Tuesday 20 February 2024

Taking Home a Message/Stick - Joan Lennon

A blog post needs images - that's blogging 101 - but I don't have a picture of what I want to blog about. What happened was, I saw but I didn't feel I could take a photo without asking permission and the subject had its mouth full and couldn't reply. So I'll have give you the elements and leave it to your imaginations to put them together.

First, you'll need to imagine a very small dachshund, like this:

Giacomo Balla Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash (1912)


Then you'll need to imagine a stick. No, bigger than that. Bigger. Still bigger. We're talking a branch here, a good 2 metres long and not straight.

Put the two images together and that is what I saw. Somehow this minute animal had found the balance point of this ridiculously outsized cumbersome piece of tree and was walking it down the pavement, purposeful, proud, head held high (well, he had to, physically, but it was also psychological).

The take home message for writer me was Be That Dog. Don't be afraid of looking silly. Don't say, I'm not sure I'm up to this. Just grab that book/story/blog in my teeth, grapple with it till I find the balance point, and then be on my way.

Look out world - here I come! 

Joan Lennon website

Joan Lennon Instagram

Sunday 18 February 2024

Back from the Underworld - by Lu Hersey

 There's nothing like a brush with death to help change your perspectives on life. I don't recommend it, as there must be far easier ways - but if it ever happens to you, you might also see things very differently afterwards. 

Following open heart surgery three weeks ago, I look like something Dr Frankenstein created in his lab. I've been split apart and sewn back together. It was a struggle clawing my way back from the underworld, and in my nightmares my feet still stick in Stygian mud from time to time. But I really don't care - I'm alive, and life has never seemed so sweet.

The problems started the day after my birthday, when I found I could hardly breathe. In the end, I got my partner to take me to A&E, thinking I must have pneumonia. Actually, I did. But far worse, the hospital discovered I also had a prolapsed heart valve which required emergency surgery. 

Before this happened, I'd been worried about my father, who is 96 and kept falling over and ending up in hospital. He needed care, but was so stubborn he was refusing to accept the help he needed.  Apart from that, I was looking forward to my youngest daughter's wedding next year, and idly wondering if anyone would be interested in the cosy crime novel I'd recently completed - a departure from my usual writing for children. Basically just normal, everyday concerns. 

The kind of surgery I needed is usually done as elective surgery, to ensure the patient is as fit as possible before they proceed. I was fighting pneumonia, which didn't improve my chances. The surgeon was careful to explain the 20% possibility of death or stroke having the operation (the alternative was certain death, so not much of a contest), and suggested that if I had anything important to say to my family before surgery, I needed to do it, in case I didn't make it. 

That was the most difficult thing. I wanted all of them to know how much I loved and cared for them, in case I never saw them again. Talking to them for what might have been the last time was so heart-breaking, I was still fighting back the tears as they wheeled me off to the operating theatre. 

To cut a long story short, I'm still here. I came round. I've experienced first hand how wonderful the NHS is, and have nothing but respect for all the lovely people who took care of me in the hospital. My family are amazing and I love them more than ever. While I was out of the picture, they finally managed to persuade my father he needed to be in a care home, at least for the time being. He's so stubborn, that's close to a miracle. And now I'm looking forward to my daughter's wedding again, and thinking about writing another book. 

A few days after surgery, I looked at my emails for the first time in weeks, and found one from an agent I'd contacted about my cosy crime, a couple of months earlier. A nice, polite rejection - she didn't like my main character. 

Was I upset? 

No. That's what I mean about changing perspectives. Before this happened, I might have dwelt on the rejection, going over the same old ground - thinking the fact she didn't like my main character was a reflection on me, that I was a failure and should probably give up writing. 

Instead, I read the email, laughed and took another bite of my chocolate ice cream. I couldn't have given fewer fucks.

 What difference would it have made if she'd loved my book? Ok, the ice cream might have tasted even better. But it would have been the same book. Admittedly I should have done at least two more edits before I submitted it to anyone, but if she'd liked the idea and the character, she'd have seen beyond that anyway. 

All I'm saying is, as writers, we're often far too harsh on ourselves. Can't believe it took a journey to hell and back for me to realise that. 

Lu Hersey

Patreon: Writing the Magic

twitter: LuWrites

Thursday 15 February 2024

The river banks of story - Rowena House

I’ve a memo on my phone with a commercial pitch line for my work-in-progress which I edit regularly, often first thing in the morning or last thing at night, circling around twenty words or so which express the essence of what I think I’m writing.

According to some writing gurus, the pitch line is your lodestone, giving direction to your writing through the twists and turns of the plot. My latest version: ‘A young pamphleteer discovers why tyrants are hunting witches, a truth that threatens his life’ (15 words).

Unfortunately, it’s useless as a lodestone. It’s what happens in the plot, without any sense of the drivers of the narrative, either for me as the author or for my protagonist. If I engraved it on a fancy background and stick it up on a wall above the computer, it would achieve precisely zilch, which may be why this story is taking forever to write. [Another explanation for the slowness is, do I really want to finish it when getting publishing is a soul-suck? But that’s another blog.]

The current academic version of the pitch line – the WIP being the body of a creative writing PhD – is rather more useful in terms of a reminder about what I think I’m up to. That is, ‘The novel is an exploration of self-delusion and societal group-think grounded in the unreliable historical record of a witch trial’ (21 words).

It’s taken nearly three years collecting research material and writing two spiked drafts (neither completed) to get to this point – huzzah – but I now believe this academic pitch to be ‘true’ to my intention. It is an expression of why this subject – witch trials – appealed to my subconscious.

Essentially, I’m looking into the intersection between the psychology and the ‘sociology’ of how and why we lie to ourselves, using the historical record as a particular – and extreme – example.

Thus when I arrived at the latest Break into Act 2 scene, I both am but also am not writing about an impoverished, persecuted, long-dead boy who got beaten up in his cell – even if he is the most dramatically 'alive' character on those pages. Instead, I was (meant to be) writing about the protagonist’s reactions to evidence of torture, including his conformist, religious denial of empathy for someone accused of witchcraft. It is here in the psychology of everyday immorality that I hope to find the universal within the particular, that magical core we’re all meant to be writing about at some level.

Another way I'm trying to articulate the central driver of the story (mine and the protagonist's) is by adapting John Truby's concept of a central, defining, necessary action by the protagonist that unites the story. In Truby’s Anatomy of a Story, this one action - "Luke fighting the enemy" in Star Wars - creates a ‘cause and effect pathway’ that coheres the story. As an idea, it is well worth looking up, imho. 

I’m still coy about sharing my cause and effect pathway as a) it’s the USP of the WIP, and b) because I forgot to finish this post amid a bunch of life stuff this week and I’m writing this last bit on the morning of the 15th and don’t want to share stuff that later I'll wish hadn't. Silly, I know, but...

Anyhow, during last night’s insomnia, when I realised I hadn't posted this blog, I had a mini-epiphany about all this and came up with the following image which sort of explains my current framework for long-form storytelling. It is based on a bunch of stuff gleaned from various gurus over the years and my experience of analysing the writing process during the PhD and previously on the Bath Spa MA. 

This story-in-progress is a river, with the historical record one bank and the structural beats of a contemporary novel the other. The flow between them is the cause-and-effect pathway of the narrative. At the denouement, the protagonist will work out how and why their central action wounds themselves (the psychological self-revelation) and hurts others (the immoral consequences of their wrong behaviour). The final image is the flow of this one life entering the universal sea. That is, bringing their life lesson to humanity. This may be utter tosh, but it’s been a tough week. 

In any event, here’s hoping our stories bring us relief if no one else. 

@HouseRowena on X/Twitter where I can be found bringing reputational risk to something or other (see current ACE advice controversy)

Rowena House Author on Facebook where I blather (aka moan) about writing this C17th witchy WIP.

Wednesday 14 February 2024

Valentine's Day by Lynne Benton


 I apologise for repeating the Blog I posted last year - strangely enough, St Valentine's Day always falls on the day of my post, so just in case anyone missed it last year, here it is again!

Since today is Valentine’s Day, I thought I might investigate how the day dedicated to the spirit of romance first came about.

Valentine’s day, also called St. Valentine’s Day, is the day when, traditionally, lovers express their love with greetings and gifts.  One suggestion is that the holiday was inspired by/originated in the Roman festival of Lupercalia, which was always held in mid-February to celebrate the coming of spring.  Lupercalia, however, was something of a wild celebration, known for its excessive merriment and such distinctive fertility rituals as the lashing of women by men using the hides of sacrificed animals.  At the end of the 5th century Pope Gelasius 1, perhaps in an effort to end such pagan festivities, inaugurated a feast day to commemorate Valentine on the saint’s execution date.

Valentine’s day wasn’t celebrated as a day of romance until about the fourteenth century, when scholars believe it came about from Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem "The Parlement of Foules", which he wrote in 1380-90, since the earliest letters between lovers referring to St Valentine’s Day began to appear soon after the poem’s publication.

So who was St. Valentine?  There were several Christian martyrs named Valentine, but the day may have been named after a priest who was martyred in around 270 CE by the emperor Claudius II Gothicus.  Valentine, while in prison, allegedly befriended (or in some versions of the story, fell in love with) his jailer’s daughter, whom he also miraculously cured of blindness.  The night before his execution, he is said to have written her a farewell message and signed off with “Your Valentine.”

Or the holiday could have been named after St Valentine of Terni, a bishop,  It is also possible that the two saints were actually one person.  There is another common legend about St Valentine defying the emperor’s orders and marrying couples in secret to spare the husbands from going to war.  This could be why his feast day is associated with love.

Valentines themselves, or messages of love, appeared in the 1500s, and by the late 1700s commercially printed cards were sent between lovers. The first commercial valentines in the United States were printed in the mid-1800s, commonly depicting Cupid, the Roman god of love, along with hearts, traditionally supposed to be the seat of emotion.  Birds too became a symbol of the day, following the belief that the birds’ mating season begins in mid-February.  Traditional gifts include chocolates  and flowers, particularly red roses, a symbol of beauty and love.

The day is popular in the US, where one of the most enduring traditions is the classroom card exchange.  Each year, typically, elementary school children choose a box of valentines featuring their latest favourite superhero, princess, snack or Internet Meme, fill out a card for each of their classmates, and distribute the cards among their peers’ decorated shoeboxes during class time.  While a fun diversion for kids, especially if they persuaded their parents to splurge on cards including stickers or glow sticks, parents have complained about the custom for years, and wonder how a holiday ostensibly meant to celebrate romance was usurped by children.  More importantly, though, they may ask:  why do we give Valentine cards anyway?


As well as the UK and the US it is also celebrated in Canada, Australia and other countries including Argentina, France, Mexico and South Korea.  In the Philippines it is the most common wedding anniversary, and mass weddings of hundreds of couples are not uncommon on that date.  The holiday has expanded to expressions of affection among relatives and friends.  Many schoolchildren exchange valentines with one another on this day.  And in February of this year the Indian government appealed to citizens to mark Valentine’s Day this year as “Cow Hug Day” to promote Hindu values, rather than a celebration of romance.

But I think I'd settle for a card.  Happy Valentine's Day, everyone!

website: lynnebenton.com

Tuesday 13 February 2024

Retreating Again by Sheena Wilkinson

I’m off on my travels – not far, but hopefully deep into my novel-in-progress, which at the moment is a very rough first draft. Thanks to the generosity of Children’s Books Ireland and the Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annaghmakerrig, I’m the lucky recipient of a bursary to spend a week at the TGC in the company of several other Irish children’s writers -- you can read more here: 

The Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annaghmakerrig

Before Covid I used to go on retreat a couple of times a year. Supporting myself through a range of writing-related activities – the usual freelance portfolio – made the occasional escape indispensable. It was never cheap, but I always justified the expense by saying that a month’s work could be done in a week with nothing to think about except your story. And living alone I had nobody to miss or feel guilty about leaving.

But Covid, and the closing down of all my habitual sanctuaries, interrupted that routine, and I haven’t been on retreat since a wonderful week at the Arvon Hurst in Shropshire in April 2019, redrafting my 2020 novel, Hope against Hope. My last novel, Mrs Hart’s Marriage Bureau, and my forthcoming one, a 1920s girls’ school story,  were my first books where not one word was written or edited somewhere at a retreat.

Marrying a widower in 2021 I experienced for the very first time some of the challenges faced by many other women. I have more emotional and practical support than I’ve ever had, but also many more responsibilities, running a busy home and adjusting to being a stepmother as well as carrying on with all my usual work commitments. Life resembles one of my own gritty YA novels rather more closely than I anticipated, and juggling domesticity, creativity and earning a living is ever more challenging, even though I am lucky enough to have a very supportive husband.  

So I am very excited about – not exactly escaping! – but recapturing the intense focus I used to take for granted. And of course I have someone to miss now, not to speak of my two lovely dogs, so I know I’ll be looking forward to coming home too – but hopefully with a big fat complete second draft.

Thanks so much to the lovely people at Tyrone Guthrie Centre and Children’s Books Ireland for making this possible. I’ll report back next month. 


Monday 12 February 2024

Mildred the Gallery Cat, text and illustration by Jono Gantz, review by Lynda Waterhouse

I’m a sucker for cat stories, particularly ones that contain black and white cats. Tuxedo cats have a habit of finding their way into my life. First of all there was Tim, who aged 10 came into our lives and stayed for eleven years. We now have Mimi who moved in with us when her owner went into a care home.

 Mildred, who inspired this story, was the much loved resident cat at Tate Modern.

So, naturally, I was instantly attracted to this story when I encountered a shiny black and white cat with the twinkling eyes and enigmatic grin on the bright cover of Jono Ganz’s debut picture book.

By day, Mildred is to be found happily napping in her cosy bed and everyone thinks she is so lazy. At night time Mildred is free to explore the gallery when there is no-one else around.

‘She thought some of the art was a bit confusing, but she liked finding the pictures that had animals in them.’

 Mildred encounters many different kinds of art and each experience makes her feel something different: happiness, introspection, hunger.

Mildred ponders what it would be like if she too could create a work of art, something that would make other people feel the kinds of things that she had felt in the gallery. Her adult introspection, ‘And is being an artist doomed to be the privilege of the special few…?’ is undercut by her realisation that there is also a mouse in the gallery enjoying the art.

A classic cat and mouse chase ensues with all the inevitable slapstick humour culminating in a double page SPLAT. Mildred does not catch the mouse but, in the midst of all the chaos, she has created a fantastical sculpture, a self-portrait that astounds the visitors. She has found a way to become an artist.

Mildred is a delightful character who demonstrates how looking at art can be confusing at first but, once you start looking and finding points of interest, it can make you make you feel so many different things. It can also inspire you to create.

As befits a work commissioned by the Tate, the book itself is a well-crafted physical object. The font is clear and appealing with a beautiful colour palate.

Jono’s illustrations flow and dance across the pages and have a delightful cut out and collage feel. Mildred’s (and the mouse’s) character shines through on every page and the text has warmth, humour and a gentle poetic flow. It is no surprise that this picture book has been shortlisted for the 2023 Klaus Flugge prize.

I would have liked a list of the art works that Mildred encountered in the gallery (e.g. Dali, Matisse, Lichtenstein, Kusama, Calder, Kenoujak, and the aptly named Elizabeth Catlett) so that I could retrace Mildred’s paw prints and seek the artworks out in the gallery or look at them online. Although the picture book has a more general appeal by not being site specific, ’In a big building in a big city there was an art gallery.’

ISBN 978-1-84976-871-9



Friday 9 February 2024

Hey, look at me! (Pease don't) - Anne Rooney

Not a performing monkey

Self-promotion. Some people are good at it, some people love it, some people are bad at it and some people hate it. Yet publishers seem to think writers should do it, like it and be good at it. Or do they? And are they right?

Articles like this suggest all creatives — and it seems, even accountants and bus drivers — now need a personal brand if they are to succeed and that everyone (especially publishers and record labels) expects it. For a publisher, if you have an active TikTok presence, they can rely on that to bring in sales of your book, or so the argument goes. They can piggyback off your own publicity work instead of doing theirs. For some types of book, this might be true, but certainly not for all. No one is on TikTok looking for engineering textbooks. Or are they?

If you have a large following on TikTok for something you already do, it might help you sell books. If you go onto TikTok (or whatever platform your publisher currently likes) in order to sell books, I doubt it will work. Think about how you respond to people self-promoting. I unfollow or silence them. It's just advertising. (I don't mean people excitedly announcing they have a new book. I mean people going on and on and on about their one new book for weeks.) We are not all performers. When it was just 'write a blog post', that was OKish as it's just more words. I can do words. But performing monkey with an iPhone? No thanks. A lot of us became writers precisely because we want to sit in our shed/office/bedroom hiding from the world and talking to ourselves or imaginary beings. Indeed, I suspect if I did a load of self-promotion videos it would reduce sales rather than increase them. Perhaps this is, after all, a use for AI and deep fake. I could deep fake myself for TikTok and rely on its not being very good to cancel out my own not being very good, two negatives making a positive. But I really don't think it makes any difference anyway and none of my publishers has ever pressured me to do this. (I can't speak for all publishers/writers/books, obviously.)

The thing about pressure to do something is that it's usually a bad idea to fall into line. There doesn't need to be any pressure to do something that's good for you or you want to do. 'Peer pressure' is generally seen as a bad thing that drives young people to smoke, wear trousers that are too baggy, or other things their elders disapprove of. Pressure from an employer to answer your emails out of hours is seen as exploitative. Pressure from a publisher to do their job of promoting your books works only to their benefit unless you are that rare creature who actually enjoys it. Really, do what you enjoy. If that's TikTok, brilliant. If it's writing stuff online, brilliant. If it's lying on a branch doing nothing — just don't roll off!

Anne Rooney


Out now from OUP