Friday, 25 September 2015

Toot, toot

I’ll give a little toot on my trumpet if I may.

I submitted six stories over the last couple of months, three each to Woman’s Weekly and The People’s Friend; five were accepted, of which two have now been published; I’ve been asked to tweak the end of the sixth one.

Usually when I start a story I have a destination for it in mind, and that works – some of the time. An exact science this writing lark ain’t.

The two published stories were in Woman’s Weekly, one a couple of weeks ago and one this (issue dated 29 September 2015).

Both of them were inspired by prompts in my weekly creative writing class. Neither was written with the magazine in mind but with the goal of using them as competition entries.

As far as I remember the prompt for Lucky Tatties was the memories that are conjured up by taste. Maybe you called them lucky potatoes or maybe you’ve never heard of them – they were a hard flat sweetie about the size of an old penny, dusted in cinnamon and with a little plastic toy inside. You had to be careful not to swallow it.

Like my heroine, Anne, I never liked them very much.

The feedback from one competition I entered it was to chop the story off two-thirds of the way through. I didn’t want to do that; it was short enough as it was. I could tell the adjudicator didn’t like the rest of it much either, and I can see that it isn’t the easiest of stories as it flies in the face of various received wisdoms – it tells rather than shows (a deliberate decision on my part) and there is no dialogue.

Increasingly, Woman’s Weekly (in their weekly magazine and monthly fiction specials) publish stories in a variety of styles so I thought I’d nothing to lose by sending it to them. And everything to gain as it turned out.

Pittenweem did win a competition, the General Short Story competition at the Scottish Association of Writers’ conference, judged by novelist, short story writer and playwright Catherine Czerkawska. After WW accepted Lucky Tatties I thought, well, maybe there’s a chance to see Pittenweem in print there too.

I think the original prompt for the story was when we were looking at character in the class and I thought I’d have an office as the setting. (Said office is not in Pittenweem (a fishing village on the east coast of Scotland) but a postcard of it becomes a kind of talisman for my main character.)

In other writing-related news, my People's Friend serial The Ferryboat, which was published in the magazine last year is now the 'daily serial' on the PF website. Catch up with it here.

And I am delighted to be doing two more People’s Friend story-writing workshops, with fiction editor Shirley Blair, in Dundee on 8 October, and York on 22 October; and judging the Woman’s Short Story competition at the Scottish Association of Writers conference in March 2016.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Eight in August

I read eight books in August.

Home by Marilynne Robinson
In Seven in July I said I’d reread Gilead, the first of three novels set in the early fifties in the small American town of that name and I was about to read the second two, before seeing the author at the Edinburgh Book Festival.

Although it was a thrill to see Marilynne Robinson, her Book Festival talk entitled The Restless Reader was intellectually about three feet above my head. Her novels need concentration but are more accessible.

To recap, Gilead is a kind of letter from John Ames, an elderly Presbyterian minister, to his little boy.

Home is written from the point of view of Glory, daughter of John Ames’ oldest friend – and sister of Jack, the black sheep of the family. Glory has come home to Gilead to take care of her father; the unexpected arrival of Jack – the brother she adores but feels she doesn’t really know – is like an unexploded bomb in their lives.

Lila by Marilynne Robinson
Lila is John Ames much younger wife – they’re an unlikely but very believable couple. Having met Lila slightly offstage in Gilead and Home we now find out about her extraordinary childhood in the dustbowl of the American Depression and the highways and byways that led her to the town of Gilead and to John Ames.

When I finished Lila I felt like going back and reading the others again because all three are so cleverly (and beautifully) written that they can be read in any order. Maybe one day – so little time, so much to read. 

Road Ends by Mary Lawson
One of my top ten ever books is Mary Lawson’s Crow Lake. Road Ends is also set in Ontario, Canada, where the author grew up (aren’t books amazing? They can take your mind anywhere, without queuing or worrying about losing your passport) and in London.

Megan, only girl in a family of brothers, leaves the town in the backwoods, fed up of being the dogsbody at home; her mother floats around, interested only in the latest baby, and her father shuts himself away and reads about faraway places. The story moves between Megan and her new life in London, and the family she leaves behind (ML is particularly good on sibling relationships) – and other folk in the town including, to my joy, two characters from Crow Lake. Go! – no passport required.

Paris in Love by Eloisa James
I’ve moved vicariously from Ontario to France now and this is a lovely account of a couple – she American, he Italian – and their two children spending a year (for various family and work reasons; they usually live in New York) in Paris. Eloisa James wrote Facebook posts about their stay (lots of mouth-watering food descriptions) and these are collected here with some additions.

Eloisa James is the writing pseudonym of Professor Mary Bly, Professor of English Literature at Fordham University in NY. Under her pen name she writes best-selling Regency romance novels. Naturally, having read Paris in Love I was intrigued to read her fiction – more anon.

Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell
Christian Aid Book Sale purchase. AT was a mega-seller in her day (the thirties) and some of her books have been republished by Virago Classics. I was underwhelmed by her Christmas at High Rising, a collection of inter-linked short stories, but gave this ‘sparkling comedy’ a go anyway and was rather charmed by it – set in an English country house presided over by amusingly irritating Lady Emily.

Christian Aid Booksale purchase. Back to America with this one. I’d never read this classic children’s book before and on a day when I was feeling fluey it was the perfect book to get lost in. Fabulous title, fabulous characters, fabulous writing and a fabulous – in more ways than one – plot.

The Sender by Toni Jenkins
Abby, Kat, Pattie and Tessa, four women from Edinburgh, Glasgow, York and Cambridge respectively, all with their own problems and heartaches. Each of them has her own story here, the linking factor being a mysterious card giving comfort and encouragement to the recipient, together with an invitation to meet by St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh on a certain date. The mystery as to who the first sender could be draws the reader along, but each of the stories is good in its own right with a great cast of characters; I was sorry to leave each one but immediately got involved in the next. I didn’t guess who the first sender was; the revelation was a satisfying surprise.

Living the Dream by Celia J. Anderson
Read on Kindle. Strange things happen to Vita on her holiday of a lifetime – she never thought that meeting her late mother would be on the agenda. An American road-trip with a difference.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Please Release Me

Today I’m involved in a blog splash on the theme of being stuck.

1. The thing I’m stuck on now…

I’ve got my head stuck in the dictionary (not on … that would be weird). ‘To stick’, of which ‘stuck’ is the past tense, has many meanings, eg to pierce, transfix, to stab, to spear, to thrust, to cause to adhere, to fix with an adhesive, to bring to a standstill, to endure.

'Stuck' can also be used in a romantic sense –

She’s stuck on him. He's stuck on me. I'm stuck on … – well, there's a whole novel right there.

2. If I could be stuck anywhere (with anyone)…

What a difference an emphasis on a particular word makes … I’m stuck with you, I’m stuck with you. However, if I could be stuck with anyone, anywhere – I’d be with a literary agent in her/his office, being given some good news. Some very very good news.

3. Stickers

‘Pot stickers’ are Chinese dumplings. I was lucky enough when I was in China in 2011 to visit a private home; our hostess made dumplings filled with fresh green vegetables and served with a very garlicky dipping sauce. Although I’d just eaten a huge lunch I managed to pack away a goodly number of these scrumptious dumplings, remembering my dad’s inelegant but hospitable advice to those at his dinner table – ‘stick in till you stick out’.

All the characters in Please Release Me by Rhoda Baxter are stuck in some way:

What if you could only watch as your bright future slipped away from you?
Sally Cummings has had it tougher than most but, if nothing else, it’s taught her to grab opportunity with both hands. And, when she stands looking into the eyes of her new husband Peter on her perfect wedding day, it seems her life is finally on the up.
That is until the car crash that puts her in a coma and throws her entire future into question.
In the following months, a small part of Sally’s consciousness begins to return, allowing her to listen in on the world around her – although she has no way to communicate.
But Sally was never going to let a little thing like a coma get in the way of her happily ever after …

Find out more about Rhoda here

Please Release Me is published today, 10 September 2015, by Choc Lit. To buy the book:

What are you waiting for? Get stuck in!