Tuesday, 30 March 2010

invested, entered, listened

  • invested in a keyboard to attach to my laptop so no more frustrations with the hoovered letter 'e' (see here)
  • listened to (and saw with my eyes) Kate Atkinson speak about her books and her writing techniques at a literary festival event last week. She was really refreshing, a little blunt - which I liked - and confident about what she does. I felt reassured by her honesty and my favourite bit of the night was when an audience member (also a novelist) said that when she wrote her book she found her characters came to life and started doing and saying unexpected things. Kate Atkinson's response was pretty much that she was not one of those writers who gets possessed by their characters, and she seemed a bit dismayed by the idea that characters can do that when she's made them up. That's why I found her refreshing; no mysticism, just good writing.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Tell me how you write - Part 6 - Clare Grant

Here's writer and editor Clare Grant, talking tools, interviews, and a rather nice writing-is-like (or better than) -gardening line.

This picture shows the stationery round-up that happens whenever find myself having tool problems. I empty all the pots and trays in our flat. I check every single pen on a scrap of paper. Then I sharpen every pencil. Pens that don’t work, and pencils with shattered leads get binned. It’s very satisfying. Finally, I redistribute everything around the flat again, making sure that all the coloured pens are corralled in the kitchen where they won’t be picked up by a person wanting to sign an official form. Coloured pens bother me – I used to edit the letters pages of a newspaper, so in my world, coloured ink equals crazy.

This round-up happened because my pen flew apart during a phone interview. I threw the pieces aside and grabbed a pencil – and found the lead had been rubbed to a dull circle. I snatched another pen – it didn’t work.

The subject wondered politely why I didn’t use a recorder.

“Goodness, I’ve never thought of that!”

The truth is, I didn’t spend all those lunch hours learning bloody shorthand in order to use a bleeding dictaphone.

The white notebooks are for interviews. I have two or three on the go. When I get to the end of the book, I turn it round and write on the backs of the pages – which are nubbly and veiny from the writing on the front. Total chaos ensues: I can never find the notes I want, although I aspire to a system of sticky note markers (that’s the blue square under the letter opener).

I try to type up my interview notes the same day, even if it means sneaking back on the computer while my husband gets ready for bed.

“Are you working? It’s after 10pm.”

“No darling, I’m looking at porn and flirting with old school friends.”

I want to be able to hear the interviewee as I write, and if I don’t get the notes written up quickly, I lose the voice. Listen to me! You’d think I’d been interviewing Alain de Botton for Harper’s Bazaar. All I do is write two features a week for the local paper.

The black notebook and the pink one in the middle are for prompt writing – Sarah Salway got me into that. She supplies her fans with weekly prompts, and I write two sides a day.

These prompts are storystuff – they’re the raw material. Sometimes I’ll be writing and thinking “This is rubbish. Stop embarrassing yourself. Why do you even bother?” But two months later, I’ll flick through and there’s a story seed shining in the middle of the page. That’s one of those moments when I think “Writing is actually more exciting than gardening.” I type up the seeds, and then add a small, allotted number of words a day (36, 154, 73) – it’s slow, but it works for me.

The other pink notebook is for morning pages – I write two sides of anything that pops into my head. It clears the brain static. The habit is a left-over from the Artist’s Way – a programme of healing for damaged creatives. I discovered that I’m much less damaged than I thought.

That black notebook’s a Moleskine. I’m disappointed about the elastic; and because ink soaks right through the paper – I bet Hemmingway and Chatwin never put up with that sort of thing. It goes in my handbag, and I use it to record anything interesting. Also to-do lists. When I’m bored, I give the pages complex frames. You can see when I’m in a down period because the borders become more and more elaborate. Ink stamps and stickers get involved. At busy times, I don’t make to-do lists because it’s too frightening.

The column of artist inks and the glass pen are for morning pages and prompts – it’s perfectly acceptable to use mad colours when no-one will see.

Clare Grant writes the blog Three Beautiful Things, in which she lists three things that have amused or delighted her. She has been doing this for nearly six years. It got her on to the Saga Wise List, and 170 people have written their own beautiful things on their blogs. Some of them even do it regularly. Clare has been paid for a Three Beautiful Things book which never made it into print; and she is now looking for another publisher to pay her all over again. Clare is 32 and works as a freelance journalist and editor. She writes short stories and radio plays, but not very successfully. In her spare time, she is an enthusiastic wife. She is fond of gardening.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

three beautiful things

Clare Grant, who writes the blog Three Beautiful Things, will be here on Monday as guest writer number 6 in my 'tell me how you write' series. So today I'm doing a Three Beautiful Things post here, in readiness for Clare's virtual visit.

Here are 3 things I noticed yesterday, 3 things that I found beautiful, amusing, or moving:

1. The lines on my Nana's face. I tried to fight the urge to write about this one, conscious it's cliched to look at lines and see them as wisdom, experience, living. But I couldn't help it. I don't see her too often, we have both just lost someone, and as we stood in the sunlight and talked about her I couldn't help thinking how much I love my Nana's face.

2. The blu-tak creature sitting on my shelf: part dinosaur, part Loch Ness monster. I don't know how long he's been there.

3. The street opera singers on the busiest street in the city, a big crowd around them, singing 'World in Union', my Nana is interested, so we stand and listen. I fill with tears, because I like the song, and I'm a sucker.

Monday, 15 March 2010

extended deadline

for the Tomlit diary comp. Closing date is now 2 weeks away - Monday March 29th.

Prompt: Fiction written in diary form

Any number or entries - a day, 2 days, a week or a lifetime - as long as it's under 1000 words. Skip forwards or backwards in time. Tell us the truth or hold things back. Let us hear your character's voice. Use the everyday and tell us a story. There's lots of freedom in this one, be creative and send us your best work. The winner will be published in Vol.3 of Tomlit, due April 5th.

Guidelines here

Saturday, 13 March 2010

closing soon + your thoughts

a few places I'm keeping in mind over the coming weeks:

  • Mslexia - (for female writers only) would like new writing on the theme 'Into the deep' - closes Friday March 19th. No entry fee, best stories and poems published in the magazine.

  • Fish One Page Story Prize - tell a story in 300 words or less. One of the judges is the ace and artful comedian Simon Munnery. Online entry 12 euros, postal entry 15 euros. First prize 1000 euros, plus publication. Closes Saturday March 20th.

  • Bristol Short Story Prize - send fiction of up to 3000 words. Entry is £7 per story, first prize £500 + £150 Waterstones giftcard. (2nd and 3rd prizes are impressive too: £350 + £100 giftcard and £200 + £100 giftcard). One of the judges is Orange Prize commended writer Tania Hershman. Closes Wednesday 31st March.

Just thinking as I typed out the details for the Bristol Prize - it's interesting that the prize fund is more evenly distributed between 1st, 2nd and 3rd. Often with writing competitions there's a big first prize and dramatically different 2nd/3rd/runner up prizes. The Bridport Prize, for example, offers that brilliant £5000 first prize, then £1000 and £500 for 2nd and 3rd. I know that's not to be sniffed at, I also appreciate there's prestige with prizes like Bridport, I just like that share-the-wealth approach between the top 3 of the Bristol Prize.

What do you prefer - and what's more attractive when you enter a short story prize, assuming there's an entry fee:
big first prize and no/dramatically different 2nd and 3rd prize
or 3 more evenly distributed prizes?

Friday, 12 March 2010


the scene: Friday morning, I'm off work, in my favourite coffee shop, warming up for my writing session by compiling my list of Things To Do Today (the top thing to do being 'write in coffee shop') I am purposefully without a newspaper, book or any other potentially distracting object, just me, my notebook and 2 pens.

I am about to list the ingredients I'll need to buy for Vasoo Yassoo on my way home,

And I was only a fifth of the way through my americano!

The pen did start to work again, but the ink only seemed to make an appearence if I wrote non stop. Any time pausing or thinking made the ink hostile. It was a little bit like the bus scene in the film 'Speed'.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010


"That's the point - he can't do that kind of thing here - pooing on the floor. It was fine when they lived in Australia - it's all tiled floors. You just can't do that on carpet."

Monday, 8 March 2010

Tell me how you write - Part 5 - Jessica Patient

Here's Jessica Patient, award winning short story writer, with a very notebook-specific response to my questions about how she writes.

Three Kinds of Notebooks

Being mid-way through a notebook is my favourite place. A relaxed spine, comfy pages and a fraying page-mark ribbon. Routine has settled. Meeting the middle is like finally breaking in your work shoes and finding them to be the best pair you have ever owned or will ever own.

Draft zero always starts life in my notebook. I currently have three notebooks on the ‘go.’ One is a pocket, spiral bound, hard cover affair. He lives in my bedside drawer and comes out for free-style writing. Usually twenty min blasts before bedtime. The recommended dose for him is usually three to four times every month. My second is for the novel. The retro cover of a 1950s housewife inspired me to have a similar character in my near future plot. Notes about planned changes, vocabulary and character sketches are within the covers. The third notebook is the busiest. My A5-sized Moleskine was a prize from an online competition. I resisted ripping off the plastic film until I had finished my previous one. Everything else belongs in this notebook.

Starting a new notebook is the scariest part. I always end up putting the notebook on a pedestal and tell myself that THE best stories will happen in this book. Perfect first drafts, beautiful sentences and punchy paragraphs. I make a promise to myself to use my neatest, tidiest handwriting. ‘Be my best,’ as they always say in Dollhouse. The mantra weaves its way through my ideas and stops me from writing in my notebook. There are always quotes from famous writers on the first couple of pages. It helps break the fear of the blank page.

Once I get going then it becomes home to phrases for short stories, more novel scribbles, a few recipes, a checklist of my weight, quotes, light-bulb thoughts and even a doodle or two. I usually write with a mechanical pencil (it saves me having to sharpen it every 15 mins) but at the moment it’s all about the free, promo pens. Anything you can click. I click faster if I find myself stuck for a word. It’s like having a comfort blanket. My Parker fountain pen is redundant but I always go back to him. I am also partial to a Bic Biro too. They really know how to slide across the page.

I would avoid finishing notebooks when I was younger. The end was scary. What if I story was too long for the book? Would the words drop off? I would stop half way and then grab another exercise book. I still get nervous. What if I can’t find a notebook as good as this one? Around this time I usually find myself buying several replacements or spending my lunchtime walking around stationery shops until I find one that doesn’t too much of glue, has lines (I tried plain paper but I just stopping writing) and has a hard cover too. Plus handbag sized – But I tend to have big handbags so this one is optional!

I used to find the idea of notebooks bizarre. Writing tutors would rave about them, saying they were essential, the best thing since sliced bread, blah, blah, blah. Their preaching put me off for a while. I simply used scrap paper for plot ideas or just dived straight in with the story. I didn’t need character sketches or theme bubbles. But when I finally gave a notebook a chance, well I feel like my writing changed. No more rushing or sparse short stories. Since then I have never gone straight to the computer for writing draft zero.

Jessica Patient is 25 years old and lives in Bedfordshire, England. She has had several stories and poems published including 3:AM magazine, The Beat, Sleepy Orange and Ink, Sweat and Tears. Links to her writing can be found at her blog -
www.writerslittlehelper. blogspot.com.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

2 bits of goodness

Happy to say that I have a new story up at Six Sentences. It has the exciting title of 'untitled'. Read, rate and comment here.

Also - 100 Stories for Haiti is on sale now - click here to take a look and order it if you'd like to. I ordered my copy yesterday and can't wait to see my story amongst the other 99.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

this week I

hoovered the letter 'E' off my keyboard

Monday, 1 March 2010

New competition for Tomlit

Alex kindly offered me the chance to choose the theme for the current Tomlit Blog competition. So, considering my current penchant for all things diary-related, I'd like you to send us fiction written in diary form.

Any number or entries - a day, 2 days, a week or a lifetime - as long as it's under 1000 words. Skip forwards or backwards in time. Tell us the truth or hold things back. Let us hear your character's voice. Use the everyday and tell us a story. There's lots of freedom in this one, be creative and send us your best work. The winner will be published in Vol.3 of Tomlit.

Closing date 15th March. Full guidelines here.

Looking forward to reading you.