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Introducing the WoMentoring Project

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When you’re starting out as a writer, or have been plodding along for a while, it can be hard to write in a vacuum. Friends nod and ask how it’s coming along and are you really still working on it? You long for someone who knows, who’s been there already, to tell you where you’re going wrong. To share any nuggets of wisdom that they have gleaned from their own writing journey. Maybe just to champion you or give you a pep talk.

There’s a TON of information on writing and publishing out there, and a veritable explosion of masterclasses , MA’s, residential courses and seminars, and they all have their part to play, but many of them are prohibitively expensive for many people. Whether it’s actually true or not, the whole business can appear, to those on the outside looking in, to be a closed shop.

This is where the idea of the WoMentoring Project comes in – a brand new, entirely free mentoring system exclusively for women writers. It’s open to any genre, to women of all ages and from diverse backgrounds.

The initial idea was born out of a conversation on Twitter started by novelist Kerry Hudson (author of the award winning Tony Hogan Bought me an Ice Cream Float before He Stole my Ma and the upcoming Thirst). She was at once flooded with offers of help from published authors eager to offer their advice, alongside editors, literary agents, illustrators, non-fiction writers, both in the UK and the States. It’s underpinned by the ethos of paying it forward – helping others along the path as once others helped you. I love that.

The list the women who have volunteered is like a roll-call of the industry. Just to single out a few there are authors such as Shelley Harris (Jubilee) and Emylia Hall (The Book of Summers and A Heart Bent Out of Shape ) and editors such as Francesca Main, the Editorial Director of Picador, and Jo Unwin from the Jo Unwin Literary Agency who said,

I wanted to get involved with this project because I’d like to help authors feel that whoever they are, and wherever they come from, they have a right to be heard.

Prospective mentees are asked to submit a 1,000 word writing sample and 500 words on why they feel they would benefit from a mentor.

If you would like to know more and details of how to apply, visit their website The WoMentoring Project. Even if you don’t think you’re eligible, tell other women about it who may benefit. Pass it on.

Follow them on Twitter @WoMentoringP

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Original artwork by Sally Jane Thompson – one of the mentors

What I learnt on a 10 week writing course

I’ve just finished a ten week writing course at The Writers Room in Brighton.

I signed up as a Christmas present to myself. For ages I’d been looking longingly at Arvon Courses, retreats, masterclasses etc, but at this point in time, I needed something local, something that I could fit in around my job and family. The fact it was being run by two authors, Araminta Hall and Lizzie Enfield, whose work I had already read and admired or seen speaking at events, was a factor. The idea of sitting in a wooden shed at the bottom of a garden with a cosy woodburner, eating cake, clinched it.

Personally, I wanted to go because I have been working on the same idea for a long time now and could no longer see where I’m going with it. I’m used to working by myself and generating ideas and thinking about angles (I’ve been freelance for over a decade) but I had showed hardly anyone at all this particular story. I had been writing in a vacuum and whilst my friends are clamouring to read it, it was other writers I needed to talk to.

As soon as we started, I knew I’d picked the right course. It was small. It was not in any way intimidating. I hadn’t really thought about whether we were going to be asked to actually write stuff on the spot to a prompt so when they asked us to, I doubted whether I could. Writing from the viewpoint of an object in the room, or making up dialogue from something we’d done that day, doing an exercise about show versus tell, was actually quite freeing rather than frightening. I was impressed that the tutors did the exercises too – I thought it might just be the class. Another thing that was good was that they didn’t doggedly stick to a rigid programme; if we were all asking questions about structure or dialogue, the following week’s class would address that. Over the ten weeks, we covered research, dialogue, plot versus structure, show don’t tell, characterisation, openings, and lots more.

The feedback I received on my WIP was invaluable. They immediately picked up on the way I was using plot devices and that the beginning was totally in the wrong place. They taught me the value of withholding information, and that if you know something isn’t right and are hoping the reader won’t notice, that they will. They helped me with the (dreaded) synopsis. We took it in turns to circulate extracts of what we were working on and received feedback from the group which was really useful. Above all, I think it was so helpful being able to talk to other people who ‘got it.’

What I have come out with is some new friends. The rest of the group were lovely and we have already been out socially and have lots of plans for more.  I have a much clearer direction of where I am going. I have learnt the importance of carving out time.

The course is suitable for all types of writers – novelists, non-fiction writers, short story writers, bloggers, people who have just always wanted to write and are starting out to those who are already immersed in something but would like to learn more.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Lemon Grove by Helen Walsh – Book review

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Jenn and Greg, a married couple in their forties, holiday every summer on the Mediterranean coast, renting a villa on the island of Deia, nestled in amongst rocky coves and sheer drops. Jenn is enjoying the languid, sultry heat and spends days lying by the pool, eating out with her husband at tapas bars at night.

 Although everything seems idyllic at first, tensions are simmering under the surface. She buys a white embroderie anglaise dress in a street market in an attempt to feel young and desired again in a marriage that may be comfortable and familiar but mundane. As she lies on the beach, she envies the young lithe, unblemished bodies around her, trying to catch her husband looking. The dialogue is full of thinly disguised irritations and prickliness, acutely observing the tensions within a long running relationship.

It is the arrival of Emma, Greg’s teenage daughter from a previous relationship, (whom Jenn has raised as her own daughter since the death of the mother) and her seventeen year old boyfriend Nathan, that brings these tensions to the fore.

Angered at the way Greg seems to favour and cave in to Emma over her, and acutely aware of Emma’s burgeoning sexuality compared with her own, it is this fateful combination which propels her into an intense, driven affair with the flirty and responsive Nathan.

Jenn is swept up by desire until she is risking everything. Her relationship with Emma, her marriage, and reputation are at stake. The pace drags you along with her until you too, as the reader, are swept up in it, your moral compass spinning, and have to step back, breathless.

The Lemon Grove is published by Tinder Press.

On Endings and Event TV

How’s it going to end? What’s going to happen? Did you see it? Oh my God. OH MY GOD! NO!!!!!!!!

If you’re like me, you’re on tenterhooks waiting for the very last episode of Breaking Bad. Although I’m a bit behind so I’m going to have to have a marathon back to back this weekend. Even so, it’s hard to dodge spoilers and I’ve seen arguments breaking out ; personally, I tend to side with actor Dean Norris (Hank) who tweeted:

For last time. Social media = watercooler. Part of experience of BB is sharing at watercooler. If NOT up to date, avoid fucking watercooler.

Although I think tweeting during a show means you’re probably not that engrossed in it, (and I don’t mean things like X Factor and Great British Bake Off where Twitter definitely adds to the fun) I love going online straight after the credits have rolled and seeing everyone’s reactions. There were howls of derision and outrage at the end of What Remains, The Fall and The Returned. For different reasons, but everyone seemed to be collectively shouting at the screen or saying Huh?! I’ve been on the Robert McKee screenwriting course, I know my inciting incidents and my five act structures, but all that goes out the window, when you’re immersed in the fictional world they’ve so expertly built up.

I suppose what I’m looking for is some satisfaction – that the protagonist(s) has acted in keeping with the character that has been so painstakingly built up, that it was believable and grew out of what had gone before, no nonsensical turnarounds, that there were no plot holes left so gaping wide they could swallow you whole. That it was worth all that time and investment - especially for a long running series. I knew I didn’t want to commit to Lost but I stayed with ER for all 15 seasons. The ending of that was, I think, perfectly judged. I’m hooked on Game of Thrones but worry that it won’t, in fact, ever end.

Sometimes you can almost see SECOND SERIES COMMISSIONED flashing on screen. I hate it when you look at your watch and you think – how the hell are they going to wrap this up in ten minutes? because that means they invariably won’t. Fade to black is often a cop out.

I’ve just started the book Difficult Men : Behind The Scenes of a Creative Revolution by Brett Martin which covers Mad Men, The Wire, The Sopranos (surely one of the most hotly contested endings ever) and Breaking Bad; there was an extract in The Guardian at the weekend which gave a fascinating insight into how the team of writers work with story boards and brainstorming and Post it notes. Even so, imagine the pressure on Gilligan who said,

” I would be very unprepared for people to hate the ending. That would throw me. I’d probably have to go into hiding or be hospitalised.”

I grew up with Who Shot JR – if you hadn’t seen it you were practically frozen out of playground conversation. But what else recently? Sherlock I suppose. Broadchurch – I went into town the morning after the final episode and every single conversation I overheard was about it – in Marks & Spencer, in the street, in the queue in the supermarket, at school pick up. How amazing to have that effect on the nation’s consciousness.

Have you ever screamed at the telly as the credits roll? What’s the worst ending to something you’ve ever seen? Or the best?

Kiss Me First – Lottie Moggach

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Kiss Me First is the first novel I’ve read that pinpoints the whole issue of the perils and attractions of social media. But it’s more than a cautionary tale for our times.

Twenty something Leila, has closeted herself away since the death of her mother, living her life online and playing World of Warcraft. Chancing upon a website called Red Pill which is a forum for philosophical debate about subjects such as euthanasia and existentialism, she is drawn in and soon finds a sense of community. When her postings are singled out for praise by the site’s founder and moderator, Adrian Dervish, she agrees to meet him in person. He has a surprising proposition for her.

The job is to take on the online life of Tess – a 38 year old woman who, dogged by manic depression, wishes to commit suicide but doesn’t want her friends and family to have to deal with that hurt. Instead, the plan is for Leila to take over Tess’s online accounts and pretend to be her – to maintain a façade and then gradually fade away, whilst Tess goes off somewhere to die. Will anyone notice? And what will happen when someone wants to actually talk to her on the phone or meet up in person?

Leila begins to study every aspect of Tess’s life, studiously picking part every last contradictory detail, so that she can concoct a plausible story. Leila is fiercely intelligent but socially naïve – she looks down on the ‘LOL’s’ and the textspeak but she also feels left out – that they all somehow learnt a secret lesson she wasn’t party to. She finds Tess maddeningly chaotic but is also envious of her sexual confidence, her life of parties and friends. This is the part I felt the author had the most fun with – she absolutely skewers the simultaneous vacuousness and appeal of social media. Leila is examining Tess’s Facebook:

“She subscribed to a long list of groups, and the random nature of the subjects – showing solidarity to Tibetan monks, saving an old music hall in East London, campaigning for Pizza Express to reinstate their original tomato-sauce recipe, supporting obscure bands, books, restaurants and ventures, as well as a myriad of whimsical causes such as Stop Aisling Wearing that Yellow Parka! and I Like the Way Huw Edwards Pronounces the Word Liverpool – made me suspect she was rather indiscriminate in the things to which she pledged allegiance.”

I winced in recognition lots of times about the photos of kittens squashed in wineglasses and the constant status updates and humblebragging and high school one-up manship. That sense that you are only living unless it is through the distorting prism of social media. That we are all now posting our every waking thought.

I found the whole premise chillingly believable. There are films like Catfish and the recent account in The Guardian of the multiple women being drawn in by an internet faker, but this is the first time I’ve seen it tackled in fiction.

One of the drawbacks about writing about social media is that it changes so quickly. How we chuckle at pictures of yuppies in the eighties with their gigantic brick mobile phones or laugh about the tumbleweed rolling through MySpace. There are already apps in development like LivesOn that analyse your tweets and then simulate you tweeting after you die. But I don’t think the references to Flickr etc will date the book – Kiss Me First raises far more profound issues of identity and fakery and jealousy and delusion. What fictions are we all weaving about the wonderful lives we are leading when we choose to portray ourselves online? Is there a mismatch between your online persona and your real life one?

We are all still putting feelers out for the ‘right’ way to deal with these things. I find it peculiarly poignant when someone you know, or don’t ‘know’, passes away and their final tweet or status update hangs there, suspended, in the ether. Only last month a picture headed ‘People You May Know’ appeared at the top of my Facebook page when I had in fact attended their funeral earlier this year.

The internet is still so relatively new. We are all still navigating these things. Kiss Me First makes you think about them. It also has one of the creepiest ingenious book trailers I’ve seen. The fact you have to give it access to your Facebook is ironic, but it’s worth it.

Kiss Me First by Lottie Moggach is published by Picador.

Summer of ’76 – Q&A with author Isabel Ashdown

SUMMER OF '76 by Isabel Ashdown, COVER, April 2013

I’m really pleased to welcome author Isabel Ashdown today to mark the publication of her third novel, Summer of ’76.

” Luke is all set to enjoy his last few months at home on the Isle of Wight before leaving for college. But when the close knit community is gripped by scandal, everything he thought he knew about friendship and family is turned on its head. “

 

Isle of Wight Aug 09 Col Master

I went to Isabel’s book launch which was held on a hot, muggy night in Bloomsbury. We ate cheese and pineapple on sticks and twiglets for that seventies vibe, and those of us who were old enough to remember that summer, swapped stories as to what it had meant to us.

I put a few questions to Isabel:

1. What made you decide to set the story on the Isle of Wight?

The Isle of Wight is a place I have great affection for.  It was a reassuring landmark on my horizon since earliest childhood, as it could be seen from the shoreline in my hometown of East Wittering in West Sussex, the clarity of its outline our simple barometer as to what the weather might hold that day.  I visited as a child, but more recently, since having my own children, we’ve adopted it as a kind of second home, travelling over in the campervan where I can write in the tranquil salt air of the island’s many beautiful locations.

2. How do you go about creating a sense of place? Do you prefer to set your stories somewhere you know well or would you ever set a story somewhere you’ve only researched virtually?

Location plays a strong role in my writing, and I need to immerse myself in the real places I write about in order to feel them entirely.  If my character is to walk those paths, breathe that air, then so must I.  I think it’s important to get the key features right, but of course creative license must exist so as not to restrict the story.  So, for Summer of ’76, Sandown and its pier, Bembridge and its lifeboat station, Wootton Bridge and its holiday camps are all real and carefully researched – yet the street names I use might be fictional, in order to give the story a life of its own.

A number of real events get a small mention, such as the 1969 festival and the island marathon – and although these things only get the tiniest glance in the final novel, my research was studious, to ensure that I was able to represent them accurately in the few words I used.  I took several holidays and day trips to the Isle of Wight, so that alongside family time, I could visit particular settings featured in the novel, photograph them, make notes, or simply stand and stare …

Isabel Ashdown Books Group Shot, 2013, clear

3. One of the two alternating narrators in your first book Glasshopper is Jake, a teenager dealing with an alcoholic mother, and the second Hurry Up and Wait centres on another young person, Sarah Ribbons, which vividly brought back all the insecurities, intense friendships and confusing feelings, as well as the excitement, of being a teen. How do you get back into that mindset? Were you a troubled teen or is that tautology?

I’m often asked this, and I guess I only have my own perspective to relate to fully.  But, yes, I suppose I was a troubled teen, in that I was a deep thinker, trying to make sense of the ever-shifting adult world, making mistakes and watching the consequences roll out before me.  I think that description might relate to a great number of 15- or 16-year-olds, and perhaps that’s why readers respond well to my characters.  I remember my teen years acutely – certainly with far more clarity than I do my 20s – and so I draw on what I’ve got to go on.  I’m fascinated by the adolescent narrator, by their honest and often uninhibited voice – and ultimately the truths their voices can reveal.

4. I know the Isle of Wight well and I love the fact that many of the places we go to on our ‘circuit’ feature in the book – the Crab and Lobster pub at Bembridge, Whitecliff Bay, Black Gang Chine etc. It seems to hark back to a gentler age and is almost like the island that time forgot. However, after about a week or so I go a bit stir crazy  – I don’t really like the fact you are governed by the ferry/hovercraft times and can’t just get off the island. Are there any hidden gems that you can tell me about? 

A couple of years back we stayed in a National Trust coastguard cottage at the Needles, nestled at the foot of Tennyson Down.  If you’re looking for a writing retreat, this is a gem – in a small windswept cottage peaceful enough to squirrel yourself away to write – with breathtaking sea views from the coastal path up towards the monument (where if you drop back down you’ll find the Highdown Inn and a very good seafood platter).

The kids love Robin Hill park at Afton, and we always try to visit the tiny beach at Steephill Cove, which is accessed via a deep and winding path once you’ve passed through the Botanical Gardens in Ventnor.  There, you’ll find a small beach with glimmering rock pools, a tiny café, and fresh crab and lobster landed daily and sold from a little house on the front.  We’re also regulars at the Yaverland Café, where they serve up the best full English breakfast – and don’t forget to get yourself a Minghella ice cream – produced on the island for over 60 years, and simply divine.  As you can probably tell, food features quite strongly on our list of holiday priorities!

5. I love the way you capture the feeling of the seventies with humour – all the references to the trousersuits and cheesecloth. Being a child in the seventies really brought it all back! I’m old enough to remember that Summer – my Holly Hobbie dress, the standpipe in the street, an ant invasion in our larder, the tarmac melting, the petrol drying up in the car. How did you go about researching all the period details?

Ah yes, Holly Hobbie – we had the curtains!  Much of this material comes from my own bank of memories, which I then went on to validate via research.  I was six that summer, and I have sharp memories of the ladybird invasion, the dried-out duck pond at the end of my road, the bohemian parties of my parents and their friends – the clothes they wore, the food they served – the endless heat!  I’ll never forget our beloved ‘uncle’ Graham with his gently swept white hair and cravat, who every year celebrated his birthday during Wimbledon week, serving salt-edged cocktails on the sunny patio of his small seafront bungalow, as we children eagerly awaited the cutting of his famous strawberries-and-cream cake.  I can see it now – feel it – smell it – as clear as day.  I suppose, without realising it, I was always a ‘watcher’, and as a result, I’ve absorbed a lot of period detail from the times of my childhood.  Perhaps all that time wasted on daydreaming as a schoolgirl is coming to fruition in my adult life …

Summer of ’76 is published by Myriad Editions. Follow Isabel on Twitter (@isabelashdown) and on Facebook..

Guest Author Post and Signed Copy giveaway- Peggy Riley – Amity & Sorrow

amity and sorrow cover

I’m delighted to welcome author Peggy Riley today who is on a whistlestop blog tour to mark the publication of her debut novel Amity & Sorrow, published this week in the US by Little Brown (and already out in the UK published by Tinder Press).

Amity and Sorrow tells the story of a mother, Amaranth, and her two daughters, who are fleeing for their lives during the chaos of a raging, apocalyptic fire at the fundamentalist, polygamous cult led by her husband. Amity and Sorrow, the daughters of the title, know nothing of the outside world. Amaranth is terrified her tyrannical husband is coming after them. Amity slowly blossoms and sees that there are other ways of living, but Sorrow will stop at nothing to get back to the only thing she knows as home. What happened to the other wives and children they left behind?

Peggy graciously answered some questions I put to her:

I read that you saw two unconnected photographs of a house on fire and two women in prairie dresses which acted as the trigger for the idea of the book. Did the characters emerge fully formed? How did it take shape from that initial idea?

 The two girls did emerge fully formed, yes, for which I am very grateful.  I had their voices quite quickly and I knew, from the first moment, that they would begin tied together.  I knew that their story would be about their push and pull, away and back towards one another.  The character of Amaranth took much longer to emerge as a whole person.  For a long time I could only see her filtered through her daughters’ perceptions and it was many drafts before I felt as secure with her as with Amity and Sorrow.  I had to do a lot of writing from her point of view to get under her skin, but I knew I needed her voice in the book.  It would be a very different story if we only saw things from Amity’s point of view.    

What really struck me was the sense of place – the novel is ripe with details of nature, the changing seasons, the plants and flowers particular to rural Oklahoma. How did you go about researching this?

I know absolutely nothing about farming, but I do love to read about it.  I love books that are yoked to the land.  ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ is an exploration of Oklahoma, and I was familiar with the terrain of the southwest from my LA childhood and years spent in the desert.  But really, my education came from The Oklahoma Farm News Report, which blogs and tweets issues of interest to Oklahoma farmers.  I followed it for years until I finally began to feel a part of it, until their weather and drought and insurance worries felt familiar to me.  I would make a rotten farmer, but I’ll probably never forget when the winter wheat needs to be drilled.

I read on your blog that during your pre-sale book tour in the States, there was little love shown for the character of Sorrow, and yet I think she was perhaps the most damaged of all through no fault of her own. Widening out from Amity & Sorrow in particular, do you think a character has to be likeable for the reader to identify with them?

I don’t think a character has to be likeable, but I am surprised at how unlikeable Sorrow is perceived to be.  She has been terribly damaged, but she receives little sympathy, due to her lack of compassion or awareness for others.  I really like unpleasant characters, ones who are prickly and selfish and distracted.    Sorrow is vain and spoiled and stuck.  She has huge desire and a thirst for autonomy that women are not allowed in her faith.  I like her a lot, though her methods are ugly.  She has no self-control.  I don’t think anyone will especially identify with Sorrow, but I hope readers can come to understand her point of view, how her world has made her into who and what she is. 

You have a led a fascinating and varied life as a festival producer and a writer in residence at a young offender’s prison to name but two strands to your career. Did you always harbour a desire to write a novel? What made you decide to in the end?

I had no idea I would ever write a novel, though I have been a writer for as long as I can remember.  I did handwrite and staple little books together in kindergarten and can remember being reprimanded for what I had written.  I trained as a playwright and expected to go on writing plays, but when I moved from London to Kent, I found my writing changed.  My sense of self changed.  I had the story of Amity & Sorrow in my head and I couldn’t find a way to put it on stage, to set what I saw in my head.  So, the story made me change how I wrote, to tell it.  Stories are often much smarter than their writers! 

What did you find most challenging in making the departure from writing prose to fiction?

Two things.  First, the simple logistics.  How did you get a character in and out of a chapter?  Scenes in a play can be lightning fast – it’s lights up, begin speaking.  In fiction, readers only get confused.  My brilliant agent was instrumental in reminding me to “place things” before I began, to give readers time to get their bearings.  Maybe this is because we pick up and put down books, in a way that you don’t as an audience, captive in a theatre.  The second was an intense fear of wallpaper.  In plays, you describe as little as possible.  Scene directions are only cues to directors and clues for designers, but they are usually ignored.  In a play, you want to describe characters as little as possible, so that every actor can find herself there.  I vacillated between describing nothing and moving round each room in centimeters, looking at every speck and stain.  Ultimately, I had to find my own way in and out of chapters, as well as what to describe and how and when. 

What is the last book you read that you wish you’d written yourself?

Anything by Louise Erdrich.  Her writing is so rich and deft.  I admire how her books build on each other, drawing from and creating a history of generations of Ojibwe and German families, how their fates are intertwined, on and off the reservations of North Dakota, book after book.  Her language is lyrical – phrases can stop you dead in your tracks – but she also has a wicked sense of humour.  She can handle that balance of dark and light in a story and a character better than anyone.  I always find inspiration in her writing, but really, I’m just happy to read them.  I’m more than happy to let her keep writing them!       

If you would like to win a signed hardback copy of this wonderful book (and a god sex farming badge!) just leave a comment below. The draw is open to international readers. amity_roundal (2)

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