Tuesday, 20 October 2020

Me, Dust and Thank Yous - Joan Lennon


Arizona Sandstorm 2011 photographed by Roxy Lopez 
(wiki commons)

I have an unnecessarily intimate relationship with dust. As in, the older I get the less I do it, and the less I do it the more bunged up I get when the activity of dusting is forced upon me. (Why dust when disturbed feels obliged to head straight up my nose is not clear to me, but I suspect there is some sort of magnetism involved.) 

Last week, when my ancient, second-hand, insanely heavy, ridiculously bulky printer finally died, I got a new one, which is lovely, dainty and sleek.  But in the process of extracting the old one from its niche under my desk, I had to dust back there.  And in the process of dusting back there I found some old file folders full of thank you letters.

When I first started doing school visits, a goodly number of years ago, it was the custom for teachers to make the kids write thank you letters afterwards, which were then sent on to the author.  They were lovely to receive, even when they were clearly a task rather than a pleasure for the children involved.  There were lines to write on and a formula to follow, and if you were quick about it, you got to do some decorating around the edges.  And they made me smile, then and now.

But in amongst the bundles was one that was not so tidy.  It wasn't on a template and it wasn't decorated.  It was a sheet of slightly crumpled A4 with the words 'I love you! Nicola' scrawled across one side.

That one made my heart twist.  I don't know which school sent it on to me, or exactly when the visit was.  But based on the dates of the other letters in the folder, she will now be old enough to have little Nicolas of her own, and we would certainly not recognise each other if we passed in the street, masked or otherwise.  I will tuck her letter and the others away, to be rediscovered another day.  But until then, thank you, Nicola!  You keep me going, dust and all.

Max Slevogt Sandstorm in the Libyan Desert 1914 
(wiki commons)

Monday, 19 October 2020

Writing against the clock by Joan Haig

Autumn. The season of geese winging their way south and pictures of pretty fungi posting their way to Instagram. It’s also, this year for me, a season of overdue chapters. Much as I love conkers and bonfires, my focus needs to be on writing. I wish I had made better use of summer’s long hours of light. If only I could travel back in time in order to alter my work pattern and meet my deadlines.

Luckily, children’s books are brimming with ideas on how to do this. Below I have categorised six devices for getting me back to the summer solstice. (With apologies to all scientists and science fiction aficionados.)

The first storybook device I might borrow is the magical/fantasy object. I’m thinking of Terry Pratchett’s shopping trolley, Philippa Pearce’s grandfather’s clock, or Janis Mackay’s gold ring. In this scenario, I have to find a magical thing to transport me. Unsuccessful guesses at what this might be have included a vintage suitcase, a fossil, and a glass bottle (emptied of its grapy contents).

I could be looking for the wrong type of thing, of course. If not in a material object, the magic might come in the form of an animal or other living organism. Kate Saunders has gifted the Psammead – E. Nesbit’s sand fairy – with the power of time travel. I’ve spoken to one of my cats about this. Flotsam spends most of her time sleeping, which may be a sign of her powers and the early twentieth-century time-travel trope of falling asleep and waking up somewhen else, like Rip van Winkle.

Character action can result in time travel, too. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'engle is compulsory reading for anyone writing about time travel (don’t worry, I will read it in the past). L’engle advances the mathematical idea of the ‘tesseract’, first described in 1888 by Charles Howard Hinton, allowing her characters to tesser, or take ‘shortcuts’, across time and into distant space.

This leads to the penultimate device on offer: the portal. Portals are used by Alison Uttley in A Traveller in Time (1939) quite literally: old doors are passages to other centuries. The portal is a disused elevator in Liz Kessler’s A Year Without Autumn and a forest in Sophie Kirtley’s beautiful debut, The Wild Way Home and it’s, among other sites, a cave in Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs. I’m optimistic my portal will be a bookshop, so I’m visiting as many of those as I can. It’s a straightforward option, since all I’m looking to do is hop back a couple of months and then hop forward to the present.

But what happens if I can’t get back forward? Ross Sayers’ novel for teens, Daisy on the Outer Line, cleverly uses sleep and the idea of a physical loop – in this case, the Glasgow Underground – to play with the idea of being trapped in time. And as Dr Who reminds us, even the most high-tech device – the time machine – can be tricky to operate. A case in point is the time machine suit in Joan Lennon’s shimmering Silver Skin, which flings its wearer back to the Stone Age.

Getting stuck isn’t the only potential hitch. In Time Travelling with a Hamster, Ross Wellford introduces a number of problems, not least the concept of the causal loop. Here’s the thing: if I go back and change history, I will prevent the situation that caused me to go back from happening (which may include my own existence.) Encountering one’s past self is also something to avoid. In the animated film, Mr. Peabody and Sherman, self duplication causes disaster in the space-time continuum.

It doesn’t end there. All time travel by necessity is space travel, since the Earth is always moving. Travelling back in time therefore means arriving at a different place, a problem that is imagined away by most fiction authors. Note, too, that you can’t simply pause time (as was the ruse in a certain *cough-splutter* Tiger Skin Rug.) And it’s worth noting that one can only travel backwards in time: physicists agree that travelling forwards is impossible, since the future has not yet existed. (Sorry, HG Wells.)

I’m not sure my editors appreciate the risks I take for them. Even so, I will give it a go. If you are reading this, of course, it means I have failed. But all is not lost: if I spend fewer hours browsing bookshops for, and blogging about, other people’s books, I might have enough time to finish my own this side of winter.


©Adrian Haig

©Andrew Haig 

P.S. In the future, my children will finally learn how to spell the word 'finally'.

Sunday, 18 October 2020

Things to do while spirits, ghouls and old gods walk the earth - by Lu Hersey

October 31st is the ancient Celtic fire festival of Samhain, now celebrated as Halloween, but a seasonal festival that predates Christianity. Most of the main pagan festivals were brought into the Christian calendar to entice people into the church, and the feast of Samhain became All Hallows Tide - but remained a time of year associated with spirits and death. It's a few days when the barriers between worlds are at thought to be at their thinnest, the dead can return from their graves and spirits and old gods walk the earth. 

Witches, Goblins & Ghouls - illustration by Arthur Rackham 1907

The festival celebrates the end of summer, when the last of the harvest comes in, and it's a good time to set goals for the future. Right up until Victorian times people celebrated with ritual fires and beacons lit on hilltops for the purification of the land, blowing their horns and circle dancing around Hallow fires. The bravest leapt through the flames or walked over the embers - or got drunk and set off on wild hunts to sabotage other people's beacons and fires, returning with burning peats fixed like pennants on the top of sticks. In Wales, as the fires died down, everyone fled back down the hill to escape the hwch ddu gwta, the tailless Black Sow, one of the terrors abroad on Halloween - and there are many of them lurking in our folklore that date well back into prehistory. 

Samhain was also the turning of the year, as the Celtic new year started as the harvest ended. Because the veil between worlds is at its thinnest, it was (and still is) considered a good time for any kind of divination for the year ahead. (If you're at all superstitious, some of the following rites are quite scary and probably best avoided!) 

A tradition in Wales and Scotland was to mark a white stone and throw it into the Hallow Fire (embers in your bbq bowl, fire or wood burner would probably work if you want to risk it). In the morning people went to look for their stone - if it was in tact, they'd be safe for the following year. If it was cracked, lost, had inexplicably moved or had a footprint near it, it foretold an early death. (See what I mean? You'll probably be fine whatever happens to your blooming stone, and if not, do you really want to know?)

Many other Halloween traditions are ancient divination rites, once taken very seriously. One involved courting couples placing two hazel or chestnuts in the embers to roast - if they cooked well, it foretold a happy marriage, but if they burnt or exploded, the marriage was doomed. Another was to find the initial of your future partner's name (my grandmother actually used to do this with me) by peeling an apple carefully, all in one strip, and throwing the peel over your left shoulder. It invariably falls in the shape of a letter... (though trying this several times with my grandmother over the years, I found that your partner is almost certain to have a name starting with S, C or possibly a lower case E, P or D if you squint or look at it upside down) 

Apples feature in many Halloween rites

Another apple rite is to stand in front of a mirror at midnight, with one candle lit, eating an apple with one hand and brushing your hair with the other. The form of your future husband or wife should appear over your left shoulder. Frankly if a shadowy figure appears over your left shoulder at midnight, you're more likely to choke on the apple or run screaming - but apparently this was a common practice and taken very seriously. A variation is to cut the apple into nine pieces, eat eight of them with your back to the mirror and then chuck the ninth piece over your left shoulder - if you turn quickly enough you might catch a glimpse of your future partner in the mirror. 

A widely practised Hallow-tide rite was to melt a lump of lead in a spoon and drop the melted lead into cold water - the molten lead forms the shape of your future partner's trade. (This probably takes a leap of faith - a bit like reading tea leaves or coffee bubbles. Otherwise everyone would be partnered with a shapeless blob. However it probably works very well if you're looking for the clues to your new manuscript...)

Okay, last one for now - and keep the fire hydrant handy. This is a divination game for a group of people to find portends for the year ahead. Place 12 candles on the floor in a circle. Each candle represents one month of the year, so starting in November (remember Samhain is the start of the Celtic year), the players take it in turns to leap over each candle, one month at a time. If the candle falls over or goes out with all the activity, it doesn't bode well for that particular month - but if it stays alight, the month will be good. 

Witches and their familiars - illustration by Arthur Rackham, 1907

If you want to try any of the above, good luck. You're more likely to be busy dealing with small people dressing up as ghosts and witches and eating too many sweets. Probably simpler to spend some quiet time casting off all the negatives from the past year and setting your goals for the year ahead. A bit like New Year's Eve. Because once upon a time, that's what it was. 

Lu Hersey

Twitter: @LuWrites

Web: http://luhersey.com/

Saturday, 17 October 2020

Writers' essential lockdown kit - Tracy Darnton

Just a short one this month as I'm too busy feeling anxious and creating a spreadsheet of how I can see my various kids and family in all their different Tier locations.

The return of two universities worth of students from all over the country has led to our city's rates shooting up and me wondering if I'm going to be locked down again. 

Luckily, I've written a book about preparing for disaster which foreshadowed the toilet roll shortages so I am obviously an expert. I share with you my essential writers' toolkit of supplies to see you through the long, long winter months: 

Item:                Notebooks     



If you call yourself a writer, you will probably have already stockpiled pre-2020 more than you will ever ever need in your own lifetime (especially as you type your manuscripts) but you just can't stop collecting the damn things. 

Item:                TBR pile of novels


This should be the equivalent of three times your own height and make you feel stressed or it is not a proper TBR pile. 

Item:                 Post-it notes

Winter months will fly by if you colour-code all the plots and sub plots in your manuscript.

Item:                 Desk buddy

This is your constant work colleague for those water cooler moments and to discuss the latest Netflix series. You can bounce all those knotty plot problems off your desk buddy so choose wisely. 

Item:                 Thingammybob

Weird and intriguing object to have in the background on your zoom calls and author You Tube videos. This will distract your 'viewers' from the state of your hair and level of your conversation.

Item:                Tea bags

Quantity = 3 x (hours of writing) x 140/y   where y = procrastination ratio

You're welcome. 

Tracy Darnton is the author of YA thrillers The Truth About Lies and The Rules. She's meant to be concentrating on writing the next one. 

Thursday, 15 October 2020

Problem finding: voice & structure - by Rowena House

Back in July, I embraced ‘problem finding’ as a creative writing technique, or perhaps it’s better to describe it as a mindset, after discovering it courtesy of the ever-brilliant Emma Darwin, who in turn was discussing Richard Sennet’s ideas on the subject.

Here’s the link to July’s ABBA blog with more details about it if you’re interested:


And here’s the TL;DR version: problem finding harnesses the power of both rational thinking and our deeper layers of intuitive and subconscious mental processing by turning creative writing problems into clear, rational questions, and then letting the subconscious loose to find unexpected, original and (hopefully) meaningful answers.

In recent weeks, this method threw up the following question: why can’t I find the right voice for my protagonist (and therefore the voice for the whole work-in-progress) when I have a clear character arc in mind for him and a solid plan for a five-act structure?

At roughly 3.30 am last Friday, my subconscious decided to let me in on its conclusions.

Wake up, it said, you’ve got it all wrong. This isn’t only Tom’s story. Sure he’s your way into the story. He’s the character that lets you say this is my story, too, one I have a right to tell, but there are others speaking here, too.  

(Tom, my protagonist, was a real-life 17th century pamphleteer who knew about Fleet Street and the law courts and dirty London politics, just as I did as a journalist back in the day.)

The result of this (and many another) interrupted night was a reworked opening scene for the novel, one which I first wrote for Michael Loveday’s excellent Novella-in-Flash course a year ago and have been tinkering with off-and-on ever since.

Originally, when I began to novelize this story as part of a PhD, I rejected the novella opening because it wasn’t written from Tom’s point-of-view, and definitely wasn’t in his voice, and therefore had no place in his story.

In other words, it was a darling that had to be killed. And yet...

The scene was good. It introduced conflict between three key characters in a straightforward, comprehensible way; it used suspense to set up the entire plot; it had a definite turning point and a cliff-hanger ending weighted with jeopardy.

What’s not to like?

Reworking it from a different character’s point-of-view turned out to be the key.

The voice of this second character, Bromley, an older, cynical, judgemental man, already came through loud and clear in the dialogue. In the reworked version, his internal thoughts slipped into place like a bolt into a well-aligned hole. In turn, his thoughts opened up opportunities to layer in psychological insights and interpersonal conflicts that will (necessarily) have to develop throughout the plot. 

So, then, said my rational head, surveying this new opening on the one hand and the wreckage of months of single-protagonist plotting on the other, it looks like we’ve got a multi-protagonist story here. After all, you can’t tempt readers with Character A at the get-go, and then try to tell them it’s actually Character B’s story later on.

The implications of accepting this conclusion are huge, of course, and I haven’t made a final decision which way to go, not least because I won’t let two males dominate my story. Alizon and Elizabeth are BIG in Tom’s life and will stay big in the story, however many viewpoint characters there are. But if they get their own chapters as well as Bromley, then a fifth character, Altham, logically must have his space as well.

Are five point-of-view characters possible? Won’t that just be a mess?

Luckily, Linda Aronson has written a cracking film structure guide, The 21st Century Screenplay, which discusses plotting options with a proven track record when weaving multiple story lines together into a satisfying whole. [Thank you again, Lucy Van Smit, for pointing me in Linda’s direction.]

And wonderful Emma Darwin is there, as always, with sound advice about how to differentiate each strand through what she calls characterized narratives, i.e. creating a highly distinctive voice for each viewpoint character, a voice which reflects their class, education, religion, prejudices etc., and which conveys in the subtext the story’s message about subjective understanding and alternative interpretations of events.

[For information, I’m using Emma’s own PhD thesis as food for thought for mine, but her blog, This Itch of Writing, is a fantastic resource if you haven’t come across it yet.]

Now, it’s perfectly possible that my subconscious would have set to work on this twin problem of voice and structure without needing a specific ‘problem finding’ question to answer.

In fact, with hindsight (and as a result of writing this blog – yay, for iterative mental processing), I suspect that it was re-reading my notes about Emma comments on characterized narrative last month which triggered the initial unconscious doubts about sticking to a single viewpoint character. Certainly, with a story that concerns bias, dishonesty and delusion, and how these factors might have led to false narratives back in 1612, multiple distinctive voices would seem to be an ideal structural fit, allowing the reader to interpret events for themselves, rather than having a protagonist work it out for them.

Nevertheless, I do still think problem finding is a useful diagnostic tool. If nothing else, defining a problem and then allowing the subconscious time to ruminate on it lessens the (conscious) frustration of writer’s block, and clears the conscience when killing off darlings or resurrecting them as intuition dictates.

Have a creative (and safe) month, everyone.

Twitter @HouseRowena

Facebook Rowena House Author

Website rowenahouse.com










Wednesday, 14 October 2020


 Continuing my Blog from last month, which revisits some Tips for Writers put forward by fellow-writers at a writers' retreat last year, and updates them for use during the current pandemic.  Last month I revisited the first 12 tips, so this month I continue with:

13 Shut the door!  Protect your working space.   

This is particularly apt during lockdown if your children are home from school and your partner is working from home too – it’s all too easy to allow them to take over your working space, so DO shut the door on it.  Put up a useful notice if you like, eg “DANGER – WRITER AT WORK!  ONLY DISTURB IF THE HOUSE IS ON FIRE.

14 Try to recapture the joy.

This may be rather difficult at the moment, when the news, social media etc. keep telling you daily how terrible everything is, and how much worse things are going to get, but do your best.  The joy is still there, somewhere, and one day we will be out the other side of this pandemic, and we will need joyful people.


15 Anything that helps your writing, do more of it.  Anything that doesn’t help, do less of it.

What a brilliant piece of advice!  And this is still the same, even at the present time – do as much as you can of whatever helps your writing (such as walking, painting, cooking, even cleaning (?)).  And try to avoid doing things that definitely don’t help, such as watching the news, listening to politicians arguing etc.  (In my case, cleaning comes into this category, but everyone’s different!)

16 Learn to listen.

Not to politicians arguing, but to people talking, either to you or to each other – you can pick up some useful ideas like this!  And of course to anyone, agent, editor or Beta reader, offering advice, even if you don’t think it’s particularly helpful at the time.  Sometimes you can go back and realise there was a germ of truth in it, or, alternatively, that you were definitely right in the first place.  Both are useful!

17 If things are going badly, tell yourself “This too will pass.”

OH YES!  Especially at the moment.  The pandemic will pass, even if it takes longer than we’d all anticipated, but it WILL pass one day.  And so will whatever writing problem is bugging you at the moment. 


18 Keep to a writing routine, eg start writing at 9.30 on the dot.

Whoever suggested this one evidently had a good reason to start writing at 9.30, though some readers of my original blog thought this was far too late (and possibly others thought it was far too early!)  It really doesn’t matter what time you start, but the important part of this tip is Keep to a Writing Routine that suits you!  Everyone’s family issues are different, so it’s hard to make a routine that suits us all, but if you can possibly stick to it, it will help you!


19 Accept any writing-based offers.

Oh yes, this is such a good one.  Before this pandemic I was rather unsure about accepting writing-based offers, thinking they really needed a Big Name, ie someone better than me.  But now, as some readers of my previous blogs may remember, I’m reading my books on local radio every week, and loving it!  The fact that the chance to do it came because of another part of my life, my membership and co-chairmanship of a local Recorded Music Society, was what led me to realise it was me they wanted, not anyone else.  It was because of our connection with the society that my husband and I were asked to present a Classical Music programme on local radio every week, which we happily agreed to do, especially because since the pandemic our society has been unable to meet.  Then my husband said, “Well, Lynne writes books, so if you want someone to read children’s stories too…” and they jumped at it!  So yes, now, if anyone else invites me to talk or participate in some event, I shall jump at that too!

20 List three positive things that happen each day.

What a good idea!  In the midst of so much doom and gloom, coming up with three positive things every day can only help to raise your spirits.  It doesn’t matter how small these things are – it could be something like “my normally bad-tempered neighbour smiled at me”, or “I had a nice chat on the phone with a friend”.  So yes, do that!


21 Make a “business morning” once a week to deal with all business matters.  Don’t feel you have to reply to everyone instantly.

Another excellent idea – business matters can be so boring, so it’s a really good idea to bunch them all together and deal with them all at once, rather than dragging them out through the week.  And for people who don’t find them boring, (there may be some around, I suppose?) that day will be something to look forward to every week!

 22  Learn to accept praise!  If someone praises you and/or your work, don’t say “Oh well, it’s only…”  Just smile and say, “Thank you.”

Yes, it’s still the case that you have to accept praise wherever you can find it!  It’s hard not to say “oh well it’s only” when someone else has had a big book published (which must have taken years to write) while your own is a little book for early readers.  Yours is still a book that you’ve had to work on in order to fit in with the guidelines, word count etc., and it’s achieved publication, which many people would give their eye teeth for, so it’s just as much of an achievement!

23 Praise other people's work - everyone needs appreciation!  Tell them how much you enjoyed their book/write a review of it on Amazon.

Oh yes, they certainly do!  I've often emailed a writer I know, even slightly, to tell them when I've really enjoyed their book, and I've reviewed it on Amazon, and they are always surprised and delighted that I've bothered.  Writers are not necessarily chock-full of confidence, no matter how Big their Names are!

24 Think positive!

Of course think positive.  Back to numbers 14, 17 and 20 - it's so important to think and behave as if this year is a mere blip in the great scheme of things, and the pandemic will be beaten eventually.  So by the time it's all over, you will have plenty of work under your belt (or on your computer!), ready to send out...

25 Don't give up!

This one almost goes without saying, though I have heard of people saying things like, “What’s the point?  Nobody’s going to want to read my book at the moment!  It’s only the Big Names that are going to get published.  Agents will be overwhelmed with manuscripts at the moment, so they won’t want mine.  Why should I keep flogging a dead horse?” etc. etc.  All wrong.  If you keep going, no matter what, you will soon have plenty of work ready to send out when you feel the time is right.  Which might be sooner than you think, so this is NOT a good time to give up.  Just carry on writing - and Good Luck!

Latest book:

The Giant and the Shoemaker
Published by Franklin Watts

Visit my website: www.lynnebenton.com

Tuesday, 13 October 2020

Too Much Choice by Sheena Wilkinson


I don’t have a TBR pile. I don’t like piles of stuff, not even of books. The problem with this is, as any fule kno, one can sometimes buy a book but not be ready to read it at once. In my case it would be shelved (in alphabetical order, natch) and sometimes forgotten, or at least swallowed up by its neighbours. You can have too much choice. 


About two years ago I rationalised the bookcases in my house: from seventeen to fourteen. It was a relief to rid myself of books I would never reread, many of which – mostly lit crit – were only there to impress (whom? I can safely say there is no visitor to my house whose opinion of me would be improved by seeing that I owned Hard Pretentious Theory*.)


And then there were those books I had bought with good intentions, and possibly started, but would never finish – no longer would they sit there accusing me, daring me. And the books by friends, mostly YA novels I had enjoyed but would not reread: they have all had new lives in school libraries, making new friends and new readers. Yes, fourteen bookcases was the right number; I couldn’t possibly go down any more. 


During lockdown, like most people I spent more time home alone than usual, and I began to feel crowded out by books. Don’t get me wrong, I love books, and I have spent part of each day of my life in reading since I was five, but those long hours in the living room forced me to realise that there were novels I had owned for years and would never, ever reread. And maybe it would be nice to have a little more, well, space. And so fourteen bookcases became ten. Which is the perfect number. 


Some of the books were easy to get rid of; others I wasn’t so sure about. That novel I knew I'd enjoyed but didn’t remember clearly – would I reread it? That book a friend had given me, promising I would love it – I’d never been in the mood yet; would I ever be? That 40th birthday present – why hadn’t I read it? Those lovely new hardbacks – I had been too impatient to wait for the paperback, but not actually got round to reading it yet. I ended up with a sort of TBR pile. 


I spend about 40% of my time in my partner’s house. It’s not exactly a bookless zone, but there are nine fewer bookcases than there are in my house now, i.e. one, and half the books are about sport, and the other half seem to have been written by someone called Sheena Wilkinson. (Oh yes, and there are some David Walliams, but we don’t talk about those). For a long time, every weekend I would pack carefully, to ensure I had enough reading material with me. I was terrified of Abibliophobia: I didn’t really want to read Long-Distance Cycling or and there isn’t a bookshop in the local town. Bringing my kindle wasn’t always the answer; I had to remember the charger too. 


So I had a brainwave. I installed one of my small, unwanted bookcases in my room at his house. I packed up the sort of TBR pile, and, just to keep the books company, some new books and some old friends – because you never know what mood you’ll be in, especially in these anxious times. Sometimes you can have exactly the right amount of choice. 





* There is no such book.