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In your mind's eye, how do angels dress?

In the traditional garb of a white robe with large golden-feathered wings? Or maybe a sort of flimsy Victorian night shirt, like Clarence, the angel in A Wonderful Life?

 

 

You probably don't think they would come by their clothing at a stall like this.

But Nessa, the angel in my novel Perfect Responses does. She spent much of her life in Africa, and it stole her heart. So when Nessa has the chance to head back down to  Earth - and Africa -on a mission to prove the worth of a self-help author's work, she jumps at it, as only Nessa can. With wit, persistence and a lot of straight-talking.

 

Bewildered Janet, who has just been abandoned by her man while on holiday, is the first person to receive the onslaught of Nessa's advice. It's all a bit much at first. But Janet's feeling rather vulnerable and adrift, and so she decides to give Nessa a chance, and finds herself whisked away to experience the real Africa, crocodiles and all.

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This is my first blog post in a while. The last one - which I have just deleted - was written in the approach to Christmas when I was stressing about getting through the festive period with my mum visiting.

My mum could be a difficult person - hard to please at times, and quick to show her displeasure if things weren't right. We did experience that over Christmas, but we also had some joyful times, and created some happy memories for her. I'm extremely grateful for that, because Mum died on 8th March this year.

When I was growing up, I was always extremely close to my mum. From her, I got my love of the countryside and of trees, wild flowers, animals and nature. She taught me the colloquial names of the wild flowers we found, like eggs and bacon and snap dragons, and these captured my imagination.

Mum with her beloved dog Jasper on a hot summer day in the 1970s.

She made me and my brothers clothes, and said that in one green and white dress she made me, I blended in with the trees and the soft fairy grass that grew in our local wood.

Later, when I began to write, she was thrilled to pieces to receive a signed copy of my first book, and proudly collected copies of all the books that followed. She was my biggest fan, always encouraging me.

Ageing changed her, narrowing her focus to her own life and its slowly diminishing activities. But she loved us still, and I know her grandchildren gave her a huge amount of pleasure.

During the necessary business of sorting out her clothes and belongings I feel I have rediscovered the mother I remember from earlier times - it has been a delight to find our old Mother's Day cards and school projects safely stowed away in drawers and to revisit the love expressed within them.

I found her exam certificates and remembered all the times I helped her to revise - she trained as a primary school teacher in her early forties - and felt proud all over again at her achievements.

Before she died, I spoke to her almost every day at six-thirty in the evening. I know how much these phone calls meant to her because she frequently told me so. Sometimes they were an inconvenience to me, or a source of frustration when it seemed she just moaned and complained about everything, refusing to try to see any positives. Yet even at the time, as I listened to it all, a part of my mind told me that I would miss the calls when they had to end.

And I do.

Love you, Mum.

Mum at Dunwich Heath, Suffolk, 2015

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Personally, I'm quite happy to describe my novels as women's fiction. To me, women's fiction can be defined as below (with thanks to the author Becca Vnuk), and I'm happy with this. These are the books I enjoy reading as well as writing. And it's not that I think men won't be interested in them, rather that it's less likely:

"The common thread is that the central character is female, and the main thrust of the story is something happening in the life of that woman (as opposed to the overall theme being a romance or a mystery of some sort). Emotions and relationships are the common thread between books that belong in this category. A woman is the star of the story, and her emotional development drives the plot."

And I suppose for me, it distinguishes my fiction from chicklit, which Wikipedia defines as:

Heroine-centered narratives that focus on the trials and tribulations of their individual protagonists. The genre often addresses issues of modern womanhood – from romantic relationships to female friendships to matters in the workplace – in humorous and lighthearted ways.

But some writers feel very strongly about their novels being described as women's fiction.

Take best-selling author Jodi Picoult, for example.

In an interview for the Orlando Sentinel, Picoult said: “I don’t write women’s fiction. What that means is I have lady parts. There is absolutely nothing gendered in my writing. Some books I think of as more male-centric than female-centric. Honestly, when most people talk about women’s fiction, they’re usually talking about a light-and-fluffy beach read. If anyone is describing my books as light and fluffy, you have serious issues.”

Interviewed on Popsugar.com, Taylor Jenkins Reid (The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo) also expresses her dislike of the women's fiction category.

She said, "Anytime I meet someone and they ask me what I do and I say, "I'm an author," and they say, "Oh, what kind of books do you write?" I say, "I write fiction." And they say, "Well, what does that mean?" What I choose to answer is, "I write book club books. I write books that you would read in a book club." What I mean by that is I write commercial fiction that is hopefully accessible to anybody that wants to read it, but they can be thought-provoking and give you something to talk about. But that's a very long answer to a small question, and the short answer is I write women's fiction, and the reason why it's called women's fiction is because we want to make sure, in no uncertain terms, men know "don't read this," which is just absurd.

"We have a society in which woman have learned to read about men and to find interesting things about the inner lives of men, and we have not done that same service for men. We have told men that women in their lives are not interesting to them, that the stakes of domestic fiction is not relevant to them — all of these things are completely untrue. Books about love and family are just as important and can be just as skillfully and beautifully written as books about war. I don't know why, so often, we put such a larger value on the story areas that men are interested in than what women are interested in. I also just don't buy the conceit. I think we just haven't allowed for men to admit when they're interested in these things, to open themselves up to be interested in these things. We've said, time and time again, to men, "What goes on in a woman's mind is not relevant to you." And that's just crazy. What goes on in every man's mind is relevant to me. We exist in the world together. I'm married to a man. The world is full of men. We should be doing that same thing for men. I think we're fixing it slowly. Big Little Lies was such a great example of a story, exclusively about women and about issues that directly affect women, that men watched. They cared. We're at the beginning of it."

(You can read the full interview here).

What do you think of the Women's Fiction book category? Are you happy with it the way I am, or do you agree that we're excluding men by using it? And if we are, is that right? Do, in fact, women's fiction books have something to offer men too?

I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

All for now.

Margaret 

10 Comments

I recently carried out a survey about women's fiction and the 132 responses made for fascinating reading.

There were the ordinary, useful questions about reading habits and demographic etc, but as a writer, what interested me most were the responses to questions I posed about the nitty-gritty of the writing, because this gave me a real flavour of what makes people read a book compulsively.

One of the questions asked respondents to choose statements about women's fiction they agreed with, and to add some of their own. Many people went on to make some very interesting and insightful suggestions, and I really wanted to share these results with you.

So, to start off with, here are the responses to the statements I provided myself:

It's important that I care what happens to the main character in a book and almost feel as if the events of the story are happening to me. 75.76%

I like to feel extremes of emotion when I'm reading - both happy and sad. 55.3%

When I'm reading, I enjoy being taken to places and experiencing situations I've never experience before. 76.52%

I'm happy for a novel to include an element of magic, or events that might never happen in real life, as long as the author makes me believe in it. 57.58%

A romance of some kind is essential in a book in order for me to enjoy it. 17.42%

I like a book's main character to grow and to learn something during the story. 63.64%

A book must have a happy ending, otherwise I feel cheated. 10.61%

It's not a problem to me if the main character is someone I don't particularly like. 39.39%

I like to feel I have something in common with the main protagonist. 25%

And here are the statements that respondents added themselves - the ingredients and factors that are important to them in a satisfying women's fiction novel.

  • I don't like loose ends, need to know what happened to all characters
  • Furthering women's causes
  • It has to feel realistic and not too cliched.
  • Not too far fetched...
  • Needs to grab you in the first chapter, dialogue is important
  • Well written prose.
  • It doesn't always have to have sex. Geez already.
  • Anything to keep me interested and page turning. A good storyline.
  • Helps me learn or appreciate something new
  • I like some humour
  • If I'm not supposed to like a main character, I need something bad to happen to them.
  • The main character should have some kind of intelligence, I get bored by ditzy girls, they have to be smart or witty or work things out
  • A good beginning that draws me in!
  • A sense of suspending disbelief or of an idealised reality being portrayed- country cottage, independent woman, seaside etc
  • Location. Books,based in a city with a bit of a story about the city interest me.
  • That the supporting characters are also fleshed out and have a story
  • The characters and their responses to situations must be believable.
  • Inner conflict
  • Good quality prose
  • Intelligence. Please expect that I am intelligent and need brain stimulation.
  • I prefer heroines who aren't weak, who can save themselves or others
  • Humor is so essential for me to thoroughly enjoy an MC or supporting characters. A book needs to take me away from the BS of everyday stress, the new and political mumbo jumbo. It needs to be a true, enjoyable or fascinatingly interesting escape!
  • Great characterization and good writing is a key
  • I am discouraged with novels crammed with over detailed descriptions of superficial things
  • Well written with relatable 3-dimensional characters
  • Good writing with realistic dialogue. An element of truth in the theme that I can relate to.
  • Right or wrong, that she be strong 🙂 (#StrongWomenWrite hashtag on Twitter)
  • Needs to be believable, must like the hero or heroine and care about them.
  • The author doesn't insult my intelligence by telling me everything.
  • Expect the unexpected
  • I love to get into the mind of the character - and I like novels with suspense, ie. Gone Girl.  I am more interested in the writing and how the writer creates rich and complicated characters.
  • Words chosen in writing should be easily understood by most people. Grammar is very important.
  • No misogynistic cliches please. I'm so fed up with Women as victims. Women don't need men to rescue them. They don't have to be superhuman - just real!

To sum up, (and this is my interpretation of the results) most people want a strong character who draws us in because we're intrigued, and prepared to invest in finding out what happens to them. We might be prepared to suspend our disbelief in the process, but we want to have our intelligence respected. We also want to have work to do - to have things to work out, and that actively engage our imaginations and our thoughts. We don't want to be handed everything on a plate like a bland meal, but we're happy to be entertained. We want good-quality ingredients, but a novel doesn't need to be so good for us it feels like a meal we eat when we're on our best behaviour.

I'm so grateful to everyone who took my survey. Their answers have really given me an insight into what people want from a great women's fiction novel. I'm off to apply all the advice!

Bye for now.

Margaret

 

Happy New Year, I hope you had a good Christmas, and a very warm welcome to anyone who’s new to my blog.

I read two extremely inspiring books over the Christmas period – Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott, and Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. They are quite different books, but they are both about the creative process – what it’s like and how we can get the most pleasure and fulfilment from it. I loved both books, and they were an excellent reminder of why I write and why I’m passionate about helping others to write – because they're such amazing, life-affirming things to do.

It’s difficult to pick one thing out to share with you from them, but I particularly liked Elizabeth Gilbert’s advice in Big Magic to treat your creativity as if you are having an affair with it! Gilbert points out that when people are having a passionate affair, they make time to meet up with the object of their desire, no matter how busy they are, and even if it’s only for a snatched – but passionate – fifteen minutes. She advises us to fall in love with our creativity like that and to see what happens. “Stop treating your creativity as if it’s a tired, unhappy marriage,” she says, “and start regarding it with the fresh eyes of a passionate lover. Sneak off and have an affair with your most passionate self.”

It certainly sounds like fun to me!

While we’re on the subject of fire and sparks, I’ve just released a new e-course called Story Ignitor. It’s a highly practical course based on material I’ve used in my successful day-long workshops. I believe in learning by doing, so you’ll fuel your creativity and start to spark ideas for stories by creating a three-dimensional character and using an innovative technique to help you to plan a story. You’ll also learn about story themes – ways to choose one that resonates with you, and how they can make writing easier. I’m offering the course for an introductory price of £49 (that’s about $60), and all of my students are entitled to join my WriteUP Course Café Facebook group. This is a place to connect with other writers and to find out about writing opportunities as I learn about them. Here’s the link to find out more about the course, or to enrol: http://storyignitor.strikingly.com/

story ignitor - a course to help you find ideas for writing
ENROLLING NOW! CLICK FOR MORE INFORMATION.

 

 

 

 

 

If you’re Norfolk-based, I’m also offering some new face-to-face courses this term. Here are the links to find out more about those.

 

I love the start of the year – it’s a wonderful clean slate, just ready to be filled with exciting opportunities. I intend to really get stuck into my writing this year. How about you?

Until next time.

All the best.

Margaret

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Hello there!

With Christmas fast approaching, I thought it would be fun to adapt the lyrics of the popular christmas song The Twelve Days of Christmas to make them relevant to writers. Here's my effort, which is designed to give both fun and focuss!

If you're unfamiliar with the tune, you can play it using the link below as you attempt to fit my words into it.

TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS MUSIC

 

By the way, in my version, YOU  are the writer generously giving yourself all these things so that you can write!

Have a wonderful Christmas, and I wish you an amazingly creative and fulfilled New Year!

Margaret

 

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On the first day of Christmas, my writer gave to me

A compulsion to write all the time.

 

On the second day of Christmas, my writer gave to me

Three-dimensional characters, and

A compulsion to write all the time.

 

On the third day of Christmas, my writer gave to me

Two perfect plot plans,

Three-dimensional characters, and

A compulsion to write all the time.

 

On the fourth day of Christmas, my writer gave to me

A huge cup of coffee,

Two perfect plot plans,

Three-dimensional characters, and

A compulsion to write all the time.

 

On the fifth day of Christmas, my writer gave to me

A giant Keep Out! sign.

A huge cup of coffee,

Two perfect plot plans,

Three-dimensional characters, and

A compulsion to write all the time.

 

On the sixth day of Christmas, my writer gave to me

Voices in my head,

A giant Keep Out! sign.

A huge cup of coffee,

Two perfect plot plans,

Three-dimensional characters, and

A compulsion to write all the time.

 

On the seventh day of Christmas, my writer gave to me

Self-washing children,

Voices in my head,

A giant Keep Out! sign.

A huge cup of coffee,

Two perfect plot plans,

Three-dimensional characters, and

A compulsion to write all the time.

 

On the eighth day of Christmas, my writer gave to me

A freezer full of meals

Self-washing children,

Voices in my head,

A giant Keep Out! sign.

A huge cup of coffee,

Two perfect plot plans,

Three-dimensional characters, and

A compulsion to write all the time.

 

On the ninth day of Christmas, my writer gave to me

A large glass of wine

A freezer full of meals

Self-washing children,

Voices in my head,

A giant Keep Out! sign.

A huge cup of coffee,

Two perfect plot plans,

Three-dimensional characters, and

A compulsion to write all the time.

 

On the tenth day of Christmas, my writer gave to me

A brand new notebook,

A large glass of wine,

A freezer full of meals,

Self-washing children,

Voices in my head,

A giant Keep Out! sign.

A huge cup of coffee,

Two perfect plot plans,

Three-dimensional characters, and

A compulsion to write all the time.

 

On the eleventh day of Christmas, my writer gave to me

Supportive writing friends,

A brand new notebook

A large glass of wine,

A freezer full of meals,

Self-washing children,

Voices in my head,

A giant Keep Out! sign.

A huge cup of coffee,

Two perfect plot plans,

Three-dimensional characters, and

A compulsion to write all the time.

 

On the twelfth day of Christmas, my writer gave to me

An inspiring writing course,

Supportive writing friends,

A brand new notebook

A large glass of wine,

A freezer full of meals,

Self-washing children,

Voices in my head,

A giant Keep Out! sign.

A huge cup of coffee,

Two perfect plot plans,

Three-dimensional characters, and

A compulsion to write all the time.

 

4 Comments

Sometimes my writing flows smoothly, like a stream along well-worn channels, curving around obstacles, intent on its course.

Sometimes my writing flows smoothly, like a stream along well-worn channels, curving around obstacles, intent on its course.

 

At other times, my ideas are like ants in a disturbed ants' nest, scattering in a hundred different directions.

Sometimes my ideas are like ants in a disturbed next, scattering in a hundred different directions.

 

Sometimes my images come out almost as a list on the page:

  • a glint of a gold tooth

  • the rhythmic rocking of the boat

  • red and gold fabrics, gleaming in the midday sunshine

ecuador-1257123_640

 

I take what I get, and use it any way I can, pushing aside thoughts of

should be

should do

the right way

the wrong way

 

There is only what there is, and it helps me to remember that:

Streams flow to the sea.

Every ant has a designated role in the colony.

Lists help you to remember.

This past week has been a disrupted one for me. It can be difficult enough to deal with self-inflicted disruptions to our writing - a tendency to get distracted by social media, or to put our own dreams and priorities last.

But sometimes Life just happens. A two-day headache that divorces you from your imagination. A phone call from the school asking you to collect your poorly son.

That's why I've learnt to take writing - especially the writing I do for a first draft - as it comes, whether it's in the form of streams, scattered ants or lists. However it comes, it  accumulates and gets stuffed together. After a while it coagulates and becomes part of something bigger.

A book, with a life and an identity of its own.

narrative-794978_640

 

How wonderful!

Until next time,

Margaret

 

2 Comments

Today I want to talk to you about how Joan of Arc destroyed my self-confidence. Actually, that’s not right - my apologies to Joan. It’s not fair to blame her. It was all entirely my fault.

Or maybe the teacher’s for putting me under so much stress.

 

708px-joan_of_arc_on_horseback

 

But whoever was to blame, those few unhappy seconds in a French lesson when I was eleven years old had a dramatic effect on my self-confidence – an effect that lasted for almost twenty years.

Let me set the scene for you. I was newly transferred to the class, and painfully shy, so it was unfortunate that one of the first things I had to do was to give a talk in a French lesson. My allotted subject was Joan of Arc (for those of you who don’t know, Joan – otherwise known as Jeanne d’Arc – is a Fifteenth Century French saint). I duly did my preparation and went to stand nervously at the front of the class when it was my turn to speak.

Then I opened my mouth, and, with all eyes upon me, I said: “Joan of Arc was brought up as a pheasant.”

pheasant

 

I had, of course meant to say peasant – a country dwelling agricultural worker, not a large, colourful game bird – but nerves got the better of me, and I’m sure you can imagine the reaction that followed my slip up. There was general hilarity in the class, pretty much drowning out the rest of my faltering words.

 

giggle-608824_640

 

I expect my classmates soon forgot about it, entertaining as it was, but I certainly did not forget about it, and the incident affected me drastically. I clammed up almost completely after that – never saying anything at all in class unless I was forced to, and unfortunately this silence and terror extended to my life post-school. My extreme phobia about public speaking limited the courses I could take, and the jobs I could apply for.

Until finally, with my thirtieth birthday looming, I decided enough was enough. It was time to do something about this fear.

So, I did. Very gradually, until I proved to myself that I’d made a complete recovery by performing stand-up comedy to a crowd of two hundred people in a London comedy club. (I put my experiences into a novel!).

 

dare-club-cover1

So, how did I do it? By taking baby steps, and celebrating each and every one.

First of all, I joined an adult education class – I don’t even remember what it was about now – and then I challenged myself to make one statement, or to ask one question at every session. Then two statements or questions. Then three. (You can’t imagine how my heart pounded and my hands sweated as I willed myself to speak).

I did it just a little bit at a time, until I was ready (yikes!) to join a public speaking course. There, I made people laugh. Deliberately, this time. It felt fantastic. After that, I felt ready to take a teaching qualification. And I discovered that I loved the performance side of teaching. Everything about teaching, in fact. Then, eventually, came that three-minute stand-up routine at the Up The Creek Comedy Club in Greenwich, which was one of the greatest moments of my life so far, and the pinnacle of getting over my public speaking phobia, I’m sure you’ll agree. Every time I feel my self-confidence ebb a little bit, I just watch myself on YouTube and remember that I did it. I actually did it. The sense of achievement that night was incredible. On a par with holding my first published book in my hand…

 

me-doing-standup
Performing stand-up comedy at The Up The Creek Comedy Club in Greenwich, London

So, if you want to write, but something’s holding you back, find out what that something is. Be kind to yourself. Take baby steps to deal with it, and celebrate each and every one. Think in terms of asking a question in an adult education class, rather that a full-blown stand-up comedy performance straight away. Get support on your crusade. (Although maybe not from Joan!). Your efforts will be worth it, because all those little steps can add up to something bigger.

Like a novel!

Want to learn more about how fear can affect writers and what to do about it? Join my Feel The Fear Webinar on 20th October. If you can’t make it live, a recording will be available to those who register.

Oh, and just a reminder that the early bird price of my course Feel The Fear and Write Anyway ends on Sunday 24th October.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

Margaret