of 333 saints, was everything I had dreamed of. It is not as grand as colonial Ségou - not as splendid as Djenné - not as colourful as busy Mopti - but is simply Timbuktu, a place of legend and the rich imaginings of a twelve year old, who forty years on, had achieved her dream.

Sunday 3 February 2013

The art of coping with the critique.

The best writers are those who listen to criticism. It’s not always easy to offer our work up to the scrutiny of others. Some of their comments may be balm to our ears and ego but others will make us want to throw our work out of the window and go on a bender or hide under the duvet.

I choose the second option but when I eventually crawl out from under the duvet, I take a deep breath, examine my work against the points my critics have made and start editing.

I’ve been involved with a number of critique forums in one form or another and have found the weakest writers tend to be those who argue when someone makes a comment they don’t like and defend their work so furiously they don’t hear what is said. Their work tends not to develop.

Having said that, not everyone is an ideal critic for a particular writer. Stephen King talked about the importance of finding one’s ideal readers. We all have our own style, which isn’t going to please everyone. Some will condemn the very thing that others admire.

Being a good critic is an art in itself, but however objective we try to be, we are influenced by our preferences. Writers write differently, and readers read differently. As a reader, I don’t demand loads of back-story or endless detail, so I tend not to write it, but many readers want this and they tend to be my harsher critics. They may not be my ideal readers but they make useful comments for me to think about.

I admit my work has sometimes invited criticism of glitches so conspicuous, I’m embarrassed to think I wrote them and rewrite immediately. But sometimes I stick to my metaphorical guns and don’t alter a thing, although not without considering the points raised. I once received some searing remarks on a rejected flash fiction piece, decided against any changes and sent it off again to have it shortlisted in a competition.

I recently read some work from my early writing days. It has improved thanks to those critics, so I say thank you for the support even if some of your remarks led to my duvet and me becoming too well acquainted.

Sunday 6 January 2013

Not so much resolution, as determination.

On January 1st, I received the news that a flash fiction piece I submitted to Cafe Lit a year ago, which had been published online, has been selected for the The Best of Cafe Lit 2012 anthology. With that great start to spur me on, I decided to keep the momentum going.

Last year, although busy with writing related activities, I didn't make many submissions, so I've signed up for Write1 Sub1 with  the aim of doing better this year and get more writing out there.

I have a competition entry ready to send off and another being polished for a different competition. I've just completed a story that I'll be sending to the Greenacre Writers short story critiquing group, in the hope of including it in The Greenacre Writers Anthology Vol II, which I co-edit. (Will it be good enough for me to accept? Hope so.)

So, here's to more writing...