Sunday, 31 October 2010

Back From Rome and Some Competitions

A quick post, as my head doesn't seem to have got back from Rome even if my body has! We had a good week. It was very tiring as we walked miles. The weather was very kind. We even saw the Pope and the Popemobile. I'll post some photos over the next few days.

Congratulations to my friend and tutor Sue Johnson on her publishing contract.

Sue's Flash fiction competition on the theme of STARS closes on 30 November 2010. Details at

Another friend is holding a short story and poetry contest with the theme Domestic Violence. Closing date: 30th November. Further details from: or

Back soon with photographs of Rome. Mx

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Home Grown

I love growing my own fruit and veg, even if it is time consuming watering the plants. This is the third year running we’ve grown tomatoes on the patio and we had a bumper crop. We tried broad beans, but only got one meal’s worth. My purple broccoli have mainly succumbed to the cabbage white butterflies. How do they find my few plants? They must smell or something, as the patio had been covered in white butterflies. Consequently, only one plant soldiers on supposedly to produce broccoli after Christmas.

Our main crop is chillies. My husband likes everything hot!! We have grown three types this year, long green ones, round ones, which are a vicious looking purple before they go red, and tiny red ones. Those tiny red ones had my husband and son red faced, fighting for breath when they tried them. Oh dear, I gave some of those plants to the school plant stall – someone will have a surprise!

For the last few weeks, I have been busy preserving my crops. We have jars everywhere of tomato and onion relish, red pepper chutney, green tomato chutney, tomato sauce, chilli jam and extra hot chilli jam (eat at your peril). Today I need to pickle the three different types of chilli. My house smells permanently of vinegar and I must have bought up the entire area stock of Kilner jars, but I reckon it will be worth it for all those lovely flavours throughout the year.

If you are one of the people who bought those chilli plants….oops! Sorry I didn’t realise they were quite that hot.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

History of Reading – Part 2

Or should that say – A history of MY reading part 2 - 2009? I give below a review of books I read in 2009.

Binchy, Maeve – Heart and Soul, Orion, 2009, ISBN: 1409102319

Clara Casey has more than enough on her plate. Her daughters Adi and Linda were no problem at all during the usually turbulent teens. Now in their twenties, Adi is always fighting for or against something: the environment or the whale or battery farming; while Linda lurches from one unsatisfactory relationship to the next. As if this wasn't enough, Clara, a senior cardiac specialist, has a new job to cope with. For Ania, meeting Clara Casey is a miracle: she had never intended to leave her beloved Poland, but after the love of her life has turned sour, her world seems rather empty. Perhaps a new job in a new country will mend her broken heart? Declan is looking forward to joining the clinic - but what should have been a straightforward six-month posting brings him far more than he expected. Then there's Father Brian Flynn, whose life is turned upside down when his reputation is threatened; and the beautiful, cheerful nurse, Fiona, who can't leave her troubled past behind. .

Usual Maeve Binchy formula (maybe I’ve read too many), but rather convoluted with so many characters.

Plot and characters **** Writing ****

Binchy, Maeve – The Maeve Binchy Writers’ Club, Orion, 2008, ISBN: 0752883070

‘The Maeve Binchy Writers' Club’ gives an insight into how a No.1 bestselling author writes. Inspired by a course run by the National College of Ireland, it comprises 20 letters from Maeve. These offer advice, tips and her own take on the life of a writer, in addition to contributions from top writers, publishers and editors.

Interesting snippets for writers, but not really meaty enough.

Writing ***

Chadwick, Elizabeth – Daughters of the Grail, Sphere, 2006, ISBN: 075153899X

Thirteenth century France. Bridget has grown up mastering the mystical gifts of her ancestor, Mary Magdalene, whose unbroken female lineage has kept a legacy of wisdom alive for a thousand years. The all-powerful Catholic Church has sworn to destroy Bridget for using her healing talents and supernatural abilities. Bridget's duty to continue the bloodline leads her into the arms of Raoul de Montvallant - a Catholic. When the Church's savage religious intolerance causes Raoul to turn rebel, a terrible vengeance is exacted by Simon de Montfort, the unstoppable Catholic leader of a crusade against peaceful 'heretics'. As war rages on, it is the children of these passionate souls, Magda and Dominic, who must strive to preserve the ancient knowledge for future generations.

This had every potential, but some discrepancies in the middle of the book destroyed my interest and I struggled to read the rest. Convoluted plot, which was a bit predictable. Maybe it went wrong when she was padding it out to get enough words or re-writing for this edition.

Plot and Characters **** Writing **** (apart from the bit in the middle)

Chadwick, Elizabeth – Shields of Pride, Sphere, 2007, ISBN: 0751540277

This is the story of mercenary Joscelin de Gael, the illegitimate son of a prominent knight and Linnet de Montsorrel. Linnet's abusive husband dies in an accident and Joscelin is given the care of Linnet's holdings and young son. He marries her. The story then focuses on the after-effects of the abuse Linnet suffered at the hands of her now dead husband and father in law, along with the constant plotting of Joscelin's treacherous half-brother (the heir) and stepmother.

An enjoyable read. It was interesting to note how her writing had developed since writing ‘The Wild Hunt’.

Plot and Characters **** Writing ****

Chadwick, Elizabeth – The Wild Hunt, Michael Joseph Ltd, 1990, ISBN: 0718134230

In the wild Welsh marches a noble young lord rides homewards, embittered, angry and in danger. He is Guyon, lord of Ledworth, heir to threatened lands, husband-to-be of Judith of Ravenstow. Their union will save his lands. They are forced to face insurmountable odds during a war in the twelfth century.

Elizabeth Chadwick's carries out her research as a member of Regia Anglorum, an early medieval re-enactment society. This was her first novel.

An enjoyable read, but on the lighter weight side.

Plot and Characters **** Writing ****

Jones, Christina – Hubble Bubble, Piatkus, 2004, ISBN: 0749934972

Mitzi Blessing is on the scrapheap: forced into a very early retirement, a lifetime of organising the church flower rota and making cricket teas seems to loom gloomily ahead of her. With her two daughters seemingly happily settled, Mitzi is determined not to dwindle quietly into serene old age and sets about organising and revitalising Hazy Hassocks, the small rural community she has lived in all her life. However, with the discovery of her grandmother's cookery book in the attic, life for Mitzi and her friends and family starts to get very interesting. Full of old-fashioned recipes with enchanting names like Wishes Come True Pie, Mischief Night Cake, and Powers of Persuasion Pudding - Granny's dishes provide a nourishing meal, but they also seem to have some very surprising side effects indeed.

Lovely easy read. Lots of fun. Loved it!

Plot and characters ***** Writing ****

Jones, Christina – Love Potions, Piatkus, 2006, ISBN: 0749937351

When aromatherapist Sukie Ambrose starts using her cottage garden as inspiration - and raw ingredients - for her products, she thinks she's just hit on a good way of saving money while offering her clients a way of de-stressing and relaxation. However, Sukie lives in a village where strange things have been known to happen. She discovers that her new improved lotions and potions are making her massages distinctly magical - and producing more star-crossed lovers than Shakespeare could ever dream of...

Lovely, if a little predictable after reading ‘Hubble Bubble’.

Plot and Characters *** Writing ****

Jones, Christina – Tickled Pink, Harper Collins, 2002, ISBN: 0007126867

This is the story of two women who are both at a turning point in their lives, and who have each suffered an enormous emotional blow. As the book unfolds, they both learn to deal with what has happened to them, and begin to move forward towards a better life. In both cases a surprising new relationship.

Rather enjoyed this, even though it is written in a very light style.

Plot and characters ***** Writing ****

Gregson, Julia – East of the Sun, Orion Books, 2008, ISBN: 1409102513

Autumn 1928. Three young women are on their way to India, each with a new life in mind. Rose, a beautiful but naive bride-to-be, is anxious about leaving her family and marrying a man she hardly knows. Victoria, her bridesmaid couldn’t be happier to get away from her overbearing mother, and is determined to find herself a husband. Viva, their inexperienced chaperone, is in search of the India of her childhood, ghosts from the past and freedom. Each of them has their own reason for leaving their homeland but the hopes and secrets they carry can do little to prepare them for what lies ahead in India. From the parties of the wealthy Bombay socialites, to the ragged orphans on Tamarind Street.

A delightful read. I couldn’t put it down. Admire Julia Gregson’s descriptive powers. I ran out to buy her next book I was so impressed.

Plot and Characters ***** Writing *****

Gregson, Julia – The Waterhorse, Orion Books, 2009, ISBN: 1409102653

Set during the Crimean war, this is the story of Catherine Carreg, a young woman who finds the restrictive life of small town mid-nineteenth century Wales oppressive, and longs to escape. After the death of her mother in childbirth, Catherine decides she needs to make a difference in the world, and runs away to London with local cattle drovers to train as a nurse. She trains in Florence Nightingale’s home for sick nurses, then volunteers to nurse in the hell that is the hospital at Scutari, on the mouth of the Black Sea. Beset by ignorance, antagonism and illness, Catherine must fight to learn the lessons of love and war.

A lovely book, but sadly not as good as ‘East of the Sun’. Implausible end.

Plot and Characters **** Writing *****

Grenville, Kate – The Lieutenant, Cannongate Books Ltd., 2009, ISBN: 1847673449

The Lieutenant' tells the story of Lt. Daniel Rooke, a junior officer in the Royal Marines, sent with an expedition to Australia to found the settlement at Sydney. While there, he meets the local tribe, begins to learn their language, and in doing so forms a relationship with them, thinking of them as human in a way not shared by his comrades.

This started quite slowly but gradually wrapped me in the story, which at the end was rather poignant and sad. Great writing.

Plot and characters **** Writing ****

James, Eloisa – Much Ado About You, Harper Collins, 2005, ISBN: 0007229488
Teresa (Tess) Essex and her three sisters (Anabelle, Imogen and Josie) are left to the care of their guardian after their horse-mad father dies. They move from Scotland to England not knowing what to expect until they arrive at their guardian's beautiful estate. However, their peace is shattered after Imogen elopes with the young lord from the neighbouring estate and Tess is forced to marry to save the family from disgrace. Step in the Earl of Mayne.

This promised a lot, but didn’t live up to that promise. The characters were a bit flat and the story a bit trite.

Plot and characters *** Writing and technique *

Melikan, Rose – The Blackstone Key, Sphere, 2009, ISBN: 0751539961

1795, and a young woman called Mary Finch travels in haste from Cambridge to the Suffolk coast. She has been invited to meet her wealthy uncle - and so end a twenty-year estrangement. However, before she reaches her destination she discovers a dying man on the road. He is a stranger, and yet he is carrying an oddly familiar watch bearing her uncle's initials. He also seems to know who Mary is, and hints that she is in terrible danger. His whispered warning soon exposes Mary to a ruthless conspiracy that threatens not only her family's reputation, but her very life.

I kept waiting for something exciting to happen. A bit dry and difficult to understand what the fuss was about. Had to persevere to read it at all. Disappointing, I won’t be reading the sequel.

Plot and Characters ** Writing **

Walters, Julie – That’s Another Story – The Autobiography, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2008, ISBN: 0753826089

There were some interesting snippets about Julie’s life in this book, but the inconsistencies, repetition and rapid moves around her life in the second half of the book rather detracted from the whole. A bit confused at times.

Writing ***

Back soon with 2010 so far! Comments please.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Humbling Experience

My son’s school hosted a performance by The Pearl of Africa choir on Friday night. The choir are on a fund raising tour to support 3,000 Ugandan orphans and destitute children in eight schools and nine orphanages.
Each choir member comes from a background that we can’t even imagine. Many are orphans to AIDS and malaria. They have been taken in by the Molly and Paul Childcare Foundation, which has given them schooling, food, health care and the hope of a brighter future.

The choir spent all day at the school, teaching the children to sing, dance and drum. Any children who were at the performance were asked to come on stage and show what they had learned by taking part in some of the songs.

My husband asked why the microphones were out of the way and we soon found out. They were loud! Drums beat out and the voices made you quiver. The children were so beautiful. The one song was about women fetching water and the girls balanced pots on their heads. As a finale, one of the girls balanced six pots on her head and danced!! There was such a vibrancy to their singing and dancing. Most of the songs have a religious theme. I have never heard the Lord’s Prayer sung like that before.

I bought a necklace and a Cd. At a previous sale I bought another necklace (jewellery is my weakness) and a wonderfully vibrant tablecloth and which graces my dining room table and brings an energy to the room.

Everyone was emptying their purses and wallets after seeing a video of how the children live – they only get one meal a day if they are lucky. One little boy emptied all of his pocket money into the bucket.

One of the schools supported by the choir is a farm school and they are appealing for chicken sponsors so that the orphans can have one egg a week. £5 supports a chicken for its life and if you send a photograph of yourself with the donation it will be displayed in the hen house. I have visions of the hens cheerfully comparing sponsors!

£15 a month is the average cost of caring for a child at a Molly and Paul school and they are keen to get one off or standing order donations. I was talking to one lady who had supplied pigs for the farm with her workmates and who sponsors four girls. She was telling us about the e-mails she gets from her ‘charges’.

A thoroughly enjoyable evening, but very humbling.

The Choir is in the UK until 17 November and have performances planned in the following areas, Oct 14th - Oct 24th Kidderminster/Ludlow, Oct 24th - Oct 27th Leicester, Oct 28th The Eden Project, Cornwall, Oct 29th - 30th Plymouth, Oct 31st - 8th Nov Cornwall, Nov 10th - Nov 17th London and South East. It is well worth seeing them.

If anyone is interested in donating or sponsoring a chicken or a child, details can be found here.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Poetic Plea

What if I were confident

the way I used to be?

Wearing red and jade suits

in a grey-clad sea of men.

Leading teams, deciding goals,

speaking out with steel.

How did she become this little mouse?

Please tell me this isn’t real.

Let me wake tomorrow sure and set

on a new course with pride.

Pitching to those publishers,

letting my stories and poems shine.

Having reborn confidence

to reach right for that sky.

Morton Stephanie Gray

13 October 2010

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

A History of Reading – Part 1

Or should that say – A history of MY reading part 1 - 2008? During my writing course I have made a conscious effort to read as widely as possible and to include books that I would not normally consider. This strategy has enabled me to gain a lot of insight into how the writers below achieve their settings and characterisation. I was very aware that whilst working through the course I looked at plots and techniques in these books in a very different way, trying to analyse how they had achieved their purpose. I give each book I read a rating for a) Plot and characters and b) Writing and technique. Please feel free to add your own comments.
Baker, Donna – The Weaver’s Daughter, Headline Book Publishing, 1991, ISBN: 0747236135
Baker, Donna – The Weaver’s Dream, Headline Book Publishing, 1992, ISBN: 0747237247
Baker, Donna – The Weaver’s Glory, Myriad Books, 2001, ISBN: 1904154182
The above three books form a trilogy about families in the carpet weaving town of Kidderminster (which I live close to). Donna’s story is very interesting with lots of historical details and twists and turns of plot. Unfortunately, she tends to repeat the initial incident in Book one with great regularity (almost in every chapter) and this tended to annoy and distract me when I was reading the books. I think I learned quite a lot about what not to do in any future novel of my own from these books and thus reading them was valuable.
            Plot and characters **** Writing and technique *

Binchy Maeve – This Year Will Be Different, Orion 2007, ISBN: 0752876287
This is a collection of short stories about Christmas and the relationship problems which can surface at this time. I admire Maeve Binchy’s style and the way she weaves stories together to make a novel out of an otherwise disparate group of tales.
            Plot and characters *** Writing and technique ****

Binchy, Maeve – Nights of Rain and Stars, Orion 2005, ISBN: 0752865366
I would go as far as saying that this is my favourite Maeve Binchy to date. Thoroughly enjoyed the setting and the way the main characters moved on during the story.
            Plot and characters **** Writing and technique ****

Binchy, Maeve – Whitethorn Woods, Orion 2007, ISBN: 0752881477
This is the usual Maeve Binchy format of interwoven short stories, in this case concerning the troubled residents, former residents and descendents of residents of an Irish town where an obscure shrine faces demolition. I admire this style greatly and am trying to learn how to achieve it. However, it did take me two attempts to finish this book as I lost interest part way through.
            Plot and characters *** Writing and technique ****

Binchy, Maeve – The Maeve Binchy Writers’ Club, Orion 2008, ISBN: 0752883070
The book, in the form of Maeve Binchy's letters and short essays from other experts in the world of writing, provides clear advice on the business of being a writer. It is written in a motivational and inspirational style which is helpful. As I admire Maeve Binchy’s style it was useful to have her opinions on writing.
            Writing and technique ****

Erskine, Barbara - The Warrior’s Princess, HarperCollins 2008, ISBN: 0007174284
I love Barbara Erskine and have read the majority of her books. This one was bought whilst still in hardback edition as I couldn’t wait. The book takes place in two settings, the past and the present and these stories become increasingly interwoven until all of the characters are influencing the present. I am full of admiration for this style and would aspire to write in this way.
            Plot and characters **** Writing and technique ****

Gaskell, Elizabeth – North and South, Penguin Classics 2003, ISBN: 0140434240
When her father leaves the Church, Margaret Hale is uprooted from her comfortable home in Hampshire to move with her family to the North of England. Initially she hates the industrial town of Milton, but becomes aware of the poverty and suffering of local mill workers. Simmering under the surface in these quite repressed times is the attraction between the hero and heroine. I was impressed by the fact that this did not feel old fashioned in any way and was as interesting and gripping as if it has been written recently.
            Plot and characters **** Writing and technique ****

Gilbert, Elizabeth – Eat, Pray, Love, Bloomsbury Publishing PLC 2007, ISBN: 0747585660 This book is fantastic. It is a story and also a self-help book, as it makes you think about your own life as you are reading it. It tells the story of a newly divorced woman on a journey to find herself by spending time in Italy, India and Indonesia. Again a style I would aspire to.
            Plot and characters **** Writing and technique *****

Harris, Joanne - Chocolat, Black Swan 2000, ISBN: 0552998486
A mysterious woman arrives with her daughter in a small, French village. She opens a chocolate shop and is soon tempting residents during Lent. This leads to conflict with the church. The book explores various prejudices. I found the writing style refreshing as it is written from the point of view of two people.
            Plot and characters **** Writing and technique ****

Harris, Joanne - The Lollipop Shoes, Black Swan 2008, ISBN: 0552773158
This is the sequel to Chocolat above. It is written in an even more complicated way from the point of view of three people. I found this style very difficult to get used to as you constantly had to ask yourself who was speaking. The characters and story are very good.
            Plot and Characters **** Writing and technique **

Hore, Rachel - The Memory Garden, Pocket Books 2007, ISBN: 1416511008
This book alternates between two characters, one in the present and the other in the past. Although born a century apart they face the same challenges to their happiness.
            Plot and Characters **** Writing and technique ****

Johnson, Jane - Crossed Bones, Viking 2008, ISBN: 0670917311
I had read about this book in a magazine and thought the subject matter sounded interesting. It is about the abduction of almost a whole Cornish village by Barbary Pirates. However, I found certain aspects of the plot implausible and some of the coincidences unrealistic. It is a good read if you don’t take it seriously and ignore the imperfections.
            Plot and Characters ** Writing and technique **

Long, James - Ferney, Viking, 2008, ISBN: 0670917311
This is a re-print of a book I read many years ago. I was curious to read it again to see if it held the same appeal now that I know a little about writing. Thoroughly enjoyed it again, although I could see some holes in the story line. It explores re-incarnation and the two souls in the book have mistimed their re-entry so that one is old and the other young. Fascinating but with my writer’s hat on a bit overdone.
            Plot and Characters *** Writing and technique ***

Moriarty, Sinead - The Baby Trail, Penguin 2004, ISBN: 1844880400
Moriarty, Sinead - A Perfect Match, Penguin 2005, ISBN: 1844880419
The above two books are in a totally different style to those I normally read. They are very fast paced books using modern language and are written in the first person. The first is about a woman trying to get pregnant and the second about the same person going through the adoption process. A very quick read and although I admire the way they have been done I cannot see myself writing like this.
            Plot and Characters *** Writing and technique **

Townend, Carol - The Novice Bride, Harlequin Mills & Boon 2008, ISBN: 0263862496
I wanted to see what all the hype about Mills and Boon writing was all about. (Little did I imagine I’d be entering the New Voices Competition in 2010!) This is set just after the Norman invasion and the Saxon heroine Cecily has no choice but to marry the invader. Although it was a bit of a light read for my taste, I did admire how the author gets you gripped from the start and created interest in the characters.
            Plot and Characters ** Writing and technique ***

Young, Elizabeth - Asking For Trouble, Arrow Books Ltd; April 2004, ISBN: 0099463377
I was particularly interested to read this novel as it is the basis for one of my favourite films “The Wedding Date”. I wanted to see how the book had been translated into a script for the screen. I was very surprised at how little of the book appears in the film. The main concept is there but the plot of the book was completely different to that of the film. I found this fascinating. An author obviously can’t be too precious about content if they sell the film rights.
            Plot and Characters ** Writing and Technique **

I will record 2009 and 2010 reading in further blogs. .

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Life beyond

Looking forward to life beyond New Voices! I can’t believe how much time and energy it took up – where did September go?

I’ve already sorted out a poem for a competition, read the next section of my distance learning course and examined several scenarios for writing projects I have on the go. Rosie and Tanner are nagging me to get on with their story too. Determined to write, write and write some more. However, it is a Grand Prix weekend and something the whole family like to watch together.

My daily message book, ‘Meditations for Women Who do too Much’ by Anne Wilson Schaef, ends today’s entry with – “Just remember, when a vacuum is opened up, many interesting possibilities rush in.” How apt is that?!

Friday, 8 October 2010

Thoughts on New Voices

Oh well, not only did I not make the top ten in the Mills and Boon New Voices competition, but I wasn’t on the list of writers they want to hear more from either. I’ve allowed myself a few moments to feel despondent and now I’m taking stock.

The fact is I learned a great deal from the New Voices experience. I was actually brave enough to put my chapter up there. The people who read my chapter seemed to enjoy it as most of my comments were positive. I picked up a lot of tips about writing by looking at the other stories, videos and tips on the site. I’m made a whole host of friends on Facebook and they are very supportive. My blog has gained a few more followers and read statistics have boomed (particularly in China?!!?).

Looking at my chapter I wonder now if M&B is the right arena for it. The story has taken on a life of its own, with Tanner and Rosie knocking on my brain throughout the day, so I have no doubt that it will be written to a conclusion. Not only that, but my writing life seems to have reached a turning point – or a non-turning point – in that I am now convinced that a writer is who I am and that I will get published.

I feel braver about putting my work out there and determined to write what I want in my own voice. Thank you M&B for helping me to clarify so many issues. To top it all I wrote a piece at writing group today which I feel can grow into another novel. Onwards and upwards. In the immortal Arnie words “I’ll be back.”

Monday, 4 October 2010

Reading Statistic

Listening to Radio 4 on the way to writing group on Friday I heard the statistic that the average person reads 4-5 books a year!

My husband, who travels widely with his job, gets through at least a book a fortnight (and those are some weighty tomes like Dickens interspersed with lighter Clive Cussler), so he reads at least 25 books a year.

I started recording my reading when I commenced my Open College of the Arts course and I average about 20 books a year. I don't think that is bad considering that I only read on the loo and in bed!

Thought I might give more detail of my reading over the next couple of blogs, but for now – how many do you read?