Thursday 28 March 2013

Guest Blog: The Truth in Fiction

Pic from Halloween Mart
I've just seen a group of monks dancing with teenage girls in Oxford Street.  
Fictitious rubbish I hear you say.  But no, it's the cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die truth.  If I tell you they were Hare Krishna monks, you might be more convinced.
My online novella, The Author’s Song, is a story about a musician. It's pure fiction.  In any chapter I could have her win the lottery, be elected prime minister or meet a god and find herself spirited to the top of Mount Olympus.  But none of those things are going to happen.  She will keep her feet firmly on terra firma.  I have devised a whole series of completely realistic trials for her.  And I know exactly how she will react to each one.
This is the truth in fiction.  This is, in my view, the rigour and the fun of it – a thing that both the reader and the writer must share.
When Tolstoy finally threw Anna Karenina under the wheels of a train, we, as readers had to believe that she was capable of suicide. A train appears as a violent and threatening image right at the beginning of the book. Tolstoy spent the whole book working her character, so that when the final act is committed, we believe in that act, we have sympathy for her and thus we are even more horror-struck.
I use my instinct to decide whether something is realistic enough. When I write fiction, it isn't true, but it might be. That intuition is, I suspect, partly memory, and partly my take on how the world works. But my own schema, like yours, is coloured by prejudice.  We all believe that what's gone before will happen again.  This is dangerous ground for the novelist; it can lead to cliché.  But challenge a reader’s expectations too often and the story will be unbelievable. In fiction surprises need to be used sparingly like adjectives or hot chilli sauce.
My writing group sometimes comment on very small details. They say things like, a woman like that would never wear flatties, or he would surely offer to pay for the drinks.  I quite like it when they do make those sorts of observations because I know that they have developed some empathy for the character. If I test my readers too often with weird events, too much coincidence or strings of incongruity, they won't believe me when the unexpected does occur.
The monks I saw in Oxford Street were dressed from head to toe in orange; they played tambourines and carried banners emblazoned with the words of their Krishna chant.  As I pushed past I noticed that one of them, the boy who was dancing the most happily, had a wooden leg.
You can probably guess which part of that last sentence was made up.  But, could it be the start of a good story?

Since attending Emily’s blogging course Wendy Shillam has started writing an online novella and an urban gardening blog,

Monday 25 March 2013

Guest Blog: Shameless Scrabble

 Guest Blogger, Liam Blake, is a Brixton-based actor and writer.  He's the author of Blake's Progress, a blog about life as a single dad.

Aside from the daily marvel that is my seven-month old son there is, sad to report, not much left over from a decade-long relationship of any great sentimental value. The cats are soon to be split, as much to their own mutual satisfaction as ours I suspect. There is, however, beneath the computer desk and several soft layers of dust, a classic Scrabble set. It contains the regulation board and tiles, and a rich store of memories.

Foremost among them is a rare visit to the board by my then father-in-law who, with calm assurance, led off with the word TRYON. Up second, I felt it in my best interests to raise the query demanded by a roomful of raised eyebrows. Curiosity drove me - a tryon? Hmmm.. a long-redundant gardening implement of medieval origin, perhaps? Or an aborted attempt by NASA on the road to non-stick triumph with TEFLON?

Our nameless former father-in-law had a patrician and highly tactical way of talking to someone as if they clearly had no idea what they were talking about, thus cunningly deflecting the inconvenient truth that it was indeed he who hadn't the foggiest idea of what anyone was flapping on about. "Didn't you ever buy a pair of trousers in a shop?" I was asked. I replied that yes, indeed I had. Many, many times. "Well," he went on, clearly having difficulty concealing his impatience with the dullard before him, "didn't you TRY them ON first?"

I confirmed that though I'd often taken the sensible precaution of ensuring a good fit before heading to the till, I'd never bookmarked the experience for future use on the Scrabble board as ...well, there'd be a couple of things wrong with that, wouldn't there? Not least being that THERE'S NO SUCH FUCKING WORD.

Tiles withdrawn and father's honour bruised, I did my best to set a potentially fraught encounter back on an even keel with a timely retelling my favourite Scrabble yarn - up until that point, in any case - detailing a friend's repeated refusal to deploy the word quim in front of his mother-in-law, however rich the reward in points. Perfectly acceptable under the rules of play and to be found in the Chambers dictionary, the game's official lexicon of choice.
 Oh me in my infinite naivety. The winning score was coolly racked up with the offending four-letter word by my (then) mother-in-law. From that point on quim was to recur with metronomic regularity. Steady. A shame, as a quick glance at its successor in the dictionary shows quin - altogether more wholesome and paternal...
Visit Liam Blake's blog Blake's Progress
He attended my Blog Workshop in February.

Wednesday 20 March 2013

Blog Hop: The Next Big Thing

Felicity Hayes-McCoy, author of The House on an Irish Hillside, invited me on a Blog Hop for 'The Next Big Thing' in which writers answer ten questions on their work in progress and tag other writers to do the same. She is a brilliant writer as well as being a wonderful mentor and friend to me, so I only said 'No' once before she managed to twist my arm. Well, you know me, I'm such a shy, retiring writer, I hate to talk about my work...   

What is the title of your next book?

Spray Painted Bananas.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

Like my main character, Amber, I have been to conceptual art galleries where I've been baffled by what I'm looking at and have thought, 'but I could do this!' Now cross this thought with a banana and see what you get... 
What genre does your book fall under?
Romantic Comedy.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
Pic from Allure Mag

Pic from
I don't have actors in mind when I'm writing my characters.
That said, if James McAvoy is free  and can do an Irish accent, he is welcome to play Farrell. 

And perhaps Zooey Deschanel, if she can do a convincing British accent, she can be Amber... can someone forward them my email? Thanks.   

What is a one sentence synopsis of your book?

Not long after acquiring some official police bananas, Amber decides to become a conceptual artist.  

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I've just joined MBA Literary agency and will be represented by Laura Longrigg.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

One month planning. Four month writing.  I posted two chapters a week on Wattpad. It was very intense! You can read it there. It's got 925,000 hits so far! I'll open a bottle when it hits a million.
What other books would you compare yours to?

That's hard. I'm going to pretend I didn't see this question...
Who or what inspired you to write this book?

After spending a couple of years working on a more serious novel, I wanted to have some fun! I've since discovered my best writing happens when I'm having fun. I also read a bit of Sophie Kinsella and Lisa Jewell to get me in the mood, as their books are fast paced and upbeat.
What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

There is a cute kitten in it called Rupert inspired by this video:

Next week on THE NEXT BIG THING are two lovely writers and bloggers, Lily Dunn, who is working on a second novel and who I met through the North London Writers Group,  and Bill Fathers, who has a hilarious blog and claims not to be a writer at all. But I'm going to argue that he is, because it's MY blog. Thank you for accepting to do the blog hop!

Lily Dunn is putting the final touches to her second novel, hoping to
have it finished by the Summer. Her first novel, SHADOWING THE SUN,
was published by Portobello Books in 2008. She is represented by
Judith Murray at Greene and Heaton. When she's not writing fiction she
blogs about anything that captures her imagination, around writing, social media and her kids.


Bill Fathers didn’t set out to have five children, nor, once they were born, did he intend to be a permanent source of embarrassment to them, but, as it turns out, he did and he is. No one, least of all him, really understands why he feels the need to record many of the more humiliating moments of his pitiful efforts to be a father, yet he continues to do so in his blog, which, presumably as a result of a clerical error at the media monitoring organisation Cision, is officially the UK’s number one fatherhood blog. He lives in a village in Sussex and is a journalist.
Do check out their blogs, where they will be answering questions on their work in progress very soon.

Tuesday 19 March 2013

On Getting a Literary Agent - the very beginning!

Long before there was Downton Abbey, there was Dandelion Abbey.

"Dandylion Abbey stood strong and steady on her neat rows of reddish stone. It was a beautiful Abbey and a tall one too. It had two iron gates, beautifully designed by Maiya Goodfound, an ancient mouse, who had died a long time ago. Now in the Abbey lived peaceful woodlanders."

It was a novel written by an 11 year old who had just finished the Redwall series by Brian Jacques. Think The Lord of Rings if the hobbits were field mice and the Orcs were rats.

I remember writing it as if it were yesterday, on the floor of my bedroom, one hand lost under the sleeve I was forever sniffing, the other scribbling in blue biro. The middle part was tough. Isn't it always? I'd reached a sort of plateau where nothing was really happening. The rats were journeying towards the Abbey, the Abbey dwellers were standing around worrying about the rats. It was starting to feel a bit too much like hard work. God knows why I didn't just go play.

I stuck it out to the battle scene, and then the triumphant feast. I even wrote an epilogue.

I've got boxes of handwritten novels. Books that were influenced by whatever I was reading at the time, from Enid Blyton's Mallory Towers to Point Horror Books, The Deptford Histories and Jane Austen.


I found Dandelion Abbey last weekend in my parents attic. It wasn't random. I was looking for it. I wanted to remember where it all began. I wanted to connect with a younger version of myself.
I've started a book that I'm going to get published, I wrote in my diary, about Dandelion Abbey.

I didn't even know what a literary agent was back then.  

Now 18 years later, I've just signed with Laura Longrigg at MBA. That's a huge one to tick off my list. I'm still pinching myself.

This is it! A voice whispers in my head. You know that writing career you've always wanted? You can have it!
For all those who've been following Spray Painted Bananas and telling me it should be published, well that has suddenly become a possibility.

Of course nothing is certain. There's a lot of work to be done. But I love it! I'm thrilled to have taken this step and deeply grateful to all those who have supported me since the beginning, and who support me now.

"I'm sorry to say lots of friends and relations were killed in battle, but their spirit lives in the Abbey with the 'Golden One'. It is very hot out in the orchard. Waterbubble and Chip and all the small animals are having sports day, Waterbubble isn't controlling them very well. Flufftail has brought out some cream cake, I must get some before the rest get it all. I'll put down my quill and I'll go and join the food - Samskiel, Abbey Writer."
The End   

The Beginning!

Visit my MBA Profile


Sunday 17 March 2013

Blog Under the Spotlight: Skull-A-Day

My next Blog Workshop is on Saturday 6th April. Every time I prepare for a workshop I learn so much, partly because social media is always developing and partly because of all the new blogs I find myself visiting. I love coming across original blogs and finding out about the blogger's journey. I'm especially interested in blogs that became books!
Skull-a-Day was featured in Blogging for Creatives. It was set up by Noah Scalin, who on the 4th of June 2007 posted an orange paper skull and wrote, "I'm making a skull a day for a year". He made his 365th skull on 2nd June 2008.
The project caught people's imagination, and the following year, the blog featured daily submissions from readers. In October 2008 a book based on Skull-A-Day was published by Lark Books, featuring 150 images from the first half of the project.
The popular blog is still going strong and Noah Scalin was kind enough to stop by and tell me more about it.

Why skulls?
Initially the idea of having skulls as my focus was a completely random thought. It was something that popped into my head and since I like them, I figured it would be fun.  Both of my parents are artists, so I grew up around anatomical imagery and as far as I can tell I've pretty much always liked skulls (I still have a very nice drawing of one I did when I was six). Of course with the benefit of hindsight it seems like the perfect subject matter for a daily meditation on creativity since the memento mori is a traditional art concept of using the skull as a reminder to live each day fully. Of course I'm not smart enough to have actually chosen it consciously for that reason!

What was your motivation behind the blog?
To get myself out of a creative slump. I was really burnt out with clients and not feeling like I was making progress getting people thinking of me as a fine artist, rather than just a graphic artist.
How did you promote it?
Initially I just let 100 of my friends know about it and encouraged them to share. A lot of the initial work was done by them really! Most of the biggest early press came through friends of friends.
Did you contact the publisher or did they come to you? 
I was actually contacted by a book publishing agent who thought it would make a good book and she was the one that helped me craft a book proposal and pitch it. And she's still my agent today! 
How do you make money from the blog?
I don't really. The blog is more about building an audience and interest in my work, which then allows me to make money in other ways (books, talks, art sales, etc.). The site is now run by 3 volunteer editors, who were originally über fans of the site, and it's hosted by Blogger, so there are no real expenses (other than everyone's time) to keep it running. We do however run weekly giveaways, and that's an opportunity for the editors to get some free stuff in exchange for their hard work.
What would be your advice to anyone thinking of starting a blog?
Set yourself achievable goals and be consistent with posting. Don't try to do great things from day one, just aim for getting it done and getting it out there. The audience will come over time if you keep showing up and sharing. More than anything it's the persistence that pays off.
Visit Skull-A-Day 
Follow @Skulladay @NoahScalin on Twitter

Tuesday 12 March 2013

Catholics - We aren't all bad!

The Church where I got married!
I'm not going to start blogging about religion. It's a subject that makes people uneasy. It makes me uneasy and I'm Catholic. If you're imagining me whispering the rosary with a black lace mantilla on my head you can stop it now. There are Zulu warriors above my bed not a sacred bleeding heart.

To be honest, the only thing that really matters to me is the bit about 'love they neighbour as thyself' - and that's a big enough challenge for a lifetime without needing to complicate things with other rules.  

The resignation of the pope and the discovery of yet more cases of sexual misconduct has made it even more confusing to be a Catholic than usual. The Roman Catholic church works hard to appear a righteous establishment but fails miserably. Often I've sat in church and thought: "I'm a rational human being, what am I doing here?" 

The upsurge of right wing Catholics desperate to maintain the old ways and stop the church becoming more inclusive would depress me if I thought about it too much. Because it's simple, isn't it? The whole message of Jesus is to love people unconditionally, even when people are virtually unlovable. It's an easy concept even if it's very difficult, borderline impossible to do.   

The problem is the church is getting too fussy about this idea of their 'neighbour'. It doesn't think everyone should be loved after all. It doesn't think gays should be loved quite as much, or divorcees, or religious women, or women in general.

On Sunday the priest chose to speak out about everything that had been nagging at his heart. He began by telling us about a woman in the parish who had been married, had had children, and had later divorced. He told us that she  had found happiness late in life, and he really wanted to bless her. "I can bless a dog, I can bless a car, but why can't I bless two people who love each other?" he asked.

He spoke out about discrimination against gender and sexuality. "Why is so much energy wasted on looking at what people are doing in their beds rather than what's in their hearts?" He was visibly moved as was most of the congregation who had been yearning for this truth to be shouted from the rooftops for so long.
The priest got a standing ovation for his sermon. And that gives me hope. I'm not going to blog about religion. But I just wanted to share that hope, in case, like me, you needed it.

Friday 8 March 2013

Do You Want To Be a Super Centenarian?

Photo from AnimalSpot
What's more important, that you live long or you live well? Unlike some species of animal, humans have an unfortunate tendency to fall apart as they get older. If the Bowhead Whale, with its average life span of 200 years, felt how we inevitably would at that age, it would sink. Instead it keeps on swimming without the need of a stick, reading glasses or a fin massage. But though the longevity of their life might appeal, the thought of swimming for more than an hour makes me want to put my feet up and have a snooze.

What about being a Giant Tortoise? They can live to well over 100 years. The downside is that they're born already looking old and decrepit, and they don't move all that much faster than your average ancient human.

The Tuatara lizard seems a happy medium, again with an average life expectancy of a 100 years, which they live fully and actively till the end, centenarian lizards being perfectly capable of baring children.

Personally I don't want the option of having kids when I'm a hundred. I just don't want to be stuck in my armchair for the last ten years of my life.

My vision is of pottering around in my sun lit terrace at the ripe old age of 104. I'm still active, still writing novels (with decent sex scenes in them, at last). I'm growing mint for my mojitos and I've got a little dog called TinTin. My husband, 108, is in the living room designing an even more flashy and complicated way of turning on the television than we had in 2013.

Fauja Singh - Photo from PravasiToday
I know I need to put some effort in now if I intend to arrive at 104 in great shape. My hero of the month is Fauja Singh, a 101 year old marathon runner. Unfortunately marathon running is a bit extreme for me. I'm thinking more along the lines of stretching.  

Not long ago I discovered this video which simultaneously teaches you yoga and takes you to Costa Rica.  At the moment, every single muscle aches when I do the exercises. If I put it off till I'm any older it will be like flexing a chicken with rigor mortis. Where I'm the chicken.


Obviously keeping physically fit is only half the battle, an intact mind is also vital.

Now I'm wondering what those Bowhead Whales have been thinking about for the last two centuries. How sane are they? Because I know for a fact, there's no Sudoku in the deep blue sea.