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Self-published author Rachel Abbott explains how she’s sold 1.7 million books

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Cosy crime

Bury your ego

Friends for a fee

Two authors share tips for breaking and entering the market

Why writers should be as humble as Jeremy Clarkson

Is it worth paying to promote your books on social media?

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Writers Forum 4 7





A word from the editor


ur featured author, Rachel Abbott, is an inspiration for those looking to self-publish, having sold over 1.7 million copies of her four thrillers so far. She was lucky that she’d had a previous career in marketing, but she has worked incredibly hard to apply this knowledge to sales of her books, putting in 14-hour days on publicity and building a social media presence from scratch. And we are lucky that she is willing to share her hard-earned tips! This month, The Mentor helps a writer who is disheartened by the accomplishments of published authors. Emily points out that we should learn from their success but forge our own paths. We each have different skills that we can bring to writing, but one we all need is determination. If you need help to keep yourself motivated, then Robin Dynes’ Writing Code series continues on page 14 with more exercises to help you work out what your goals are and how to achieve them. It’s just one of the articles designed to keep you on track. Write soon, Carl

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headlines Newsfront The latest in the world of writing AUTHOR EXPERIENCE Tips from a bestseller 1.7 million self-published copies and counting: Rachel Abbott tells Susie Kearley how she did it Writers’ Circle Your letters plus First Draft FIRST STEPS Stay humble Why you need to put your readers before yourself – Douglas McPherson shares more tips for writers starting out MOTIVATION The Writer Code Staying motivated – Robin Dynes has practical ideas to keep you on track with your writing WRITING EXERCISE Show or tell? Barbara Dynes takes a fresh look at the quintessential author technique – and sets a task Fiction markets Inside story Douglas McPherson shows how a surefire winner of a short story proved anything but… INDUSTRY INSIGHT How to break into… cosy crime Phil Barrington talks to two authors in this surprisingly open genre EXPERT Insight Technophobia Blogging in 2016 – Keir Thomas takes you step by step through customising your WordPress FREELANCE MARKETS The Magazine Scene Adam Carpenter presents news and freelance ops – and a focus on fRoots magazine plus Diary of a freelance hack FLASH COMP Our contest is FREE to subscribers plus The £100 winner of our ‘Show not Tell’ competition AGONY AUNT Dear Della Della Galton answers your queries on writing routine, book sales and story endings

31 INSPIRATION Ideas Store Three cheers for Paula Williams! 33 TALES oF MY GURU Hugh Scott’s mystery mentor speaks up for beginners 34 ACHIEVEmENT CALENDAR April Time to set your month’s writing targets 37 story competition This month’s winners of £550 in cash prizes 46 FICTION WORKSHOP Put the devil in the detail Fiction editor Lorraine Mace shows how to craft a really scary story, using a reader’s own work 48 MARKETING Get professional In the next part of her practical series, Sally Jenkins evaluates paid-for publicity services 50 POETRY WORKSHOP Beyond the five senses Poetry editor Sue Butler introduces new angles to explore in your writing – and sets her regular challenge plus In Your Own Words 52 Poetry competition This month’s winner of £100 and a dictionary 54 Writers’ Directory This month’s events, writing courses and helpful books 58 MOTIVATION The Mentor Emily Cunningham of The Write Factor coaches a despondent writer overwhelmed by the published competition 60 Writing know-how Research secrets Toby Clements sampled 15th century life – and hose – for background to his Wars of the Roses novel, he tells Anita Loughrey plus Writing Outlets with Janet Cameron 62 competition calendar Helen M Walters talks to writer and comp judge Wendy Clarke plus comp news and tips 66 Where I write Phil Barrington talks to Christopher Currie about his Brisbane café offices

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newsFRONT The latest in the world of books, the internet and publishing – written by you

Greystones launch

Author Mary Hoffman and her husband Stephen Barber have launched an independent publishing house, The Greystones Press. Hoffman said they will be ‘an alternative to commercially driven major publishers’. She added: ‘There are many really fabulous manuscripts out there by distinguished, prizewinning writers who just can’t get a contract from a big publisher that has massive overheads. That’s where we come in.’ Submissions are welcomed in the fields of adult fiction, Young Adult fiction and translated European fiction. See www. Cathy Bryant

New novel prize Literary consultancy Daniel ’Goldsmith Associates has launched a new First Novel Prize for unpublished and

Children’s authors demand more reviews Children’s author SF Said (right) has teamed up with a ’group of UK writers and bloggers to campaign for more

coverage of children’s books in newspaper reviews. Cover Kids Books asks for newspaper coverage to represent children’s books fairly. Campaigners monitored all book review space in newspapers published in August 2015, and found that children’s books accounted for three per cent of reviews, even though they account for 30 per cent of the UK book market. The campaign gained an immediate response from the Times Education Supplement (TES), who announced that it will now run regular children’s books reviews, written jointly by teachers and students. The article began: ‘It’s high time youngsters were given a voice about the literature they enjoy – that’s why TES is giving pupils a platform to review children’s books.’ Tricia Lowther

independently published writers with a £1000 first prize. Full manuscripts of over 50,000 words in any adult genre are requested (children’s and Young Adult do not qualify). The three winners will have their work read and recognised by literary agent Robert Wade, fiction editor Carla Josephson from Simon & Schuster, and

Keep writing – or else! Nervous writers might want ’to look away now, but for those

who like a challenge, or need to be cajoled to write regularly, The Most Dangerous Writing App could be of interest. The free browser-based tool is designed to ‘shut down your inner editor and get you into a state of flow’. Set a time limit of between five and 60 minutes and start typing. But if you pause for longer than five seconds, all your work is lost! Get to the end of the session and you can copy and paste to save, if you wish. The website brings a tech-based taskmaster to the much advocated idea of stream-of-consciousness writing. Julia Cameron, for example, promotes the practice of writing whatever comes to mind each morning to ‘provoke, clarify, comfort, cajole, prioritise and synchronise the day at hand’. The app can be found at www. Jason Dickinson


Lorena Goldsmith from Daniel Goldsmith Associates. All entries must include a title page with your contact details followed by a synopsis and the whole novel attached within the same document. The entry fee is £25. See

Comic play wanted The second Liverpool Hope ’Playwriting Prize has opened

for entries. The UK’s second largest playwriting prize, after the Bruntwood Prize, is being run in association with the city’s Royal Court Theatre, the Liverpool Echo and The Stage. First prize in the competition is £10,000 and the opportunity to see the play considered for production by the Royal Court. Two highly commended runner-up prizes of £1500 are also on offer. Judges for this year’s comp include author and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce, playwrights Paul Allen and Amanda Whittington, and the actor and comedian Les

Dennis. The 2015 competition received more than 200 entries and organisers expect the second to be just as popular and hard-fought. The inaugural winner of the award, which is judged anonymously, was Katie Mulgrew, a stand-up comedian from Rochdale. Her play, Omnibus, is about four housemates watching a soap opera marathon on a Sunday afternoon, when an unexpected visitor arrives and gives them an episode to remember. Writers have until 31 May 2016 to submit a full-length comedy stage play. Details can be found at Tricia Lowther

Waiting for blue plaques Heritage has included ’twoEnglish authors in its latest list of

famous people to be honoured by blue plaques at addresses in London. Playwright Samuel Beckett, author of Waiting for Godot, lived in London for three years before

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relocating to Paris. The London home of cookery writer Elizabeth David, credited with introducing Mediterranean food to the British public, will also be marked. Beatrice Charles

Tracy Beaker author Jacqueline ’Wilson is launching this year’s

Shrewsbury Bookfest, which runs from 29 April to 2 May. The former children’s laureate admits to having a fondness for the festival, celebrating her sixth visit this year. ‘Children’s authors go all over the world speaking at festivals, but I can honestly say that I have had the most fun at Shrewsbury,’ she told the Shrophire Star. Ms Wilson’s talk will take place at the town’s High School on 29 April and is expected to be a sell-out. For tickets visit www. Mark Pearce

A campaign against labelling ’books as either ‘for boys’ or ‘for

girls’ continues. A World Book Day blog post by the ‘Let Books Be Books’ campaign revealed a list of publishers and booksellers who still categorise books by gender. In the two years since the campaign began, 10 publishers have agreed to stop releasing gendered titles. Usborne and Ladybird are among those who have previously agreed to make changes, and in January, Buster Books became the latest to announce that they will drop gendered children’s titles. Publishers still in the sights of the campaigners include Igloo Books, Hachette Children’s Group and Top That Publishing. The Works stores also came in for criticism after they produced stickers which said ‘Ideal for Girls’ and the same for boys, and placed them on the covers of books sold by Miles Kelly Publishing, who had dropped girls/boys from their titles. Several prominent writers have voiced support for the campaign. Chocolat author Joanne Harris said: ‘Limit the stories you give to your child and you limit that child’s potential.’ Neil Gaiman, Anne Fine and Malorie Blackman are also amongst authors featured in an online supporters gallery. More information about the campaign can be found at Tricia Lowther

creativity. Women’s fiction, crime and poetry are the main genres to be covered via discussion panels, interviews and talks at the event, which takes place on Saturday 2 July. See Sandra Smith

BeaconLit Whether you’re a new ’writer or experienced author,

Hugh Scott is a Whitbread-winning author. He writes and illustrates for The Park Free Press

a one-day literary festival in the Buckinghamshire village of Ivinghoe aims to nurture your

Peter to feature Peter Rabbit, the character ’created by author Beatrix Potter, is to be featured on a new


coloured 50p piece to mark the 150th anniversary of Potter’s birth. He is the first children’s literary character to appear on a UK sterling coin. The Royal Mint has confirmed three more 50p pieces will feature Beatrix Potter characters, but in traditional silver only. The coins will complete a four-piece set. All will be released into circulation later this year. Sharon Boothroyd

Photo Tricia Lowther

Wilson to open

No sexes please!

Time slip York magazine ’TimeNew issued an apology

after it included male author Evelyn Waugh amongst a list of women writers. The list recorded the 100 most read women in college campuses. Several people took to Twitter to point out the embarrassing error. The Brideshead Revisited author was initially listed at number 97 before being withdrawn. Beatrice Charles

Send us your news and the best item each month wins a year’s subscription

want short news items for ’theseWepages, either researched directly

Derek’s far-seeing, futuristic sci-fi novel was taking longer to complete than he’d realised.

by you or sourced from press releases or publications and rewritten for us. In return you’ll get a byline and the best item each month wins a free subscription. This month’s winner is Tricia Crowther. Items should be under 200 words – the snappier the better. You can attach a good quality photo and please make sure stories about events are submitted in time. Importantly, you must be able to prove your story is true and where you found it. Writers’ Forum may edit any items submitted and if a story is covered by more than one writer we’ll choose the best version. Please send items to You can cover any topic that will be useful, interesting or amusing to writers. The subject should be big enough to appeal to a national/ global readership although local news might still inspire or entertain writers in other regions. Get writing and good luck!

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Top-quality creative writing courses

Top-quality creative writi ngincourses the Groucho at the Groucho Club Soho,at London’s literary venue, and nearby Clubwell-known in Soho, London’s well-known literary venue, centralcentral London venues. and nearby London Venues. The Complete Creative Writing Course has

The Complete Creative Writing Course has a range of a range of courses throughout the year to suit courses throughout the year to suit your individual your individual needs, from beginners, needs, from beginners, intermediate and advanced intermediate and advanced courses in fiction courses in fiction writing and also screenwriting writing and also screenwriting courses. courses. We also run regular weekend workshops. We also run regular weekend workshops.

Classes areOur held on courses weekdaystart afternoons, evenings and next in October. weekends, andare allheld our tutors are experienced writers Classes on weekday afternoons, andevenings teachers. and Published former students Dreda weekends, and all our include tutors are Say Mitchell, Clare Sambrook and Naomi Wood. experienced writers and teachers. Published

Professional Self-Publishing Self-publishing services Editing and proofreading Book cover design Paperbacks and ebooks Wholesale distribution Book marketing Worldwide Amazon listing Author websites and social media One-to-one support

former students include Dreda Say Mitchell, Clarecourses Sambrook, and Wood. Our next start inNaomi April and we run

summer schools in July & August. Complete Creative Oct.indd 1

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Discuss your next book with Publishing Director Helen Hart: E: T: +44 (0)117 910 5829

19/06/2015 15:51

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Author interview


wrote my first novel, Only the Innocent, to fulfil an ambition, and never thought about a publishing deal. But when my family read it, they said it was good and I should try to get it published. So I made a half-hearted attempt to get an agent, and a couple replied with some positive feedback. The agents who responded, however, felt that my book wasn’t the sort of thing that publishers were looking for at the time. I’d looked at Kindle as a publishing platform early in 2010 while I was writing the book, but you needed a US bank account, so being British, I decided against it. However, in 2011, six months after getting the positive feedback, I looked into it again and found things had changed. That September I published Only the Innocent as an ebook for Kindle. The process wasn’t as straightforward as it is now – to be sure the layout would work you ideally had to use HTML. Fortunately I had the skills to do that, and published on Amazon without too much difficulty. I emailed all my friends and asked them to buy my book, saying I’d pay them back. I started selling the book at £1.99 and was delighted when I sold six on Christmas Day, even though they probably all went to friends and family, none of whom had a Kindle!

The need for marketing

Tips from a bestseller

Rachel Abbott tells Susie Kearley how she managed to become a top selling author through Amazon’s self-publishing platform – and remain in the bestseller charts five books later

That Christmas I got thinking. I had managed an interactive media company and used to market my company to our clients: why was I not being proactive in marketing my book? So I wrote a marketing plan, 27 pages long, comparable to one I would have presented to the board at work. By the time I published the book I’d retired, so I was able to spend 14 hours every day implementing my plan. It took three months to do the bulk of the work, making contacts on social media, submitting my book to reviewers and running promotions, but it didn’t end there. The marketing is ongoing and constantly evolving. Halfway through January 2012, I dropped the price to 99p and promoted it to everyone identified in my marketing plan. On 18 February, my book reached number one in the Kindle charts, and it stayed at the top until the middle of March. I was delighted, but I wasn’t complacent. I kept marketing the book and was learning new stuff the whole time. I didn’t know anything about social media, but I started a new blog, approached

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Author interview

length, the genre, etc. I then offer them a Kindle version or a PDF, or in some cases a paperback.

Continued from previous page

reviewers, and was very active on Twitter and Facebook. It was a real hard slog, but it paid off. On social media, people say you shouldn’t put your own books up all the time, but rightly or wrongly I actually found this approach worked for me. The average Twitter user only logs on for six minutes a day, apparently, and some of the top marketing people advise you should post almost the same tweet every 20 minutes. In the early days, Twitter was very important and amazingly helpful to me. But now I prefer Facebook, as the format seems to encourage a more engaged and supportive following. I use both my private Facebook timeline and my author page to promote my books. Posts on my author page only reach about 16 per cent of followers unless I pay for visibility, so I use the ‘Promote Post’ facility on Facebook. It’s expensive, but worth it for me. Marketing is all about visibility, and so counting the cost of these promotions against direct sales is only half of the story. When my book is in a promotion, I probably receive about 49p per copy sold. If I am paying 40p for each click through to the Amazon page in a promotion, it seems hardly worth it – especially as not every click will result in a sale. But these clicks drive the book further up the charts, and so make it more visible, and that in itself results in more sales – ones that I am not paying for through advertising. [For more on this, see page 48.] When the price goes up again, my book is higher up the charts, and so benefits from more sales at the full price.

Help with social media

I have a blog, which helps raise awareness of my books; I’m not sure it produces vast sales numbers, but it does help with brand recognition. I make sure that my book covers are seen in as many places as possible, because apparently people need to see something seven times just for them to be aware of it. The blog also helps capture names for my reader database, which is a great marketing tool. The best way to get a database of readers is to put a link in the back of your Kindle book, which they can click to sign up to your newsletter. For me, this has worked brilliantly. To store data, and to design and send your emails, use Campaign Monitor, MailChimp or one of the many other applications designed for the purpose. It


An agent still helps

helps to streamline the process and keep it simple. People can sign up to my newsletter on Facebook, too. I run Facebook adverts specifically to get new names, and on one occasion I offered 50 signed copies of my books in a prize draw. The promotion got me 3000 names for my database. However, the people who sign up because they’ve read a book are twice as likely to click on links as those who enter a competition. I now have a number of part-time assistants helping with marketing. They

In 2012 I finally got an agent, Lizzy Kremer at David Higham Associates, who has helped me to sell foreign translation rights to publishers around the world. English language rights remain with me but the agency has now sold rights in 12 different languages. That same year, my agent negotiated a publishing deal with Thomas and Mercer in the USA for my first two books. Despite impressive sales in the UK, the books hadn’t sold as well in North America, so I wanted to see what a publisher could achieve. I signed a contract for publication in North America, including Canada. I was very pleased with Thomas and Mercer, who increased sales in America. However, when the contract was up for renewal, they were interested in World English rights, and I wanted to retain my rights in the UK, so sadly we parted company. My third novel, Sleep Tight, sold well on both sides of the Atlantic, so Thomas and Mercer had clearly done an excellent job of raising my profile in the USA. I did enjoy working with a traditional publisher, and certainly wouldn’t rule out a publishing deal in the future. My subsequent novel, Stranger Child, and novella, Nowhere Child, both published last year, were both bestsellers. I’ve sold almost 1.7 million books since I first selfpublished in 2011.

A note on paperbacks

I’ve sold almost 1.7 million books since I first self-published in 2011 take care of Twitter, database work, competitions and launch parties. I still produce a new marketing plan every year, but now I focus less on getting new readers and more on making sure I communicate with existing readers. I’ve also put together a database of reviewers so I have all their details in one place. This makes it easy when you’ve got a new book to promote. I send a professional package giving full details of the book – the cover, the blurb, the

I first started publishing my books in paperback in 2012, using Amazon’s CreateSpace. I later switched to Lightning Source because they also ship from the UK, which means bookstores can buy from them at a sensible cost. CreateSpace’s extended distribution ships from the USA, which makes it expensive for British bookstores to stock your book. While those two services are print-ondemand, I also recently ordered a print run of Stranger Child from Silverwood Books because I wanted British bookstores to be able to buy them for the same price as a traditionally published book, and this seemed the most straightforward way to achieve that. I sell more ebooks than print books, but I think that’s true of a lot of writers. • Rachel’s new book, Kill Me Again, is out now in ebook format and will be available as a paperback in June

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Screenwriting masterclass in Tuscany!

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Full board accommodation. Homely atmosphere. Open fires. Aga. Home cooked food. Walled garden and river. Comfy rooms with desks. Library/lounge. Studio space. Gallery. Workshops. Writing group. Writing tuition. Meditation and Mindfulness workshops. Events. Find out more at e-mail Tel 01300 348642 Mob 07710 747437

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Writers CIRCLE

Your news and views, writing tips and funny stories WOMAG WOES Most of the ‘How to’ PRIZE advice suggests honing LETTER your fiction skills in the women’s magazine market. For most of my adult life I have been submitting and then, predictably, receiving the rejects! I have had work published in non-paying magazines, so why can’t I crack the women’s market? I have attended local writing workshops and those offered by national publications. These workshops tell us to write something original within the auspices of their guidelines. I have recently bought several magazines to look at the current story trend and was very surprised to see some stories that were virtually carbon copies of each other. I read one story very similar to one that I had submitted at least four years ago. I hasten to add I am not claiming anything underhand; merely that many of us will have variations on a theme at any time. So originality is not always achievable in this very overcrowded market. It is very disheartening to see the same ‘established’ writers’ names in the magazines, often with one or more stories in the same publication. What chance do we newbie writers stand? Norma Willoughby, Greetland, Halifax Ed: I used to work in the market and can assure you writing for these mags is an ambitious goal and not a place to hone skills. Assuming your work is good enough, you seem to be doing the right things, but are you doing enough? Pitching is a numbers game: the more stories you have out there, perhaps dozens at a time, the better your chances of one of them being in



Send your success stories, questions for Helen, tips and comp news (three months in advance) to com

Competitive Edge Career taking flight

COMPS NOW OPEN Erewash Writers’ Group New Writer Competition Closes 30 Jun 2016 Story: 3000 words. Fee: £3 for one, £2.50 for others. Prizes: £40; free entry to open short story comp. Rules: new writers only. Details: see

Helen hears from Rachel Dove, whose win in a magazine competition has changed her life


achel Dove won the 2015 Prima magazine and Mills & Boon novel competition, finding success after many years of hard work. Rachel says: ‘I started submitting about 15 years ago, so I have a huge folder of rejections. I have notebooks full of plans and plots, and a fair few Works in Progress. I have entered a few competitions in the past, ranging from flash fiction to novel competitions, but I never placed in any of them. It never stopped me trying, though.’ The Prima Mills & Boon competition really caught Rachel’s eye. ‘I love Mills & Boon and Prima magazine,’ she says. ‘I read their publications compulsively. When I saw the competition launched in the magazine, and the interview with existing M&B writer Anouska Knight, it made me realise how much I still wanted to have a book published, and I just knew I had to enter.

submit button or drop that envelope in the postbox.’ Rachel’s novel will be published in April this year. ‘The Chic Boutique on Baker Street is set in a small Yorkshire town, with some very colourful characters,’ Rachel explains. ‘Amanda Perry flees to Westfield from London to lick her wounds, and follow her own heart, and the book is about how the people that she meets enable her to do that, and to let go. ‘I am a believer in fate, and I love to write stories about how different parts of a person push them on to new paths, how we are all more than a job or a status. ‘The Prima competition has changed everything for me. It has been such a great experience so far, and life feels full of promise for the future. It’s like a validation, that my geeky 12-year-old self, with huge glasses and nose buried in a book or scribbling

the right place at the right time. But it’s not surprising that fiction editors rely on a band of trusted contributors. Space is limited, as is the budget and the editor’s time. Every time a story slot is given to a newbie – who may be a one-hit wonder – it’s one less payment to a regular who has proven they can deliver the goods time after time. It makes more sense to keep the regulars happy. To give yourself the best chance of joining that elite band, keep sending out stories and build a reputation for quality, productivity and consistency. And once you do join them, you’ll appreciate not having to share the market with too many others!

DOVE TALE Thank you, Helen Walters, for your #173 Competitive Edge column about Rachel Dove, who finally achieved success after 15 years of planning, unplaced competition entries and determination. We often hear about awardwinning authors who had a

with short story writer Helen M Walters

Rachel Dove

unusual like a ‘fetch’ or living ghost. ■ What links your ghost to your main character? Why are they haunting them? Do they mean them harm, or are they benevolent? ■ For very spooky stories, try to convey fear by talking about how it feels physically. Your character might experience anything from a dry mouth and clammy palms to palpitations and gasping for breath, depending on how scared they are. ■ A great book about writing ghost stories is Ghost Stories and How to Write Them, by Kathleen McGurl. This is mainly aimed at people writing short stories for the women’s

meteoric rise to fame. It is easy for unpublished novelists who are waiting for their magical moment to become frustrated. Rachel Dove’s article was a tonic. It has given me hope that persistence and self-belief will eventually pay off if you keep trying. Cindy Shanks, Todmorden, Lancs

GET OUT THERE In issue #173, Heather Pelmore wrote in to Della’s page stating her writing wasn’t ‘good enough to send to competitions’. How does she know? If she hasn’t yet tried I’d suggest she does so, or she won’t know for sure. Indeed, sending one or two entries into your own comps could get her a workshop or critique, to know if she’s doing herself down or not. A natural feeling of the solitary writer is to feel that their work is not good enough to be read widely. I’m not sure if Heather is already a member of a writers’

Park Publications Article Competition Closes 31 Aug 2016 Article: 1000-1500 words. Theme: ‘My writing day’. Fee: £3. Prizes: £50; £25; £15. Details: see www. or write to 14 The Park, Stow on the Wold, Cheltenham GL54 1DX. COMPS CLOSING SOON

‘An extra day’ in Evesham

mentoring from a Myriad author. Judges: Lisa Cutts, Elly Griffiths, Elizabeth Haynes, Peter James and Lesley Thomson. Details: see www. first-drafts or write to Myriad Editions, 59 Lansdowne Place, Brighton BN3 1FL.

31 MAR


Cinnamon Press Poetry Pamphlet Prize Poetry: up to four pamphlets. Fee: £10. Prizes: 4 x £100 and publication. Judge: Ian Gregson. see www.cinnamonpress.

Wergle Flomp Humour Poetry Contest Poem: 250 lines. Theme: Humour. Fee: FREE. Prizes: $1000; $250; 10 x $100. Details: see

group but joining one would allow her to read her work out to other like-minded people who will give their opinion on whether it’s good enough or not. Sign up to a writing course – or attend one of Della’s sessions via Woman’s Weekly and you can gain the benefit of Della’s guidance. Don’t do yourself down, Heather. Put your work out there and let somebody make the decision as to whether it’s good enough or not! Mark Pearce, Tibberton, Newport

GRAN FICTION Pauline Barnett’s letter about her rejection for a saucy story (‘Circulation Boost’, issue #171) was interesting. Whilst her irritation is understandable, I would advise her to remember that writing for publication means listening to what the editor wants. If Pauline wants that particular story to make it into print, then she must either submit to other

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Just for fun


a year’s subscription!

The writer of the prize letter each month will win a year’s subscription to the magazine. Please make sure that you include your full name and address in your email. Write to

Oh dear, it looks like Ben Elton was having a bad writing day. Can you spot the 20 errors in this ‘first draft’ of Time and Time Again?

The progress of the day had done nothing to lighten the skys

Titles such as Willings Press Guide and the Writers’ & Artists Yearbook list hundreds of ready markets offering potential opportunities for freelance writers. However, a closer look reveals that a large percentage of these markets are specialist in every sense, appealing mostly to those with an in-depth knowledge on the given subject. For instance, how many writers can produce authoritative articles for a publication called Economica, ‘a learned journal covering the fields of economics, economic history and statistics’? Ditto Frieze, ‘a magazine of contemporary European art and culture, including essays, reviews, columns and listings’. Extreme examples, maybe, but you get the drift. Take away the specialist titles and you are left with considerably fewer markets to aim for. Cyril Francis, Stowmarket, Suffolk Ed: Actually, Cyril, as we often point out, this makes it easier to sell writing, not harder. Almost every writer is a

Mum’s the wordpress

I was delighted to come across Keir Thomas’s series ‘Blogging in 2016’, having started my own blog just last year (www. I was initially nervous about venturing into the world of blogging, but I have to agree wholeheartedly with Keir’s suggestion of WordPress as I have found it extremely easy to navigate my way around and to customise. If I can use it, so can you! I was very interested to read about the possibility of recording visitor data via Google Analytics and I will certainly take on board the point about finding fellow bloggers to collaborate with. I look forward to the features still to come from Keir on this topic. Daniela Baker, Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex

Method-ist I was interested to read the piece by Alice Charles (News, #173 March issue) on the ‘method writing’ class on offer. I have become quite angry myself when writing a quarrel scene. Writers of erotic novels might have a lot of fun ‘living’ their characters, but maybe the authors of crime novels and murder mysteries should beware of adopting this method too literally! Pamela Hibbert, Crowthorne, Berks

over Trinity College. If anything, the storm raging above Great court was gathering force. A rare warm thermal currant, lost and directionless in the climatic chaos that had torn it from it’s ancient course, had brought rain among the snow and hale. The icicles hanging from the fountain in the middle of the quad had turned to silvery waterfalls, a grey and grimacing stone overbite of drooling needle teeth. In the Masters Lodge Professor Mccluskey had been occupying her preferred position of hogging the fire while she told her story. Now she stumped across the room to the window and robbed a spy hole in the condensation to look–out. ‘Blimey’ she muttered, peering into the violent and sodden gloom. ‘Now that is blooming weather.’ ‘Never mind about the weather,’ Stanton replyed. ‘Are you seriously telling me that Isaac Newton wrote you a letter.’ ‘Yes, he did,’ McCluskey answered, throwing a triumphant fist into the air. ‘not me personably, of course. The letter he left with Richard Bentley was addressed to the Master of Trinity, New Years’ Day, 2024. It was a sacred tryst, to be handed down, unopened, from Master to master until the pointed date. Imagine how surprised Bentley and old Isaac would have been if they’d known that three hundred years hence the recipient of the latter would be a woman! Now that would have shocked the crusty old buggers.’ Sent in by Jason Dickinson, from Carmarthen, who wins £25 (missing comma). 11 ‘Never mind (new par for new speaker). 12 Stanton replied (typo). 13 you a letter?’ (question). 14 ‘Not me (capital). 15 personally, of course (wrong word). 16 New Year’s Day (misplaced apostrophe). 17 a sacred trust (wrong word). 18 Master (capital). 19 until the appointed date (wrong word). 20 recipient of the letter (wrong word).

Expert view

specialist in one way or another and somewhere there is a market for every subject under the sun, especially now the internet makes it easier for readers and writers to connect. Even hermits get book deals.What’s your area of expertise?

Corrections 1 lighten the skies (spelling). 2 above Great Court (capital). 3 thermal current (wrong word). 4 its ancient (no apostrophe). 5 snow and hail (wrong word). 6 Master’s Lodge (missing apostrophe). 7 Professor McCluskey (capital). 8 rubbed a spy hole (wrong word). 9 look out (no hyphen). 10 ‘Blimey,’ she muttered

publications, or wait for a new editor and try again. The rejection letter told her to remember the magazine is ‘read by grandmothers’ and Pauline pointed out she was a grandmother herself. But ‘grandmother’ applies to a wide age range of women. It may be suitable for younger grannies but might not be for those at the older end of the spectrum. I will be very interested to hear whether Pauline does anything more with her story, and what the outcome is. Ingrid Senger-Perkins, Brindley Ford, Stoke-on-Trent


Could you ruin a passage from a modern novel? Send your error-ridden First Draft (around 250 words), and the 20 solutions, to Please note that entries are accepted via email only. We pay £25 for the best published.

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Douglas McPherson explains why a writer has to approach work from a place of humility

Whatever your position, you still have a job to do


he rise of social media, with millions of people typing at each other on Facebook, blogs and online comments threads, is testament to humanity’s innate need to express itself. From water-cooler gossip to pub punditry, we’ll all take any opportunity to put the world to rights and get things off our chest to anyone who’ll listen. Which is probably why people have always coveted the job of writer. Being read by hundreds of thousands must be the ultimate platform for


self-expression, right? And, by extension, writing must be the perfect job for those who know no finer music than the sound of their own voice. Well, there’s no doubt that us scribes enjoy seeing our names in print, and writers can be as big-headed as anyone else. It takes a lot of self-belief to put your work forward for publication, and being a shrinking violet will get you nowhere. But when you actually sit down to write, an ego is the last thing a writer can afford

to have. The quality you most need in order to get published, in fact, is humility. You have to see yourself as servant not master, because nothing you put on the page should be there for your benefit – everything should be there for the reader.

Clarkson effect

Aspiring writers can find that hard to grasp, because a lot of writing comes across as egotistical. An opinion piece, or a column about a funny thing that happened to the author, appears to be all about the

writer. It’s their opinion or an anecdote from their life. On the surface, it’s all about them. But to see such writing as ego-driven is to confuse content with process. Yes, they’re writing from their own experience – that’s the content. But when they begin crafting that raw material into something for publication… pondering the best intro, arranging the points in the most logical order, considering cadence and pace and all the other things that go into an article… well, at that point, their ego has left the building and the entire process is about you, the reader. How can I keep you interested? they’re thinking. How will you most readily assimilate this? How can I make this complex idea, which I’ve been familiar with for a long time, clear to you when you read it for the first time? That’s true even when a writer like Jeremy Clarkson adopts a deliberately egotistical tone. He may be amplifying an aspect of his nature and expressing a genuinely held view, but he’s not having a rant for the purpose of lowering his own blood pressure. He’s putting all his creative powers into a carefully considered performance designed to entertain you.

Vanity trap

Of course, none of the focus on you shows on the page. It works its magic subliminally to create something that invites

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They sit down and become the written equivalent of a pub bore – and nobody wants to read it us in, makes us comfortable and ensures we have an enjoyable read. The trap that would-be keyboard warriors can easily fall into is to miss all that reader-oriented craftsmanship and think, ‘Hey, all these guys do is spout their opinions and write about their lives. I could do that!’ They then sit down and become the written equivalent of a pub bore, droning on and on about their holidays and laughing at their own jokes with zero awareness that they’re boring you stupid. Cyberspace is full of writing like that – and nobody wants to read it. The writers probably can’t see the difference between their work and a column in a broadsheet. After all, the content is the same. So they wonder, bitterly, why the guy in the Guardian gets paid and they don’t. The difference is a lack of humility. The internet ranters

are writing for themselves, to boost their ego, gain kudos or vent their spleen. They assume their writing will be interesting because they are enjoying it. But because all their thoughts are for themselves, the reader is left out in the cold. The published writer, by contrast, has the humility to know that however interesting their story, they will still have to work their socks off to interest the reader.

The invisible writer

If it takes humility to pen opinion pieces and columns, then other forms of writing need it doubly so, to the point where you should aim to be almost invisible. ■ In an interview, remember your job is to record the views of your interviewee, not express your own opinion. You can play devil’s advocate and challenge them to draw them out, but that should always be done for the benefit of the

TRICKS OF THE TRADE Douglas shares writing tips he’s learned through experience

#15 Always serve the story Writing is as much about what you leave out as what you include. There will always be something that almost fits but doesn’t quite work. The phrase ‘kill your darlings’ is apt, because the bit you know in your heart has to go is often the bit you are most attached to. It’s easy to think, ‘This is my story, I’ll include what I like!’ But if something isn’t right, an editor will weed it out anyway or, worse, reject the whole thing. It’s better to take it out yourself. The way to do that is to stop regarding a piece of writing as yours. See it as theirs – something you’re making for the magazine and the readers. They are paying for it, after all. When you see your writing as something that doesn’t belong to you, it’s much easier to make decisions that serve the story rather than yourself. ■ If you have a question about getting started as a writer, please email Douglas at

readers, not because you have an opportunity to tell a famous person what you think. ■ In a general article, have the humility to understand that nobody will be interested in your views as a layperson. Construct your piece from attributed facts and quotes from experts. ■ In a review, put aside your personal taste and judge the thing in the context of what it’s trying to do, how it compares with the competition and the value it will have to your readers. Write impartially, for the benefit of your audience, rather than to seek approval, feed your ego or make yourself look good. ■ In fiction, it’s especially important to stay out of the story. Don’t let your characters become mouthpieces for your views, and understand the difference between writing for an audience and writing for therapy.

Love thy reader

When it comes to fancy writing, remember we like entertainers and dislike show-offs. The difference is humility. You show off to satisfy your ego, and entertain to satisfy your audience. Never pitch an idea from the standpoint of, ‘What would I like to spout about?’ Instead, think, ‘What could I write about this subject that would benefit that magazine and its readers?’ You’ll still be writing about a subject you’re passionate about, but will hopefully come up with an angle that’s interesting to others, rather than just to you. Ultimately, the key to getting published is to think of writing as a gift from the writer to the reader. If you want your gift to be well received, your intentions should be all about them and not about you.

Next issue

Realise your financial worth.

TAKE THE STEP Lesson 1 Published writing is for the benefit of the reader, not the writer. Lesson 2 Keep your opinions out of interviews, general articles and fiction. Put the spotlight on the subject matter and make yourself invisible. Lesson 3 Even in a first-person piece, keep your focus on entertaining and informing your readers rather than amusing yourself or venting your feelings. Print is a platform from which you give to your readers. Homework Write an opinion piece about something in the news. Pick a topic you’re really incensed about. But don’t rant. Write a piece they’d print in the comment pages of your favourite paper. Stick to a tight wordcount. Construct a logical argument. Use researched facts and non-libellous language. Above all, make it something people would want to read, rather than something you feel better for writing. • Douglas McPherson’s non-fiction book Circus Mania is now available in an Amazon Kindle edition.

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Robin Dynes shows how to determine your own writing DNA to help you become a motivated, skilled and successful author


he writing life is full of ups and downs. There are times of despair, frustration, excitement and joy. You will have to get used to receiving rejection slips and dealing with obstacles, both creative and practical. Well-laid plans often go wrong. There will be self-critical voices inside your head and comments from sceptical friends who think you are wasting your time. How do you stay positive, keep going and achieve your goals? If you have completed the exercises in the first two articles of this series you will have laid a solid foundation to help you stay motivated. You have a writer image, know what you want to write and have a plan to get there – this gives you the best chance of success.



Strategies to keep you going Different people respond to different strategies. It is a matter of trial and error to find what works best for you. Below are a few tried and tested methods to help you stay motivated.

Remind yourself of past successes

becomes: ‘I didn’t get that right but I can learn from this to do better next time.’

Take smaller steps Review your

targets and break down unrealistic ones into smaller, achievable ones. Setting unachievable targets is a surefire way to feel stressed and that you are failing.

At the end of a day or week make a note of your accomplishments in your diary. ‘Worked out plot for new story;’ ‘Completed rough draft;’ ‘Researched material for article;’ ‘Got feedback on article in class,’ and so on. When feeling down and that you are not making progress, browsing through your diary at all your successes will both surprise and perk you up.

Push yourself When you don’t feel like doing something, take a few moments to refocus. Think about what you would say to someone you were coaching. Ask yourself: ‘Which will help me achieve my goals – watching TV or spending time revising my story?’

Praise and reward yourself Tell

Imagine success At regular intervals

yourself: ‘That was difficult, but I did it.’ Or: ‘I made a good job of that.’ Acknowledge your accomplishments by giving yourself treats. Too often we let negativity dominate by paying too much attention to set-backs.

Turn negatives into positives An

article turned down or a story rejected


have quiet times when you imagine what success will be like when you sell that story, achieve a target or reach your goal. Using all your senses, visualise how you will feel.

Move out of your comfort zone Be prepared to take risks and try new things. It is OK to feel uncomfortable at

times – everyone does. You don’t have to be perfect. Also, remember to ask for help when you need it and use humour. Laugh at yourself and your own idiosyncrasies. Write down five strategies you will use to stay motivated. You may have other strategies that you know work for you. Add them to your list. State when you will use them. For example: ‘I will record and then review and acknowledge my accomplishments once a week/month.’ Remember, a dream remains a dream and a plan just a plan, unless you carry it out.

Overcoming obstacles It’s a fact of life that the unexpected can happen – something occurs which is not predictable, or a problem arises. You may have fears about the changes that acting on your writing plans will bring about. Perhaps your partner is uncooperative or you are faced with an opportunity that is too good to miss. This doesn’t mean you abandon your goals and give up. It simply

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3: Staying motivated means you have to pause, think creatively and use your problem-solving skills. Write down a short list of writing fears or problems that you are facing or can foresee. Examples might be: Finding the money to do a novel-writing course; Not knowing how to tell a partner you want him to babysit twice a week; Fear of meeting new people. Be honest with yourself. Failing to acknowledge a problem or fear that is holding you back can become a major stumbling block. Here is a simple four-step problemsolving method to help you overcome such obstacles. Let’s take an example: You want to join a writing group but lack confidence in meeting people and starting conversations. You’ve lots of negative thoughts.

Step 1 State the problem in a positive

way that leads to action. A good way to do this is to start the sentence with ‘How to…’ In this case you might state: ‘How to overcome my fears about meeting new people, starting conversations and having negative thoughts when I attend the writing group.’

Step 2 List as many solutions as you can

think up. If necessary, talk to other people who may be able to give you more ideas. In our example you might write: • List all the benefits so that I can keep reminding myself. • Keep repeating to myself ‘I can do this.’ • Practise doing breathing exercises so I can do them if I feel a panic coming on. • Start a conversation to get to know a few people by saying: ‘I am new here, my name is … Are you a regular?’

Step 3 Choose a solution or combination of solutions and define your choices in a way that will lead to action, and state when you are going to do it. • I will list the benefits so I can keep reminding myself. (Now) • I will practise doing some breathing exercises I can use if I start feeling panicky. (Each night this week) • I will approach people and say ‘I am new here, my name is … Are you a regular?’ (At the meeting)

Step 4 Take the action. For instance, attend the writing group meeting.

Now look at your completed list of fears and writing problems from exercise 2. Choose one and work out your plan to deal with it. Practise doing this with things as they crop up and it will soon become second nature. It is a simple but effective method that we forget to apply when caught in the emotion of confronting a fear or a problem, be it organisational or to do with our writing.

Turning failure into success Most successful writers have failed time and time again. Gertrude Stein submitted poems for 22 years before having one published. The novel Carrie by Stephen King was rejected 30 times. Alex Haley, author of Roots, wrote every day, seven days a week for eight years before selling to a small magazine. Dealing with and learning from rejections is all part of the writing process. It is easy to become demoralised: you feel busy, have lots of plates spinning and are battling with caring for the family and earning enough to pay the mortgage or go on a course. You don’t feel you are making much headway, feel stressed, and your energy levels are becoming low. You begin to feel you are failing. What can you do? Stop and think. Have you done your market research? Do you need help with plotting stories? Should you get feedback on your work? Review your goals and the targets you have set. Examine the various activities you are engaged in to achieve them. Then categorise the activities using the traffic light approach.

RED These are the things you do that are getting you nowhere. You may be doing them out of habit. They do not have a purpose or take you in a specific direction. AMBER These activities may or may

not help you move forward. Working out which you need to stop doing will need some thought. You may need to discuss some of them with your partner or anyone who is affected. Also, before deciding whether or not doing something is worthwhile, getting an independent opinion from a writing friend or mentor may be useful.

GREEN These are the things you do that bring a sense of balance to your life and which enable you to move your writing career forward. Hold on to these and, if you can, do more of them. The more you do in the red or amber zones, the more the important tasks in the green zone get squeezed. Review what you are doing on a regular basis before you begin to feel you are failing. Stop now and reflect on all the things you do. Use the traffic light system to categorise your activities. See what falls into the red or amber light category and what you are doing that is worthwhile. If it isn’t working to move you forward, stop doing it. Applying these strategies will make a big difference, turning that feeling you are failing into a real sense of making progress and keeping you motivated.

Next time In the next issue we will explore writing outside the box. Do you write for a market or just what you want to write? How does this fit with your writing code?

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Author technique: SHOW OR TELL? Make scenes that are full of life and purpose

Barbara Dynes explains the important difference between showing and telling – and sets an exercise


ecognise those three opening sentences above? All are from classic novels. (Which ones? Answers below!) Now read them again. They are excellent in that each sums up the tone of the story to come and reveals its theme in the very first line. Yet they are all written in a narrative fashion; the author is ‘telling’ the reader the story – he or she is standing back, announcing the facts, in the style of a newspaper reporter. We are not ‘shown’ them through someone’s viewpoint


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or emotions, neither are we plunged straight into any action or crisis. Interestingly, those opening lines are from 19th-century classics. In each, the author’s voice is all important – he or she is completely in control.

Modern times Today, things have speeded up somewhat and we are advised to ‘show, rather than tell’, to write the scene as if it is happening now, before our eyes. And the difference is that this allows the

No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be a heroine.

character to take control, rather than the author. The story often starts from the character’s viewpoint, so the reader is immediately right there with him, identifying with him and feeling as he feels. You are making the reader active – and readers like being active! It is said that the influence of film and television comes in here – we are now so used to seeing stories that we demand more and more drama. And getting information over by showing it, through a character or whatever,

Jessie and her mother met unexpectedly in the high street. The pair chatted awkwardly, with Jessie’s mother making cutting remarks about her daughter’s weight gain. Jessie just glared at her. Showing the same situation: Jessie winced as she spotted her mother, walking towards her. Mum was the last person she wanted to see! She steeled herself, noting the look of horror on the heavily made-up face. ‘Jess, you’ve put on pounds!’ she declared. ‘What have you been doing?’ Jessie frowned. No hugs, no smiles, just the usual cutting remarks. In the second passage the two characters come alive. By

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy; Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy; Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

All happy families are alike: each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

On an evening in the latter part of May a middle-aged man was walking homeward from Shaston in the village of Marlott, in the adjoining Vale of Blakemore or Blackmoor.

is bound to be more vivid and ‘alive’ than merely telling about it. Showing brings readers right into the story – they can actively engage with the character. It’s also a more natural way of getting the story across. You are revealing the situation gradually. In real life, things don’t get communicated all at once. If a writer tells us about a scene or situation, it comes across in one fell swoop. Show it and you are portraying it more naturally. At the same time, it is not static information – you should find it easier to keep the story moving. Today it is often advisable to start a novel at some kind of crisis or point of change. When it comes to opening a commercial short story of, say, only 1000 words, it’s even more important. You need to plunge straight in, showing rather than telling. Example of telling a situation:

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EXERCISE You are making the reader active and readers like being active!

showing that scene in Jessie’s viewpoint, the author is able to add to the characterisation, using appearance, speech, action, reaction and thought.

Telling This article is entitled ‘Show or tell?’ rather than ‘Show, don’t tell’, because, although it is always better to show if you can, we must not underestimate the telling aspect. We cannot show everything. Don’t think you must avoid ‘telling’ at all costs. There will be times when you need to tell a part of the story rather than show it. For instance, supposing you have two people arranging to meet somewhere – they have reached a crisis in their relationship and need to talk. The crucial point will be the meeting and what develops; you don’t have to go into detail about how they got to their destination. You would be holding up the story. So, just tell that uninteresting part: Jane took a taxi and got there much too early… Unless, of course, something significant happens on the way – something that changes the course of the story. Then you’ll need to show the scene.

Showing and telling Sometimes you can combine the two aspects in a most effective way. Example: I had known Rachel, my actress friend, for years but it wasn’t until I went along with her to a rehearsal that I saw a ‘new’ Rachel. It was as though she’d grown in stature; her presence and her confidence shone through and she acted everyone else off the stage.

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That tells us about Rachel whilst also showing us her character and how she changes when she is on stage. You can use this method when you want to move the story on quickly, yet need to reveal an essential characterisation point or small detail as you do so. Here are some advantages of the two approaches.

Telling: ■ Enables you to move through time and place quickly ■ Is a method of linking your ‘showing’ scenes ■ Gives brief background information ■ Usually takes less time (and words) than showing

Showing: ■ Allows the reader to identify with the character and be active along with him/her ■ Adds to characterisation ■ Is more dramatic, revealing things gradually, thus interesting

I would advise anyone still in a fog about showing and telling just to go ahead and write their story or novel. Then, at revision time as you reread the piece, ask yourself whether you are really involved with your characters. Do you care what happens to them? If not, there is probably too much telling and not enough showing. Perhaps you need to flesh out some of the scenes?

Barbara Dynes’ latest book, Masterclasses in Creative Writing, is published by Constable & Robinson at £9.99

Show business


Write, in under 500 words, a piece showing the row between the two characters that you are told about below, using dialogue, reaction and thoughts.

Anne, aged 20, and Sue, aged 18, are sisters still living at home. Opposite in character, they have never really got on. Anne is the homely type, preferring to stay indoors with a book rather than go out. Sue is always off having a good time. Sue steals Tom, Anne’s boyfriend, and there is a row which ends with Sue storming out of the house, saying she is going to live with Tom. You’ll need to decide whose viewpoint you’ll take – through whose eyes you’ll write the scene – and, remembering how different the girls are, show that particular girl’s thoughts and reactions to the situation. Notes





My scene rating


Think of something that has happened to you in the past, something that really affected you at the time – perhaps an accident, a meeting with someone important or a potentially happy occasion that turned out to be quite the opposite. Whatever, choose an event that had a crisis point or some kind of twist.

In no more than 500 words, write about it in a telling way – as if you are reporting it in a newspaper. Then write it up again, but this time show the situation, using dialogue and reaction, etc. You could use your own viewpoint (write in the first person) or someone else’s. Which version is more interesting, the telling passage or the showing one? Notes




My scene rating


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Fiction MARKET


Douglas McPherson reveals the mistakes he made in the first draft of a sweet romance


huck Berry was once asked why his songs were so successful. He said he figured that most people go to school, most people drive cars and most people fall in love. So he wrote songs like School Days, Almost Grown and Maybellene that were rich in images of school life, automobiles and young love – things that his teenage audience could relate and aspire to. That’s a good test for any piece of writing: are you writing about things your audience will enjoy reading about? Romance readers, for example, are looking for feel‑good escapism, so give them glamorous and romantic locations, gorgeous characters, nice clothes, flowers, chocolates and sunny weather (or snowy Christmases – everyone likes snowy Christmases!). They won’t want to follow your cynical antihero into a dank sewer beneath a drug‑riddled estate. But if, on the other hand, you’re writing a crime thriller or horror story for an audience that wants to be creeped out… get down that manhole and spare us the lovey-dovey stuff. The same is true of non‑ fiction. If you’re interviewing a guitarist for a musicians’ mag your readers will want to know all about string thicknesses, amps and effects pedals – things you’d never include if you wrote about the same player for a celebrity mag. Every market is a niche and the key to cracking it is to know what turns on that particular set of readers. With that in mind, I felt sure I was on to a winner with


I’d been so convinced the theme would sell my story, I’d failed to deliver the basic requirement a womag love story set in a sweetshop. After all, what My Weekly reader’s mouth wouldn’t water at the mention of sweets? Especially if I went down the nostalgia route and filled my tale with all those sugary treats we remember from childhood. Before I wrote a word of the story, I picked up a pen and started a list of all the sweets I wanted to mention: rhubarb and custards, blackjacks, sugar mice, Quality Street... Licking your lips yet? I went online to find some more. Love Hearts, with their little messages like ‘Kiss Me’ and ‘Be Mine’ – I’d have to get those in. Then there were jelly cola bottles, flying saucers, chocolate raisins… I also found there were specialist confectioners that still sold all the retro classics, which made it plausible that my characters would open such an establishment. By that point, I was on such a sugar rush that I could clearly visualise the published story with its main illustration of a brightly lit sweetshop window and the secondary picture, cut into the text, of a pile of brightly wrapped sweets. I even had a title, Sweet Dreams, which would put that sugary word right at the top of the page – I pictured it in bubblegum pink. In fact, I was so confident that sweets

would sell my story that I started to take risks that would ultimately be my downfall.


My first mistake was to choose a male narrator. Now, male lead characters are not banned from the womags, but they are so rare that you surely diminish your chances of acceptance if you use one, and should only do so if you have a very compelling reason why it’s necessary. I recently sold a story about a male decorator recalling his previous career as a singer and his encounters with Elvis and Johnny Cash. That was quite a masculine scenario for a women’s mag, but I feminised it by making his account a story within a story. He was telling his tale to the people whose house he was painting, a mother and her teenage daughter, and the whole thing was viewed through the daughter’s eyes. In Sweet Dreams, Jonty, the hero, would be narrating the story in the first person. In fact – and here’s where I took another risk – he would be talking in the rarely used second person, addressing the female lead as ‘you’. Getting the sweets theme into the first line, I began: It started with a bag of jelly beans – one of those shiny,

hard-to-open packets. I watched you across the crowded railway platform. Eyebrows knitted beneath those gorgeous chocolate brown curls of yours. Ticket clamped between your teeth. Fingers struggling to exert just enough pressure to prise the bag open without splitting it. I hoped that the ‘I’ talking to ‘you’ – as opposed to ‘her’, a character that we’re viewing from a distance – would create a sense of intimacy. Here was a character not describing his romance to an uninvolved reader, but sharing a memory with his loved one. I also hoped it would raise an almost subliminal question that would make us read on: why would this narrator be telling ‘you’ a story that ‘you’ would already know? I intended to answer that with a twist in the final paragraph that, at the time, I thought was pretty darn good, but which would prove to be my biggest blunder. Because Sarah, my heroine, was going to die!

Hard centre

In my defence, I was aware of the risk I was taking. The womags like happy endings. But as with my other risky choices – male narrator, second‑person (techniques that are rarely used, and probably for good reason) – I felt confident that I could get away with a sad ending if I wrote it well enough. There are, after all, many famous stories in which a lover dies, and don’t women – the audience I was writing for – enjoy the catharsis of a

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Twist In The Tale

dream dream a little

Some dreams take a little patience and a bit of time to come to fruition… By Julia Douglas


t started with a bag of jelly beans – one of those shiny, hard-to-open packets. I was standing on a chilly railway platform, ticket clamped between my lips, gloves under my arm, cold fingers struggling to exert just enough pressure to prise the bag open without splitting it. It never works, and a commuter rushing past bumped me at just the wrong moment – well, the right moment, as it turned out. The bag split and my

good weepy movie? I also thought a tragic storyline would be an effective contrast to my sweetshop setting, creating something bittersweet and poignant instead of cloying and saccharine. So, convinced it was the sweets that would ultimately sell the story, I threw my lovers into a romance that kept the confectionery front and centre: We took turns taking Love Hearts from a tube and reading the messages aloud – ‘Be Mine’ and ‘Kiss Me’ – before letting them dissolve, tingly on our tongues. In the cinema, we nestled close and fed each other from a box of Quality Street, trying to unwrap them without rustling, and stifling giggles at our efforts, which made our neighbours tut all the more. On winter nights we watched fireworks and ate hard, dark bonfire toffee. The sweet-toothed pair go on to marry (he pops the question with a note hidden inside the wrapping of a chocolate penny) and find

their vocation as sweetshop owners. At that point, it was time to steer the story into darker territory.


First, Sarah falls pregnant (the first sign is a craving for sherbet lemons) but miscarries the baby. After another failed pregnancy, the couple resign themselves to the fact that their liquorice allsorts-themed nursery will never be more than a stockroom. Then, after ten years together, Sarah falls victim to cancer. Determined to tug those heartstrings, I didn’t stint on the death scene: A final taste of sugar, some shreds of sweet tobacco, was all you could manage. ‘Why’s life so cruel?’ I blubbed. ‘Not cruel, Jonty. Short… but sweet. I wouldn’t swap what we’ve had for a million years of anything else.’ My one wish was that we could have our time again, so that I could savour every second. Instead of finding there were only

seconds left to cling to. And then no seconds at all. What’s more, I wrung out the aftermath, with Jonty still so grief-stricken that he is turning down dates three years later: She lingers longer than necessary and leaves little openings in the conversation where I might ask her out. But I don’t. Can’t. Not yet. I think she understands. Finally, I got to the end that revealed the circumstances in which Jonty’s ‘I’ had been addressing ‘you’ all along: So on Sundays, when the shop’s shut, I bring my folding chair to the cemetery. I sit and eat jelly cola bottles in summer and humbugs in winter, and tell you all this stuff. Mostly, I just say how much I miss you. Then, as the light dims, I say goodnight and, with blurry eyes, read aloud the words on your stone, which is shaped like a Love Heart: ‘Sweet Dreams’. The closing words brought a tear to my eye. I felt I’d

gone beyond the bounds of womag writing and created a work of art! Unfortunately, I’d merely gone beyond the bounds of what the womags wanted. Liz Smith, the then editor of My Weekly, rejected Sweet Dreams on the grounds that although she loved all the sweets, ‘the end is far too sad’. My lesson was the one at the start of this article, and which I’d forgotten in a fit of overconfidence: give the market what it expects. I’d been so convinced that the confectionery-themed window dressing would sell my story that I’d failed to deliver the basic requirement of an uplifting ending – and no amount of sugar-coating could replace that.

Next month

How I rewrote the story with a happy ending for the characters, and myself. Polka Dot Dreams by Julia Douglas (Douglas’ pen name) is available from the Kindle store.

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09/03/2016 09:30:16


COSY CRIME Phil Barrington talks to two writers in this varied genre How would you define cosy crime? Lesley Cookman: The simplest definition of cosy crime, a term I hate and which was invented in America, is a crime or mystery novel which adheres to the format and principles of what is now known as the Golden Age of detective fiction. Its authors include Agatha Christie, of course, my favourites Ngaio Marsh and the dual personality of John Dickson Carr and Carter Dickson, Dorothy Sayers, Edmund Crispin and many more. Essentially, they are middle class, the detective is a gentleman – or possibly a lady – and not always official. No nasty gangsters or terrorists here, thank you very much. Rebecca Tope: There’s really no coherent definition of cosy crime that fits my books. I slightly resent being pigeon-holed like this. Minimal gore, torture and dismembered children. From time to time I show the body fairly graphically and I slaughter a few dogs. The joke we

Lesley Cookman


There are no rules… If there’s a suggestion of a rule, it’s generally a good idea to break it sometimes tell during talks is that a cosy crime novel is one with a country pub in it. That works surprisingly well, and I include a pub in just about all my novels.

How did you break into it? Lesley: I started reading my parents’ collection of the authors named above when I was nine and it became my

Rebecca Tope

favourite genre, although we didn’t call it cosy crime then. They were just books. I flirted with category romance, making the mistake of thinking it was easy, but really wanted to write my own detective series. It was when the first 20,000 words of my first book were used as my dissertation for my master’s degree that a publisher saw it and a year later asked if I’d written any more. Rebecca: When my first book was accepted I had never heard of cosy crime and had no idea I was ‘breaking in’ to anything. I wrote a novel with two murders in it, set in the countryside with cows and a pub, and lost all control of the whole thing from that point on.

How can you create a memorable detective? Lesley: The same way you create any character. You must know them, possibly love them. Don’t make the mistake of turning your detective into a drink-sodden maverick with an unhappy home life – it doesn’t belong in a cosy. Do realise that if your first book ‘takes’, you’re in it for the long haul, so don’t place limits on your character. Rebecca: I have no idea how to create a memorable character. It doesn’t happen by way of any conscious process. If this sounds mystical, it’s actually the exact opposite. Just write a story with people behaving as people do in stories. It has taken me many years to grasp the truth that characters in fiction are from a completely different planet from real people. Make it all up and you’ll be fine. Tell yourself a story and put in people you like or hate, mistrust or enjoy. Keep the emotions reasonably straightforward and certainly nothing like the messy confusion that is the norm in the real world. Fiction conveys a great deal of truth but it is done by showing characters in situations. In crime fiction, there are distractions and

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diversions, unrecognised clues, hidden motives. It’s almost nothing like any crime ever committed by a real person.

Is it true you should avoid letting readers get to know the victim? Lesley: I don’t think this is a rule that should be paid too much attention to – but if your victim had been a thoroughly nice person, would he/she have been murdered? The key is not to make them so dreadful that the reader knows immediately who the victim is going to be. Mine are always characters first, victims afterwards. As for gore, let’s not have a chainsaw massacre, but a certain amount of gore is perfectly acceptable. Rebecca: The appeal of crime fiction is largely the way the reader is confronted with awful behaviour – grief, suffering, rage, fear and more are all there in the main body of the story. And then, at the end, everything is explained and resolved, safely wrapped up and contained within the pages of the book. There’s a catharsis and reassurance to this. By implication, therefore, there are no rules about getting to know the victim, gore, police procedure or red herrings or anything else, so long as this basic purpose is achieved. If there’s a suggestion of a rule, it’s generally a good idea to break it. While I would accept that almost all crime fiction uses a loose formula, to the extent that the central question of the story is answered by the end, anything is OK. It needs to make sense; to have some sort of forward-moving narrative.

Is a knowledge of police procedure necessary? Lesley: Yes, a certain amount. There are books out there to help you. That said, I avoid police procedure as much as possible and apologise to police forces

everywhere at the beginning of each book. Rebecca: I know almost nothing about police procedure. If I’m forced to use it, I lift it from TV drama or other novels.

Is using a fictional town or county necessary? Lesley: It’s entirely up to you. I have unzipped my home county of Kent and inserted a sliver containing several villages and a seaside town, simply because I don’t want to upset people by placing a murder in their house or on their street. However, think of all the stories set in London, Oxford, Cambridge. Just be careful. Rebecca: All my Cotswolds and Lake District novels are set in real places. It has greatly helped with sales, and attracted almost nothing by way of criticism.

Where do you get your ideas? Lesley: The same place you’d get ideas for any other sort of novel. Reading, watching, listening to the news. Conversations on buses, in pubs, in the hairdresser’s, everywhere. The reason you want to write this type of book is because you have that kind of brain, or you should have.

Are sub-plots needed? Lesley: If you’re writing a full length novel, yes, some kind of sub-plot is useful. For a novella, it’s not that necessary. For instance, my main protagonist runs a community theatre with her partner and friends and the sub-plot often involves the production being staged there at the time. If you’ve created a believable sleuth with a fully formed background and life story, his/her setting will often provide the sub-plots. Just don’t let them run away with you. They’ll try. And yes, red herrings are essential. After all, if you didn’t have any, the reader

would be led straight to the murderer. Rebecca: Sub-plots and red herrings are common features of crime fiction but not essential. A thorough reading of published and well-selling works in the genre ought to lead to some conclusions about these elements.

What advice would you give to wannabe writers of cosy crime? Lesley: Try writing this kind of fiction only if you really like reading it. It’s not everybody’s cup of Assam and it’s a mistake to try and write it to a formula as misguided people frequently do with category romance (me, for instance) and are therefore not successful. The most successful authors of cosies are those who loved them so much they eventually wanted to write their own. Don’t be afraid to cover serious social problems. Although my books are essentially light, I have covered homophobia, illegal immigration and people-trafficking among other things. And make sure not only your main character but those around him or her are also believable. One of the most frequent compliments I get is that people love my characters. Sometimes I’ve wondered if I could leave out the murders. Rebecca: I wrote in excess of a million words before being published. There are still some editors and agents out there who know the difference between ‘lay’ and ‘lie’ and will judge wrong usage harshly. Use the language intelligently, while allowing some fluidity. Don’t be stilted, but don’t get it wrong – except in dialogue. In a nutshell, write because you can’t do otherwise. The genre will probably choose you and not the other way around. Read a lot and master the very many essential tools for what is a profession, just like any other. You wouldn’t try to build a house if you couldn’t operate a spirit level…

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11/09/2013 13:22 09/03/2016 14:43:04


Technophobia Keir Thomas looks at how to start blogging using the popular WordPress

Blogging in 2016 L

ast month I outlined setting up a WordPress blog and the basics of creating posts. By this point you’ll hopefully have started to build up a body of work because, after all, you won’t want to introduce your new blog to the world with just a tiny amount of content. Doing so will make it look like one of literally millions of blogs that were started in earnest and then abandoned. Get a decent amount of content ready to publish first. This month I look a little more at techniques behind creating posts, then move on to examine customising your blog and making it look professional so that it inspires confidence in readers and advertisers. Next month it’s time for the all-important topic of what professionals call ‘monetising your content’ (and sadly they really do speak like that – please don’t shoot the messenger).

Expert’s guide to posting

Blockquote is used to highlight quotes from other sources from an individual or another source. Simply highlight the quote in your post, then click the blockquote icon. As in traditional print publishing this will ensure the quotation is formatted in a way that indicates to the reader that the words are from somebody else – usually by surrounded

it with exaggerated quotation marks and styling it in a different font. The second mysterious icon is Read More, which is at the far right of the toolbar. This is used to ensure only an excerpt of the posting appears on the blog’s front page, followed by a ‘Continue reading…’ prompt that the reader must click to carry on. (The exact phrasing of the prompt depends on the template you have chosen.) Using Read More avoids the front page of your blog being too large and cluttered with long postings. Simply position the text cursor where you’d like the prompt to appear, which is usually after the first few paragraphs, and then click the toolbar button. While editing you’ll see –MORE– appear, but on the actual blog the posting will end at that point unless the reader clicks to continue. Lastly, note the small calendar icon alongside the Publish button. This allows the scheduling of postings. If you’re in the habit of writing more than a couple of postings a day you might prefer to schedule them to go live at one- or two-hourly intervals, rather than dumping them on your readers all at once. If you’re aiming your blog at a worldwide audience it’s good to think in terms of

US timezones, and scheduling posts is ideal for this. Many of my American colleagues default to Pacific Standard Time, even if they live elsewhere, because that guarantees the widest possible daytime audience. In other words, you might find yourself scheduling posts to go live late in the British evening in order to catch American readers towards the end of their working day, a time when they’re likely to be most receptive.

Images Inserting pictures into postings is a good idea and, as in print journalism, even bland stock imagery is better than nothing. Free sites like Pixabay (pixabay. com) should definitely be on your bookmark list. There are two ways to add an image to a posting. The first is simply to position the cursor where you want the pic to go, click the image icon on the toolbar (it’s top left), drag the image from your hard disk onto the browser window, and then click the Insert button. The second way is to add a ‘featured image’, which can be done by clicking the button left of the writing area. This Continued overleaf

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However, first let’s take an in-depth look at how to make postings. On the face of it this seems elementary – after clicking the pencil icon at the top right, a word-processor-like interface appears and hovering the

cursor over each icon on the toolbar shows a small pop-up window explaining what it is. As with a word processor you typically highlight text you want to format and then click the relevant icon. To insert a link, for example, you’d highlight the word(s) you want to make into a link and then click the link icon, before typing the address when prompted. However, there are a few less obvious icons. The first is blockquote, which is used if you want to highlight quotes or passages



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is the post’s key image, the one that sums up the post and accompanies its title in the main listing of blog posts, for example. To make life that little more complicated, not all themes (see below) support the use of featured images, and not all of them use them in the same way. Usually the only way to find out is to add a featured image to a post and then publish it to see what happens. Finally, you might want to create and use a logo on your blog to add some pizzazz. WordPress offers no tools to design a logo, so you’ll need to take care of that somewhere else (or pay somebody to do it for you). To insert the logo so it appears at the top of your site, open the side menu by clicking the My Site link at the top left, then click the Customise button alongside the Themes heading. Then click the Site Title, Tagline and Logo heading – if there is one, that is, because not all themes support the use of a logo. Unticking the Display Header Text, if it appears as an option, will stop the title of the blog appearing as text under your logo.

Themes Themes define the look and feel of your blog and you can change yours by clicking the My Site link at the top left of your administrator page, and

Send your computing questions to

then clicking the Themes entry in the menu. Understandably, themes vary tremendously in every way. Some are provided free by Wordpress, while some are created by specialists and cost money. Some are informal in feel, and some professional or corporate. To get an idea of how a theme you like will look with your existing postings, click the three dots icon at the corner of its thumbnail, then the Preview menu item, and then the Try and Customise icon. In choosing a theme, a bewildering number of options are thrown at the user. Some themes are more customisable than others, for example, and this can help prevent your blog looking the same as all the rest. Those that are customisable are usually very keen to let you know in their description text. However, by far the most important aspect is responsiveness, which is how the layout of your blog adapts so that it appears perfectly on every computing device – from mobile phones to tablets, and including the traditional desktop PC. If your blog doesn’t have a responsive design Google demotes it in search listings and doesn’t list it in useful enclaves like Google News (which I’ll discuss next month when I look at ways to build traffic). For example, if your non-responsive blog provides

Glossary Responsive A web page’s ability to adapt to be easily read on all sizes of screen, from a large PC monitor to a mobile phone. Responsive websites are listed higher in Google results. Sidebars Columns to the left and/or right of the main area of your blog that help your readers use your content via widgets. Themes The blog templates offered by a blog provider such as WordPress, which vary widely in terms of their look and functionality. Many themes can be further customised. Widgets Tools that add extra functionality to your blog, such as a search function or subscribe button.


Adding widgets in WordPress

a recipe for shepherd’s pie, and one of your competitors does too, then their mobile-friendly post might be listed above yours in Google’s search results even if your attempt better fulfils the user’s search query. And remember that people click the first they see. You can test your blog’s current responsiveness at Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test:

Sidebars and customisation Regardless of their design, most themes include a central wide column where your posts are listed or displayed, plus sidebars at the left and/or right of this. At the top or sides will be a menu of some kind, which will probably be autogenerated based on any pages you create (see last month’s column for the difference between a post and a page). At the bottom of your blog will be a footer and this is typically where the copyright blurb appears. Sidebars deserve a lot of your attention because it’s here you can offer useful functions to your users, like a search facility or the ability to subscribe to your blog. To start the customisation process, click the My Site menu at the top left when viewing the front page of your blog, then the Customise button alongside the themes heading within the menu. Then click the Sidebar entry. The things that provide

Some themes are more customisable than others functions in WordPress are called Widgets and each sidebar is constructed from several of them. By default, your blog’s sidebar(s) will probably already include the search widget, for example, and the archives widget by which users can access your vintage postings. There’s a handful more that WordPress includes by default, including Meta, which provides access to the wider blogosphere. This one can probably be deleted unless you specifically want to be part of that world. Adding a new widget is simply a matter of clicking the button marked as such, while existing widgets can be removed by clicking them for viewing and then clicking the Remove link. • Keir Thomas has been writing about computing professionally since 1996. To see his latest professional blogging effort, visit His home page is

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09/09/2014 15:27:53


THE MAGAZINE SCENE Adam Carpenter gives a round-up of launches, trends and other magazine news

Travel mag targets consumers and trade ABTA Magazine, produced for the leading association of travel agents and tour operators, is a rare trade magazine in that it also offers much to appeal to the general consumer, particularly through its sister website, Here are some tips for would-be contributors: ■ The magazine focuses on news and features relevant to anyone working in the travel industry. If you have knowledge of the sector, or can interview a leading figure about a particular subject, you may have an idea to fit the Analysis column, which delves deeper into business issues, such as the growing market in spiritual pilgrimages. ■ The website is a good place to start if you want to write a travelogue. Over 150 destinations are covered and in a bid to make it appeal to as many people as possible, editor Jo Fletcher-Cross always endeavours to include itineraries that cater for a variety of travellers, in addition to the usual information such as currency, nearest airport, etc. ‘The aim is to ensure it is a useful resource for the travel industry – and consumers can use it too,’ says Jo. ■ As the magazine is published quarterly, there is less focus on rolling news and more reports on issues affecting the industry. It may also be worth pitching ideas that discuss the industry from a different viewpoint. ‘Cultural content would be very useful as it’s something I’m very passionate about,’ says Jo.

ABTA Magazine has wide appeal

Recent coverlines: Magical islands – exploring the quirky side of Hong Kong and Macau; Growing up – expanding a travel business; Going it alone – how operators are embracing solo travellers

Visit: New investment in financial title International Investment has been relaunched by a Lancashire-based company. Here are some subjects the editorial team plans to cover. ■ The title is keen to build an audience and differentiate itself from sister magazine Investment Europe. Editorial director Jonathan Boyd says: ‘International Investment targets international and financial advisers, wealth managers, planners, bankers, and we will be dealing with issues that are very central to them.’ ■ Pitch ideas on how to understand and negotiate new tax regulations. Editor Helen Burggraf explains: ‘Moving pensions out of the UK has been a big industry in recent years but HMRC has cracked down on the ability to move pensions overseas and access your money before your 55th birthday.’ ■ Think of the clients that international wealth managers and advisers are serving, such as expatriates. The benefits that they might expect from financial products will make good angles, as will their concerns surrounding visas and healthcare.

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The editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post, Stephen Hull, recently caused much consternation among journalists when he explained why he doesn’t pay the writers who contribute to the site. Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Media Show, he said: ‘If I was paying someone to write something because I want it to get advertising, that’s not a real authentic way of presenting copy. When somebody writes something for us, we know it’s real, we know they want to write it. It’s not been forced or paid for. I think that’s something to be proud of.’ Utter codswallop! Our advice would be that if you aren’t getting paid for writing an article, whether in print or online, make sure you are getting something out of it other than monetary gain, whether that is reaching a wide audience with an important message, or promoting your own blog or book. It has been a month of mixed fortunes for print journalism. Weeks after the Independent announced it would be going digital by the end of March, Daily Mirror publisher Trinity Mirror launched The New Day, a new daily national – and it refused to have a website. Meanwhile, fashion heavyweight Vogue published its biggest ever issue, containing 275 pages of advertising! As always a good indicator of success are the bi-annual magazine ABC circulation figures. The latest were released mid-February and saw Slimming World magazine, Cosmopolitan, Forever Sports and The Spectator all posting significant increases.

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INSIDE VIEW fRoots fRoots magazine (abbreviated from Folk Roots in 1999) covers modern and traditional music with roots from around the world, and with such a wide remit, actively seeks contributions from writers whose interests lie in this area Start with local talent The title is often the first to highlight underexposed local talents. Although all reviews must be originated from the office, if you know of a local artist of note, then see if you can find a bit of backstory about them that could make an interesting feature. Or it could be something for their shorter profile slot, Roots Salad. In fact many of the features in the magazine come about through a writer providing such details or a photographer supplying files – it may even be worth teaming up with someone local who can take good shots.

Make it original Because of the quantity of new music released, the editorial team endeavours not to repeat coverage of artists. Be sure to check the articles index on the website that covers everyone featured so far.

Tell the truth Praise only where praise is due and don’t be afraid to tell the truth – when something isn’t quite up to scratch, say so. Editor Ian Anderson says: ‘Readers like the fact that we don’t hedge around whether we like something or not… being neutral about everything does nobody any good. We don’t do beige.’

Recent headlines: Intent on success – from living in a tent to a Folk Awards gong at the Albert Hall; Village people – the traditions of Sumiac in Slovakia; English strange – the Britannia Coconut Dancers of Bacup

Visit: See



ne of the perks of writing for magazines is that your colleagues are fellow columnists like How Clean is Your House? star Aggie MacKenzie. So if you ever need a bit of expert advice it’s just an email away. I recently noticed, for example, that my bathroom sink was no longer the sparkling white it used to be. In fact, only a few inches of it was white at all. The rest was a matt green-grey broken up by orange patches that looked like the continents on a map of the world. ‘Limescale,’ the Girlfriend diagnosed. But the bottle of limescale remover I found in the cupboard under the kitchen sink (next to a rusty tin of Silvo that hadn’t been opened since the Silver Jubilee) made zero impression, and when I asked if she had any more ideas, I found my in-house domestic goddess had reached the limit of her knowledge. So I decided to ‘Ask Aggie’, as her column is headed. Her email pinged back within half an hour: ‘Pumice stone. It’s harder than limescale and softer than enamel, so it will take the scale off without spoiling the surface.’ Unfortunately, she didn’t tell me where I could get such a thing, so I decided to try the hardware store in my local high street. It’s an old-school place where a bloke with a hipster beard and a storeman’s coat will weigh you out half a pound of nails on a set of scales, or sell you two or three individually for thrupence ha’penny if that’s all you need. But did he have a pumice stone? ‘Oooh, have you got hard skin?’ he asked, sympathetically. ‘No,’ I replied, indignantly, ‘I’ve got limescale!’ ‘Eaugh,’ Mr Hipster took a step away. ‘You better try the chemist.’ So I did. ‘Oooh, have you got hard skin?’ the girl asked, sympathetically. ‘No, I’ve got bloody limescale!’ ‘Eaugh!’ She took a step away and, at arm’s length handed me a little disc of stone on a plastic handle. The instructions on the ticket told me to rub it on my heel, but when I got home I found it cut through the scale on my sink like a knife through butter, leaving a streak of gleaming white enamel where the matt green and orange map of the globe had been. After a hard afternoon’s rubbing, my sink was as good as new. So I emailed a couple of before and after pictures to the letters page and – sorry, Aggie – passed the tip off as my own. The cheque that dropped through my letter box a month later paid for enough pumice stones to keep my sink clean for years.

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Last month’s task was to write a story with all showing and no telling


riting a story without any ‘telling’ was a deliberately difficult task, especially given such a low word count. Getting information across using scenes to show the reader what is happening can take much longer. The upside is it makes you think carefully about which scenes are important to the story and also how to be economical within those scenes.

Early fallers

Some entrants made the basic mistake of using first person or present tense, when third person past tense was specified. Again, this was to make the task harder, as it’s much more natural to ‘show’ a story if it’s seen through a narrator’s eyes. I’m afraid some entrants missed the point of the exercise and used a lot of telling, even though they described scenes: The barber was opening his shop with the usual exactitude. His movements were swift and effortless as he positioned the chair, flicked some dust off the counter with a towel and surveyed the results with a smile. He drew back the shutters and wedged the door open. It’s a scene, but we are told what is happening and what the barber is like before we are shown it. To simply show this scene instead would be something like: He turned the leather chair square with the wall mirror, then ran a cloth over the wooden counter as he strode the ten steps to the door. There, he turned and slowly scanned the gas-lit salon: the iron bench beneath the plate window; the low table replete with marble ashtray, box of wax vestas and the Illustrated London News. Then, with a sudden smile, he span round, drew back the heavy shutters and opened the door. It takes longer to show his exactitude and show what he is surveying, but we can now see more of the barber and his shop – and much of the detail is to get across the fact that the setting is a Victorian one, which is missing from the original. A big point to remember, though, is that we can only afford to include such detail if it has a bearing on our short story. Here the man’s fussiness and pride in his shop should end up playing a part, but it doesn’t. Quite a few entrants got carried away with describing scenes at the expense of moving the story on.

Highly commended

It was a difficult task to write such a story, but it was also hard to judge them. The trouble is, what ‘showing’ and ‘telling’ mean is not very clearly defined. Where do you draw the line? We often say showing is like a film, because a film has to show the viewer everything – rather than have a voiceover or captions to tell them. But a film director only has sound and vision to play with, whereas a writer can bring in taste, smell and touch and ‘show’ these too, and not just through the character’s reaction to them. This made things tricky. And is the author allowed to tell the reader a character’s name or do you have to somehow work it into dialogue? I decided I would have to allow character names. But as I began studying the


remaining entries more closely, I began to pick out more examples where the line between showing and telling became blurred. Ordinarily, of course, telling parts of a story is fine. Barbara Dynes has more about mixing showing and telling on page 16. But the point of this exercise was to think about ‘showing not telling’ and so I had a duty to try to follow the ridiculous rule I’d set, even though it made feel like a complete pedant. In the end, I came to the conclusion that almost every entry could be said to contain at least one bit of telling, but some people used ‘showing’ extremely well and only used one or two phrases to tell something. So here are the nine runners-up. Little Shop of Hairs by Kat Day The Girl with the Yellow Headscarf by Ros Woolner The Non-Regulation Haircut by David Clare Scissors Talk by Barbara Young In Lieu of Flowers by Jackie Watts A Cut on the Job by Andrew Wilson Mrs Hardy’s Mischief by Rebecca Wells A Permanent Wave Goodbye by Alexandra Plowman Black Opium by Susan Rogerson To show you how pedantic I became, I’ll pick out a couple of examples. For instance, Ros Woolner and Kat Day only slipped up by telling the reader that time had passed. This is from the end of Kat Day’s sci-fi story: Three weeks later Audrey stood staring at a patch of uneven red brick, spotted with fragments of old posters. ‘It was here, I swear!’ How can we show time has passed? Perhaps using dialogue: Audrey stared at the patch of uneven red brick, spotted with fragments of old posters. ‘It was a salon three weeks ago, I swear!’ And in Susan Rogerson’s Black Opium I found only this: The cut was geometrically precise and as Kathy turned her head it swung gracefully about her neck. She looked ten years younger. Who is saying she looks ten years younger? It could be Kathy – and using ‘close’ third person is a common and useful tactic in stories. But I specifically banned entrants from telling us internal thoughts. One of the stylists could have voiced it. There were similarly insignificant examples in each of the other runner-up stories. But in the end I plumped for PJ Stephenson’s story. Even here I think the phrase ‘he looked like a somnambulant hospital patient’ is veering into telling and would be safer as: With his arms held stiffly at his sides like a somnambulant hospital patient, he settled himself in one of the chairs. What do you think?

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£100 winner Be Careful What You Wish For by PJ Stephenson


alcolm shuffled slowly across the salon in his gown. With his arms held stiffly at his sides, he looked like a somnambulant hospital patient. He settled himself in one of the chairs facing a wall of mirrors and stared at his reflection under the bright lights. Watery, dark-rimmed eyes blinked back. While the hairdresser bustled around finding scissors and combs, he gazed through the gaps between the mirrors. People in the shopping centre floated past like goldfish circling in a bowl. Ethan’s clean-cut face smiled over his shoulder. ‘Don’t usually see you mornings,’ he said. ‘I found some time for myself, for once.’ Malcolm’s receding hair was raked back across his scalp and the clickety-click of the scissors began. A young mother flopped onto a bench outside, fussing over her toddler as he wrestled with an ice cream. A frown creased her pale, make-up free features as she fought the deluge of oily pink splashes. A middle-aged couple laden with shopping bags emerged, laughing, from the coffee shop behind. ‘Mate, I’d love to have more mornings off,’ said Ethan. ‘I spend my whole life in this place.’ ‘Be careful what you wish for.’ The bench was now occupied by a woman in her mid-forties. She wore an expensive coat over a tight-fitting evening dress; a headscarf shrouded coiffured, blonde hair. Her eye-shadow was pale blue; her lipstick a thick, bright red. Ethan obscured the view, biting his tongue as he snipped at Malcolm’s fringe. ‘Sorry, mate, did I get hair in your eyes?’ Malcolm wiped his face with a chequered handkerchief while a track-suited teenager peered through the window. The woman on the bench spoke into a mobile phone, flashing a gold bracelet. A security guard sauntered by, eyes flicking right and left under the peak of his cap. Ethan tapped his shoulder with a comb. ‘I was saying: United were lucky to win on Saturday.’ ‘Yeah.’ He twisted and untwisted the handkerchief in his lap. A man appeared sporting a charcoal suit. He was tall and slim, with thick, slicked-back hair. The woman embraced him and they exchanged perfunctory kisses and longing looks. ‘Keep still, mate, or I’ll nick you.’ The man touched the woman’s back to guide her into the café. ‘Any gel?’ ‘Do I look the type?’ ‘Well, with a short back and sides, it’ll make you look like James Bond.’ Malcolm’s expression glazed over for a few seconds before he said, ‘OK.’ After the viscous gunk had been applied, he was shown a reflection of a reflection of his slick new look. He nodded, scraped back the chair, shrugged off his gown and flung the knotted handkerchief into a bin. ‘Keep the change,’ he said, handing over a large banknote. ‘Thanks.’ The hairdresser held a brown mac out in front of him, like a rug seller displaying his wares. Malcolm squirmed into it and turned up the collar. ‘Well, enjoy your morning off, mate. What’s next?’ ‘I’m going to join my wife for coffee.’ • PJ says: I was inspired by your prompt to show emotions but not explain them – it got me thinking about what could illicit strong feelings in a barber shop. I regularly gaze out of the window in my local salon, so the story formed itself. I thought I had cracked it with my first clean draft, but then I saw I’d explained more than you wanted us to…


FLASH COMP Enter our monthly quick writing contest with a £100 first prize


ur monthly competition for short short writing has a £100 prize for one winner and a number of runners-up may also be published, depending upon the nature of the contest and available space. The flash competition is FREE for subscribers (single entry only). For non‑subscribers (or extra subscriber entries) the entry fee is £5, which you can purchase by following the link on the Writers’ Forum website ( Entry is strictly by email only. Writers’ Forum wants to encourage you to write, so:

■■ We will have a theme/task each time so that new writing has to be produced.

■■ There will be a tight deadline so that results can be published quickly and entrants can’t dither! The judge’s decision is final and no correspondence over results will be entered into. By entering, entrants agree to these rules and for their entries to be published in Writers’ Forum.

Comp 20: KEEP IT LIGHT Deadline: 12 noon GMT on 29 April 2016 Editor’s assignment: Write a story of 450-500 words using this month’s Fiction Square on p31. Some of the ingredients are potentially depressing but keep your story light and uplifting. Make it first person and present tense. How to enter 1 Paste your entry into the body of a new email followed by the wordcount, your name and postal address. Give your entry purchase order number or state if you’re a subscriber to check against our database. Add a brief couple of lines about what inspired you. 2 In the email’s subject line box, write Flash Comp 20: followed by your interesting and relevant story title. 3 Then send your email to flashcomp@writers-forum. com by the deadline above. The results will be published next issue!

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Got a question – or advice for one of these readers? Email

Need advice on writing and publishing? Novelist and short story writer Della Galton can help

How do I get into a writing routine? Q

PRIZE LETTER I have trouble getting started. Once I’m into the writing I’m fine but sometimes, even though I plan to write every day, I don’t get to my computer and then I feel guilty. Emma Johnson, via email

was cheap. After the initial push (I did an online book launch on Facebook and Twitter) my sales have dwindled. At this rate I’ll be lucky to cover my production costs let alone make a profit. Help. John East, Poole



I expect every writer reading this page will empathise with you. I certainly do. Here are some things that help me. ■ Get into a routine. Try going to the

computer/notepad at the same time each day. We all tend to have a ‘most productive’ time. Mine is first thing in the morning. ■ Don’t start with no idea of what you want to write. Have a plan before you get there, eg Today I will write a feature/story for Bonfire Night. Nothing’s worse than sitting in front of a blank screen thinking, What shall I write about? ■ Once you’re at the computer, set a timer (I use the one on my phone) and commit to writing for a set period. Twenty minutes is usually enough to get going. You may well find you don’t want to stop. ■ With ongoing work never leave your manuscript at a tricky point. It may sound counterproductive to say stop writing when you’re mid-flow but in my experience it’s much easier to go back to something you can’t wait to finish. ■ Give yourself a deadline, for example, This story will be subbed by the end of the week. If I didn’t continually give myself deadlines I would write far less. ■ And finally, let yourself off the hook. Who says you have to write every day? Psychologically, I think it’s better to say you’ll try to write three days a week and miss one, than say you’ll write seven days a week and only write on two!


How can I sell more books on Amazon? I recently self-published a novel, which I had professionally edited and proofread. The cover was also professionally designed. None of this


I’m not surprised your sales have dwindled. That may sound harsh, but unless you’re already famous/infamous the only way to sell novels – self-published or traditional – is to do ongoing promotion. (See this month’s author interview on p7.) The trick is to put your novel in front of as many interested parties as possible. Who are your readers and what is your novel’s USP (unique selling point)? If you haven’t already identified these things, do it now, and focus your marketing efforts on your results. You can start by using Amazon’s own free promotional tools. They offer Kindle countdowns and free giveaways. I’m sure you’re aware of these. Also explore Goodreads promotional tools. You say you use Facebook and Twitter. Continue to use them and other social media sites but find new angles and make sure you’re putting your book in front of the right readers. Think laterally. For example if your novel was for women and had a dieting theme you could approach weight-loss websites and advertise it there. If your novel had a summer theme, you might want to focus your efforts on selling it as a summer read. Be prepared to invest money to carry out your marketing strategy in the same way a traditional publisher would. Publishers very often lose money on a debut novel – most writers don’t start to make a profit until they have several books out there and have begun to build a brand. If you’re writing a series it’s slightly easier, as you can use the first novel to promote the rest of the series, which is why publishers like to buy series books. But you can promote and sell standalone novels if you put in a lot of time and effort.


I’m still trying to write my first novel and have two or three on the go. I work on whichever one inspires me most. Although I have characters and plots, I have trouble conceiving the end of a story. I want to write endings that will leave people wanting more, or feeling they’ve been on a rollercoaster ride. Michael Birchmore, Portsmouth


I once heard an editor say that an opening page will sell an author’s novel but a closing page will sell their next one. That’s so true. I think an ending needs to do the following things: ■ Be satisfying. Tie up loose ends but not necessarily with a bow. By this, I mean you don’t need to answer every question you’ve raised or resolve every problem, but you can’t leave the reader feeling cheated. ■ Be surprising. Give the reader some piece of information they didn’t have before – even if it’s just a slightly different angle on the story. My agent likens this to the after-dinner mint effect. ■ Be authentic. If it’s a twist, it needs to work – the reader must be able to go back through the novel and find the clues. ■ If you have a sub-plot that raises its own questions these will usually need to be answered prior to the main storyline being resolved. Some writers use an epilogue to complete a novel, ie taking the reader a few months/years into the future to see where the characters end up. Epilogues need to be carefully handled. Once you’ve ended, stop. Sometimes there will be an anticlimactic feel because a writer has gone on too long.

Win Della’s book!

Each month the best question or most helpful letter wins a copy of Della’s book The Short Story Writer’s Toolshed, available from Amazon in paperback and Kindle formats.

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all of those decades. Would that I was so lucky with ideas. I went to a wedding recently and made the mistake of telling the person next to me I was a writer. ‘I’ve got just the story for you,’ he said and, just like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner who waylaid the unfortunate wedding guest, he then proceeded with a long, rambling account

am in celebratory mood because this issue marks an important milestone for me. I am 100. Not my age, although it feels like it sometimes, but this Idea Store is my 100th. How did that happen? That means I’ve been writing this column for over seven years – and I still haven’t run out of things to talk about, thanks to the lovely writers who

Paula Williams celebrates her 100th column and some great feedback invariably respond to my question, ‘Where did you get the idea for that story/book/poem from?’ with patience and generosity. I belong to an online writers’ forum and one of its members, Maggie Cobbett (www. commented a while back that she’d had a short story published in People’s Friend that was inspired by something she’d heard many years ago. So I asked Maggie to elaborate. She says: ‘Most of my fiction has a kernel of truth and The Soldier at the Window sprang from a story I was told in Rotterdam in the 1970s. There was a group of us having tea together, and the others, all Dutch, started to reminisce about life under German occupation during WW2. Life had been very tough, particularly during the last and hardest winter. Some lost family members and all had come close to starvation. There had been every

reason to hate the enemy, yet this one lady confessed that she and her mother had felt so sorry for a young soldier shivering outside their home one night, it was only fear of what the neighbours would think that stopped them inviting him in to warm up for a while. ‘There was a chorus of horror at the very idea, then conversation turned to other matters, but somehow the idea stuck in my mind,’ Maggie explains. ‘Sometimes compassion takes over from common sense, and I can never be sure what I would have done under similar circumstances. That’s why I’ve returned to the theme of wartime collaboration in my novel Shadows of the Past. Although it’s set in France rather than the Netherlands, the characters have similar dilemmas to resolve.’ What a story that Dutch lady had to tell. No wonder it had stuck in Maggie’s mind for

FICTION SQUARE Roll a dice to find all the ingredients for your next story Ist & 2nd roll

3rd & 4th roll

5th roll

6th roll

7th roll









Ice rink




Feeling trapped



Bus driver


Suffering a loss

London Eye

Sealed envelope




Hair salon

Time capsule





Oversized cake



Financial ruin


Water gun

of his family history that lasted through all three courses of our meal. ‘You should write that,’ he said. ‘It’ll be a bestseller, that will.’ To which I replied: ‘No, it’s your story. You should write it.’ He told me he couldn’t write well enough to do the story justice. But I believe very strongly that if you have a story to tell, and you tell it with passion and conviction, that’s all you need. It doesn’t have to be a bestseller. There are many more reasons for writing than wanting a bestseller on your hands (although it’d be nice) but what a legacy to leave behind. How I wish my grandmother had written the story of her life – or her parents’ lives. Wouldn’t that be an amazing primary source for a writer? And a source of joy for her family. As for my latter day Ancient Mariner, he only stopped when the best man got up to give his speech. So I now tell people I’m a tax inspector, which usually brings about a hasty change of subject. But who knows if I’m missing out on a lovely story like Maggie’s? It’s a chance I’ll have to take.


writer’s life, as most of you will know, is full of ups and downs. Lots and lots of downs – at least, in my case. One of the things a writer needs most is the ability to take rejection and, hopefully, to learn from it and keep trying. But every now and again, something comes along that is such a big ‘up’ it makes all the ‘downs’ worthwhile. If you’re a regular reader of this column, you may remember me talking about a story I’d written called The 100 Day Journal. It was about a woman who started writing a journal which eventually helped her come to terms with the death of her husband. Reader feedback is unusual for a short story writer, so you can imagine my delight when the Letter of the Week in the Christmas issue of Woman’s Weekly was from a lovely lady who, after reading my story, had started her own journal. She was writing to say how it was helping her cope with her own loss. The ‘ups’ don’t get any better than that. As always, if you’d like to get in touch with me and perhaps share your own stories about random inspiration, you can email me at

Writers’FORUM #174

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women’s poetry & pamphlet competitions 2016 POETRY 1st Prize: £2,000

JUDGE: Liz Lochhead

PAMPHLET 1st Prize: Publication by Seren Books

Closing date for both: 13 June 2016 0191 204 8860

09/03/2016 14:47:48


Tales of my GURU

by Hugh Scott

The mystery mentor has kind words for enthusiastic beginners


am moaning today about sloppy, rushed, meaningless writing. (My mood is not good, and I’ll tell you why: it’s because you think you’re helping people, then they turn and rend you because they only hear the criticism and not the praise; and they then send a wad of words as sloppy as watery porridge that you couldn’t cement a wall with [as I have done with proper porridge]. I’m talking about the blighter, Jim Grunt, the instigator of the mass desertion from my writers’ group; and I am pretty fed up, I can tell you. In the distances of my mind I hear my Guru calling, but I am enjoying my grump sufficiently to ignore him. My Guru, for those of you who don’t know, is a creature who is sometimes visible and sometimes not, sometimes here and sometimes elsewhere, but always willing to shove in a word of encouragement and more than a word about what is wrong with my writing – or, in this instance, Jim Grunt’s writing. Though why he bothers with Jim Grunt – Never mind that.) Sloppy writing. I do understand Jim Grunt producing this. His guru comes upon him, and he writes. Words flood the page. Creativity is rushing out of him. Great. Then he sends it to me, expecting… I don’t know what he’s expecting. Here is some of what he sent (the hero, whose name we don’t know, is in love, and wandering the landscape like a prune): ‘Gabrielle!’ I cried with joy and a quavering voice that rang against the sky’s blue and a bird in the sky flew with the jolliness of spring in their wings, just as I had jolliness and lots and lots of other stuff in my wings, I mean the wings of my heart which hour upon hour beat only to hear her voice whose face I saw in every cloud and in every shop window even if that window was steamed up and always she smiled upon me telling me that she loved me without doubt. I expect that’s enough. If I am to criticise usefully, I need some solid porridge to stand on and say: ‘This is good.’ And then I can gather the watery porridge closer, drying up the slop, and thus extending the good. But where is the good in this exudation? I sat back from the kitchen table,

Remember that to a beginner, every word is precious … the faults do not exist scowling at the wad of words, and still annoyed at Jim Grunt’s cheek at sending me such material. My wife brought me silent coffee and two silent biscuits. I was having difficulty in not fizzing. How to respond? My Guru would have helped. But I had shut him out. My gaze landed on a distant copy of Who’s Who? that glinted on my bookshelf, and I wondered idly if it should be Who’s Whom? And this thought chuckled in my head, so that my mood relaxed, and I remembered that I was just the same as Grumbling Jim Grunt, because I didn’t like criticism either, and sometimes I am deaf to praise. And with that confession, my annoyance dropped away. So. My subject today is Sloppy, Meaningless Writing. The example above – donated by Jim Grunt – defeats me. As I

have said, there are no good bits that I can join together in order to make something worthwhile: the whole thing must be rewritten in English. The trouble lies with Jim Grunt’s enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is essential in writing, but enthusiasm on its own is like a brick waIl without cement: and a writer’s cement is grammar. Grammar – ‘You are about to become boring,’ murmured a voice, and an umbrageous figure hid Who’s Who? for a moment, then helped itself to porridge and sat down at the table. ‘Remember,’ mumbled my Guru, ‘that to a beginner, every word is precious.’ ‘Yes –’ I agreed, remembering my own beginnings, ‘but –’ ‘And because every word is precious, the faults do not exist. The beginner is up to his neck in the sweetness of his creation! The very idea of a fault is absurd. There are no faults! Did the words not pour out from the glory depths of his being? He is enraptured!’ My Guru prodded the air with his porridge spoon. ‘He thinks that his writing is beyond criticism. So – if you criticise it, you are a beast and a rotter because you have trodden on his perfection. You can’t win. Just be kind, and say nothing.’ ‘But he expects something! I can’t lie and tell him it’s good. I can’t –’ And I wrote fiercely for some minutes, then rushed out and posted what I had written. ‘You may regret it,’ said my Guru. ‘I told him the truth,’ I said. ‘If he can’t take it…’ But my Guru was gone. And I was regretting it already.

Use it or lose it ‘Umbrageous’. I wonder what it means.

The early adventures of me and my Guru are published in a superbeautiful hardback, Likely Stories, published by How Stories To Books for less than a tenner – that’s the price of five coffees. Treat yourself.

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Notes Eg, work sent out and where you sent it to

April 2016

What am I writing?

Time Pintoupgetthis serious calendar about andyour thenwriting every – pinmorning up this add calendar a noteand about thenwhat use ityou to are keepgoing tracktoofwrite yourthat progress day – this it really month works!

Writers Forum

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Fiction and poetry comps (rolling deadline)

Writers’ Forum #175 on sale

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Story comp

Writers Forum


Congratulations to this month’s winners, RS Knightley, Zoe Hunt and Anne Walsh Donnelly. Do you have a short story that could impress our head judge Lorraine Mace? Any subject, any style is welcome. Turn to the rules and entry form on page 43. First Prize £300

Wolf in the Mirror RS Knightley


he weirdest thing,’ she said, twenty minutes late as usual, blowing in and crashing down in our usual booth, a cloud of library dust and Ocean Spray. I hadn’t glanced up when the pub door opened – never do – but I’d known. The pressure of the barman’s eyes following her to me; quietly noting her cold cheeks kiss the air beside my bristled ones, the click of her tongue that was the only greeting and customary telling-off that I still wasn’t shaving regularly, hadn’t shaved regularly since Mary left. My kisses, on the other hand, meet both her cheeks and, true to custom, she barely notices. Certainly they will never break the stream of news, especially now, this blazing contrast of living, breathing student life with the crust of a graduate session musician. Well, so it ever was; she’d always been waiting to be nineteen and now here she finally is. I, at twenty-four, am what I too was waiting to be: the middle-aged man I already was at eighteen and am to stay. ‘I was at the BL,’ she began. My turn for a cluck of disapproval; the cliquishness of abbreviations. ‘I was sitting at my desk in the Reading Room, and my earring – in my ear – well, it just fell out.’ She meets my studied look of eloquent pity. Her eyes are all innocence; her mop of black, coarse corkscrew hair is twisted into one of those ghastly topknots they all have now, and she’s pointing at the silver and lime of the earring dangling from her earlobe. Hair pushed back, her skin is almost white, matching the winter sky over Richmond Green in the world behind her. Her back is to the outside world, so she’s oblivious to how she matches it; only has eyes for myself and my disbelief. She’s pointing at her earlobe, earring replaced, as if this is evidence of how strange and right she is. ‘Really, Rolly. It was the weirdest thing.’ I pick up the menu from the pub table. I hate this habit of calling me Rolly, the unthinking way she brings me closer than I want to be, a rhyme with her own name, an unthinking part of herself. Roland, incidentally, is a name I’ve never been ashamed of or sought to shorten. My birth in the Year of the Rat is a coincidence to which can be attributed nothing about my mother’s feelings toward me.

I tap the menu in the direction of the bar, fastidiously ignoring the landlord who’s still watching us – her – and catch the eye of his latest junior instead. A nod acknowledges receipt of my order of our usual. I feel at home, just for a moment. ‘By no stretch of the imagination, Molly Andrews,’ I say, ‘is a fallen earring in a library “the weirdest thing”.’ She glares at me exactly as our mother would have done. She has the advantage of biology there, as well as the worldly one of inheriting the library that informed the glare. Our mother, hers by birth and mine by law, did not grow to hate me even as she grew to hate my father. I care little for either of the parents we shared and lost but offer them my thanks: without this girl to protect, to roll my eyes for, life would have been of little consequence. Molly thanks the waitress as our sandwiches arrive. Prawn and cress, salad without dressing because I watch my weight and she dislikes the taste. This is the apex, the moment we settle here for everything to be the same for one solid lunch hour. A storm of resentment builds in me for the outside world, our separate lives, Continued overleaf

Writers’forum #174

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Story Comp

Wolf in the Mirror continued

separate homes and everyone that shares them. I wish the world to shrink to the length and shape of a Tuesday lunchtime. I wish time and space to stay outside the window, to leave us alone. ‘I want to tell you why I’m right,’ she says. I raise a cautious eyebrow. ‘You remember when I promised you I’d always wear the little plastic things? The ones that go in behind your ear so your earrings don’t fall out?’ ‘Vividly,’ I say. The plastic things were a device of Mary’s. I hit the pile of six bar mats I hadn’t quite noticed I’d been building. They spin in the air and are caught, perfectly as always, in the straight line between my fingers and thumb. I am very good at precision. Anything I can take my mind out of. ‘Repeatedly.’ ‘Well, I wasn’t wearing them.’ ‘I have yet to detect the promised weirdness.’ ‘What?’ ‘Surely the absence makes it less weird that the earring fell, rather than more?’ She is more bothered than I expected, than I thought she knew how to look. Her eyes move to the window; she looks out at the white and grey over Richmond Green for far too long. ‘Molly?’ She jumps, looks at me as if she’d forgotten I were here. ‘What is weird, please?’ She looks again at the outside world and I want to banish the whole lot of it. Then she looks at me again. ‘I felt it go, Roland. The second time it fell. I put it back in and I promise you it was pushed out – not even pushed. Slid. Slid out of the hole in my ear. I was sitting still. I was writing my essay. There was no movement. There’s no other way my earring could have come out than someone deliberately sliding it. That’s what I felt.’ I try to rise above my squeamishness. I’ve always hated earrings, the concept of piercing. It’s not the repetition of her stories about losing jewellery, although there are years enough of these and it suits me for her to think it is. It’s the damn holes. The idea of anything being pushed, broken, hollowed – that was always repugnant to me. I don’t like to hold a knife or a drill or a pair of meat-scissors for the vague thought it’s now potentially possible I could do someone a mischief, there being nothing to physically stop me. Molly, though, always loved piercings. The first thing I knew about this little sister who arrived with her mother on my doorstep was that she adored anything silver. It brought out the kohl around her eyes. I try not to smile. ‘You’re asking if I believe in ghosts,’ I say. ‘Am I?’ She releases the topknot, drops her hair back over her ears, as if it can protect her from memory, from possibility. ‘I don’t believe in anything that isn’t there.’ ‘But there are things, aren’t there? Other things… Things we don’t understand?’ ‘Of course. But –’ ‘So something could be trying, couldn’t it? Something could be in there with me. Could choose to touch me, for some reason. Things do happen that we don’t have terms for, don’t they? Connections, coincidences. Haven’t you ever had the feeling that someone is more real than all the world that surrounds them? Haven’t you felt there are things in earth and heaven too great for explanation?’ I try to look away from her. I really do. ‘Don’t you, Rolly? Aren’t some things just too mysterious? Isn’t that how it’s supposed to be? Well, what if one reaches out for you, chooses you? What better definition could there be of “real”?’ Her eyes are wide, dark, protecting me from looking into my own mind for anything I might have seen too.


‘Rolly?’ I stand too fast, trying to catch up with my own momentum as I walk badly towards the stairs, down to the only logical place for me to need to go. She must not know about the nerve she’s touched. The staircase is unusually cold, and unusually long. Richmond’s history descends in badly-framed pictures above either bannister; there’s a scent not unlike the one Molly drifts in with in the bowels of this building, of books and collected time. But something is different here today; the staircase seems to stretch. Something is wrong with my perception and I do not like it at all. Perception should not be permitted to drive reality; we evolved for better things. Her story has bothered me; that is irrational, but that is all. I am sensing what I don’t believe in, and that is ridiculous. I cannot protect her against what I do not believe in. In the one long mirror that runs the length of the seven sinks and curls on to the edges of the walls, ten matching pairs of Roland Andrews splash water on their faces. They disappear into flannelled darkness as I dry my face with the first in a pile of hand towels. The pile topples. I don’t dare look up from the counter where it’s fallen. When I do I must meet my eyes in the mirror. I know what will be looking back. ‘This must stop,’ I tell myself aloud. But it’s never begun, replies a voice that seems to come from behind the collected and quiet green eyes I see every day in the mirror and am perfectly aware are not mine. Sometimes the eyes blaze yellow, most days they are dense algae. There has always been a wolf when I look in the mirror. I’m fairly sure he predates Molly and her mother. Sometimes he is concealed: this I make a point of, and quite often successfully. But sometimes he is vivid, visceral, has more of me than I have of myself. Roland Andrews is a necessary camouflage technique but the wolf is always in the mirror. ‘It mustn’t. I must not let it.’ Mustn’t what? It mustn’t be true. What musn’t? ‘I must not.’ Thinking, saying, where’s the difference? ‘I must not.’ Say it. Say it to me. Say it again. ‘I must not love her. I must not love her, must not, must not –’ My face is darkening, the green of my eyes glittering with energy that is something darker than tears. He’s coming into me, I can see him in the mirror. My teeth are white as I open my mouth for air, my lips moving back and still I’m watching myself, all the time, my jaws working, my hair falling on my wet face, a desperate face that isn’t mine at all but is the wolf, his the green eyes, his the blood and hunger. I see the movement of the door repeated behind the ten of us in the mirror. The man comes in just too quickly for me to stop in time. We barely look at each other, but I’ll remember his eyes. That embarrassment will burn. Too dark, too aware, too embarrassed, for me and not for himself. He goes into the furthest cubicle, and I look in the mirror again. But my connection with my own eyes has been hollowed out by this interruption. The disguise has taken over again: Roland is mortal, cultured, no more than any man trapped between earth and sky. The moment of deeper truth had passed. The relief lasts as far as my shutting of the washroom door behind me. On the staircase, that cold is worse. It links somehow to the wolf’s voice, but I cannot hear him. It’s coming from the photographs. The stairs stretch up forever now. In a moment I am convinced that if I don’t run for the top of them I will never see daylight again. As I run the wolf’s voice or mine screams through my mind as our life, Molly’s and mine, no difference, flashes behind my eyes. Must not love. You must not love –

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I run back upstairs and don’t care that she sees me struggling to catch my breath. I do not care she sees me panting. This is not the wolf panting, this is only me. I don’t look at her but at the table. There are two glasses, one full of vodka and lime and the other of ice and a slice of lime. ‘You bought me a drink,’ I say. ‘Only the usual.’ I don’t look at her face. I can hear everything it would show me. I take the drink and thank her. ‘Maybe it’s being born on Halloween,’ she says. ‘What is?’ ‘Well, you. Something about the darkness. I always said at school my brother was a werewolf.’ ‘You are not my sister,’ I tell her carefully. I feel her looking up, though all I see is beer mats. The words themselves are a surprise, but the meaning is as familiar to her as to me. That is clear. She looks at me as if calculating my reality, my proximity and my separateness, as if for the first time. ‘No,’ she says. ‘I am not.’ We look to the window, quite simultaneously. It’s raining on Richmond Green. Beside the one taken table outside the pub, two pigeons compete over pie crumbs. Above them, a middle-aged man with a Dorian Gray face, cigar and crowsfeet is staring over the head of the young brunette who is looking only at him. He sees only the rain. ‘It’s like buffalo trainers,’ Molly says, bringing me back to myself. She’s chewing on the end of one of those corkscrew curls, and I

see from the dryness of the ends that she’s recently tried straightening irons again. I don’t know why she tries to flatten her hair, beat its spirit into submission. Her hair is like everything else about her; she’ll never tame it. ‘Buffalo trainers on the tube. It’s always been unusual enough that even when I was a teenager we shared a knowing smile if someone else had them. Not so many of us that it’s expected but… occasionally you’ll see someone with them on the tube and you’ll smile at each other, knowing you know… something about the other. But it’s not odd. Not really.’ ‘What’s like buffalo trainers?’ ‘Incest,’ she says. I can see my face in the pub window in the growing darkness, and there he is, the wolf who watches me out of my eyes. I hold that gaze for once; dare to ask him what he wants. I dare to ask him why. The window becomes a mirror in the growing darkness. From time to time we catch each other’s eyes in the glass. Then we look away, and look again, watching each other watching the rain.

About the author Rachel Knightley is a freelance writer, director and teacher. She is taking her PhD in creative writing and runs Green Ink Writers’ Gym to help fellow writers boost their confidence and wordcounts.

SECOND Prize £150

Gear Change Zoe Hunt


here was no doubt about it: Jeremy Clarkson was dead. One bulging eye appeared transfixed by the ceiling, while the other, submerged, seemed to survey the depths of the watery grave. Peering even closer into the goldfish bowl, Patrick was relieved to discover both Hammond and May still swimming around, in and out of the windows of a small toy car. Clarkson’s death was the latest disaster to strike Patrick. Already this week, his class of eight-year-olds had successfully mounted a mini-mutiny after he had come close to leaving one of them behind at a museum. It was also becoming clear that many staff – blaming him for the kids’ unruliness – had joined the rebellious ranks. And now that he had managed to kill one of the head teacher’s beloved goldfish, surely his teaching career – scarcely a year into its infancy – would be heading the same way as this corpse: down the nearest shit hole. At least Clarkson would depart with the dignity of a quick flush; the fate awaiting him, Patrick sensed, would involve being dumped on first. The morning sun streamed into the classroom, the dusty light offering him the little hope he needed to survive the day. Soon the children would be coming into school and if one of them caught sight of the deceased, bobbing about in the bowl, there would be an instant queue of the little snitchers, snaking its way to the head’s office, desperate to report him. Just as the worst case scenario was playing out in his mind, his thoughts were interrupted by footsteps approaching from down the corridor. The sound of kitten heels, squeaking under the bulk of two flabby feet, could only mean one thing: the head, Mrs Marchant,

was paying him a visit. Undoubtedly, she would be seeking the return of her goldfish. Patrick had only intended to borrow them for one art lesson; he’d now had them for two days. Act professionally! Patrick thought. Own up! Say sorry! It’s only a bloody fish! But in the time it took for these words to rattle through his head, he had scooped up the fishbowl and leapt into his cupboard. Standing in the dark, dank silence, cradling the bowl as though it was a baby, he listened as the footsteps came to a halt at his classroom door. There was an audible huff before the heels retreated with the same echo of authority. Patrick waited: suddenly he was no longer a 25-year-old teacher, but an eight-year-old boy covering up his crime. When did he become more like one of his pupils and less like someone on a payroll? To save his skin, he knew there was only one course of action: deceit. He would spend his evening cycling around pet shops, Continued overleaf

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Story Comp

Gear Change continued

searching for a goldfish of suitable length, girth and viciousness to become the next Clarkson. Then he would make the switch, in secret, first thing tomorrow morning. Out with the dead Clarkson; in with the living one. Simple. Hurriedly, Patrick slid the fishbowl – corpse and all – to the back of the cupboard’s bottom shelf. He then went to join the other teachers in the playground, to await the morning death bell. At the far side of the football pitch, he could hear Mrs Marchant’s shrill shout, directed at a boy with a history of sweet smuggling. ‘Don’t try to hide anything from me, young man, I’ve got eyes on the back of my head, you know.’ It was her catchphrase. Another boy, within earshot, whispered to a friend, ‘She’s probably got hundreds of eyes on her arse, too – it’s certainly big enough.’ Patrick pretended neither to have heard the forbidden word nor the sentiment behind it, choosing, instead, to clear his throat. The death bell rang out and he led his restless line of half-pint hooligans into class. Cycling fast into school the following morning, Patrick took extra care to avoid the potholes. He had Clarkson Number Two in a flask, in a bag at the back of his bike, and the last thing he wanted was to lose such a ferocious fish to a dip in the road. He had finally found a suitable replacement online the previous night and, unable to contain his desperation, had collected it from a highly bemused owner just after midnight. As he swung his bike in through the gates, Patrick noticed the caretaker, Mick the Mop – given his name because he always seemed to be holding a mop, with today being no exception. ‘Be careful not to slip on the water,’ Mick warned. ‘A pipe sprung a leak last night – might cause problems with the water pressure today.’ Patrick nodded an acknowledgement. He was just relieved that the wet floor had nothing to do with fish. Back in his classroom, he carefully pulled the fishbowl out from the cupboard and lowered it on to his teacher desk. What he saw next made him shriek with shock: all three goldfish, including Clarkson, were merrily swimming around. Clarkson, whom yesterday had looked in the early stages of decomposition, was back from the dead! Not known for his maths prowess, Patrick did a second headcount. Yes – definitely three; no phantom fish. Just as he was wondering how best to celebrate this minor victory, the familiar sound of squeaky footsteps penetrated his thoughts. Relax, he thought, drama over. ‘Ah, there you are, Mr Parsons,’ Mrs Marchant began. ‘It’s a joy to see you in school so bright and early today, if not a little surprising. Please take a seat as we need to have a chat.’ ‘Yes?’ said Patrick, trying to summon some confidence, but recognising that the use of his surname and the request to take a seat always spelt trouble. ‘My pesky little pets…’ Mrs Marchant ventured, glancing at the fishbowl as if clarification was needed. ‘They haven’t, by small chance, been causing you sleepless nights, have they?’ It was possibly a rhetorical question, but there were no brownie points for taking any chances. ‘Of course not!’ Patrick blurted out. ‘The reason I ask is…’ Mrs Marchant paused, perhaps for effect, but more probably to take in sufficient breath for all that she wanted to say. ‘Before the start of school yesterday, I popped into your classroom to let you know that I’d noticed one of my goldfish had died – the little blighter – but you appeared to be busy in your cupboard, and I didn’t wish to disturb you. Anyhow, first thing this morning I picked up a replacement goldfish and then, after arriving at school and finding my fishbowl in your cupboard, of course, I threw out the dead fish and popped in the new one. But, Mr Parsons, can you guess what I find fishy about this tale?’


‘Uh?’ was all Patrick could now manage. ‘What I find fishy is this: I picked up my replacement fish from my sister – she breeds them, you know. And while over at my sister’s house, enjoying a morning coffee, she ended up sharing an amusing tale about some jabbering, idiotic man who collected a goldfish from her at midnight. Midnight! And the really curious thing was this: the description she gave of him, well, it matched yours…’ My goodness, thought Patrick, a whole family of fish fanciers! ‘Now, Mr Parsons, I don’t wish to put you on the spot, but was that you paying my sister a late night visit? Because if it was, then we need to chat about workload and wellbeing…’ ‘Of course not!’ blurted out Patrick again, aware that he was beginning to sound robotic. Mrs Marchant let out a disgruntled humph. ‘If all you can say is, “Of course not,” then perhaps we need to have this conversation another time.’ From her half-snort-half-smile, Patrick could tell that she knew she was on to something. And with that, she picked up her fishbowl, swivelled on her heels and headed off back into the bowels of the school. But the head teacher was now the least of his worries. His concern had shifted to his trousers. They were wet. Whilst Mrs Marchant had been sharing her suspicions, a patch of damp had been expanding around his thighs. Despite feeling like a schoolboy again, Patrick was fairly certain he hadn’t wet himself. And with no sign of drips descending from the ceiling, this ruled out another dodgy pipe. There could be only one explanation: the flask holding Clarkson Number Two, which was still in his bag and on his lap, was leaking. And it was. How could this be happening to him? The thought of killing two Clarksons in two days was too much to contemplate. Snatching up the flask, he ran to his classroom sink, jammed in the plug, shook the remaining drops of water and a flailing fish into the basin and turned on the tap. No water. What had the caretaker said to him about water pressure? Now what? Patrick wondered what his eight-year-old self would do. Scooping up the now wild-eyed fish, he ran out of his classroom and along the corridor to the staff toilet, where he let it slip gently through his fingers into the toilet water. The second it hit the surface, it seemed instantly revived and relaxed. Clarkson at one with skid marks, indeed. He had learnt his lesson and there remained only one course of action: he would go straight to the head’s office and tell the truth; confess all; apologise for the world’s ills; launch a rescue mission to save Clarkson Number Two from the shit pot; claim a gold star sticker for his grovelling honesty and efforts. Ignoring the school’s number one rule on how to move safely around the building, Patrick sprinted from the toilets, skilfully navigating the warren of corridors and stairs until he arrived at the head’s door, where he knocked loudly. Silence. ‘If you’re looking for Mrs Marchant, she’s not in her office,’ volunteered Mick. ‘I think she took another flight up to the loos…’ Leaping clean over Mick’s mop, Patrick found himself hurtling back along the corridors and up the stairs. As he came to the top, he caught sight of Mrs Marchant, standing outside the staff toilet. Her hands were locked on to her hips; her eyes were locked on to him. ‘Now don’t try to hide anything from me, young man,’ she snarled. ‘I’ve got eyes on the back of my head, you know.’ With the full force of her catchphrase bearing down on him, Patrick could feel his professional persona suddenly slip. If she was Continued overleaf

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Story Comp

Gear Change continued

going to speak to him like he was a kid, then he would respond accordingly, and not disappoint. ‘You didn’t shit on my fish, did you?’ he half-wailed. ‘Of course not!’ Mrs Marchant shrieked, wincing at his choice of words. ‘Is that because you saw my fish as you sat down? Everyone says you’ve got hundreds of eyes on your arse too; it certainly is – ’ The morning death bell screamed out, and recognising it had saved him, Patrick turned and marched straight out of the school

door and into the playground. Sod the morning maths lesson, he thought. ‘We’re going to start the day with design and tech,’ he announced to his class. ‘We will be using string to construct nets and the child who makes the best one – ’ he paused, smiling inwardly, ‘will be going fishing.’ About the author After 10 years working as a magazine journalist, Zoe retrained as a teacher. She runs a creative writing club for children, and is seeking an agent for a children’s book she has written, about a time-travelling bookworm.

THIRD Prize £100

A Bit of Light

Anne Walsh Donnelly


don’t hear any birds this morning. That’s good. I wouldn’t want to die on a day that might be full of the voices of wrens or cuckoos or thrushes. Mulligan’s rooster starts to crow. Never a need for an alarm clock in our village. I don’t know what I want for breakfast. I might have one of those croissants I got in Tesco yesterday. Not great for the cholesterol but that hardly matters now. The kitchen window blind creaks as I pull it up. Grey clouds dress the sky. The willow Paddy planted on our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary is flailing in the wind. As I’m waiting for the kettle to boil, the angel Gabriel glares at me. ‘Are you going to light my candle?’ he asks. ‘Are you going to let me see him again?’ ‘You will, in time.’ ‘Yeah, but not on this earth,’ I say, as I grab a cup from the shelf. He can be awful annoying at times. He’s been standing on the windowsill since Paddy’s funeral and at first I used to light the candle that he holds in his porcelain hands. ‘A bit of light in the darkness,’ said my sister, when she gave the angel to me. A fire hazard more like. I’ve often been in the car on the way to town and I’d remember that I forgot to blow the bloody candle out. I’d have to come home again, cos there was one time that I did forget. No use in having a bit of light in the darkness when your whole house is gone up in flames. Is there? ‘I’m not going to light your candle,’ I say as I rinse my cup with some boiling water. My cheeks feel flushed and damp from the steam so I grab the tea towel and sponge my face. Then I think of the red cheeks on Paddy and his bulging eyes when he’d get cross. It’s easier to think of that than his happy face. I mightn’t miss him as much if he was one of those husbands who spent half the night slobbering over a pint in the pub, or worse slobbering over some young one half his age. Or his passing might be a bit easier to bear if he took a fist to me once in a while and I hated the living sight of him. But I loved every bit of the man, the feel of the hairs on his back as we made love, the grassy smell of him after he’d come in from cutting the silage, the heat of his hand on my thigh as we sat watching the nine o’clock news on the couch. All the coal I heap into the stove now does nothing for me and I can’t even get warm in the bed. Despite the electric blanket, hot water bottle and winter duvet, there’s a chill in my bones that I can’t get rid of.


I clench my fingers around the handle of the cup. ‘You’ve no idea what it’s like to lose your husband.’ ‘You’re right, I don’t,’ says Gabriel. ‘Well, the least you could do is be a bit sympathetic.’ I managed to get through Paddy’s funeral cos I’d planned what I was going to do once it was over. But my problem is that sometimes I find it hard to keep my mouth shut, so didn’t I go tell my sister what was going through my head. The next thing I know, Dr McCarthy is in the house and Paddy’s coffin still in the front room. Whatever was in the injection he bruised my bum cheek with, it knocked all thoughts of going to the river out of my head for a while. Then after the injection he put me on the Xanax. ‘They’ll keep you on an even keel,’ he said. I stopped taking them, weeks ago. Couldn’t fit into any of my clothes and I was walking around in a daze the whole time. There’s a text message from Sharon waiting for me when I turn on the phone. Mam r u at home? ‘Where else would I be?’ ‘You’d better text her back,’ says Gabriel. ‘Not today.’ I grab a spoon and squeeze the life out of the tea bag that I’ve just dumped into my cup. As I lighten the tea with some milk, Gabriel starts nattering again. ‘You could do with some company.’ ‘It’s not Sharon that I want to talk to.’ Anyway it wouldn’t be fair on Sharon if I was to see her this morning cos I’d hate the thought of her at my funeral, turning today over and over in her head blaming herself, was there something she didn’t pick up on, cos this isn’t about her and there’s nothing

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Writers FORUM she can do anyway. Grief is a solitary thing. I read that somewhere. And I’ve never read a truer word. Anyway she has enough on her hands at the moment looking after Tommy. ‘Well, maybe Sharon might want to see you,’ says Gabriel. ‘She doesn’t need me. She has her own family now.’ ‘Paddy wouldn’t like what you’re planning.’ ‘You have no idea what he’d like.’ I throw the tea towel over Gabriel’s head. That’ll take the shine off his face and maybe give me a bit of peace as well. Then I take my tea and croissant and sit on the chair furthest away from the kitchen window. I’m just about to take a drink when the back door bursts open. In walks Sharon lugging Tommy’s car seat and he’s bawling his head off. Jesus, he can roar for a three-month-old. The thin screech in his cry nearly cuts my heart in two and turns my thoughts to the brandy I used to put in Sharon’s bottle when she was the same way. But she breastfeeds. Maybe I should give the brandy to her instead. I heard on the radio recently that they don’t put alcohol in gripe water anymore, so that’s not going to do much good. You’d think by now that someone would have invented an app for the phone that could cure a colicky baby. An app like that would make you a millionaire. Every bit of Sharon’s body is drooping. She heaves the car seat onto the table and flops into a chair. ‘Colic?’ ‘That’s what the doctor keeps telling me,’ she says, as she fumbles with the buckle and extracts Tommy. The poor little mite’s body is shaking and his bib is soaked. His fist connects with her eye and now the two of them are roaring their heads off. I take Tommy and rest his shaking head on my shoulder. My navy dress will be destroyed with his dribble but sure what harm. He’s stopped crying. ‘Drink that,’ I say to her, pointing at my tea. She drains the cup, then bites into my croissant and demolishes the whole lot of it. ‘I feel like a failure,’ she says, between sobs, as she wipes the greasy pastry from her lips. ‘Every new mother feels that way. It will get better, pet.’ ‘The minute you take him, he stops crying How the hell you do that?’ ‘Maybe it’s his way of telling you to go have a rest.’ She has the look now that she used to have as a child when she’d pick the ‘Get out of Jail Free’ card in Monopoly. Then I think of the neat pile of Xanax waiting for me upstairs in the drawer of my bedside locker. Tommy moves his head a bit on my shoulder so I get up and walk around the kitchen and rub his back to soothe him to sleep. ‘I’ve expressed some milk, could you take him… for a small while?’ I hide the feeling of panic that’s creeping through me. I’ve never minded Tommy before. It would be too much trouble, she’d say when I used to offer, what with her breastfeeding and all. I stare at the shrouded Gabriel on the windowsill, picturing the smug grin he’s probably wearing on his devout face. ‘Is this your way of ruining my plans?’ Even the tea towel doesn’t prevent him from answering back. ‘Sharon needs you.’ ‘I was supposed to be going out with some of the women from the active retirement group today,’ I say to Sharon, watching the convulsive dance her feet are doing under the table. Continued overleaf

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09/03/2016 09:41:47

Story Comp

A Bit of Light continued

‘Do you have to go?’ I close my eyes for a minute and sink my face into the crook of Tommy’s neck. He smells of talcum powder. Wish I could bottle it and keep it on my bedside locker. It might be better than a pile of pills. The chair scrapes the kitchen tiles as Sharon stands. Then she’s beside me and I open my eyes. There’s a tremor in her hands as she turns the tap to rinse the cup. The haggard look on her face makes me want to hug her but I don’t want to put Tommy down for fear he’ll wake. I glance sideways at Gabriel. Then I turn back to look at Sharon and attempt a smile. ‘I don’t have to go. Sure, I’ll have much better fun here with Tommy.’ ‘Thanks, Mam.’ Almost as soon as she’s gone, Tommy wakes, which is just as well as my shoulder is killing me. I put him back in his car seat and nuke the expressed milk in the microwave. If Sharon saw me she’d probably combust but I haven’t the energy to put it in the bottle warmer she left behind. And by the sounds of it I don’t think poor Tommy has the patience to wait. When the bottle’s ready I take him out of his car seat, sit on Paddy’s rocking chair by the range. He closes his eyes and sucks on the teat. When the milk is gone, he burps the same way Paddy used to after a feed of steak and onions. Then, an almighty whiff and a look of pure relief on his face. I get up with him still in my arms and push the kitchen window open to let in some fresh air. At least Paddy never deteriorated to the stage where I would end up cleaning his behind. Tommy’s face is alight now and a warm feeling spreads all over my body. Paddy is looking straight out of Tommy’s brown eyes. A gust of wind blows the tea towel from Gabriel’s face on to the worktop. ‘You brought him back to me.’ As soon as Tommy’s changed, he falls asleep and I put him into his car seat. I don’t want him to get a cold from the draught so I close the window but knock Gabriel over in the process. I pick him up and examine him for cracks. Thankfully there’s none. But if I didn’t know any better I’d swear there’s a tear on his cheek. But angels don’t cry, do they? Still, he looks cold so after I put him back on the windowsill, I light his candle. And as I blow out the match an amber hue travels up his chest and lands on his pale face. About the author Anne lives in the west of Ireland with her two children. Her stories have been published online, in print and also broadcast on radio. She is delighted to be published for the second time in this magazine. Highly commended There were nine shortlisted stories this month: Flower Girl by Michael Nicholson Such a Good Girl by Paul Barnett Body Snatcher by Aliss Langridge The Birdie Bus by Susan Dillon The Next Stop by Shaun Mendum Dr Issac’s Maggot by Mark Jones Where Unicorns Graze by Steve Atkinson A Case of White Lilies by Ryan Coull The Voice Shredder by Gordon Day



rom the opening sentence of RS Knightley’s Wolf in the Mirror I knew I was in the company of an author who trusted her readers to ‘get’ the story. There is no unnecessary information given. All the backstory we need to know is gradually brought out as the tale unfolds. Within three paragraphs the narrator brings in the fact that Molly is a student and he a graduate session musician. He also lets us in on the emotional pull between them – stronger on his side than on hers – but they are not lovers. This in itself is intriguing. What is the connection? The author makes good use of external factors to enable the reader to visualise the characters: Hair pushed back, her skin is almost white, matching the winter sky over Richmond Green in the world behind her. I enjoyed the lyrical prose in this story. The almost sibling relationship between Molly and Roland, the reason he is so unsettled by his feelings, is presented in the most natural way, but provides a wealth of detail.

length and shape of a Tuesday lunchtime. I wish time and space to stay outside the window, to leave us alone.

She glares at me exactly as our mother would have done. She has the advantage of biology there, as well as the worldly one of inheriting the library that informed the glare. Our mother, hers by birth and mine by law, did not grow to hate me even as she grew to hate my father. I care little for either of the parents we shared and lost but offer them my thanks: without this girl to protect, to roll my eyes for, life would have been of little consequence.

feelings are more than that of almost‑sibling and it is this forbidden aspect that brings out the eponymous wolf in the mirror. When Roland escapes to the men’s room in an effort to control his feelings, the author uses another beautifully worded paragraph to describe his surroundings and the way they impact on his emotional state.

The narrator’s wish to be with Molly, cocooned from the world, is nicely presented in a single paragraph. A storm of resentment builds in me for the outside world, our separate lives, separate homes and everyone that shares them. I wish the world to shrink to the

At this stage it seems as if it is just his loneliness, a desire to connect, that drives his need. But later in the story we discover his

In the one long mirror that runs the length of the seven sinks and curls on to the edges of the walls, ten matching pairs of Roland Andrews splash water on their faces. They disappear into flannelled darkness as I dry my face with the first in a pile of hand towels. The pile topples. I don’t dare look up from the counter where it’s fallen. When I do I must meet my eyes in

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Competition round-up Animal magic Lorraine Mace explains why she chose this month’s winners endurance by his less-thanattentive pupils, being driven to the edge (and over it) by the death of one of his headmistress’s beloved goldfish. This is such a great set-up for comedy and Zoe builds on each situation, adding more and more grief to the already stricken teacher. She doesn’t allow the pace to flag for a moment. When Patrick scoops up the fishbowl and hides, even while knowing it is the wrong thing to do, Zoe puts the reader into the cupboard with him. Standing in the dark, dank silence, cradling the bowl as though it was a baby, he listened as the footsteps came to a halt at his classroom door. There was an audible huff before the heels retreated with the same echo of authority.

Using scenery to show mood

We receive many stories peppered with stormy landscapes as metaphors to show the characters’ emotions. Done well, this is an effective way of enhancing the reader’s experience. However, in many cases this is either overdone, or there is a disconnect between the scenery used and what is happening in the story. It feels like something the author feels should be added in for effect, rather than a natural blending of scene and emotion. Throughout Wolf in the Mirror the author uses the setting to show how the narrator is feeling. It is done with a light touch and never feels intrusive or tacked on. I recommend reading the story again to study Rachel’s technique. the mirror. I know what will be looking back. I thoroughly enjoyed the skilful way the author plays with the narrator’s emotions, and the reader’s by extension. I found myself wanting to tell the pair they had nothing to worry about – they were raised as siblings but would not be committing incest if they got

together. To have made me care about them in this way shows the power of the writing.


ear Change by Zoe Hunt caught my eye because the subject matter is original and the story is amusing. The first sentence is arresting too. I could so easily picture a teacher, harried beyond

I enjoyed the chaos that seems to follow Patrick whenever he tries to put things right and his shock on finding the fish has seemingly come back to life was a joy to read. Clarkson, who yesterday had looked in the early stages of decomposition, was back from the dead! Not known for his maths prowess, Patrick did a headcount. Yes – definitely three; no phantom fish. The story is well thought out and the ending, where one of the children will have the privilege of rescuing Clarkson number two, brings a smile.


Bit of Light by Anne Walsh Donnelly could easily have been a depressing read, but it is lifted by the dialogue the narrator

holds with the Angel Gabriel, who resides on the widow’s windowsill. Anne hasn’t made the deceased husband into a less than credible superman. She allows the narrator to describe him as someone who might live next door but who is, nevertheless, the only one she could ever love. But I loved every bit of the man, the feel of the hairs on his back as we made love, the grassy smell of him after he’d come in from cutting the silage, the heat of his hand on my thigh as we sat watching the nine o’clock news on the couch. All the coal I heap into the stove now does nothing for me and I can’t even get warm in the bed. The widow has decided she doesn’t want to live without her husband at her side and plans to take an overdose of the tablets prescribed by her doctor, but Gabriel has other ideas and this is where the dialogue sparkles. The characters in this story are all credible, from the grieving narrator to the daughter who feels a failure because she cannot get her child to stop crying. Even the non-existent angel feels real. I particularly like the fact that the story ends on a positive note – leaving me with a warm feeling of satisfaction. If you want to tackle serious subjects, remember you still have to engage your readers. Lorraine is co-author of The Writer’s ABC Checklist (Accent Press) and author of children’s novel Vlad the Inhaler (LRP)

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Short stories

Fiction workshop

with tutor Lorraine Mace

Our head judge uses reader entries to show how to improve your writing

Put the devil in the detail


number of entries we receive fail because the authors haven’t built enough tension into their stories. When reading horror, in particular, the reader has to be gripped by fear throughout, terrified of what might happen next but compelled to turn the page to find out. A good horror story should have the reader almost squinting through one eye – the reading equivalent of peeking out from behind a cushion during a scary film. The tension has to build and build until reaching its terrifying climax.

Open with fear

The Locket by Annie J Simons has a storyline that should bring about shivers of fear, but the author needs to ramp up the tension to achieve this. The locket of the title was bought by the narrator’s greatgrandfather as a gift for his wife just prior to the outbreak of WW2. From that point on, the family is cursed by a series of calamities affecting the generations up to the present. The narrator is the latest possessor of the locket and we follow the family’s tragedies from her perspective. There are some excellent and gruesome details later in the story, but the opening fails because it is too bland. When I received the phone call this morning I knew I didn’t have much time left, so it’s really important that I tell you the story about the locket now, before it’s too late. It all began in the summer of 1932 when my great-grandmother


met and fell in love with Edmund Burrows. It’s after reading Katherine’s diary and a precious scattering of fading love letters that I’m able to tell you exactly how the locket became part of our lives. This opening doesn’t give a hint of horror and could easily be taken for a different genre altogether. The phone call could be for any number of reasons – perhaps the locket had been lost and was now found. The detail about not having much time left is also open to a variety of interpretations – she might have to get the locket to a particular place within a set time period to achieve a goal, for example. The important thing to note is that the opening doesn’t inspire fear, or give an indication that this is a horror story. Towards the end we discover the narrator’s uncle had tried to dispose of the locket but was unable to do so. The inability to change destiny is something that needs to be brought in much earlier and the opening could be used for this purpose. For instance, instead of a phone call, say the narrator receives a package in the mail – unmarked by a sender’s address. Shaking with fear, she opens the parcel, guessing what will be inside but praying she is wrong. She screams/ sobs/collapses when the locket is revealed. How can this be when she threw it into an active volcano/the river/off a cliff/on to railway tracks the week before?

In the beginning

Annie uses the opening pages to recount the narrator’s great‑grandmother’s love story, marriage and the birth of children. All is well until Edmund buys the locket just after the birth of their third child. Unfortunately, instead of showing how the locket works to destroy their happiness, Annie tells us it happens. Once the locket was in Edmund’s possession however, everything changed as its evil power began to spread like a cancer into the very bones of my family. Katherine, the greatgrandmother, wears the locket for the first time at the christening of Alice, their youngest child, and within a week Alice was dead from meningitis. No connection was made between the death and the locket. In fact, Edmund carried it with him throughout the Second World War for good luck. The problem I have with this is that Edmund not only

survived the war, but came home as a hero, having been mentioned in dispatches and awarded the Victoria Cross. Surely, if the locket was evil, Edmund would have perished during the fighting? Annie makes up for this good fortune with a double tragedy. The joy of his homecoming was short-lived when a few weeks later he and William were both killed under the wheels of a tram. The fear factor is missing because there is nothing to connect the deaths to the locket. Had Edmund perished in the war and the locket been returned to his widow, then the loss of her only son under a tram a day after regaining possession of it would ramp up the fear – even if the widow herself was unaware of the locket’s lethal secret.


Katherine takes her own life a year later and her surviving

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If you’d like your Story Comp entry to be considered for a workshop, tick the box on the entry form or state it clearly in your email

daughter Flora inherits the locket. When she was twenty Flora met and married a solicitor named David McConnelly. Six months into the marriage he was accused of murdering a woman he was having an affair with. He was found guilty and hanged. Although this is tragic, no connection is made to the locket. Perhaps if David had stolen it from his wife and given it to the woman with whom he was having the affair, that would provide the necessary trail giving cause and effect.

Make connections

This lack of connection between tragic events and the locket prevents the reader from believing in its power. If that belief isn’t there, then fear cannot flourish. In the next part of the story Flora remarries and has children. Her death in a fire which claims the lives of six others is the first event actually showing the locket’s power. This connection needs to be present during each tragedy. Flora was wearing the locket when she died. When it was removed from her body there wasn’t a mark on it. After her death, the locket was passed down to my uncle Harry. But the connection is lost again in the next paragraph. As the decades dissolved into history, one death followed

another, the saddest being my own father who died in a plane crash three weeks before I was born. As the locket is in Uncle Harry’s possession, where is the link between the death of the father and the locket? When Uncle Harry falls to his death from a hotel balcony in Greece the locket comes to the narrator’s mother, who is diagnosed with cancer shortly afterwards. Again, the death and the cancer diagnosis should be linked to the locket in a more tangible way. Could Harry have been trying to throw it into the sea from his balcony when he fell to his death? Could the mother have been brimming with health until the locket passes into her possession? A letter comes with the locket. However, from the reader’s point of view, rather than adding an additional layer of fear, it raises several unresolved questions. My dearest Eleanor, If you are reading this then you will know that the curse of the locket has succeeding in killing me. Over the years since the death of our dear mother I have tried everything to get rid of it, but it was too powerful and always found a way back to me. The first question is why did Harry even send his sister the locket? Surely he should do all in his power to avoid doing so? In the letter he could outline some of his attempts to get rid of it and show his despair as

Scarily good tips on writing horror

■ Keep an element of mystery as long as possible to maintain the fear factor. ■ Make sure there is a valid reason for the horror. It’s harder to believe in evil just for the sake of it. ■ Allowing your protagonists hope – a belief they can win – will create greater fear and reader empathy when it is dashed. ■ Use familiar everyday objects and situations in a scary way. A small child who stares fixedly at people can be unnerving, but not frightening. However, if those people later have tragic accidents, it becomes horror. ■ If you base your plot on things that frighten you, it is easier to create a greater level of dread as you write.

one failure followed another. He could end by saying he intends to try one more time to throw it out to sea, thus connecting his fall from the balcony to the locket. When Edmund bought it, it chose to destroy us all. It was as if it was looking for us. Having raised this point, Harry needs to say what the connection is between the family and locket. Why does it always finds a way back to them? The reason must ramp up the tension. The reader has to feel the narrator has no escape from her destiny. The letter ends with a plea. There is one thing I would ask of you, Eleanor; beg of you; please do not look into the locket. At least save yourself from that horror. Eleanor ignored her brother’s warning and looked inside, as does the narrator. This should be a frightening moment in the story as we discover there is a demon reflected in the gold, but the impact is weakened by the fact that Edmund opened it frequently without seeing anything other than the locks of his children’s hair. It was the good luck talisman that carried him through the war.

The showdown

The narrator is naturally distraught when she realises the curse will one day pass to her – and it is for this reason she needs to have done something to rid herself of the locket when we meet her in the opening paragraph. She does suggest calling on a higher power to stop the curse. Give me the locket,’ I said defiantly. ‘I’ll take it down to St Augustus and ask Father Lovejoy to perform an exorcism. He’ll do it. I know he will.’ I tentatively picked the locket up and stared at it. Immediately a shape appeared behind me and my heart felt as if it was going to jump out of my chest. At first the shape

was undefined, blurry, then the mist surrounding it disappeared and I could see it quite clearly. It was something that wasn’t human, a grotesque figure with large misshapen horns and eyes as black as night. Its hands slid over my shoulders, rested on them and giant talons touched my neck, but I felt no pressure on my skin. It smiled and revealed a serpent’s tongue and sharp pointed fangs that dug deep into its bottom lip. She breaks down sobbing and feels nothing can be done to help them, but I would have thought that this vision only added to the need for an exorcism, not negated it. An exorcism, particularly one which fails, or causes injury to the priest, would add much to the fear factor.

Fearful climax

The locket has to be shown to be both indestructible and irreversibly attached to the family for a valid reason. The demon only appears near the end of the story, which is not plausible because it has passed though too many hands without any mention of it. Annie needs to ramp up the tension throughout the story. The narrator accepts her fate when the phone call at the beginning brings news that her mother will shortly die. There is absolutely nothing I can do. The locket is indestructible and soon, very soon, it will be mine and that thing, that unholy being, will be looking in my direction. For this to be a satisfying end to a horror tale, readers have to have seen the protagonist making heroic efforts to destroy the locket – only for it to come back into her possession and seal her doom. Writing as Frances di Plino, Lorraine Mace is the author of the DI Paolo Storey crime series. Her latest book is Looking for a Reason

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After looking at how to use your friends and contacts to spread the word online for free, Sally Jenkins now looks at paid-for publicity services


n previous issues I showed how authors can generate their own publicity by using free social media tools and a network of online acquaintances. But what if you have no internet presence or only a small number of online contacts and very little time to spend on marketing? This final article will look at some paid-for publicity options which may be useful.

Amazon adverts

The first of these options is an Amazon Marketing Services (AMS) advertising campaign. The big plus of an AMS campaign is that it can be targeted directly at readers interested in types of books similar to your own. On the minus side, the campaign can only be used for books enrolled in KDP Select and, at the time of writing, the campaign will only be seen on and not in the UK. However the adverts can still be useful for British authors who are trying to get a foothold in the huge and highly competitive US market. Before setting up an AMS advertising campaign it’s useful to understand some of the associated terminology. An ‘impression’ is the display of your advert on an Amazon page. A ‘click’ is when someone sees your advert and clicks on

Chris McMullen


it, through to your book’s product page. There is no guarantee that someone seeing an impression of your advert will click on it, and if they do click on it there is no guarantee that they will buy the product. AMS adverts are charged for by the number of clicks the advert generates. To start an AMS advertising campaign, go to your KDP Bookshelf and click on ‘Promote and Advertise’ for the ebook that you want to publicise. This will create an AMS account and ask you for details of the advert you wish to place. There are two methods of targeting an AMS advert: by product or by interest. If

Targeting ads by product is more effective than by interest targeting by product, you will be asked to select one or more products, usually similar to the one you are selling. A potential buyer browsing the Amazon pages of these products will possibly see the advert for your book. Similarly, if targeting by interest, you will be offered a selection of interest categories to choose from. These are similar to the range of categories offered when publishing through KDP. Potential buyers browsing products in these categories may possibly see your advert. I used the word possibly because with an AMS campaign there is no guarantee that an impression of a particular advert will ever see the light of day. That’s because it works on a bidding system. As part of the campaign setup, Amazon asks how much you are willing to pay ‘per click’. Those willing to pay the most for a click will have their advert displayed. The minimum cost-per-click bid is $0.02 and the minimum campaign budget is $100 – but the campaign can be terminated at any time so there is no obligation to spend this whole budget.

Chris McMullen, author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing, has blogged about his experiences with AMS at He’s found that targeting ads by product is more effective than by interest. ‘I suggest targeting at least 50 books where readers who enjoy those books are likely to appreciate your book,’ he advises. ‘You really need to think about your specific audience. It’s OK to select other products too, like movies that are likely to be a great fit for your book.” Chris warns that, like all advertising that costs money, it carries risks. ‘The more you bid, the more you’re likely to lose money in the short term, perhaps a lot of money,’ he says. ‘But if you have a hot promotion going on, it may be worth it for that. ‘The less you bid, the smaller your shortterm risks, but the fewer impressions, clicks and sales you’re likely to get because the higher bidders will get the majority of the impressions.’ He suggests keeping an eye on how well the adverts are working. If the clicks are resulting in sales and profit, then it is worth spending money. But if not… ‘Imagine you’re at a casino,’ Chris advises. ‘If you’re having bad luck, get

Anne Harvey

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out! Walking away when you’ve lost $15 is a lot better than losing $100.’

Paid fans

If an AMS advertising campaign sounds daunting, you may prefer instead to pay someone to tweet about your book or to share it on Facebook or LinkedIn. A cheap way of doing this is to use one of the sellers on All services offered on the site cost $5 plus a 50 cent admin fee. Whilst researching this article I placed an order to have my thriller, Bedsit Three, promoted five times to 29,000 LinkedIn contacts (this equated to two ‘gigs’ and cost me $10.50 or £7.29). The seller was very efficient. She used the information I provided to compose the LinkedIn post and sent me a screenshot along with a list of the subsequent times it would appear. By the end of the five-day period I’d noticed absolutely no difference in the number of sales of Bedsit Three. So I can only recommend these services if you’re after something cheap and cheerful that may or may not hit the spot. Gary Walker offers a publicity service that encourages authors to help themselves and to help each other. He explains: ‘I charge my clients an annual fee of £49 and feature their books at www.look4books. I also tweet prolifically either about the website or the individual books featured.’ Romance author Anne Harvey has used Gary’s services to market her novel A Suitable Young Man, which is set in 1950s Lancashire. ‘Gary provides specially designed poster images for his authors to use on social media,’ she says. ‘This makes it easier for us to do some of our own virtual publicity.’ ‘The most successful authors,’ Gary adds, ‘are ones who promote themselves in conjunction with my promotion. These authors also tend to promote other authors on the website at the same time and so gain much needed goodwill within the writing community. ‘Without this joint effort I don’t think

any amount of paid promotion will result in higher book sales. The key to good marketing is building good relationships between authors and customers.’

Personal assistance

Authors with absolutely no social media experience may benefit from the personalised services of an author’s virtual assistant, like Sarah Houldcroft of ’Social media and a website are important features of being a writer these days,’ says Sarah. ‘Not only do readers expect it, but publishers are more likely to take up a book from an unknown author if they see they are actively promoting themselves online, because these days many publishers do very little to promote a book. ‘Readers like to be able to connect with authors of the books they have enjoyed, so having a lively Facebook account, for example, is a great way for authors to really get to know their readers and convert them into loyal fans. Blogging is still a powerful way to keep potential readers engaged, whether it is blogging on the author’s own website or guest blogging for someone else.’ Sarah is skilled in creating and maintaining an online presence for authors

Sarah Houldcroft

who don’t have the knowledge or time to do it for themselves. However, where possible, she does encourage writers to take over the social media accounts that she gets up and running. ‘Using a professional to set up a Twitter account, for example, and then spending a couple of months tweeting regularly and finding and following relevant contacts, can really help an author get started in the right way,’ she explains. ‘This is particularly useful if the author is given instruction on how to carry on with the Twitter account after the agreement with the professional has come to an end. It is empowering for the author and saves money in the long run too.’ Sarah emphasises the need to be consistent with publicity. ‘It is much better to be regularly active on, say, Facebook than struggling to keep up with Twitter and Pinterest as well and failing to be consistent with any of them.’ She also has some tips on choosing the right professional to help with promotion. ‘Find someone who is actually interested in your book and someone you can talk to easily. I will not take on any promotional work if I don’t feel some sort of rapport with the author or if their book doesn’t inspire me. A good professional will also know his or her way around the internet and will advise the new author on where to begin with promotion, on free tools that can help to manage an online presence and will also help with technical difficulties that the author may have when accessing and using the internet.’ Paid-for and professional publicity services come in a variety of guises and what suits a particular author will depend on your budget, the time you have available to promote yourself and your social media skills. But whether you choose to employ a professional or promote yourself, the generation of publicity must continue over the long term to have the greatest impact on book sales. • Sally Jenkins is author of the self-publishing guide Kindle Direct Publishing for Absolute Beginners, available from Amazon.

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Poetry workshop

Beyond the five senses I

t’s very easy to take the five senses – sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste – for granted but good poetry depends on the information we gather through these senses as much as it depends on rhyme, rhythm and other formal techniques. Vladimir Nabokov said, ‘Nothing revives the past so completely as a smell that was once associated with it,’ and Helen Keller said, ‘The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision’. And Keats wrote: What can I do to drive away Remembrance from my eyes? for they have seen, Aye, an hour ago, my brilliant Queen! Touch has a memory. Then there are the wonderful lines in Hook by James Wright: Did you ever feel a man hold Sixty-five cents In a hook And place it Gently In your freezing hand? Aristotle is thought to be the first person to define the five best-known senses; the ones we knowingly use every day to stay safe and interact. But as science has delved deeper into biology and the human brain, researchers have discovered several other forms of sensory perception we use every day but perhaps have not really thought about. So this month’s writing exercise is to explore the following less well-known senses. As you write, I invite you to ask yourself the following two questions when it comes to technique:

■■ What length of line will best convey the

sense about which I am writing?

■■ Will rhyme help me share this experience or description with my readers or will it reduce the opportunities I have to make the most of line breaks?

Equilibrioception This is a sense of balance. This means you can stand and walk without falling over. Put very simply indeed, this ability


is regulated by fluid in the inner ear and works in conjunction with sight. ■■ Write about a time when you spun

around repeatedly, became dizzy and lost your balance. Is the spinning physical or metaphorical? Did you choose to spin or did you have no choice? Think about what length of line will best convey your disorientation. Will rhyme help to convey the speed and relentlessness of spinning?

Proprioception This is the ability to close your eyes, raise your hand and still know where your hand is. It’s the ability to walk, run, skip or jump without constantly looking at your feet. Police test a person’s level of this ability when they are suspected of drunk driving. ■■ Close your eyes and write about something you can’t see physically but that you know is in a cupboard or a drawer. Describe it in detail. How does it make you feel knowing that thing is there? How might rhyme – either at the end of the lines or embedded in the lines – help you convey this feeling? ■■ Now do the same with a person. Are they at work, in a nearby room or in a yurt in Mongolia? How does knowing they are there make you feel?

Thermoception This is the ability to detect hot and cold. You don’t have to touch something to feel the heat – some receptors in the skin detect heat and others detect cold and they are very different to the ‘touch’ ones that detect physical pressure. Thermoceptors send messages to your brain to help regulate changes in core body temperature. ■■ Write about a time when your body temperature rose or fell. Were you ill or was an emotion such as fear, embarrassment or love responsible? Does being hot lend itself to a different line length than being cold? If you are shivering, might rhyme help to convey it?

Nociception This is the ability to sense pain. You have nociceptors in your skin, bones and joints, and internal organs. ■■ Describe the worst physical pain you have ever experienced. Stay with the pain for a minimum of eight lines and don’t offer your reader any respite. As the seconds tick by make your reader share every nuance of what you are feeling. ■■ And if you are feeling brave, do the same with an emotional pain. Don’t

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You can contact Sue at

with poetry editor Sue Butler

EXPERIMENT Action poems

The sixth sense

Most of us are aware that a verb indicates an action such as running, jumping, hearing, calling or taking. Verbs can also indicate possession, such as having or owning. And of course, less active words such as knowing, recognising and believing are also verbs. But when we are sitting at our desks or in a café writing poetry, do we ever stop and ask ourselves how important verbs are? If you need a clue to the answer to that question, try forming a sentence or asking a question without a verb. So why is it that many poets spend so much time trying to find ways to describe verbs rather than letting the verbs do the work? Sometimes using an adverb to modify or provide more information about a verb, eg The stranger spoke kindly or The parcel was wrapped quickly, is the right approach but might a different verb make the poem stronger? The challenge for this month is to write a poem where all – or as many as possible – of the verbs you use are unmodified. Feel free to choose your own topic and format but if you would like a few lines of poetry for inspiration, here are the opening stanzas of The Words of the High One. This is a translated poem taken from Norse Poems (Faber), selected by WH Auden and Paul B Taylor.

Do you believe we all have a kind of intuition or awareness that isn’t easily explained in terms of the more readily accepted five senses?

Young and alone on a long road, Once I lost my way: Rich I felt when I found another; Man rejoices in man.

■ If the answer is yes, try writing about the difference between this sixth sense and the other five senses. ■ If the answer is no, try writing about your scepticism. Can you be sceptical and still use rhyme? Does scepticism need long lines or short lines?

A kind word need not cost much, The price of praise can be cheap: With half a loaf and an empty cup I found myself a friend.

explain or blame, just use your eight lines to describe the pain.

Interoception These senses govern our internal organs. The receptors perform a wide range of involuntary tasks, such as triggering a cough, controlling respiratory rate and telling us when we are hungry. ■ Write about being hungry or thirsty and the signals your body sent. What kind of language must you use to capture the urgency and intensity of these signals?

Animal senses To end, I invite you to consider senses some animals take for granted. Imagine you have one or more of the following: ■ The sonar used by bats, whales and dolphins ■ The ability birds use to migrate, perhaps by sensing magnetic fields ■ A Jacobson’s organ in the roof of your mouth, ie you can ‘taste’ chemicals from the air or ground like a snake.

Write about the pros and cons of having these extra abilities. Are they a burden or a blessing?

Poetry feedback service If you’d like detailed and targeted feedback from Sue, you can purchase an extended critique of three poems for £35. Email her at for details.

Two wooden stakes stood on the plain, On them I hung my clothes: Draped in linen they looked well-born, But, naked I was nobody. Too early to many homes I came, Too late, it seemed to some: The ale was finished or else unbrewed, The unpopular cannot please.

POETRY WORKOUT Whatever the weather this month, don’t let your writing be dull

1 2 3 4

Write about polishing something until it shines: your first car, your grandmother’s silver, a magic lamp, your skill at ballet or golf. Recount a moment when you were dazzled: by sunlight on a snowy mountain, by moonlight on the ocean, by beauty, courage, wit or kindness. Write about a sound that shines or how a certain flavour shines through a meal. Can a smell shine? Switch on a torch and shine it into somewhere dark. Go in and explore. Write about what you find there and what you learn.

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Poetry competition Each month our winning poet wins £100 and a copy of the new edition of Chambers Thesaurus, worth £40.


wyneth Lowe’s poem, ‘The pageant of the past’, begins with two four-line sentences that could be a person speaking or could be the past itself speaking directly to the reader. Whichever it is, they speak with the simple, uncluttered cadence of everyday speech. In fact so much so that these eight lines could almost have speech marks round them. But regardless of who is speaking, the advice they give holds true for anyone wanting to create a poem about something that happened in the past. The speaker advises, Don’t credit me with virtues charm and grace / But speak about the real me you have known. Creating a sense of truth in a poem is essential. Of course, a poem is a work of creativity so liberties are allowed, but this seems like a good starting point when setting out to write a poem. The speaker advises, Speak kindly of my efforts, faults and flaws. The interesting thing here is not that the advice is to speak kindly but that it is all right to speak about the less-flattering elements of someone’s character. Human foibles portrayed with sensitivity rarely fail to engage the reader. The speaker advises, don’t make an empty shell, and poets do indeed need to ensure their poems are not empty shells. After all, what is the use of a beautiful shape on the page if when the reader holds the poem to their ear all they hear is hissing? And now comes the most important piece of advice. And then my soul will laugh along with yours / When incidents remembered you retell. The speaker in Gwyneth Lowe’s poem says that remembering the past honestly links us to it but retelling past incidents is what really brings it back to life. This sharing is what is important. The eight lines that follow contain more general comments such as, Time dims the memory and the past enhances. Poems can be made up of incidents that really happened and we can describe exactly what our memory tells us happened. But did it happen the way we remember and does that matter in terms of creating a strong poem? Also, when writing a poem there is nothing wrong with enhancing the past – making it better or worse, if that is what is needed to give the poem an authentic voice and to create a world in which the reader believes wholeheartedly. Another comment is, We edit time to make the story flow. And this is something to be remembered when writing a poem. Changing the order in which things happened and changing how long they took to happen can be used to enhance the narrative flow and to increase its impact on the reader. When writing about the past, bringing it into the present tense can be very powerful indeed. Gwyneth’s poem ends with the line Like snapshots saved for future generations. Is that not a great description of a poem?


£100 winner

The Pageant of the Past

Gwyneth M Lowe, Brentwood, Essex When time has dimmed the features of my face And I live in your memory alone Don’t credit me with virtues Charm and Grace But speak about the real me you have known. Speak kindly of my errors, faults and flaws, Don’t sanctify, don’t make an empty shell, And then my soul will laugh along with yours When incidents remembered you retell. Time dims the memory and the past enhances, We edit time to make the story flow. The pageant of the past before us dances. Shades make their entrance – bow and then they go. And each one has their own interpretations Like snapshots saved for future generations.

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Writers FORUM Want to see YOUR poem published in these pages? Any topic, any style – all entries welcome! Rhyming or free verse, haiku or sonnet, funny, sad, romantic or angry…

Prize £100 and a dictionary ENTER AS MANY POEMS AS YOU LIKE £4 PER POEM – OR £6 WITH CRITIQUE ● Poems must be a maximum of 40 lines and printed on A4. ● Give your name, address, phone number and email address. ● Add a brief biography of yourself: age, occupation, family, writing career to date, favourite poets. ● Entry fee is £4 per poem, or £6 per poem if you would like a brief but helpful critique from poetry editor Sue Butler. Cheques (in sterling only) should be made payable to ‘Select Publisher Services’, fill in your credit-card details below or pay online at How to enter Fill in the coupon below (photocopies are acceptable) and post with your cheque or credit-card details to: Writers’ Forum Poetry Contest PO Box 6337, Bournemouth BH1 9EH

Poems that might have been Use these suggestions or questions to explore the different directions the winnig poem might have taken. Think about format, style of language and narrative development. Use the questions to inspire your own poem or poems. ■ Gwyneth Lowe says the pageant of the past before us dances – but there are all kind of dances. Does your past waltz, salsa, do the twist or the jitterbug? Does your past have two left feet or does it dance like your uncle Michael? Does your past wear its best clothes as it dances elegantly round a ballroom? Does it wear a grass skirt as it sways its hips to a Hawaiian beat? Does it jive round the kitchen in its pyjamas? Write about a time when your past danced. Hear the music, see the moves and think about what length of line best conveys the rhythm. ■ If your past doesn’t dance, does it skulk in the shadows or stumble? Does it run and run until its lungs feel as if they will burst? Why does it not want to leave the shadows? Does it stumble because it is tired or ill? Does it run towards you or away from you? Write about a piece of your past that doesn’t dance. ■ Gwyneth says shades make their entrance, bow and then they go.

Let someone step out of your past and speak directly. Alternatively, take time’s advice and Speak about the real me you have known. Write about your past self as honestly as you dare.

Highly Commended Our World by Jenny Ackland, Lympstone, Devon The Body by Roy Goucher, Chesterfield A Heron and Me by Mo Ogier, Guernsey

By entering, you will have been deemed to agree for the poem to appear in Writers’ Forum and future Writers’ Forum anthologies. The competition is open worldwide but entries must be in English. Deadline: 15th of each month. Late entries go into the next contest.

Name Address Postcode Phone number Email address Poem titles

I declare that this poetry has not previously been published or broadcast and that it is my own work Signed I enclose (please tick)

my poem(s)

payment of £

a stamped self-addressed envelope for my optional critique OPTIONAL Please enrol me for an annual subscription at the price of £38 (UK) £49 (Europe) or £56 (Rest of world) Visa/Mastercard/Maestro (delete)

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8-10 April 2016 Royal Agricultural University Cirencester ‘Write a Short Story in a Weekend’ with Della Galton 15-17 April 2016 Royal Agricultural University Cirencester ‘Planning the Novel - Beginning, Middle, End’ with Kate Walker ‘Writing the Past - Fact or Fiction’ with Stephen Wade 13-15 May 2016 The Hayes Swanwick Derbyshire ‘Writing For Children’ with Anita Loughrey ‘Write a Mini-Memoir’ with Alison Chisholm 14-16 October 2016 The Hayes Swanwick Derbyshire ‘Write a Non-Fiction Best Seller’ with Simon Whaley Other courses to be announced soon Telephone Lois for details

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Send your event listings three months ahead to

Literary diary FESTIVALS

Darren Shan, Manchester

17-24 April A range of fiction and poetry events with Irvine Welsh, Christine Dwyer, Catherine Lacey, Sara Baume, Mary Costello and more.

7 April, 10.30am The author will be at Waterstones to launch Goddess, his final book in the Zom-B series. For more details call 0161 832 8563.

ChipLitFest, Chipping Norton

Wenlock Poetry Festival, Shrops

22-24 April Much Wenlock’s annual mix of poetry readings and workshops for adults and children with some of today’s best-known poets, including Lemn Sissay. Daljit Nagra, Gillian Clarke, Don Paterson and Andrew McMillan.

Stratford-upon-Avon Literary Festival

24 April – 1 May Julia Donaldson, Michael Rosen, Mary Portas, John Torode and Alice Roberts are among the big names taking part in Stratford’s celebration of debate, ideas and humour, with celebrity author events and workshops.

Swindon Festival of Literature

2-14 May Authors and speakers already booked this year include Joanne Harris, Dom Joly, Amy Liptrot, Roger Scruton and Louis de Bernières.

Cheltenham Poetry Festival

5-15 May This sixth festival includes poetry cinema, music, comedy, prose, new drama, workshops and much more, with Stuart Maconie, Rose Millard, Todd Swift and Rhys Milsom taking part.

Ullapool Book Festival, Highland

6-8 May An opportunity to engage with Canadian writers Lynn Coady and Lisa Moore, and others including Bernard MacLaverty, Janice Galloway and Helen Fitzgerald, plus two of Scotland’s major poets, Tom Pow and Jim Carruth.

Kate Medhurst brings you the pick of next month’s writing and book events of modernity: an evening that is bound to stimulate and inform. Tickets cost £7. For more details call 01353 645005.

Cúirt International Festival of Literature, Galway

21-24 April A range of events for readers, writers, illustrators, Shakespeare fans and children, with big names like Stuart Maconie, Joanne Harris, David Nicholls, Alys Fowler and Ben Miller taking part.


Faber New Poets of 2016, Bath Darren Shan is in Manchester

Fowey Festival of Arts & Literature 7-14 May The du Maurier Festival Society presents its 19th eclectic festival of literature, music and performance with a programme of talks, exhibitions, workshops and guided walks.

Hay Festival

26 May – 5 June Writers from around the world gather to debate and share stories in the Brecon Beacons National Park. This famous festival celebrates great writing from poets and scientists, lyricists and comedians, novelists and more.

Listowel Writers’ Week, Ireland

1-5 June Richard Skinner, Thomas McCarthy, Anthony Glavin and Patricia O’Reilly are among the authors and poets running workshops at this internationally acclaimed literary festival in historic and intimate surroundings.

AUTHOR & BOOK EVENTS CD Field, Middlesbrough

1 April, 11am – 2pm The author will be at Waterstones signing copies of The Medicine Tree, an adventure novel aimed at 9-12 year olds. For more details call 01642 242682.

Irvine Welsh, Manchester

3 April, 7.30pm Welsh talks about his latest novel, The Blade Artist, with Kevin Sampson at The Dancehouse. Tickets cost £10 or £20 including the book. For more details call 0161 832 5502.

AC Grayling, Ely

4 April Grayling is at St Peter’s Church to explain how the 17th century became the crucible

11 April, 7.45pm Some of the best poets of this generation read from their latest collections at Topping and Company Bookshop. Tickets cost £6. For more details call 01225 428111.

Cassandra Clare, Glasgow

19 April, 6.30pm The Mortal Instruments author will be at Waterstones talking with literary journalist Anna James about her new novel Lady Midnight, the first book in the Dark Artifices series. Tickets cost £5 or £15 including the book. For more details call 0141 332 9105.

Poetry Reading, London

20 April, 7pm Michael Rosen presents two significant names in contemporary poetry, Grace Nichols and John Agard, at Keats House. Tickets cost £7. For more details call 020 7332 3868.

Max Porter and Evie Wyld, St Andrews

21 April, 8pm The authors will be at Topping and Company Bookshop discussing their work, the creative process and much more. Tickets cost £4. For more details call 01334 585111.

Helen Dunmore, Bath

23 April, 11am The bestselling novelist and poet will be at The Museum of Bath at Work for the launch of her Cold War thriller Exposure. Tickets cost £8. For more details call 01225 428111.

Joe Abercrombie, Newcastle

27 April, 7-9pm The writer will be at Waterstones chatting about his new collection Sharp Ends: Stories from the World of the First Law. Tickets cost £3. For more details call 0191 261 7757.

Joanne Harris, Bath

10 May, 8pm The bestselling author will be at Topping and Company Bookshop with new psychological thriller Different Class. Tickets cost £8. For more details call 01225 428111.

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Send your event listings three months ahead to

New courses

Poetry Writing: Waking Up and Opening Out, Dorset

11-14 April Have you ever felt that you would like to write a poem today, or any day, but have nothing to say in it? Or that you are brimming over with words and ideas but cannot imagine how to make anything out of them, let alone a poem? This course will help you open up and explore the possibilities that await. It takes place over a weekend at the Othona Centre outside Bridport and costs £238.

SHORT COURSES Writing Fiction for Children, Cambridge

1-3 April This course aims at helping you develop characters, plot, style and ideas, to get your children’s book written and published. It takes place at the Institute of Continuing Education at University of Cambridge and costs £260. Residential accommodation is optional at an additional £120 for a single room.

HELPFUL BOOKS Mastering Suspense, Structure, and Plot: How to Write Gripping Stories that Keep Readers on the Edge of their Seats by Jane Cleland (£12.83, Memory Makers) is a hands-on guide to weaving suspense into your narrative. Award-winning author Jane K Cleland teaches you how to navigate genre conventions, write for your audience and build gripping tension to craft an irresistible page-turner. Published 16 May. Writing Performance Poetry by Stephen Wade (£9.99, Straightforward Publishing)is a contemporary and novel approach to the art and craft of writing and presenting poetry. It contains all the basic information needed to develop both writing and performance skills, including developing material, improving style and technique, networking and promotion. Published 25 May.

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Script Writing – Beginners, London

5 May – 9 June This course at City Academy aims to help you to form and develop your ideas into a first-rate script.You’ll work on technique, boost your creativity and confidence, and above all have fun in exciting group classes. They take place on six consecutive Thursday evenings and cost £295.

ONLINE COURSES Advanced Creative Writing – Short Story

From 4 April This online course will address the basic difficulties faced by writers in the craft of short fiction. It is suitable for participants who have already begun to write short stories and who would like to develop their skills. It takes place over six weeks and costs 150 euros.

Creative Writing 1: Writing Skills

Open College of the Arts The course provides an introduction to the basic skills needed for writing prose and poetry, and offers directed learning within a context

The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker (£9.99 Penguin) Using reason and evidence, this thinking person’s guide to good writing in the 21st century shows why style still matters: in communicating effectively, in earning a reader’s trust – and in adding beauty to the world. It comes as a free gift with new Forum. subscriptions to Writers’ Forum of structured freedom. It takes place over one year (eight hours per week) and costs £1195.

ONE-DAY COURSE The Poetry Business, Sheffield

30 April This day course takes place at North Church House in Sheffield, 10.15am to 4pm. There will be writing exercises in the morning and a critical workshop in the afternoon. It costs £30.

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Emily Cunningham of The Write Factor publishing agency helps you find the way forward with your writing


Novelists intimidate me How can I even think to pick up a pen when there is such a wealth of incredible literature out there already? I look back on my efforts and feel so disheartened because they are so poor compared to my favourite authors – especially Neil Gaiman’s work. Is there any point to writing when I can’t compete? Sophie, Basingstoke


he thought that sprang to my mind when I read your letter was Theodore Roosevelt’s great quote: ‘Comparison is the thief of joy.’ It’s so true; you can be perfectly happy writing and feeling pleased with what you’ve produced and then just one negative thought: ‘It’s not Shakespeare, though, is it?’ and all your hard work seems for nought. The human mind can be at once so creative and so destructive. Joan Didion, author of The Year of Magical Thinking, was similarly afflicted when she read the work of Henry James: ‘He wrote perfect sentences… Very indirect, very complicated. Sentences with sinkholes. You could drown in them. I wouldn’t dare to write one. I’m not even sure I’d dare to read James again. I loved those novels so much that I was paralysed by them for a long time. All


those possibilities. All that perfectly reconciled style. It made me afraid to put words down.’ (from the Paris Review) Happily for us readers, she did dare to write, and in such a unique and refreshing way too – nothing like Henry James, and still brilliant. Equally, your work probably doesn’t resemble Neil Gaiman’s, but that’s not to say it isn’t good. The great thing about a creative endeavour is that it isn’t a competition; everyone has something to offer. Gaiman himself, in an inspiring speech at The University of the Arts, recognised the value of new voices. ‘The urge, starting out, is to copy. And that’s not a bad thing. Most of us only find our own voices after we’ve sounded like a lot of other people. But the one thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your

voice, your mind, your story, your vision.’ What you have to offer is unique – celebrate it. Wanting to be like other writers is like aspiring to be an orange when you’re an apple. It’s fruitless (sorry). Neither is better – both have their merits. Instead, take courage from his words; you can be a trail-blazing writer, you can carve out your own path. You have something valuable to give. At the moment, this is hard to recognise, but I promise you, Sophie, it is there. When I mentioned your letter to my colleague Lorna Howarth at The Write Factor, she was reminded of an experience when she was younger. She said: ‘I found learning to drive such a struggle. I’d look at people driving so easily and thought: “That will never be me. I can’t do this. I’m never going to pass my test.” And I failed four times. But I learnt such a lot from the process of failure and I did eventually pass. Now I know I can drive, and more than that, I’m a good driver. It’s such a different perspective from my previous one. Driving had felt an impossible dream when I couldn’t. Now it’s a breeze. ‘Nelson Mandela said: “It always seems

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Send your letters to Emily at

wasn’t selling books. But I was writing. I was writing to help others. I was writing because I wanted to touch lives. ‘That’s when my attitude towards writing changed. I started calling myself a “writer”, I developed the self-confidence that every writer needs to be successful. I didn’t care anymore that hardly anyone read my blog; I believed in my talents and knew that someday people would believe in them too.’ And now she’s being quoted in magazines, so look how far she has come. It’s tempting to imagine that published novelists are in an elite, superior realm that is impossibly far above you, but they are human, riddled with self-doubt and insecurity like the rest of us, and everyone starts somewhere. As good old Hemingway said: ‘We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes the master.’ So enjoy reading your favourite authors, remember that they too struggled (and probably still do) and pick up your pen once more.

Tips to take away

Wanting to be like other writers is like aspiring to be an orange when you’re an apple impossible until it is done.” When we’re struggling, we deafen ourselves with negative self-talk. We compare ourselves to others and find ourselves lacking and inferior. How is this in any way helpful? Instead of harsh judgment, try to view your writing more kindly. At least you are writing, which is a lot more than can be said of most people. I recently worked on a client’s first draft of a novel, and although there was still work to be done before it was ready for publication, I was still hugely impressed with the fact that he had written 130,000 words of original prose. Ernest Hemingway, never known for being backward in coming forward, said: ‘The first draft of anything is shit.’ When you’re reading Neil Gaiman’s books, don’t forget that they have all been through

a very thorough editing process. They probably have changed vastly from the first thoughts he put down. Also, his writing ability has evolved and improved over the course of several novels. He himself said: ‘Sometimes the things I did really didn’t work. There are stories of mine that have never been reprinted. Some of them never even left the house. But I learned as much from them as I did from the things that worked.’ Gaiman persisted, and his writing improved until he was an internationally acclaimed writer. It didn’t happen overnight but he kept on trying because that was what he wanted to do. A brilliant post on the website www. by Thuy Yau really hits the nail on the head about feelings of inadequacy. She used to describe herself as an ‘aspiring writer’ until she had an epiphany. ‘What was an “aspiring writer” exactly?’ she says. ‘Going by the literal definition, it would’ve been someone who wasn’t writing yet. But was intending to write – someday. But wait a minute, I was writing at the time! So how could I have been an “aspiring writer”? And then it hit me. I was a writer! I wasn’t getting paid, I

■■ Instead of being intimidated by your favourite novelists, be inspired. What is it about Neil Gaiman that you admire so much? Is it his incredible imagination? Dare to test your own limits. For five minutes, write about the strangest thing that could happen to you. Becoming invisible? Discovering a wormhole in the cellar? Inhabiting the mind of a unicorn? ■■ Push your work the extra mile by making your descriptions really zing. Some fieldwork would help, such as developing your observational skills by going for a walk. Whilst you’re out, take a mental note of anything orange, then write a short piece that incorporates all these objects. ■■ Read back one of your favourite pieces of writing and feel proud of your accomplishment. Then return to it with an editor’s eye. What needs tightening up? Are there any clichés or stereotypes that need rejigging? Rewrite it until it’s even better (if that’s possible).

If you found this article inspiring, then The Write Factor’s Absolute Beginner’s Writing Course offers lots more motivational exercises to help you discover your mojo. To sign up, visit

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Author know-how

Research secrets

Anita Loughrey talks to Toby Clements about his hands-on research into the Wars of the Roses for his Kingmaker trilogy


Walking the past

I read an awful lot as part of my research, but traipsing over fields gives you an idea of what was probable, what was plausible. Inherent probability is a good guide. Inevitably a novel set during the Wars of the Roses involves battlefields, so I’ve been along to explore those. I try to see them on foot or by bicycle because it gives you a more intimate connection with the land – although it is surprising how many of them are on or just off the A1. Walking north to Lincoln even now is awe inspiring but the topography has changed so much, and there are so many buildings now it is hard to imagine just how colossal a castle might have appeared back in the day. To be honest, I mainly learnt which routes they would not have taken: right through Nidderdale, for example, which was disconcertingly steep. I love all the little traces of routes, such as those the drovers have left, and the



Photo courtesy of The Woodvilles re-enactment group

y Kingmaker trilogy is about a couple of ordinary people caught up in the Wars of the Roses. Apart from an abiding interest in the period, I am interested in the stories that aren’t generally told: of the commons rather than the gentles, and what it might have been like to live with so little, and have your life dominated by the whim of a lord. My two main characters try to get on with their lives while they are like corks in a stream, bobbing about on the currents of history.

remnants of Roman roads. It is quite a contemplative approach, tootling along those paths. You find yourself wondering what people in the 15th century might have thought about the Romans and why they thought they’d been and gone, leaving walls and roads as reminders. I love to ask my characters such questions. It was an age when any foreigner was either a ‘Frenchy’ or an ‘Easterling’, and held in very low esteem. Odd questions occur, really; things I may never have previously considered. It is a time to think as you might hope they would think. I don’t really make a record of what I see along the way. I think if things stick, they stick. You don’t want to shoehorn anything in unless you really

Everyone I met was unfailingly friendly need it, and then you can make it up. I like to leave little snippets, though: on the beach just below Dunstanburgh Castle there is an odd pile of black basalt rocks. I mentioned those in my book because I thought they might tickle anyone who’d been. It is a form of extra-textual communication and I like it when I am a reader. If your characters make lots of journeys, and you want to trace them, my advice is join the Youth Hostel Association.

I spent long weekends with various re-enactment companies, many of which are based on the 15th century, and everyone I met was unfailingly friendly. You will soon see who is there for the ‘beer and bash’ and who is there for the love of the period, and this latter crowd can be really useful. The re-enactment companies vary in their attention to detail, but from time spent with them I know what it is like to sleep on a sheepskin in a canvas tent when it is raining, and what that rain does to armour, and what it is like to drink water that tastes of poorly cured leather from an earthenware cup. How long it takes to cook a piglet. What wearing hose – the woollen stockings the men wore – is like, and how to fasten them to your pourpoint (which is best done with a friend while you bend down), and what it is like to wear a codpiece and that sort of thing. Also, shoes in the 15th century did not have hobnails, so slipping is always likely, which at one point saves a character’s life. And I met a French woman who sold swords, who told me she had never seen a man pick one up without smiling. Odd little snippets like this are vital for anyone trying to give a striking picture of life as it was lived then. I’ve taken courses on how to use several of the weapons employed during the War of the Roses. Why? Well, I was always a warlike child and I’d always wanted to shoot a proper old longbow. It is wonderfully satisfying but can get expensive. Bows and

Writers’forum #174

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WRITING OUTLETS with Janet Cameron

Smart online magazines SmokeLong Quarterly particularly arrows – if you keep losing them – are pricey, but the clothes are not too bad, and loitering is free, of course. You learn how difficult it might be to fight with a sword and how wrong Hollywood has it. Almost the very last thing you’d want is to parry a sharp blade with your own sharp blade because the edge would chip, and swords were so incredibly expensive. This kind of awareness adds an additional layer of drama to your most dramatic scenes. By using the pollaxe and the longbow I learnt that both can really hurt. After the first day I was covered in bruises. The pollaxe was a foul weapon, designed to inflict horrific (what we would today call ‘life-changing’) injuries. Being in a room with one is like being in the company of a murderer. Not that I fought with a real one: mine was padded, and blue. It was worth learning so I could remain very specific about what was happening in any fight. I think a reader can sense when a writer is fudging something or writing stuff that sounds like something they’ve read elsewhere, rather than seen, and I try to make my action very visual. The most unusual piece of research I have done is when I tried to tan a piece of leather – which was disgusting and unsuccessful. I also tried to spend a day washing linen in a river with soap I’d made from ash and urine. I was – as my wife said – just attracting attention to myself, pretending to be an author, because, really, you can imagine exactly what it would have been like, once

you know how it was done and the tools they used for it. I have not used the information I learnt from the soap making, so far, but the Kingmaker trilogy is not over yet!


You can’t write as they spoke in the 15th century, though I believe Adam Thorpe had a bloody good go in Hodd, but – and this is the problem – I did not get very far reading that. I prefer to sprinkle in a little bit of ‘Bygonese’ and if I can use ‘divers’ for various, then I will, since I like that word in the Paston Letters. My main research tip – after encouraging you to join a re-enactment company – is to try to remember the passing of the seasons, and how that would affect the roads and what people were doing in the fields, and what they would – or wouldn’t - be eating. Remember how long everything took – to travel, to make anything. Ages. Then, imagine there was nothing, and everything had to be invented. When I research, I try to come at my period not from the present back to it, but from the distant past, leading up to it, so that something we might think of as comical – the codpiece and split hose is a good example – can be seen as an improvement on what went before. But most importantly, don’t mention any of it unless it would stick in the mind of your characters. • Toby has a Pinterest account where he posts things he’d like to remember: https://uk.pinterest. com/tobyclements/winter-pilgrims

Seeking the best flash fiction of 1000 words or less, this online magazine is published quarterly, but they feature one of the forthcoming issue’s stories each week. You can find previous issues online and sign up for notifications. Tip: They want stories that have emotional resonance and with language that surprises. Submissions: Send one story at a time via their Submittable link online, and do not send another story until you have heard back. The editors usually respond in less than six weeks. When time permits, they may offer personal tips or comments on your writing.

Superstition Review blog.superstitionreview. s[r] is published in May and December by Arizona State University, and is looking for new fiction and poetry from emerging talent from all over the world. The website is free and you can view all the beautiful publications online. Tip: They are keen on developing a writing community on social media where you can share tips and ideas. Submissions: Use the Submittable link online to open an account. They want short fiction up to 4000 words and no more than five poems at a time. Include a short bio of 100 words detailing your professional achievements on your first page. They have two reading periods in autumn and winter.

100 Word Story The whole is a part and a part is the whole, explains the editor of 100 Word Story. It’s good writing practice as it makes the writer question every word he uses. The website is attractive and userfriendly and each month provides a new photo-prompt for those who need it. Tip: They say your first draft is bound to go over the word limit but just keep chopping out superfluous words and you will be surprised at how many you can delete. Submissions: Use the ‘submishmashable’ link on the site to submit stories and poems. Please include a short bio. Note that there is a submission fee of $2.

• Janet’s ebook Fifteen Women Philosophers, published by, is available from Amazon

Writers’FORUM #174

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Competitive Edge Avoid scenes without a story Helen hears the pet hates of writer and competition judge Wendy Clarke


well established writer of short stories for women’s magazines, Wendy Clarke has been finding out what it’s like to be on the other side of the desk by judging some short story competitions. ‘I’d like to say I was one of those writers who was born with a pen in their hand but it wouldn’t be true,’ Wendy says. ‘I started writing in the spring of 2011 after the school I had been teaching in closed down. Unsure of what the future held, I enrolled on an online creative writing course and, despite not having written any fiction for nearly 30 years, found that I loved it. ‘When the course finished, I missed writing so much I did another. The following year, I was brave enough to send out some stories to magazines and, three months later, had my first sale. Since then I have had over a hundred stories and two serials published and have recently finished my first novel.’ Wendy has recently judged the SWWJ John Walter Salver competition and the Chiltern Writers Group short story competition. ‘On both occasions I was recommended by other writers who knew my work and who had previously had contact with me through my writing blog, Wendy’s Writing Now,’ she says. ‘As well as it being an honour to be asked, it was a real pleasure after the years of having my own stories scrutinised by editors.’ Wendy has some insights into the judging process to share. ‘The stories that made it on to the shortlist were the ones I remembered – a truly memorable story lingers long after the first reading. To be a winner, there were several things I was looking for: a strong narrative arc where a question set up in the opening was answered at the end, an interesting storyline, compelling characters that I could care about and, of course, a satisfying ending. I also looked at the balance of narrative and dialogue, how well the story fitted the theme, the mechanics of the writing (such as the


punctuation) and the professionalism of its presentation. Above all else, I had to enjoy the story as a whole. ‘Things that stopped an entry being shortlisted were the writing of a scene without a story (however beautifully written), a story where I was too much aware of the writer and the techniques being used (such as flowery writing or too much imagery), overuse of adverb and adjectives, and finally my pet hate… weak endings.’ And what about that special magic ingredient that makes a story an overall winner? ‘That’s easy,’ Wendy says. ‘It would be the one that made me feel something – be it sorrow, happiness, amusement or surprise. The one that left me satisfied.’ Although Wendy’s own success isn’t as a result of entering writing competitions she recommends having a go. ‘I’ve only entered a handful of competitions myself and it hasn’t affected my ability to sell stories to magazines – but there are certainly benefits. If you’re really serious about being a writer, you’re going to have to get used to submitting your work, and competitions are a way of getting used to your stories being “out there”. ‘They are also a way of honing your skill. Hopefully each unsuccessful entry will make you look a little closer at your work and improve it, especially if there is the opportunity for feedback. There is also the added bonus that you might win!’ Wendy has some more tips for those wanting to give competitions a go. ‘It’s always advisable to get someone else to check your stories for errors,’ she says. ‘It’s a shame to have a good story spoilt by a few missing words or punctuation that makes it hard to read. Always make the story, and its presentation, the best you possibly can – make every word count. ‘Remember also that a story is not just a scene – it must have a beginning, middle

Wendy Clarke

and end. Finally, write a story that you love rather than what you think the judge will want. Just because the judge is a crime writer or a romance writer, it doesn’t mean that is necessarily what they want to read!’ Use Wendy’s insights to help you hone your own competition entries.

Competition of the Month This month I’m taking a look at the highly regarded Bridport Prize. Administrator Kate Wilson says the prize is appealing in a variety of ways. ‘It is one of the longest-established and most prestigious competitions in the English language, with a global reputation,’ she says. In 2015 there were entries from 78 different countries. ‘The high quality judges are all writers themselves, the prize money is generous and previous winners have gone on to become household names – like Kate Atkinson, Tobias Hill and Helen Dunmore.’ So what are this year’s judges looking for? Poetry judge Patience Agbabi says she is seeking ‘poems with a pulse’, that celebrate the rhythm of words as well as their visual impact. ‘Poems that elicit a visceral response.’ Meanwhile, flash fiction judge Tim Stevenson says: ‘I hope to see the mundane become significant, the obvious become surprising, a place where anything can happen as a wink, a smile or a single word ripples through the fabric of the story.’ You can find out more about what the Bridport judges are looking for and all the details you’ll need to enter the competition on the website at

Writers’FORUM #174

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Send your success stories, questions for Helen, tips and comp news (three months in advance) to

 with short story writer Helen M Walters

 


Flash 500 Flash Fiction Competition Quarterly Flash: 500 words. Fee: £5 or two for £8. Prize: £300 plus publication in Words With Jam; £200; £100. Details: see

COMPS CLOSING SOON 30 APR Momaya Press Short Story Competition Story: 3000 words. Theme: ‘Ambition’. Fee: £8 (or US $12). Prizes: £110 ($200); £55 ($100); £30 ($50). Details: see Bristol Short Story Prize Story: 4000 words. Fee: £8. Prizes:

£1000; £700; £400; 17 x £100. Judges: chaired by Tania Hershman. Details: see or write to Bristol Short Story Prize, Unit 5.16, Paintworks, Bath Road, Bristol BS4 3EH.

      

Literary Leeds tom-howard-john-h-reid-fictionessay-contest SI Leeds Literary Prize Novel/Short story collection: full manuscript. Fee: £18. Prizes:

£2000; £750; £250; plus additional non-cash prizes. Rules: award for unpublished fiction by black and Asian women based in the UK and writing in English. Details: see Exeter Story Prize Story: 10,000 words. Fee: £10. Prizes: £500 and trophy; £150;

£100; Trisha Ashley Award for best humorous story £200 and trophy. Details: see 29 MAY

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦   

   

The University of Winchester

Winchester Writers’ Festival 17-19 June 2016 Inspiration, workshops and networking for emerging writers Keynote Speaker: Meg Rosoff Multi-award winning author of How I Live Now, Just In Case and Picture Me Gone

International Welsh Poetry Competition Poem: 50 lines. Fee: £5. Rules: entries must be in English. Prizes: £500; £250; £100. Judge: John Evans. Details: see 31 MAY Cinnamon Press Short Story Prize Story: 2000–4000 words. Fee: £12. Prizes: £500; £100; £50. Continued overleaf

Tom Howard/John H Reid Fiction & Essay Contest Fiction/Essay: 6000 words. Fee: $18. Prizes: $1500 in each category; 10 x $100. Details: see

 

HISSAC competitions Close 31 July 2016 Story: 2500 words. Flash: 500 words. Fee: story £5 or three for £12; flash £2 or three for £5. Prizes: story £400; 2 x £50. Flash £50. Details: see Highlands and Islands Short Story Association at Park Publications Article Competition Closes 31 August 2016 Article: 1000-1500 words. Theme: ‘My writing day’. Fee: £3. Prizes: £50; £25; £15. Details: see www. or write to 14 The Park, Stow on the Wold, Cheltenham GL54 1DX.


• 18 all-day workshops and 28 talks • 700 one-to-one appointments with 60 literary agents and editors • Festival Scholarship Scheme for writers aged 18-25 • 11 writing competitions #winwritersfest

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Comp calendar

Continued from page 63 Details: see www.cinnamonpress. com/index.php/competitions/ annual-short-story-prize or write to Cinnamon Press Writing Prizes, Meirion House, Glan yr afon,Tanygrisiau, Blaenau Ffestiniog, Gwynedd, LL41 3SU.

David Burland Poetry
Prize Poem: English or French. Fee: £9 for first entry, then £5 each. Prizes: £500; £200; £100; 3 x £25 – in each language. Judges: Michel François and R Freidman. Details: see www. Poetry_Prize/index.html

please see Yeovil Literary Prize Novel: synopsis and opening chapters (15,000 words). Short story: 2000 words. Poem: 40 lines. Fee: novel £11; story £6; poem £6 for one or £9 for two. Prizes: novel £1000; £250; £100. Story £500; £200; £100. Poem £500; £200; £100. Rules: ‘Writing without restrictions’ category: entry £5; prizes of £200, £100 and £50. Details: see or write to YCAA,The Octagon Theatre,Yeovil BA20 1UX. 30 Jun

Frogmore Poetry Prize Poem: 40 lines. Fee: £3 per poem. Prizes: 250 guineas and two-year subscription to The Frogmore Papers; 75 guineas and one-year subscription; 50 guineas and one-year subscription. Judge: Catherine Smith. Details:

the Bridport Prize poems l short stories l flash fiction l novels



MAY 2016


Poems | 1st prize £5000 judge Patience Agbabi Short Stories | 1st prize £5000 judge Tessa Hadley Flash Fiction | 1st prize £1000 judge Tim Stevenson Novel Award | 1st prize £1000 judge Kerry Young

enter online | 64

Bridport Prize Poem: 42 lines max. Short story: 5000 words. Flash: 250 words. Fee: poem £9; story £10; flash £8. Prizes: poem £5000; £1000; £500; 10 x £100. Short story £5000; £1000; £500; 10 x £100. Flash £1000; £500; £250; 3 x £100. Details: see www. or write to The Bridport Prize, PO Box 6910, Bridport, Dorset DT6 9BQ. Frome Festival Short Story Competition Story: 1000 to 2200 words. Fee: £5. Prizes: £300; £150; £75; local prizes. Judge: Jane Judd. Details: see or write to Frome Library, Justice Lane, Frome, Somerset
BA11 1BE. Peggy Chapman Andrews Award Novel: 5000–8000 words, plus synopsis. Fee: £20. Prizes: £1000 and mentoring, plus possible representation; £500 and ms appraisal; £100 and partial appraisal. Rules: see website for eligibility. Details: see Wow! Short Story Competition Story: 1000 words. Fee: £6. Prizes: £200; £100; £50. Details:

Erewash Writers’ Group New Writer Competition Story: 3000 words. Fee: £3 for one then £2.50 each for subsequent entry. Prize: £40; free entry to open short story comp. Rules: new writers only. Details: please see erewashwriterscompetition. Words Magazine Short Story Competition Story: 2000 words. Theme: ‘Christmas’. Fee: FREE. Prizes: £50; £25. Details: Henshaw Press Short Story Competition Story: 2000 words. Fee: £5. Prizes: £100; £50; £25. Details: see or write to The Henshaw Competition, 24 Rowlandson Close, Northampton NN3 3PB.

Unless otherwise stated… Theme and genre are open. Entries should be original and unpublished. Postal entries should be printed on white A4 in a clear plain font. Include a separate cover sheet with the title, word count, your name, address and postcode, phone and email. Stories should be double-spaced with good margins.Where necessary include a large enough sae with sufficient postage. Always contact the organiser or check their website to confirm details.Writers’ Forum does not accept responsibility for errors in or changes to the information listed.

Writers’forum #174

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09/03/2016 15:23:50

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09/03/2016 15:11:27

Writing rooms

Where I write Phil Barrington chats to novelist Christopher Currie in sunny Australia


do have an office and I try to write there at least once a week, especially as it will soon be turned into the baby’s room, but I’ve always been someone who writes better out of the house. My first novel, The Ottoman Motel, gained life in many different places on many different devices. Once I was signed to a


publisher, I did the bulk of the rewrites – nearly two years’ worth! – in a nondescript café under an office tower in Brisbane. It had seating in an alcove near a set of lifts, but somehow that worked. The owners let me sit there, week after week. My new book, Clancy of the Undertow, began at various cafés around Brisbane

and while I’d always attempt to sit in the trendiest spots, invariably I’d end up at the City Library, where precious power points were abundant, or at a chain café whose tables I felt a little less guilt about occupying for long periods. It was at one of these ubiquitous cafés, in a shopping mall, that my main character came to me. I was able to observe a cosmetics kiosk one floor down. You can imagine the type I’m talking about. Behind this particular counter, though, was a young girl who seemed singularly unsuited to such a job. As I watched her fail over and over again to lure any customers, she became the link between two short stories I’d always thought disparate. My book was born. The first draft was written at the Varuna Writers House at Katoomba in the gorgeous Blue Mountains. I was lucky enough to sit at the writing desk of Eleanor Dark, who won the Australian Literature Society’s gold medal twice. It was inspiring to look out at Eleanor’s garden and to be among all that literary history. The second draft was written in a series of cafés around Germany. I was fortunate to receive a travelling scholarship allowing me to decamp to Europe for a year to undertake research on a different book. It just so happened that my first set of editorial comments – ‘Double the word length and make it generally better’ – arrived at that time, so I became very good at ordering Kaffe und Kuchen and the service staff of Mainz, where I was based, had their patience stretched by my accent. The first café I worked in was a student hangout, full of people hammering on laptops and having animated undergraduate discussions. The second café, I found much later on, had much better coffee and was nearly deserted. The owner seemed to like having me there but it meant I felt compelled to order many more cups of coffee. Now I’m back in Brisbane and have found a light, airy cafe in my home suburb of Moorooka. They let me tap away on my computer and have yet to throw me out. I believe they think I’m some sort of digital entrepreneur. As long as they don’t find out I’m nothing but a dirty fiction writer, I should be safe. The other place I write the most these days is my workplace, the Avid Reader Bookshop, whose café has a gorgeous open, sunny courtyard. The coffee is great and the company is even better. Despite the excellent weather, somehow I still prefer being inside, my back against a wall, and plenty of ambient noise to focus against. And now I’d better get back to it!

Writers’forum #174

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This conference offers a unique opportunity to meet and interact with influential individuals and companies working within the self-publishing sector. It is the perfect day for authors thinking about, or already involved in, self-publishing their work. Whether you are going it alone or using a self-publishing company, this conference offers multiple sessions on a wide variety of topics. This year’s event is sponsored by Writing Magazine, Nielsen Book, Writers&Artists, Matador, The Book Guild, Kobo Writing and TJ International Printers. The keynote speaker is Caroline Sanderson (The Bookseller), with a plenary session from Dr Alison Baverstock (Kingston University). A full programme and registration details are available on the conference website. Registration is £65 per person; this includes a delegate’s pack, morning coffee, buffet lunch, afternoon tea, a drinks reception and a choice from more than sixteen sessions on different aspects of self-publishing. “

I cannot think of very much wrong with the event and can recommend it to aspiring writers and indie/self publishers. Richard Denning I just wanted to thank you for the excellent Conference I attended on Sunday. It was well organised, well presented, full of helpful, friendly people and a joy to attend. Sandra Smith That was an absolutely first rate conference - from the speakers to the catering and the venue. A great overal atmosphere and so many nuggets of info and ideas they wouldn't all fit onto the notepads you kindly provided! Tony Boullemier

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Writers' forum, april 2016  
Writers' forum, april 2016