Stranger than fiction – if you read this in a novel you wouldn’t believe it.

I’m just back from my writer’s night in King Street, Bristol where the novelists meet.

Before the meeting I went into the spar shop to get some cash for the meter.

Behind me a man said. I’m not gay you know, staring at the girl behind the till.

She blinked.

‘No, I’m paranoid.’ He said, ‘I take tablets.’

He paid for his apple.

‘I’m sorry I’m paranoid,’ he said, It’s because of a girl. She broke my heart.

On paths, choice and writing

Looking through old photos taken over the last few years I’ve noticed many of them are paths.

Here’s one from my Australian collection: 


I used to worry over whether I’d chosen ‘correctly’ – career path, partner, houses, computer, bed, bread or board.
The agony of choice overwhelmed me, and I’d find equally interesting choices and not know which one to take. Perhaps that’s why I find re-drafting my novel so hard. Have I thrown away a writing nugget?  For me the fun is in creation rather than shaping. As I type I’m surrounded by stacks of drafts of my novel, and centimetres of feedback from my writers group. I have many versions of my novel.
Perhaps subconsciously my photos are telling me that I’m still working out the answer to the riddle of what I should be doing, or where I should be going. Maybe I think that once I’m on the ‘right’ path I’ll be happy, or fulfilled, or content.

 Here’s a Cornish path that I’ve photographed.

Looking at these images, it seems I’m still trying to work it out. I’ve always felt a ‘little out of sorts’, taking the role of observer on the edge of things, which is a good state to be in for a writer. Writing for me is far easier than speaking, it’s the place where my thoughts live. It is the writing, or not doing the writing that has dominated so much of my life. There’s been on-going frustration – as discussed in my very first blog post about how I wasn’t putting my work there, and so wasn’t being ‘heard’.
Interestingly, at the end of my thirty day challenge to change things I wrote that I’d climbed the path. Now I’m feeling I’m still half way up – and that’s good because at the top of the path, with a clear view the only way is down. And I want to keep on climbing and exploring choice in my writing and life.
The more I write, blog and practice being creative – then the happier I feel and my inner voice  that knows what to do and is instinctive rather than intellectual, is heard.
The last word belongs to Robert Frost – a Youtube recording of Robert Frost reading of The Road Not Taken

Guy Fawkes and Alice at Montacute

A few weeks ago some friends and I visited the National Trust property, Montacute House in Somerset in a converted ambulance called Bob. 

Alice in Wonderland

The day was the first hot day of summer, and the sun was high and still. As we walked up to the imposing Elizabethan Mansion an Alice in Wonderland type girl posed for a photo-shoot. Her face was chalk white and she wore a silk peacock gown. The young photographer. behind  a very large tripod wore a white cotton dress. They were both yin and yang, presumably students, but both looked as if they’d walked out of a film. 

We walked across Montacute’s fabulously romantic grounds, with deep borders of roses and dreamy planting set against formal lawns. Pudding houses with beautiful mosque-like structures  stand at the corners of the lawn. This is where diners would retire to  eat quince perhaps ? On the other side of the lawns tall old yews are lopped into topiary, bending and twisting in a formal still life. 

The place is full of atmosphere,and on a whim I took this photo. When I looked at it at the end of the day I couldn’t make any sense of the shape our shadows made. I am a petite size 10, but look wide. What was my friend holding? What is the hook that appears on my shoulder? 
The picture seems to hold significance beyond itself. Interesting to now discover that the house was built for Sir Edward Phelips who gave the opening speech at the prosecution of the trial of Guy Fawkes. 

The exterior is imposing and gargoyles and carved statues keep watch over the house.

Pudding House

Inside are some fascinating pieces such as a marriage bed with carvings of women with enormous breasts and bulging thighs. Upstairs  the Long gallery stretches the entire length of the house and contains  portraits from the National Portrait Gallery which include the ‘eyebrow collection’  and the ‘crossed eye collection’ of princes and kings – crossed eyes to show that the monarchs aren’t to be trusted. It is a house full of echoes and however much the guides talked the place has an eerie feel to it. This is a view from one of the windows.  


And this is one of the staircases, where it’s easy to imagine walking down in the heavy petticoats and gowns depicted in the Long Gallery collection. Luckily trusty Bob was waiting for us at the end of the day.

Down, down

How a writer created a National Day for Flash-Fiction

May, Mother’s and Valentine’s used to be the only significant national Days in my childhood calendar. (Back then Father’s didn’t need their own Day – pre-feminism it was Mother’s who needed recognition.) Now there is a proliferation of Days in the UK from the worthy, ‘NO SMOKING’ to the silly, ‘National Cleavage’. Rank commercialisation in the US has produced Days for  log cabins, sunglasses and chocolate eclairs. 
Writers now have National Poetry Day and National Short Story Day, and yesterday, 22nd June, was the second national Flash- Fiction Day. This is the story of how author and Creative Writing lecturer, Calum Kerr, turned his love of writing into a national event to celebrate flash-fiction writing and writers.   
Calum began with a writing challenge –  to publish a new flash-fiction every day for a year on a blog. After 100 short stories he wrote a press release (smart promotion), resulting in the coup of his stories – flash365 – being broadcast on iPM on Radio 4 in a Christmas Eve edition. Listen to his stories here,  read by Diana Rigg, Rory Kinnear and Emilia Fox. 
Yesterday, at the Bristol National Flash-Fiction event,  (reviewed here) he explained how he’d been inspired by his friend Jo Bell, national Canal Boat Laureate, and formerly Director of National Poetry Day. If Poetry had it’s Day why shouldn’t Flash-Fiction? He checked but there was no National Day for Flash, so he created one. 
Competitions were created and the stories published in a flash-flood on this website at ten minute intervals. Two anthologies of writing from the Flash-Fiction Days are available – Jawbreaker and Scraps. Yesterday events took place in Shrewsbury, Abergavenny, Bristol and probably many others – all created by volunteers without sponsorship. Calum also took a call from writer in the US who wanted to join in – so maybe next year this could go global. 
 If you want to write and place your flash-fiction here’s a list of web-sites and competitions from the National Flash-Fiction site.  
After joining in Bristol’s free workshops and evening readings for flash-fiction Day yesterday my conclusion is that a successful writer needs talent and graft to craft their words but must publish, give readings and showcase their work to create opportunities. These days, with blogs, open mics and supportive writers’ groups it’s easier than it was. But, following Calum’s example, self-belief and acting on a bright idea can also achieve great things for writers.   

How Bristol celebrated National Flash Fiction Day

A heart found in the laundry, a senile parent digging with a knife and spoon in the garden for her lost husband and the telepathy of knees were some of the subjects covered in tonight’s Flash Fiction readings in Bristol. (*all of the writers who read are listed below)

 Award winning writers, published novelists, creative writing lecturers, competition judges, poets and professional editors gathered in The Lansdown in Clifton, Bristol, to read and celebrate the second National Flash Fiction day.  Upstairs at the Bristol event there can’t have been more than 30 people in the room, but there was serious form and talent.

Bristol’s Flash events managed the coup of attracting writer and lecturer, Calum Kerr to visit, who founded the day last year. Events took place all over the UK and online flash fiction stories were published at ten minute intervals. The anthology ‘Scraps’ published flash fiction stories too.

So what is  Flash Fiction? According to Tania Hershman, author of ‘My mother was an upright piano’, and Calum, whose book, ‘Lost Property’ was launched today, there are as many definitions as flash fiction writers. But the writing is short, under 1,000 words.  It also has it’s own quirky terminology and categories  – a drabble being 100 words and a dribble being 50 words. Lucky, then, that Margaret Drabble doesn’t dabble.
Tania and Calum led a free workshop this afternoon in Bristol’s central library which kicked off with an exercise called word cricket where we had to write for twelve minutes. We were given this sentence, ‘It happened precisely at 8:07’ and told to write for 12 minutes with the promise of a word prompts every minute. It was so reassuring – there was no need to make sense – although it seemed everybody’s story did when it was time to read them out. Quickly the room fell silent, with only the sounds of pens pressing down hard on paper. Every minute Tania would call out a word – prompts included the words – purple, impossible, balloon, chicken, sparkling and teapot. 
In my writing this threw up  lines such as 
‘purple were the tips of his fingers starting to decay beyond the moon-like fingernails,’ or ‘she hammered on the impossible door’, ‘ iron sparkling against the road’, or ‘chicken stepping’ and, ‘the teapot fell behind her in an Alice in Wonderland moment’. The randomness of the words invigorated my story of being locked in a room with a dead body with no way out. (I know – pure melodrama!).
One thing that Callum said resonated with me: ‘A story should have truth in it, even if it’s a lie; it should be a true lie.’ Normally I try and avoid ‘shoulds’ in my life as they are packed with guilt, control and perhaps pain. But it is something I strive for in my writing and whilst editing my novel. I feel an obligation to my characters, I don’t want to sell them short, and without sounding pompous I want my writing to resonate with my readers. 

I’m drawn to flash fiction as it’s quick, though as I know from my job writing press releases, short pieces are harder and require more skill to write than longer ones. Within the workshop we did a very interesting exercise where we had to edit a piece of deliberately woolly writing supplied by Calum and make it as short as possible. Stripping back the story to its ‘essentials’ is an individual choice though, with no right or wrong way to proceed, which is a useful reminder for any writing group critiquing work. Editing someone else’s work is easier than editing your own work as you can be more objective and are not precious or egoistic about the words. But as I edit this piece of blog writing I find it easier to strike things out following today’s exercise. 
What’s clear was the huge amount of talent at tonight’s Flash Fiction event with readings from *Anna Britten, Ken Elkes, Kevlin Henney, Tania Hershman, Sarah Hilary, Dan Holloway, Calum Kerr, Pauline Masurel, Paul McVeigh, Nick Parker, Jonathan Pinnock, Clare Reddaway and Deborah Rickard. 
In Bristol we are  lucky to have a thriving spoken word scene such as Word of Mouth at The Thunderbolt, Acoustic Night at Halo Cafe, Bristol Old Vic’s Blahblahblah and Bristol’s Festival of Literature at Unputdownable  in the autumn,  as well as Poetry Festivals organised by the excellent Poetry Can,
We’re also lucky to have volunteers such as Kevlin Henney prepared to organise these events. As I sat listening to these stories I was itching to write more, and be part of the crowd on stage sharing my work. 
I’ll leave a last thought from Calum Kerr, founder of National Flash Fiction Day, who quoted this wonderful line from Gustav Flaubert’s Madame Bovary in the workshop:   

“Language is a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity.

Writing tips from A Guardian Masterclass

This week I was privileged to venture inside The Guardian offices, courtesy of attending the Guardian Masterclass on ‘What sub editors wish you knew.’

The modern glass fronted building  had a reception line-up that reminded this country hick of the set from Ugly Betty. The women behind the desk were groomed, sleek and responsive with their smiles. A huge flat-screen monitor relayed the news on the wall. 
I was invited to ‘sit’ and wait  in a lip shaped chair. I fell into it and had some difficulty escaping its open mouth when being ushered away to deposit my coat. The pigs, to my left watched over me as I hung my coat up. Bless them, they’re about the same size as me and have real bristles on their faces.  I stroked a synthetic trotter and regretted it as it was squeaky to the touch. Presumably these pigs began life on Spitting Image. I wish someone would bring that programme back. It so suits the Conservative age.

 As we walked upstairs we passed portraits on the wall, like these of Jagger and Sinead O Connor, taken by the famous Guardian photographer, Jane Brown.

The talk by Chief Sub editor of Time Out, Chris Waywell and the Guardian’s James Callow, was designed to teach freelancers how to avoid obvious mistakes when submitting work. I’m not a freelance writer (yet), but I do work in PR, so it was great to hear from a national publication tips for writers submitting work.

I was interested to hear that bloggers sometimes get invited to submit articles. The thing to remember is that it’s a professional relationship and you’re on trial. The key to being asked again to submit an article is to be professional in your writing and dealings with the paper.

Rule number one is to understand the publication you’re writing for and to understand the audience of the paper or magazine. Getting the tone right is important.  Phone up and get a style guide if you want to impress them. This also applies to writers submitting work to magazines or agents. Don’t send your work to a publication or agent who is not likely to be interested in your genre or subject matter. Research is the key.

Break out space at The Guardian HQ

 Never submit late to a publication. You don’t want to be unpopular with the sub editors do you? And you want to write for them again, presumably. If your submission is late that will impact on the chain of people and events at the other end.

Word limits: aim to keep to the brief. Submitting under the word limit creates problems as they have to fill the missing space with additional copy, creating extra work. If you submit over the word limit then that can be acceptable as they can cut, but a rule of thumb is to only submit up to 10 % over the agreed word count.

Name check, fact check, spell check and carefully proof-read before submitting copy. Let them know of any potential legal issues with your piece. Be concise in your writing and before you click on the send button, check, check and check again. If they change your work, pay attention, analyse those changes and ask yourself why so you can learn from it.

A tip for bloggers – it’s easy to self-publish these days, but once your work and words are out there they will be judged, so go through a period of reflection and checking before you post a blog. Make the writing on your blog your best work.

I’d highly recommend this Guardian masterclass. The speakers were knowledgeable, friendly and cared deeply about good writing.  Chris surprised me by suggesting a technique I’m familiar with for creative writing – when you wake up in the morning write three pages of A4. Doesn’t matter what it is, just write, then when you start work your first words won’t be the first of the day. He also recommended The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. Up until a month ago I’d never heard of this book, but this is the third endorsement I’ve had for it. I shall investigate.

For more information visit Guardian Masterclasses  or connect on twitter @guardianclasses

Dressing up for Wig Wednesday – transformations

Today was Wig Wednesday, and I joined in the CLIC Sargent campaign,a great charity who support  kids and young people with cancer.

I wore the wig on the long commute to work via train, in the corporate environment (civil service) where I work, then home again on the train.

It felt nerve wracking to walk on the streets looking ‘strange and different’. Young children turned around and pointed, some strangers smiled, but commuters to London studiously ignored me, and I found myself feeling disappointed that I wasn’t being looked at. Still, I imagine they see far more exotic sights in the big bad smoke.

I became very self conscious about how I looked – a feeling I’ve not experienced that deeply since I was a teenager. Wearing a wig transforms and hides. A close family member lost her hair through cancer treatment as a young teenager, and seeing her lose her hair and becoming bald hit home what ‘cancer’ means and how ill she was. I thought of her bravery and courage through the long 3 1/2 years of treatment.

She wore a wig to school and one day a teacher told her off for having long hair, and to tie her ‘hair’ back in line with school regs. She couldn’t tie it back as the wig would fall off but was too embarrassed to tell the teacher and so burst into tears. For her the wig was a disguise not a choice at that time. And it was a CLIC Sargent nurse and social workers who supported her emotionally and practically during those years.

As I walked around I thought about all those you look ‘different’ because they are ill, disfigured, or just don’t conform to the norm. I wondered how they manage other peoples’ expectations, and stares. The best response seemed to be a smile, or a chin-up, straight backbone approach, to calmly accept that this is who you are and to out-stare the gawpers or smile at the curious.

At work I was greeted with laughter and a number of others borrowed the extra wigs I’d bought in. What intrigued me was how I was able to become more ‘me’ when wearing my costume. It helped that I dressed up to look as if I was a 1960’s glam girl. Colleagues became skittish, playful.

It made me think how powerful it is to dress differently, to defy stereotypes. In the wig I laughed more, was lighter, more authentically me, because I was showing a side of my character normally hidden at work. But if we hide ourselves from others – don’t we also hide ourselves from ourselves?

I plan to adopt dressing up more – I love it anyway – but doing this at work allowed me to become more ‘me’ and people today seemed delighted I’d dared to different, and wanted to know what I was up to.

As Oscar Wilde said, “Be yourself, everyone else is taken.”
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When in doubt, read

If you’re stuck for inspiration, read, 
If you’re struggling with a problem then read
If you’re upset, depressed, bored, blocked, or heartbroken; then read.

A Bristol planter on wheels.

Reading is the partner of writing. Readers, of course, need writers.
Before people made marks on paper, they told stories, sang or danced
an audience needs storytellers. I’m telling myself this because I’m feeling stuck, muddled, weepy even.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been struggling over what to write  in the novel, and on this blog.
I feel like I’ve been stopped.
BUT – I’ve been using twitter on an undercover project.
The writer at work could be the subtitle – every weekday on my daily commute
I collect dialogue, describe characters and practice writing via #traintweets. Find me @wordpoppy if you wish.
One of my rules of @wordpoppy is that the sentences have to have impact, rhythm and must shine, so I am practising my craft. I don’t know if traintweets will go anywhere but it’s fun, and I may be able to use it  as  a performance piece.
I could be writing short stories on the train, and I should be editing the novel, but there’s a lot of resistance to the editing. I am working out which bits to scrap in the novel, and how to rewrite the last sections. At the moment I only see mistakes.

So I’ve turned to reading to unblock myself and I’ve found a wonderful book which inspires, thrills and lays a breadcrumb trail of hope for me.
Why I write is because I want to produce work of great quality for the reader, that tells a story truthfully that touches the reader, that breathes, that becomes larger than myself.

The book that I spent the morning reading is The Detour by Gerbrand Bakker.
It is haunting, told in a quiet unassuming style. There is no interior monologue. Characters never explain themselves to the reader, we have to infer everything. It hooks you from the beginning and has a cracking denouement, with simple, powerful prose.

Now I am going to write. 

Writers – self-editing, writing prompts and tweets

Whilst surfing around the web indulging my passion for writing I’ve been collecting examples of things I’ve found interesting: There’s an blog I’ve found about self-editing. It seems full of useful advice, including this about interior monologue – using Lord of The Flies as an example see

22nd June is National Flash Fiction Day and on the official website are examples of short stories that have won this year’s competition, as well as some writing prompts for story ideas. 

Then I found the service of people willing to review your book, so an opportunity for readers and writers –

Using writing and social media for charities seems a fabulous idea – I came across this project which created a graphic novel with collaborative tweeting every day for a year,  for the Teenage Cancer Trust at  – they raised a huge amount of money. Seems like an inspired use of social media for a really good cause. 

Follow me on @wordpoppy
Broadcasting daily between 08:05 – 08:40

I’ve been developing a twitter project – writing daily train tweets on twitter of interesting lines, or overheard dialogue, inspired by my daily commute. You can connect with me on twitter @wordpoppy. I intend to weave these tweets into a longer story at the end of 30 days, or 30 tweets, depending on what comes first. 

Departing from Platform 15