I’m Second in the Yeovil Literary Prize 2016!

Yeovil SECOND letter.jpgThose of you who follow me on Instagram (because who doesn’t want to see virtually every meal I ever cook and/or eat; what our garden looks like from various angles and what position our cat is lying in today?) and Facebook will have seen the letter I posted which I received from the Yeovil Literary Prize folk telling me my entry, ‘Comings and Goings’, had been LONGLISTED in this prestigious, international writing competition.

And, almost even before I’d come down off the ceiling from this monumental news, I received another letter from them saying this (see left)!  I’m second! SECOND!  That’s runner-up! I Know.  And if this news isn’t incredible enough, then even more so is the fact I’ve had to keep it (relatively; I have a daughter, a husband and we were with our neighbours when I received the email so they knew something was up when I started shaking and crying) under my hat. Now that reads as if I was crying under my hat.  I wasn’t.  I don’t do hats.  Not yet.  Watch this space.


So I’m delighted.  Hugely proud of myself and because I’ve known for weeks and haven’t been able to say has actually made it feel even more unreal.  But once the names are flashed up on the Yeovil Literary Prize website today, then I’ll believe it properly.  And as we’re going to be in the Lakes (yes, I’m scheduling this post as well) I probably won’t even get to see it until we get back home.  So I still won’t feel like a real winner.

But I am.  And it’s been a long time coming. Being shortlisted and longlisted is wonderful and I hope there’ll be more of those (I don’t even want to think about or count the number of competition entries I’ve sent off which haven’t made it anywhere…) but this – coming second – in such a well-respected writing prize is… well… don’t… it’ll start me off again.

As Roy Castle used to say/sing “validation* hey hey, validation*, validation* is what you need… if you want to be the best, if you want to beat the re-e-e-e-est, validation*‘s what you need …”

*of course dedication helps too – but validation is the cherry on top of the icing and… here endeth what might become a rambling, incoherent analogy…😉


20160423_150807.jpgThe picture is of my ‘Opportunities’ folder which I started at the beginning of the year and holds details of all the writing competitions (short story, novel and poetry) I am interested in entering this year.  I did the same last year and got some  lovely results: shortlisted in the Greenhouse Literary/Faber & Faber Funny Prize  for humorous children’s novel, and also shortlisted in the Hysteria Writing Competition with a poem called ‘Calling off The Wedding’ – which had formed part of my ‘Art of Poetry’ Module.

And I’m hugely and highly delighted (always nice to be alliterative about these things) to say that the people at Fresher Publishing have also deemed my short story entry ‘Vee’ worthy of sitting on their shortlist (winners announced on 19th May in Bournemouth, so if I ever needed an excuse to be beside the seaside, this surely is it).

As part of the ‘rules of entry’ I know I can’t share the story online
or anywhere else, so the image of my Opportunities folder, especially the page where I’d printed off the details of the competition and scribbled Sent ‘Vee’ 25/09/16 will have to suffice, I’m afraid.  And no, I was never this organised before I started with the OCA so not only do I have their invaluable tutelage to thank for aiding my successful entry, I’m also becoming quite hot with deadlines and suchforth too ;).

I can say that in writing ‘Vee’, I had the most fun I think I’ve ever had writing a short story and I’m incredibly fond of her even though she’s not the nicest of girls 😉 We all have issues and I’m afraid I blessed Vee with more than her fair share – and I love the dark humour of the story.Fresher shortlist

I fact I was so buoyed by the news that I spent the next 2 days writing another short and sent it off to the Bath Short Story Competition.  I can only dream that ‘Next Door’ has as much success as ‘Vee’ – I can’t keep my fingers crossed because I’ve already entered 2 competitions a month this year as it is, and I shan’t be able to type anything else!

Watch this space (as they used to say… do they still?  Who are  these ‘they’ anyway?)

Project 3 ‘The Blank Page’ Ex.P24

This exercise prompts: “Recall an incident from your life.  This doesn’t have to be a major incident, but it should be one that can still raise emotions in you.  Take several steps away from the memory.  Alter your perspective, for example by:

  • writing from a third person PoV
  • renaming yourself
  • changing your age and/or gender
  • changing the era 
  • changing the setting or landscape.

And so firstly (as I seem to do, and which is also something I’m intrigued by – I seem to have ‘habits’ and ‘ways’ that I do things – which I never thought I had before.  I just thought I was a general ‘plodder-onner’ and hadn’t got any specific rules by which I wrote.  I like finding out new stuff – especially about me)  I wrote a list.  Of emotional incidents from my life.  And as I’ve intimated before, this list can get quite exhaustive and not very pretty at times.. and ran into bullet points of nearly 20, which I then had to pick one from to write about.

I decided to start my ‘recollection’ as past tense me – as it’d happened to me,  this was by far the better place for me to recount it from.  And wrote about 1,200 words about the afternoon on the school bus where I was stabbed in the back  with a compass by a bully.  It’s fine; I’m over it now.  But it DOES still get the sap rising to recall it – and this is what this exercise warranted.  So here’s the opener of the story as told by yours truly:

“The bus was packed as it always was at 3.20pm after school.  Already people were jostling for position and trying to get others to lift their bags so they could sit down and, as usual, the tough nuts sat along the seven seats at the back of the bus, staring down anyone who dared to move near them – such was their unquestionable power.

Mr Nolan had asked me to stay back after the last lesson of double History – he’d got some ‘concerns’ he’d said and could I wait until the class had gone.  And this request alone had made my heart start to hammer and my palms spike with fear for two terrible reasons: one, he was going to try and convince me (again) to drop History because my heart truly wasn’t in it and my attentions always seemed to be elsewhere; and two, I was going to be one of the last ones on the bus home.  If standing in the aisle for the whole 30 minute journey wasn’t bad enough, I’d also be a sitting duck for the entire time and I hadn’t had a chance to pee since lunch break – my bladder always being the first thing to go in a stressful situation…”

So, I ended up having to stand in the aisle, getting taunts and jeers the whole journey and, yes, got stabbed in the back by a bully with a compass as I was tussled forward whilst getting off.  It ended as badly as it actually had.  An exhausting recount.

But it was good to get off my chest, although it hadn’t been an ‘easy’ write – and I’d kept going back and changing adjectives and taking out overly-drippy sentences that described me as a total victim and I actually nearly started to hate myself.  Such is the problem when dealing with emotional real-life stories I fear; the worry that you turn your own self into a wimpy character you neither care nor empathise with by the end of  the piece.  And so I was very VERY glad to change my perspective around and went for:

  • writing from a third person PoV
  • renaming myself
  • changing my gender

Yep, all of the above. And y’know what, I absolutely LOVED writing this.  ‘I’ became Mickey, a lad the same age as I’d been – but because I wasn’t him and didn’t have to describe ‘my’ innermost feelings and anxieties, then the whole piece became more (as the coursework suggests) ‘elastic, fluid and flexible’ and it was so good to be able to detach myself personally from this whilst at the same time, being able to empathise with poor Mickey’s plight. I ended up writing nearly 3,000 words and I’m sure if it goes through another redraft and a good few edits, it may even become a short story.  Here’s the start:

“It was hot.  Mickey pulled at the knot of his school tie and yanked it down.  He prised open the top  button of his shirt and blew air up towards his fringe which had stuck to his sweating forehead.  He looked at his watch.  He was going to be late.  Ten minutes.  Mr Nolan had kept him back for ten whole minutes after the last bell.  Had his teacher any idea how late this would make him for the school bus?  He’d be surprised if the bus driver, Pete, would wait a whole ten minutes for one schoolboy. 

He wondered how he’d get home and how long a walk of nine miles might take him if that turned out to be his only alternative.  He wished now he’d said something to Mr Nolan when his teacher had stopped at his desk as he’d handed back their homework.

“A paltry 4/10. Stevens,’ Mr Nolan had sneered as he plopped Mickey’s exercise book down in front of him.  ‘Wait behind please.’

And Mickey’s journey turned out way WAY better than mine actually had.  Okay, so he was still taunted and jeered at (in a more appalling fashion I might add, that I remember being) but he got a little bit of help from a most unlikely source – who also gave Mickey words of advice that my own Nann had given me – and I also featured in the story too – as the girl who this bully had stabbed only the week before!  I know – I truly felt as if writing this I had somehow lain a ghost or two to rest and I’m so thrilled with the result.  

This exercise has taught me not to get too obsessed with facts from my own past; that if I’m recalling a personal event (and let’s face it, who isn’t from time to time?) I needn’t get hung up on the chronology of the stuff, because  that day on the school bus wasn’t just one of the nastiest things that has ever happened to me – it also left me with  great material (as well as a compass-shaped scar). 😉

After reading Hemingway’s ‘A Day’s Wait’

The exercise on page 19 asks that, following the reading of Ernest Hemingway’s 1000 word short story ‘A Day’s Wait‘ (you can read it here) you “use the inspiration (…) to start a new piece.  Allow your ideas to grow via any motif in his stories (such as the shooting of the ducks in A Day’s Wait.)  You could also use any theme you note, for instance a story of a day’s sickness, or the relationship between father and son…(…) try to remain in the moment of illumination; don’t add irrelevances about general life.”

And although I didn’t really find the story inspirational as such – even though I read it three or four times – what it did was reveal to me  features of Hemingway’s writing that I’ve never adopted in my own (because we have different voices and we’re different people).  And so I found an ‘instance’ from my chequered history that involved MASSIVE amounts of emotion – on my part, at least – and set about writing it down in more of an anecdotal/report way rather than involving deep and lengthy descriptions on thoughts and feeling and utilising backstory – which is how I find I write generally – trying to stuff as much into a story as possible.

Once I’d hit 1000 words (I went beyond, but only by 40 words or so) I started to pare it back even more. I was already using ‘I said,’ ‘she said’ instead of more effusive descriptions of speech delivery (there’s a word for that but I can’t remember what it is) but I also wanted to cut out any extraneous flowery stuff.  The result is spare, succinct and devoid of too much tension or drama, even though the actual situation would usually warrant plenty of both.

I’m pleased with the result and I’m glad I gave it a bash, but I’m not sure the voice is really ‘me’.  This is the opening paragraph and I’ve linked to the rest if you want to read on.

My Husband’s Lover

She was the last person I expected to be there.  She stood on the mat outside our front door and lifted her scrubbed-clean face to me in greeting, looking nothing like the archetypal home-wrecker.  Her glossy copper hair shone healthily in the midday sun and I stood back to let her in, catching a familiar musky scent as she passed me.

Here’s the rest: My Husband’s Lover

Writing for Children Part 5 ‘Other Worlds’

Eurgh… is all I can say to this part of the course.

I am SO not a fantasy writer.  I’m also not a fantasy reader.  I can count the number of fantasy books I’ve read on one hand.

But I’ve discovered something since beginning this writing journey with OCA and that’s if I just concentrate for long enough and do enough research, that from somewhere, sometime, something eventually peeks its little head out from someplace and gives me a cheery wave of possibility.  And even though I always worry about waving back (because after all, it could be a TRICK, right?) this time I tnought I’d do better than that and go up to the waving thing and allow it to take me by the hand.

That ‘It’ turned out to be the MC in a  fantasy/myth/legend/tale I wrote the other day and which I’ve tweaked to make sure it fits (both wordcount wise and brief-wise for the first 1500 word story in Ass 4).  I still can’t believe I’ve written it.  I keep checking it’s still there in case I dreamed it.  And now I’m worried it won’t be ‘good enough’ for tutor inspection because Ass4 wasn’t the greatest feedback I’ve ever received.

So anyway, what I think I did (not that that it’ll be a tried and trusted method in fututre, I’m sure – this could’ve been one of those flukes) was cram my head with so much stuff that I hoped might throw me a bone (or just give me a wave) that I saturated my skull with it.  I was even watching a guy on YouTube drawing fantasy lands and at one point almost convinced myself this was what I needed to do (I didn’t, although I did print off a couple of makebelieve lands from t’interweb and the Narnia one is utterly gorgeous) but watching this guy  changing his mind and rubbing out rivers and mountains and deciding he’d have a lake just… there…. because that seemed like a good idea, unlatched something in my brain  which is that —- THIS IS ALL MADE UP!  It doesn’t matter if  my creatures have blue ears and pink hair; it doesn’t matter if they live in nests upside down hanging from clouds and speak in a language which makes no sense… this is what creative writing is all about, right?

Note:  my ‘creatures’ (although I’d prefer to call them Villagers, because I didn’t go completely crazy with make-believe)  do not have pink hair OR blue ears, but they do worship a God who they believe is punishing them by not bringing them rain.  An old storyline, I know, but rather than focus on the ‘rules and regs’ and village life, I’ve done what I’m most comfortable doing and concentrated on characterisation.  Therefore, I have Umbellifer,  the village/town leader, Hamamelis, the Oracle, and Umbellifer’s three children (three is a very important number in mythology/fairy tales) Ebonymore, Semperelle and Marantha.  And I LOVE their names because they’re all names of Fungi.

I originally had the idea that one of Umbellifer’s children (in my mind he’s a bit of a Dumbledore/Gandalf character and I think his name suits him) was going to meet somebody from the future (i.e. our future) and he was going to show them his Weather App and help them believe that rainy days would come, but the more I wrote the characters of the children, the more I wanted one of them to step up to the plate and become the town’s saviour.  So that’s what happened.

The language kind of fell into place once I had the opening sorted:

“Umbellifer Grasspike pushed the sackcloth aside and stared through the opening at the fields beyond.  His heart fell, as it had done these past five moon-swells, his head resting against the roughly-wrought frame… […] Oh when would the waters come? Would the people of Ortham survive another score days and ten of this drought?  What more could he possibly do to appease the Gods and ensure their reward in rain?”

And from there I could see it all… the place where they lived… the Oracle, the three children with wildly differing personalities and Umbellifer’s terrible dismay that he knew he had to perform the ultimate sacrifice and give one of his children to the God Soillem.

“We have enraged the Gods,’ Hamamellis, Oracle of Ortham wailed.  ‘We have to soothe them, Umbellifer, or else we fall like sand to the ground as if we were but dust ourselves.”

I can’t say I had a blast writing it.  Like I said, I’m still a bit bemused I actually wrote anything like it.  But this is all good learning.  Pushing boundaries and moving out of comfort zones is something I’m beginning to fear less and less.

And if anything should go wrong, my old friends Del, Backspace and Undo are always a mere fingerstroke away.

Now THEY’d be great fantasy characters…. and I do need a 1500 words story for a younger audience now.  Is that a cheeky little wave I spy?  😉

Focussing on an object #2


Said I’d do another one, didn’t I? 🙂

Functional, matte black and tethered like a steed to a strong tubular frame so that it can’t be stolen, the bike is of authentic construction – no elaboration or addition to its simple form.

The crossbar suggests the owner/rider is male but nothing can be assumed.  Its upright carriage says it will do precisely what it is built to do; possibly more.   It is strong, certain, proud, neat and clean and, with the wicker basket on the front, it could take you anywhere and bring something back for you as well.

The red and white plastic bag covering the seat and protecting it from unforeseen elements reassures you that the bike is cared for, that its rider will not tolerate a damp rear end as they are riding it back to wherever they both came from.  And it’s not one of those flimsy plastic bags either – it could even be a bag for life.  Protecting a bike for life.

It’s been carefully parked; giving the impression that it’s valued; that the owner wouldn’t leave it hastily discarded because it means too much to them.  Perhaps it is their only means of transportation; perhaps it’s their livelihood; perhaps it is a little of both, but this bike is somebody’s friend.

Focussing on an object: Ex p.56


I very nearly skipped this exercise because the doors in our house merely say ‘four panelled, pine, wrong handles, locks on the wrong side and badly hung’ which doesn’t inspire me too much.  So I Googled about and found this beautiful door using the searchwords: ‘old door image’.

And this is what happened:

The panels on the door are the ones it was originally constructed from over a century ago.  The grain is a dark grey now, weather-beaten from the ravages of storm, rain and wind.  Someone has tried to protect it with a coat of deep red paint which is now all but stripped away, leaving marks on the door similar to hastily-rubbed off blood-stains and lending the whole thing an ominous air.  You might think twice about going through this door.

One of the long, black hinges has come away – the bottom one – it’s been replaced with a smaller, more modern one; grey, which is holding up much better than the original above it which is dropped. Part of the original hinge remains on this, the bottom one – the part which doesn’t hold the door to the frame – giving the impression that a section of history has been amputated.

The gap between the new and the old hinge has left the panel open to the elements and, where the wood has rotted away, parts of the inside of the door are visible; pieces of wood which go horizontally across.  Modern doors aren’t constructed this way – which might be why this one has lasted as long as it has despite its disrepair. It’s been well-constructed – built to last.  At least for one person’s lifetime.

The original latch has rusted away even though parts of it remain, and beneath this is an incongruous shining gold coloured handle which screams rushed, twenty-first century repair; by somebody who cared less about the restoration of this door and more about necessitating its continued use.

The doorframe is pale, grey; bleached with years – decades – of weather, and yet the timbers stand strong and straight, like sentries at either side of the door.  The frame has the kind of strength about it on which a door would know to rely.  The mantle across the top of the door is equally straight and true. 

Along the bottom of the door, the panels are frayed, splintered with use; torn in places, where boots have kicked it shut, pulled it open and pushed to keep whatever might have been inside, from getting out.

This exercise has taught me that although on first sight, it might seem a waste of time (because we all know how to describe a door, right?), focussing on detail really pulls you into an object – makes it feel more real – gives it a personality – hints at darker things behind it – makes a reader feel more connected with a story.  If I read that ‘there was a six-panelled pine door with a silver knob and wouldn’t close properly I’d definitely want to know a bit more.  I think I’d feel shortchanged if that was as far as the writer was going with that description.

It’s all in the detail.  This was a great exercise.  I might go find another one now. 😉

Retelling ‘Cinderella’ from different PoVs

220px-Edward_Burne-Jones_CinderellaThe exercise on P.48 asks that you retell the Cinderella story from different perspectives including a) the Fairy Godmother, b) The Prince and c) The Stepmother.  And I had SUCH a blast writing these.

It’s also making me more aware of my ‘voice’.  I seem to enjoy writing from a first-person singular, almost monologue kind of way… as if I’m addressing the reader as we sit together at a kitchen table or over a drink in a wine bar.  I don’t really know what I mean, but I do know that mid-way through writing the first Pov, I thought ‘hang on… is this how I’m MEANT to be writing it?  And then answered myself with a vague reassurance that actually, as there are NO RULES, then yes… of course this is how I’m ‘meant’ to be writing it; this is me – it’s all beginning to take shape now.  So… here’s some snippets from all three pieces (they came in at around 1,000 words each) I hope you enjoy…


[….] Ah.  I knew she’d be surprised to see me; well, who wouldn’t?  Who expects to look up from miserably scrubbing away at a grimy soot-stained hearth and see a vision of sparkling brilliance standing before them with freshly-set hair and a wand in their hands?  Not this slip of a thing, that’s for sure.  Get up child; arise.  I don’t bite.

Yes child.  It’s yours.  To keep; yes.  I know it fits perfectly, but there’s no need to keep twirling, you’ll make yourself dizzy  and fall over.  And if you land back in the dirt and the coal-dust then you’ll only have yourself to blame.  Oh, no, don’t upset yourself, I was just thinking out loud.  Godmother, yes, that’s right.  Fairy.  Yes.   No, I know you didn’t know I existed before now but that’s how these things work. 


Because you deserve it, child, that’s why.  Why else.  No, please, you don’t have to thank me.  It’s all part of the service.  Oh, but there is one thing you’ll have to remember.  Yes… they were mice… No, it’s perfectly normal for a toad to speak when it’s had a spell worked on it.  Did you hear what I said about Midnight?  Oh, yes, I know… beautiful aren’t they?  Hmm? Glass. Yes, I know it’s an unusual material for dancing shoes but then this is magic.  Well they might rub a little to begin with but this is magic so perhaps they’ll feel like slippers made from the softest silk.  

You will remember about the Midnight thing, won’t you? …..

I particularly enjoyed writing the one-way dialogue.  Reflectively, it’s interesting to note that told from the FG’s perspective, the structure doesn’t allow for Cinderella’s backstory to be told b/c we’re only seeing interaction from when the FG appears.  Equally once Cinders has gone off to the ball, we won’t know what happens at it or after it (unless we introduce a crystal ball as well).


…..These past few weeks I’ve been making the most of my freedom.  I’ve been getting up especially early, saddling my horse up myself and stealing out of the castle walls into the mists of the morning before anyone is awake.  There’s a particularly lovely clearing in part of the forest which I didn’t think anyone else knew about.  Until the morning I heard her singing and my breath stalled in my throat.  It was like hearing a songbird.

I didn’t dare look to begin with; it could’ve been a child or a boy; it was hard to tell.  So I quietly dismounted and crept behind a tree to see if I could see whose voice this was.  And I’ve never seen anyone more beautiful in my life.  Not only the voice of a lark, but the face of an angel and my heart was stopped.  But her clothes! Oh alas, she wore the scrubby brown skirts of a scullery maid; her blouse was threadbare and sooty and her feet were bare and blackened.  I listened and watched her for as long as I dare and then, after she’d picked an armful of forest flowers and sighed at the sound of somebody calling, she turned and skipped off with what seemed to be a slight sadness in her step.

I confess that writing the Prince’s story felt a bit ‘sappy’ – as if he were almost the Disney-fied version of Prince Charming.  But then I decided that as he has led a sheltered, privileged existence up until now, then he probably wouldn’t have any of life’s cynicism and hardship to cloud his rose-coloured view of how life really is.  To him, everything really IS quite simple and straightforward – even down to holding a ball to find a wife.


…. I’m good at getting what I want.  My mother always told me a smile would get me anywhere – especially when it came to the feebleness of men.  She was right of course.  At the first opportunity I found a widower who had enough to provide us with, and ensnared him with my winning smile.  He only saw it the once.  I don’t like to waste precious things unnecessarily. 

Of course he was just as pathetic as the last one.  And came with baggage.  This insipid creature with skin you can almost see through – a bit like her soul; far too giving and sensitive.  Not our kind of person at all and unbearably delighted that her darling father had found love once again.  Ha!  Men; they’re all the same.  Emotional, needy, desperate for physical as well as emotional fulfilment; it was unbearable.  It was fortunate that I’d been taught the way of mushrooms.  Drop by drop; spoonful by spoonful… nice and slowly; I didn’t want it to look suspicious. 

Of course we had to let the housekeeper go.  And the scullery maid. And the cook.  Well, what’s a widow to do?  Utilise existing opportunities that’s what.  We seem to have managed sufficiently so far using the girl to perform these menial duties.  She has her own room – the whole of the kitchen – she wants for nothing.  She probably eats just as much if not more than  us because she’s around it all the time.  Greedy girl.  Still, I won’t press charges, she is still a kind of step-daughter after all.

I like an unlikeable character to play with.  Unscrupulously magnificent, the Stepmother. Oblivious to anyone’s needs but her own.  Loved it.

And, of course, the same reflection applies to the Prince and the Stepmothers’ stories; they both have to start with them and end with them – Cinderella becomes a part of their world but isn’t the main focus and therefore all kinds of backstory is neglected in her story.  There’d be no reason to tell the story from anybody else’s perspective because none of these characters goes on an individual ‘journey’ – they don’t find themselves transformed by things that are happening in Cinderella’s life and two of them won’t even be affected by it.

It was interesting to take a well-known story and try writing from different viewpoints because what comes from it makes or breaks the true core of the whole piece and effectively turns it into something either very memorable or very, very pointless.


Rewriting Animal Farm for specific ages

The exercise on p. 40 (Part Two) asks that you take the sample from Animal Farm:

“Napoleon was a large, rather fierce-looking, Berkshire boar, the only Berkshire on the farm, not much of a talker, but with a reputation for getting his own way.  Snowball was a more vivacious pig than Napoleon, quicker in speech and more inventive, but was not considered to have the same depth of character.”

and rewrite it for age-specific groups, showing and not telling the difference between the two animals.  I decided to begin with the younger group of, say 5-9 and tried this:

“When he was cross, Napoleon’s piggy eyebrows nearly touched one another over the top of his wide, shiny wet snout.  He would give an angry little grunt, and his dark little eyes would get darker still – and smaller, because of his frowning eyebrows.  Then his rosy pink cheeks would go an even deeper shade until they were almost red. 

              It was best not to get too close to Napoleon when he was in a mood like this.  Sometimes he’d lift one of his front trotters and hold it up, then BAM! he’d stamp it down so hard that the straw on the floor of the piggery would fly up and scatter dust everywhere – even over the other animals.  Napoleon didn’t care, though.  He didn’t even notice how dusty the farm was on normal days because he was too busy looking for something to be cross about.

              Napoleon was one of those pigs who didn’t have to say very much.  The other animals knew what he was saying by lots of different things: by the way he walked; by the way his ears flapped, by the size of his eyes and – well, the eyebrows you already know about.”

It went on for another 2 pages and introduced Snowball.

Then I had a bash at a slightly older age-group (8-12):

“When Napoleon was unhappy the other animals quaked on their hooves.  Or claws. Or trotters.  Or webbed feet.   And he wanted them to know how unhappy he was too.  He’d make sure that his booming grunt was the loudest noise in the farmyard and he’d want to know why the other animals weren’t cowering away from him in fear if they still happened to be out and about, enjoying the weather.  He’d stop, lean forward into their faces and make them shrink back on whatever type of feet they had, until they swallowed hard and recoiled as a mark of respect 

              Because Napoleon demanded respect.  He demanded fear and he demanded that all other pigs hand over a third of their trough to him every time theirs was re-filled.  That was how democracy worked and it was exactly how Napoleon liked to rule his world.  His subjects knew this and they had to conform.  Whether they liked it or not.  He didn’t know exactly how many of them didn’t like it – he expected it to only be a few – because after all, the way he ruled was the best way of ruling in the world. Ever.

              Snowball, on the other hand, wasn’t ever very cross; she disliked arguments and actually went out of her way to make the other animals feel happier.  If she had been able to, then she’d have been the kind of pig to skip and dance.  At is was, though, she trotted about merrily on her pointed toes and smiled a lot at everyone.  Her dewy pink eyes shone in the daylight and in the dark, her white eyelashes glinted like fairy lights.”

I’m not sure I ‘showed’ enough and think I might have still ‘told’ too much.  I found it quite a difficult exercise to get into.

In the younger rewrite I words and used more childish phrases like ‘piggy eyebrows’ and ‘wide, shiny, wet snout’.  I think it’s also good to use ‘sound’ words like the BAM! because a lot of children of this age group will be having the story read to them and sounds like these hold their interest.  I enjoyed writing the last section of the last paragraph – using the description of how to tell when Napoleon was cross by the way his face looked – and using the ‘well, the eyebrows you already know about’ – which I think brings the reader/listener much more into the story – almost like giving them a secret only the book and they know about.  Children love to be drawn into confidences.

The second, older age group, I knew I could use longer words, but they still couldn’t be too complicated.  ‘quaked’ I thought was fine; ‘cowering’, recoiled’ – I’d imagine that kids of this age-range would manage to work out what these words meant even if they didn’t use them in their own everyday conversations.

Because the age-groups are quite close together, and a follow-on from one another, it’s easy to worry that you’ve muddied them. (I did).  Because some younger readers might have an older reading age, and likewise older readers might struggle with books written for their ages.  I did consider writing Young Adult/teen,  but finally didn’t seriously believe that a teen would even pick up a book written about animals, having left farmyard stories behind when they were small.  If the book was perhaps marketed as a satirical account of the state of the country told using the medium of farmyard animals then that might make a difference, but I struggled to even know where to start writing with teens in mind and having an all-animal cast of characters.

‘Wonder’ by R J Palacio and ‘The Tulip Touch’ by Anne Fine

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I read ‘Wonder’  by R.J. Palacio because it’s a fairly contemporary read and I’d noticed it at the top of the bestsellers charts for a while.  Also I’ve never read about a disfigured/disabled child before and the reviews sounded hopeful.  I raced through it.   I did wonder (see what happened there?) if the narrative of main character, August, could be satisfactorily maintained through the book to sustain interest, because I felt there was only so much ‘they’re staring at me’/’I’ll never fit in’ which could be used without the story becoming repetitive.   My answer, though, came in the form of other characters’ narrations as they were given voices and chapters for themselves.  I got to know them as well as August – found out how they felt having August in their lives, and it worked brilliantly.  I won’t spoil it for anyone because it is such a great read you’ll feel as if you actually had August in your life yourself. The ending is really special.

‘The Tulip Touch’ by Anne Fine is a ‘recommended read’ in the college coursework book.  Published in 1996, it tells the story of Natalie, whose parents pick up the running of a Hotel called The Palace and about what happens when Natalie meets an almost feral kind of girl called Tulip who turns out to be a pupil at the new school she attends.  Told through Natalie’s eyes as she is sucked into this enigma of a child, the two girls become inseparable almost to the point of obsession, until Tulip goes one step too far and Natalie begins to back away for her own sanity.  However, what happens because of this detachment has far-reaching and haunting consequences for both Natalie and her family.  Again, I won’t spoil the story.  It’s gripping and realistically told and I could imagine myself being the naive Natalie, believing everything this peculiar girl told me and feeling in some way responsible for her well-being.  The last sentence actually took  my breath away and Tulip followed me around for a good while afterwards.

‘The Chinese Cinderella’ by Adeline Yen Mah

chinese-cinderellaI kept hearing about a book called ‘The Chinese Cinderella’ and, as I’d read and enjoyed the book ‘Lucky’ by Alice Sebold (NOT a children’s book by any means but one which I flew through) which is autobiographical and deals with not only her dysfunctional family upbringing, but also the fallout of the family dynamics following the time she was raped at the age of 18 in her first year at college.  ‘The Chinese Cinderella’ sounded as if it dealt with similar childhood issues (a dysfunctional family – not rape) and the blurb reads:

“… when her mother dies giving birth to her, Adeline becomes a symbol of bad luck to her family.  Loathed by her stepmother and ignored  by her father, she struggles trough childhood unloved and unwanted. But Adeline is an outstanding student who lives with the hope that someday she will be able to live out her dreams…”

Again, I was worried I wouldn’t understand the setting (China at the time of the Cultural Revolution) that I might struggle with the unfamiliar culture, mispronounce names and lose my bearings (I’m anxious in everything I do – reading included) but I needn’t have had these concerns.  Because it’s written from Adeline’s childish perspective, it was the emotional connection which gave the story its impetus; I felt her confusion, her pain, her anguish and her determination to overcome terrible obstacles, encouraged by her Great Aunt (like a fairy Godmother) who supported and loved the little Adeline no matter how far the distance between them – and there was a LOT of distance at times.

The title makes perfect sense when you consider Adeline to be Cinderella-ed the minute her mother dies; when her father remarries and brings her own two children into their family, preferring and spoiling these over Adeline and her brother and sisters, and I actually felt my heart break a little when her father asks her to remind him what her name is again…  he’s that disinterested in his youngest daughter.

If it hadn’t been a true story, then I’m not sure I’d have believed it at times.  I’m glad it’s listed as a children’s book because I’m sure that whoever reads this will put it down believing that their life isn’t so bad really.  And that can only be a good thing.

Skulduggery Pleasant, on the other hand, has been abandoned at about the 4th chapter.  I just can’t deal with offbeat, fantastical nonsense like this (‘nonsense’ is my opinion – not a statement of fact, obvs) when there’s so much real life out there that needs to be read about.


Beginning Writing for Children

When my Girl was still living at home and ‘age-appropriate’ for reading the same books as me (so perhaps 13 onwards), we started swapping our latest reads with each other.  This little routine not only brought us closer and gave us fabulously entertaining discussions following the reads, but it also cultivated in me an affection for Young Adult fiction – a genre I hadn’t dipped into since being a Young Adult myself.

I remember reading the trilogy of Kate Cann’s ‘Moving’ series and being almost unable to wait for my Girl to finish the next one so I could throw ‘The Time Traveller’s Wife’ at her and get stuck in.  In fact reading so many Young Adult books gave me an itch to write one of my own.  Which I did during the school summer holidays one year.  And which I loved writing so much it nearly… oh so painfully nearly…. got snapped up by two literary agents. I still love it.  And now that the bruises of rejection have almost healed I may even revisit it and see if I can’t give it a thoroughly good edit then ease it gently out of my writing nest and into the scary world again. Who knows.

During the first few weeks of Writing for Children’ I’ve re-read ‘Stig of the Dump’ by Clive King, which was first read to me and the rest of my class in Primary school (aged about 8 I think) and which transported me to the dumping ground we had in our own village and which was across the road from our back garden, and behind some houses there.  This land also backed onto the end of my Nan and Grandad’s bungalow and boys from school would play in there amongst the mattresses and washing machines, burnt tyres and skeletons of different birds and wild rodents.  I was always scared to go too near the end of my Nan and Grandad’s back garden for fear of some boy or other catapulting me or noticing me and calling me names (which happened a lot during school hours and wasn’t something I particularly wanted to invite during my own time).

So I could picture 10 year old Barney and I could picture his ‘friend’ (he becomes his friend very quickly I noticed, speaking with 40 years’ experience since the last read) Stig in my head almost immediately and in my childish mind, whenever the teacher picked up the book for the next chapter, I knew precisely where everything was.

Reading it for a second time, with analytical eyes, I did find the language a little straightlaced, but then it had been originally published in 1963 (when I was one) and although Barney and his sister Lou had been placed in the safe custody of their grandmother, she didn’t seem to think it at all odd that her grandson was coming back home after having been out 8 or so hours and returning with stories of a having met a half naked man who didn’t speak English but who was now – absolutely – his ‘friend’.  It’s strange what a few decades can do to perceptions.  If Barney had met Stig today, the boy would be straight on his phone, taking pictures of this peculiar (perhaps even ‘paedo’) and his image would be round the world in a matter of seconds.  Poor old Stig would then end up in custody completely unaware of what it is he was supposed to have done.  Maybe there should be a ‘Stig for the 21st Century’ – but it might be a very short read.

I read Sophie McKenzie’s ‘Blood Ties’ – I’m not sure my daughter read this back in the day, and I was so worried I wouldn’t ‘get it’ or that it would be too teenager-ey and I’d hate the language and the way teens think but my goodness I wasn’t prepared to enjoy it the way I did.  It was a proper rollercoaster read and I consumed the whole 400 pages in 3 days… I couldn’t get back to it quick enough.  No wonder the coursework material suggests it as a recommended read.  Short, sharp chapters.  Not too deep with emotions.  A great hook at the end of every chapter (85 in all) and a lovely way to leave the ending because I absolutely wanted more (I believe there’s a sequel).  I was inside both the female protagonist and the male’s head and I was cheering them both on from the get-go.  An excellent start to the course.

Now I’m preparing for my first assignment, which calls for an evaluation of a book you enjoyed reading as a child, cross-examined with a more contemporary one which is written in the same genre and follows the same kind of storyline.  I’m thrilled that I read David Almonds’ amazing ‘Skellig’ just before Christmas (in preparation for the start of the course) and delighted that Stig of the Dump has perfect parallels with Skellig which I can draw on and use for this task.

I’ve already made comprehensive notes on Stig and I’m now about to re-read Skellig and make margin notes in that book as well.  I’m sure I’m not the only one to have thought that these two books work well as comparables, in fact David Almond even referenced Stig of the Dump in an interview I read online, so even he thought of it.  I think I’m getting back into the swing of studying again; I was so worried I was too far out of the look after the New Puppy Blues and the whole Christmas nonsense, but I hope I’m wrong.

Formal Assessment for Writing Short Fiction (and that ‘tampering’ thing)

It felt worse than it actually was, to be frank (whoever he is).  And although I could’ve submittedformal-assessment-folder my work for the March Formal Assessment, I knew that would be pushing it, especially with the new puppy thing – the subsequent sleep deprivation, Christmas (great timing.  Not) contracting the Queen’s Cough (thank you Ma’am) and ensuing mental/creative fug, even if I did get a good tutor report and feedback for Assignment 6 – which included Creative Reading Commentary AND longer reflective Commentary, there was no way I’d feel prepared for it. Least of all able to format, print and tidy everything up the way I’d like it to be.  So I’ve opted for the July Assessment instead.  And I’m SO glad I have.

There’s something very calming and lovely about seeing a completed folder like this.  This is the fourth I’ve prepared in 3 years and I have to say I’m less trembly about them now.  There’s still the niggling need – bordering on OCA OCD – to have everything tweaked and fine-tuned to the Enth degree before I’m totally happy with it, but I truly believe I’m beginning to relax about it slightly more now I’ve done and dusted No.4.

And thanks have to go to the formidable OCA Writing Group on Facebook.  I have learnt things there and un-learnt other things and had my furrowed brow soothed more times than I care to recall.  It’s the first place I go.  And I do wonder if this wasn’t a distance learning course, whether I’d have the courage to actually approach a fellow student in the flesh and pose some of the queries and panics I’ve had over the past few years.  I don’t think I would have.  I have anxieties about appearing foolish.  It may not come across to anyone reading this or ‘chatting’ to me on FB but that’s me.  The quivering wreck.  I know. And I certainly wouldn’t have managed to have amass a posse of helpful students the way FB can do, that’s for sure.

So I’ve learnt that there’s a ‘tampering’ clause.  Yup.  It doesn’t mention anywhere… ANYWHERE in the student handbook, Creative Writing Guide or anywhere else that I’ve managed to find through estensive searches on the forums and anywhere else on the OCA site (No, I haven’t asked outright or emailed the offices because… well, see anxiety above) so this needs to be addressed.  Soonish.  Because we’re all kind of in the dark and holding torches of differing strengths to try and guide ourselves.

This is what the http://www.freedictionary.com says about the word:

gerund or present participle: tampering
interfere with (something) in order to cause damage or make unauthorized alterations.
“someone tampered with the brakes of my car”
synonyms: interfere, monkey around, meddle, tinker, fiddle (about/around), fool about/around, play about/around, toy, trifle, dabble;

which I have certainly never done, or at least never intentionally set out to do when preparing  my work for Formal Assessment.  What I usually do is start a new Word document and then follow the guidelines of a) Original Annotated Work b) Tutor Report/Feedback c) Best Redraft x 3 followed lastly by the Final Reflective Commentary.  Oh, and a title page and contents page inside the cover.  And it seems to have been very well received all three times (17/20 on 2 of them.  We don’t talk about Scrptwriting).  And no mention that I should not have copied and pasted in Tutor Reports or Feedback into this document at all – the reason for copying/pasting purely for consistent page numbering/named pages because how else can you do this?

Tampering discussions ensued on FB – to the point where I didn’t sleep a wink the night I’d thought I’d finally printed off my finished document (copied/pasted as usual etc).  And after more chats about what everyone else does to get around this ‘issue’, I eventually decided I’d email my tutor, ask her to send me a set of tutor reports pertaining to the assignments I was sending, and I’d just print the  buggers off as they came in (consequently I have 2-3 pages with a paragraph on one and a sentence on another but what can I do – they arrived that way) and then typed up a load of (see picture) page numbers/name/student no and Pritt sticked those to the top of the Tutor pages.  It took a while.  It took determination.  It took a lot of biscuits and tea and a lot of puppy ignoring, but it’s done.  It doesn’t look pretty I have to say, and there’re green blobs where the Pritt stick stuck to my fingers and not the top of the page.  But hey.

I’d hate to have the tampering police breathing down my neck.



A Shortlisted Short…

My thanks to fellow student (and published author)  Carole Richardson who alerted me to the fact I’m on the Flash500 ‘current winners’ page as a shortlistee for this quarters’ flash fiction entries with my story: ‘Low fat Quiche’.  Here it is in its entirety:

Low Fat Quiche

She doesn’t really want to be here. I knew the minute she spotted me and waved like she’d won a game show; that display of artificial sincerity.   It’s hurtful, of course, though what can you do? Suck it up – isn’t that what they say?  But we’ve worked together for nine years and shared the same square footage of carpet tiles, so we’ve kind of morphed into semi-friends.  We started buying each other Birthday presents after the first year and then occasionally, like today, meet up for lunch like you do; sit and talk about work – again, like you do. I’m sure she’s got other things she’d rather be doing.

            To see us together, you wouldn’t think we’ve anything in common. We don’t, really; just work.  She’s petite, ash-blonde, trim of frame and lean of mind.  I’m not.  I’m anything but. She used to be a nurse before she worked at our place and we started chatting over health issues – pretty lame (pun intended) I know.  I bet she gets fed up with people doing that.

            She’s ordered the low-fat quiche and salad.  I knew she would.  The way she scanned the menu “hmmm”-ing and “aahhhh”-ing  as if , for once, she might throw her Points out of the window and go for the greasy, cheese-topped lasagne and crispy chips made me want to scream.   I scratch my head (Psoriasis) as if I can’t decide, but know that if I don’t order the same as her then I’ll spend the rest of the day hating myself for having been so weak.  And in front of her too.  I nod, tell her I admire her choice so much that I’ll have the same.  Quiche.  God.

            She tells me about this weekend break she’s been on with the Assistant Manager.  I listen, wondering why this lettuce is called Lambs when it just tastes like leaf.  They’ve been to Prague.  They’ve booked to go on a tour of India in the summer she says; she still can’t believe she’s with someone as perfect as him, she tells me; they do everything together.  I already know this.  She tells me often of how well-matched they are. He’s slightly taller than her, and trim: they’re both keep fit fanatics – which was how they got together – the after-work joggers. 

            They had some exercise this morning, she says, winking at me.  I’ve never jogged in my life I say, like it’s the best joke in the world and we both laugh.  Can you imagine me in Lycra and trainers? Enough to put you off your quiche I say and she laughs louder, covering her mouth with dainty pearlescent-tipped fingers. 

            No, the only physical exertion I’ve ever enjoyed is where you get naked with a member of the opposite sex and thrash about in a dimly-lit room until every fibre of your body fizzes.  I don’t tell her this, though.  If she told the Assistant Manager he might blush, remembering.