Friday, 29 May 2020

More Than A Good Read - Nick Garlick

I don’t know if it’s just me, but I rarely sit and talk with friends about the books I’ve read. Not in depth. We pass tips back and forth: ‘You’ll like this’ or ‘Don’t go near that one in a lead-lined tank’. But actually sitting down together and spending 90 minute discussing the merits or defects of a particular book? Hardly ever.

And then I joined a book club.

We meet at this table once a month, in De Overburen, a cafe opposite the railway station in the Dutch town of Amersfoort. We always start off by talking about the book we’ve chosen, but it’s not long before the conversation veers off in all kinds of unexpected directions. That’s when the meetings get really interesting. Little Women prompted long discussions about how we expect stories to end. The Good Earth took us off into definitions of worldly success. We talked a lot about marriage after reading The Accidental Tourist. The Children Act got us going on the whole business of being alive.

(The one book we barely talked about at all was War and Peace. For such a massive tome, it inspired very little conversation. None of us had enjoyed it – and yes, we did all read it, all of it – and the overriding impression was of a chore accomplished. We just had a nice chat for an hour and a half.)

So the books provoke discussion. They get us thinking. And with nationalities ranging from South African to English, Indonesian to Dutch - and lately Russian – there’s a wealth of different experience to share. That’s one thing I like about the club.

The other is that it’s helped me follow a rule Neil Gaiman once offered writers: Read books you wouldn’t normally read. I think it’s one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever heard. (Second only to Sinclair Lewis’ observation that the process begins by actually sitting down.) Seeing how writers outside my ‘comfort zone’ tackle a story has been enormously illuminating.

Ian McEwan has shown me how to compress narrative. Louisa May Alcott has warned me off adverbs. Tolstoy demonstrates – to me at least – that telling what happened isn’t half as effective as showing. And with apologies to Julian Barnes fans, I think there’s a limit to how oblique you can make an ending. (I still can’t work out what happened in The Only Story.)

And one last point: they’re almost as much fun on Zoom as they are in real life.

Wednesday, 27 May 2020

A day in the life of a writer in lockdown with a toddler - Holly Race

6am - Alarm goes off. Snooze it several times during early morning browse of Netgalley and Goodreads. My first novel is being published on 11th June and I have not yet found it within myself to heed my fellow authors' advice to step away from the reviews, Holly.

6:30am - Reluctantly get up and even more reluctantly do some yoga to ease the toddler-related back pain that has been plaguing me since the second week of lockdown.

7am - Load up and speed write 500 words of second novel, keeping an eye on the baby monitor for signs of movement. For those not in the know, 4thewords has been my lifesaver during lockdown. I have always found it best to write early drafts as quickly as possible, and using programs or games that encourage me to type against the clock are the best way to get me to ignore my inner editor. 4thewords is extra brilliant because every word you type helps to fight monsters and buy equipment like golden chests and raw gold. A good one for writers who also enjoy D&D.

8:30am - 2-year-old daughter wakes up and demands Peppa Pig for the first - but not last - time today. My feelings on Peppa are very similar to Stanley Tucci's, but if it keeps her occupied for twenty minutes then I'm not complaining. I spend my time well, browsing Netgalley and Goodreads just in case anyone's posted a review in the last two hours.

9am - Attempt to fool the toddler into believing that Duplo, train tracks and serving cake to her soft toys are every bit as exciting as they were when we started playing them nine weeks ago. Eventually give up and let her daub the kitchen in paint while I catch up on emails.

10am - Bribe toddler with raisins to get her to behave while I call my cousin on Zoom. We moan at each other for thirty minutes solid. It feels amazing.

10:30am - Say 'tag!' cheerily to husband as he gets off his morning work calls and lie to him that 'she's in a good mood today'. Maybe if he goes into it with optimism it'll rub off on the little one. Speed write another 500 words on 4thewords while husband and toddler run backwards and forwards past my office door. Defeat a 'Wignow', which looks like a cross between a hedgehog and a gerbil. Would quite like one as a pet.

11am - Facetime with a scriptwriter who I am doing some freelance editing work with. The majority of our dealings have occurred during lockdown so we've never met in person, but we have already shared in depth details of our various bodily pains, and photos of ourselves wearing onesies. She's brilliant and I am a bit in love with her.

12pm - Retrieve obligatory lockdown homemade sourdough from the bread bin and attempt to persuade the toddler to eat some with poached egg. Eventually give in and hand her a fruit pouch. Husband and I make comforting noises but share dispirited glances: she is regressing during lockdown and it's making us feel like utter failures.

1pm - Read The Gruffalo and If I Had a Dinosaur for the millionth time. Share a cuddle with toddler as she tries to convince us that she can fall asleep in our bed. Heart swells as she scrunches her eyes up and makes loud breathing noises. Gives up after three minutes, licks my nose and giggles loudly. We take her to her cot, tuck her in and close the door. Agree that she really is the cutest. Especially when she's asleep.

1:30pm - Attempt to write while listening to toddler babbling away happily to herself upstairs. It's becoming abundantly clear that she is ready to drop her lunch nap. Reader, we are not ready for her to drop her lunch nap. Give up on writing and read 'The Bookseller' instead, adding a multitude of books mentioned in its pages to my already bulging Amazon wishlist. Ten weeks ago I had somewhat foolishly imagined that lockdown would give me a chance to catch up on my reading pile, apparently forgetting that I have several jobs and a sproglet.

2:30pm - Give up on all pretence of work and spend twenty minutes eating crisps and watching clips from The Greatest Showman on YouTube,  just to admire the perfection that is Zendaya.

3pm - Admit that toddler is not going to sleep and let her drink milk while watching CBeebies. Browse Netgalley and Goodreads - it's been a whole five hours, after all.

3:21pm - Surprise delivery! The proofs of my book have arrived! They've been stuck in a warehouse since the start of lockdown and I actually received the finished copies a few days ago, but this is still thrilling! Persuade toddler to hand me the books one by one so I can arrange them on my bookshelves. Only a few get creased covers in the process.

4pm - Husband takes toddler out for a walk while I attempt to write another 1000 words and write five blog posts and record a video for my publicist and read a script for a production company. I manage 200 words, a bullet point and a social media browse before he returns.

5:30pm - Take toddler into the garden while husband returns to work. Get her to load the mealworms into the bird feeder because I am creeped out by them and she isn't. Try to convince her that watering herbs is a fun game.

6pm - Concede to toddler's demands to watch 'Hey Duggee' and retire to the kitchen to make dinner. Try to listen to podcasts for intellectual stimulation but instead can only hear the distant beat of 'Stick stick stick stick sticky sticky stick stick' coming from the sitting room.

6:30pm - Sit down for dinner. Attempt to discuss news and work with husband but just end up explaining thirty times in a row why toddler can't get down from her high chair until we've all finished eating.

7:30pm - Begin bedtime routine. Read entire collection of picture books before toddler finally concedes that she is actually quite tired.

9pm - Tidy house in manner of zombie and collapse onto sofa to answer emails, Zoom friends and cry quietly about how little work we have actually got done today compared to how much we needed to get done. Briefly consider trying to write a bit more but admit defeat.

10pm - Go to bed, but spend at least an hour refreshing Netgalley and Goodreads in a cloud of self-reproach before finally falling asleep.

Holly Race worked for many years as a script editor in film and television, before becoming a writer.

Her debut novel, Midnight's Twins, is published by Hot Key Books on 11th June 2020. She also selectively undertakes freelance script editing and story consultant work.

Tuesday, 26 May 2020

Our Moon Is The Moon Moon - Shirley-Anne McMillan

One of the nice things about having a space-obsessed six year old at the minute is that even though I have to watch the same clip of Neil deGrasse Tyson talking about black holes three times a day, he also enjoys talking about the moon. I love the moon right now. We're familiar with it- we see it every night, we've even been there and we've sent robots there to take pictures. But there's nobody on it right now. It's completely peaceful. It's quiet. No stupid arguments on the moon internet, because there is no moon internet. No stupid politicians messing everything up. No coronavirus. Sometimes people talk about getting away from earth and going to the moon. But I like it because that's not possible. Not yet anyway. For now, the moon is unspoilt by humans. My son will sometimes say 'Other planets have moons with names, but our moon is the moon moon.' It always makes me think of this poem and I imagine my boy as the boy who escapes with the moon across the sky. I hope you're all doing OK. x

Ballad of the Moon Moon

For Conchita García Lorca
Moon came to the forge
in her petticoat of nard
The boy looks and looks
the boy looks at the Moon
In the turbulent air
Moon lifts up her arms
showing — pure and sexy — 
her beaten-tin breasts
Run Moon run Moon Moon
If the gypsies came
white rings and white necklaces
they would beat from your heart
Boy will you let me dance — 
when the gypsies come
they’ll find you on the anvil
with your little eyes shut
Run Moon run Moon Moon
I hear the horses’ hoofs
Leave me boy! Don’t walk
on my lane of white starch

The horseman came beating
the drum of the plains
The boy at the forge
has his little eyes shut
Through the olive groves
in bronze and in dreams
here the gypsies come
their heads riding high
their eyelids hanging low

How the night heron sings
how it sings in the tree
Moon crosses the sky
with a boy by the hand

At the forge the gypsies
cry and then scream
The wind watches watches
the wind watches the Moon

Photo by my older son.

Monday, 25 May 2020


Rules! That’s a joke, right?  

Well yes. Kind of. Ish. But I do think it’s useful to have some sort of learning from all this, in regards to how I write, and to reflect and think about what works and what doesn’t.

Of course, these rules – these ‘ways’  -  are really for me.  But you may find them useful, if only to prompt you to think about your own writing practice and what habits work for you right now.

 As a general point, I’m going to take a leaf from the radical thinker and scientist Rupert Sheldrake, who challenges the very idea of the ‘laws’ of nature and asks us instead to think of them instead as nature’s ‘habits;’ recurring patterns that may seem fixed but which can change and evolve as their relationship with the other ‘laws’ and the very stuff of the universe evolve.

Which is really a pseud-y way of saying: There are habits that work at certain times and these are mine right now.

Here goes, here’s what I tell myself:

1          Be kind to yourself and your words

 Don’t get all judge-y and down on what you write. It’s a weird time and it may (*ahem*) affect what gets on to the page. But that’s normal in a way. Because personally, I find whatever’s going on in my life finds it’s way into the words, whether consciously or unconsciously.  And it’s always been like that.

2          Write something

Back to habit.  As the old saying goes, you can’t edit a blank page. Regularity is key. That said…

 3         Quantity is not quality

 I’m really pleased for the writers who signal on Twitter when they’ve hit a certain number of words on their WIP. But for me, a good day’s writing is increasingly about quality. If I put a lot of time in and ditch most of the words, but keep, say, 200 that feel honest and true to whatever it is I’m trying to express or describe, then that’s a good day’s work.

 4         Wake up.  Write.

 When I get a day when I can write it only works one way.  Wake. Read. Coffee. Write. Thinking: ‘I’ll do some later when I’ve got that other stuff done,’ simply does not work.  There is simply too much ‘other stuff’. Plus the other, other stuff I didn’t plan for, or even know about. To paraphrase Woodhouse; I often think the day is going swimmingly. But just round the corner fate is calmly stuffing lead into a boxing glove.

5          Play

I listened to an interview with the annoyingly brilliant Marcus Sedgwick, the other day. He goes through long spells of not-writing, and/or finding it simply very difficult. He says what brings him back, is encouraging himself to simply play. I’d go with that.  I have to be inspired to write, and if that means the odd turn into a strange and never visited dusty town, where I feel a bit nervous but where I can kind of fool around and be foolish, because no-one knows me there...  Then so be it. 

6   Write something new or different

 I always write on Saturday morning, in bed with strong coffee. Have done for years. But on this special day of the week I don’t have to re-write the bit I did before, or write the bit that follows on.  I can do whatever I fancy:  A different character’s POV.  Something from a different part of the  book. Something that could be part of a different book all together. It’s quite surprising how much of this stuff actually makes it into the final draft.  Or maybe not surprising at all.

7 Go there!

That place you weren’t sure of, that idea that seems a bit rad, or simply difficult, but which won’t go away. Could be dark, disturbing, surreal, bonkers.  Good to explore anyway, right.  I can always not-use it.

 8  When it’s too chaotic, try and make some order, and vice versa.


 9  Rules are there to be broken. 

Chris Vick writes books about the sea, adventure and the wonder of magic and stories. 
He spent years working in whale conservation before enrolling on the Bath Spa MA in Writing for Young People. He has four books published in several countries.
The most recent Girl.Boy.Sea is shortlisted for the CILIP Carnegie medal 2020.
Chris has appeared at festivals including Hay, Bath Children’s Literature festival and Mare di Libri (Sea of Books) in Italy and has written about writing issues for a wide range of media.

Sunday, 24 May 2020


My thirty years of writing for children have been peppered with school visits and festival appearances, a vital income stream for any author. Although I enjoy them enormously (I would have been a primary school teacher in another life, creating a fab environment in my classroom and producing the school plays), I've always dreamt of an uninterrupted period where I could concentrate on writing, and solely on my writing.
    One of my big dreams is to write an adult detective novel. I have scores of notebooks filled with ideas, plots and character sketches for it. My office walls are festooned with story maps and photos taken on fact-finding sorties to my favourite countries. Am I making use of them? Am I, hell. Sorry for the swear-word but now that uninterrupted writing opportunity has been thrust upon me, I'm finding it incredibly difficult to settle down in my newly decorated office and write. 
    My daily routine has been shattered. No endless trips to coffee shops on Scarbrough seafront with my macbook and pens. No browsing in charity shops and flea markets while mulling over ideas. I am stuck at home and everywhere I look there are procrastination opportunities that are proving impossible to resist. 
    This week, after finding out that there are thousands of people in the same situation as me,  I've taken the big decision to drop the guilt and embrace my period of self-isolation. So here's what I've been up to on lockdown.

I've been working on my garden. I've sown tomatoes, repaired a roofless pergola and planted climbers. Unable to go to the ironmonger's, I've made planters using bits of wood, nails and wire found in the shed.

I've been expanding my cooking repertoire. I've taught myself to make proper curry, I've experimented with different kinds of bread making and cooked myself a birthday pie.

I've gone for great walks in my neighbourhood, increasing my foot-count every week. 

Perhaps best of all,  I've been spending time chatting with my family overseas. Here's a picture of my parents in lockdown on Malta. They don't seem too distressed. Let's hope I can visit them again in the flesh.

Saturday, 23 May 2020

A book from my past - Sue Purkiss

If you're on Facebook, you may well have seen recently a thing going round where you're asked to post pictures of the covers of ten books that have been important to you. You post one each day, you're not supposed to say anything about your choices, and you're supposed to nominate someone else each day to carry it on.

I'm not really all that good at following rules, and I didn't follow all of these. It didn't make sense to me not to say anything about the books - I'd been intrigued or baffled by other people's choices, and had wanted to know more about them. So I broke that one. Then the first two people I nominated turned me down, so after that I just said anyone could take it on who wanted to. The challenge had already been going for quite a while by then, and I expect everyone who wanted to do it already had done so.

I roved around our bookshelves, and this was the first book that caught my eye. I hadn't looked at it for ages, and it drew me in. It's in French, as you can see, and it's a book of a hundred famous paintings. My sister brought it back from France for me; she did French and European Literature at Warwick, and spent quite a bit of time over there.

I loved art. I don't remember how it started, but I had a collection of little books about artists - I have them still - and I remember sending a letter to the National Gallery and asking if they would send me some postcards, and rabitting on about who my favorite artists were. We didn't strike up a friendship, but they did send me a list of postcards, and I ordered some. I lived near Derby, in a town that D H Lawrence didn't like very much, and I don't think I'd ever been to an art gallery till I went on a school exchange visit to Paris and saw the Mona Lisa. (I didn't like to say, but I was very disappointed. It was so small, and so green.) I drew a lot, but I didn't much like painting, so my ambition to be an artist of some kind died almost at birth.

Anyway, Maggie knew of my pretensions to art, so it was very nice of her to give me this book, and I loved it. It was a sort of symbol of the big world out there, of all there was to see and to experience. For each painting, there was a section about the particular picture and a contextual piece about the artist, and I spent ages leafing through it.

I found it really interesting to be reminded how much I've always liked looking at paintings. I use them a lot as prompts for writing with the group that I teach (for instance, see here) and I've written on ABBA before about how I like to write very short stories on the back of post cards, prompted by the picture on the front.

And there's a sort of postscript. At the back of the book I wrote this:

I sit at the open window and the softness of the sweet hay-scented air touches my face. The curtain moves gently. Over the black woods hangs a white brilliant half-moon; thin threads of cloud are in the sky, and the sparkling light of stars that might by now be exploded into fragments. And round the moon two spidery bits of earth-metal are trying to meet, and one contains men who have trodden the bare whiteness of the moon. The wind moves in the tree, bunches of silhouetted leaves stir. A bird cheeps somewhere.

July 21st, 1969

I have no idea where I was when I wrote it, or why I wrote it in this book. It refers to the Apollo 11 space flight, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to walk on the moon. I liked astronomy too. Nowadays I watch Brian Cox, and try to kid myself that I understand what he's talking about.

Plus ҫa change, plus c'est la même chose...

Friday, 22 May 2020

Recalibrate - Heather Dyer

It’s just after dawn and I’m sitting in my easy chair in front of the patio doors. My dog is on my lap, and I’m cradling a cup of coffee. Outside, the sparrows are going about their business.  At this time of day, living out here, it's easy to believe that nothing has changed.
But of course, everything has changed. Offices are empty. Hospitals are chaotic. Flights have been grounded, and the pandas in Hong Kong are mating. And the projects I was so invested in two weeks ago feel irrelevant. But I still feel an urgency to write, to produce, to make something out of all of this….
Then, scrolling through my emails, I discover an article called, ‘Why You Should Ignore All That Coronavirus-Inspired Productivity Pressure’.
Professor Aisha Ahmad has lived through several crises, and her reflections are wise, calm and kind. First, she says, establish your physical security and get your team in place. Then, she says, we must, ‘abandon the performative and embrace the authentic.’ She says we must focus on real internal change.
Yes! This is the creative process. We mustn’t try to keep treading along the previous tracks. We must stop and recognize new directions, new patterns. The world has shifted, so our thinking needs to shift.
On the other side of this shift, says Ahmad, ‘your wonderful, creative, resilient brain will be waiting for you. […] New ideas will emerge that would not have come to mind had you stayed in denial. Continue to embrace your mental shift. Have faith in the process. Support your team.’
Aisha Ahmad has written another article on Productivity and Happiness Under Sustained Disaster Conditionswhich follows on from the first.

Heather also blogs at  

Heather Dyer is a consultant in writing for children. She provides writing and publishing advice through The Literary ConsultancyThe Writers' Advice Centre for Children's Books, and privately. If you’re ready for feedback on your work-in-progress contact Heather at

Heather’s children’s novel The Girl with the Broken Wing was one of Richard and Judy’s book club picks, and The Boy in the Biscuit Tin was nominated for a Galaxy Best British Children’s Book award. Heather also teaches creative writing for the University of the Creative Arts, and facilitates workshops in creative thinking techniques for creatives and academics.