Tuesday, 21 June 2011


Escaped for a few much-needed dolittle days to one of my favourite places for walking, and thinking and visiting friends who run excellent guesthouses - Ullapool, on the north west coast of Bonnie Scotland. And my goodness it showed off all its bonnieness to us while home got rained upon big time.

One of the highlights was a trip over to Handa Island to see the puffins - how anyone could remain sad when faced with these comic birds who behave like demented wind-up toys, is beyond me. I think puffins must have been the inspiration for Murakami's Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.
You will have to take my word for it that there were puffins. My new Blackberry wasn't clever enough to take close-ups, although it was doing most other things with abandon. There were also great skua, Arctic skua, guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes, pippets, skylarks, and lots more, not forgetting views to live for.
The old crofters' cottages are now tumbles of stone in the ferns, covered in fabulous lichen growth.
Goodness knows - old floats, now rusted? Giant chocolate truffles? (Thanks to Julia B for the idea). Or just something amazing and photogenic on a beach near Achiltiebuie? finally, we always stop off at Culloden to pay our respects to the clan MacLean - all my men, husband and sons together, are MacLeans. There is a marvellous new visitors' centre there - stunning contemporary architecture echoing the line of the hills behind.

Writing news: Riptide have accepted the three short memoir pieces mentioned below. Had a short story commission for a rather nice anthology - more on that later. And a good writing workshop this afternoon at one of my old schools, Brighton and Hove High, where a group of girls stay behind to write after school. Now that's dedication.

Sunday, 12 June 2011


Doing nothing...or am I? I am so used to having The Great Oeuvre to focus creative energies on, and now it’s all done and dusted (apart from cover quotes both here and in the US) I feel a bit directionless. There are plenty of ideas for the next Great Oeuvre in my head and some writing done. But I do not feel the time is right for that, and won’t rush at it just for the sake of having something in the pipeline.
I am rather busy at other things. My darling Dad died recently, (he was 95, and it was time) and organising his funeral, my head spinning trying to get it right, is exhausting. But funerals or not, life goes on. And so does the writing life.

Doing nothing? I had a look at what actually is going on.

1. Teaching, lit fest events
• Just back (see post below) from leading a week-long short story workshop in Ireland.
• Making notes for the workshops and masterclass for Winchester Writers’ Conference from 1st - 3rd July.
• Watching the numbers grow for my Women Writers’ residential weekend at the gorgeous Tilton House in September. (Stop Press: I’m delighted that Carole Hayman will be our guest speaker on the Saturday...and Helen Garnons-Williams, Editorial Director of Bloomsbury, is speaking after Sunday Lunch - about what editors really look for, how agents work with publishers, and lots more diamond stuff).
• Asked to do two workshops at Bridport festival instead of one... and to organise a third event. More of that later.

2. Short Story competition judging.
• First, Society of Women Writers and Journalists (SWWJ) and their annual Vera Brittan competition. Entries came from members only, and I read them all. A fascinating exercise. Members come from all branches of writing, non-fiction and fiction – the stories were often surprising and great fun to judge. I was then a guest at the SWWJ Summer bash held at The New Cavendish Club, together with the poetry judge, Lady Sandra Howard – we both gave short addresses to the multitude as we announced the winners. (Check out the SWWJ's newly-announced International Life Writing Comp, on the website by the way. There is a lot of money to be won...)
• Second, I’ve agreed to judge the annual short story competition for New Eastbourne Writers – details are on their website, with rules and paypal links. HERE. I will only be reading the shortlist, as I gather entries will run into the hundreds!

3. Poetry
• ‘Litany’ and ‘Disused Copper Mine, Sunday’- poems inspired by and written on the Beara in West Cork, have been accepted by Envoi for their next issue. I am celebrating quietly. About time I took poetry a bit more seriously.

4. Memoir
Riptide journal, edited by Ginny Bailey and Rosie Flint, down there in Exeter, is theming their next issue. They are seeking short stories featuring Devon, somehow, and unusually for them, they are also seeking short memoir pieces. I sent them a short comic memory from my Exmouth childhood, and a few more are being considered. Details on their website (which features short stories by among others the talented David Gaffney...) here: and see the other submissions links for fiction sub guidelines. This is a very nice print publication, with high standards.

A new departure for me – plays. Whilst on my trip with Jeremy Banning to The Somme and elsewhere earlier this year, I started writing a play, I think. Well, I was writing at night, tired, and what came out was not prose, but a conversation between three men...and as soon as I stopped and looked at what I was doing, I froze. I don’t know enough about making plays and something must be pulling me to try it... Plans are already afoot for me to collaborate with a couple of seasoned playwrights later this year – most challengingly, the objective of one collaboration will be a play based on the chequered experience of tracking down my family. I need to learn! The Arvon Foundation is an obvious place to find a good residential course – so another chunk of The Coward’s Tale advance will go on a Theatre week at The Hurst, John Osborne’s home... learning the basics from those who know best. How to choose a course when one knows nothing of the work of any of the tutors? Ask around first. I did, and here’s the course I’m doing.


Doing nothing? Don't think so. But looking at that lot has made me tired... just off for a snooze...

Sunday, 5 June 2011


A week-long workshop at the marvellous Anam Cara Writers' and Artists' Retreat, with participants who had travelled from Holland, Luxembourg, the UK and Ireland itself. Their standard was very strong. I worked them very hard - three and a half hours each morning, a mix of flash writing games, discussions about theory, writing exercises that could, if used well, lead to complete stories, regular time spent analysing short fiction by well-known writers (stories selected and brought along for the purpose by the team, and used as guinea-pigs for both 'reading as writers' and our critiquing skills) and regular critiquing of the participants' own work. We focussed closely on revision skills, and put everything into practice as soon as possible! Afternoons were for their own writing, thinking, focus - visits, sometimes.
A word about the group critiquing...we deliberately protected precious first drafts from the onslaught. We spent the first few days dissecting old pieces they knew weren't working - giving the writers a chance to start new pieces each day, a chance to revisit and make sharper, but mostly to gain a little distance from their 'babies'. (It was forcing the issue, really - normally, I'd push for weeks of time elapsed..)And we critiqued to a pattern, by craft element, backing everything up with text examples. It seemed to work really well.
Five writers, and by the end of the week, at the last count, 14 new full-length short stories completed to at least second draft stage. (I think...) Umpteen pieces of flash fiction, many of them ready to get out there...and a hoard of story seeds. Some poetry, prose poems, some written commentaries. We all had one-to ones, one held at a local pub, another on a long walk... some intrepid souls had swum in the river, some had walked and walked some more. Some visited the Stone Lady to have their stones 'read' there were massages, reflexology for the non-ticklish.

We talked competitions, markets, collections, publishers, agents, how the writing of short fic can help with novels and novellas... and a hundred other things. I don't know about them, but their tutor is tired out...and very happy with the formula, especially regarding the group feedback. And delighted at the amazing output!