Wednesday, 10 November 2010

China: the whole story! (Part 2)

So - now we were in Chengdu - another major Chinese city. Like the others we'd visited, it was busy, vibrant and modern: frantic traffic (bikes as well as cars etc!), sky-scraper buildings, and - most surprisingly to us - the shops were crowded with people spending their money on expensive consumer goods, especially clothes.

The pic shows a typical scene of cyclists crossing a busy junction!

From Chengdu we had a day-trip to Leshan where we took a boat trip to view the Grand Buddha carved into the river bank. You can see how massive it is, from the relative size of the people in this picture!

But for many of us, the Panda Centre was the highlight of our time in Chengdu. It was wonderful to see the pandas so close-up - and to see how well looked-after they are. The Chengdu Panda Centre is the world centre for panda breeding, and it was amazing to see the tiny, tiny baby pandas being cared for in the nursery - lying in incubators on pink or blue blankets like little premature human babies. We weren't allowed to take photos of those, though, sadly.

From Chengdu, we flew to Guilin, and the next day we had a lovely cruise on the Li River, from Guilin to Yangshuo. The scenery on the Li was spectacular, made even more atmospheric by the weather, which was misty and drizzly. The main feature of the scenery in this area is the strange shaped Karst hills - formed from weathered limestone.

We returned to Guilin by coach the next day, and had the opportunity to see some countryside around the Yangshuo area - rice paddies, water buffalo, and people working in the fields.

That evening at Guilin was spent watching the fishermen on the River Li, fishing with cormorants. You might have seen this in a TV advert! Some people think it's cruel because the cormorants have their necks tied so that they can't swallow the fish they catch - but they are untied afterwards and fed some fish from the catch. And (although I'm vegetarian and detest fish in particular!) I don't suppose it's any less kind to the birds than it is to the fish! The only negative, for us, was that the fishing we saw was just a display for the tourists. I'm sure that when they do it for a living, they choose quieter places on the river, don't have two boatfuls of tourists taking photos, and catch a lot more fish!
Before leaving Guilin the next day, we climbed Brocade Hill for a view over the city and surrounding hills.

Then we took our final internal flight - to Shanghai, and transferred by coach to Suzhou, 'The Garden City'. Here we had a cruise on the canal, seeing the old part of the town, before visiting the two famous gardens, strangely named The Master of the Nets Garden and the Humble Administrator's Garden! The latter was the bigger, and was very beautiful - with all the usual Chinese garden features of bridges, pagodas and lakes, as well as plants and trees including Bonsai trees.

We returned to Shanghai by coach the next day, and spent our final three days there. It was quite a relief to be in one place for three days after all the travelling! And there was so much to see in Shanghai, which was of course even busier and more modern and vibrant than any of the other cities!

As well as visiting the museum and spending time at the famous riverside area (The Bund), we went to the top of the Jinmao Centre Tower to enjoy the views over the city, and also had a ride on the amazing new Maglev train - it runs at incredibly high speed by magnetism! (Sorry, I don't understand the physics - but it was certainly fast!).

We also had an evening cruise on the Huangpu River to admire the night scenery.

The last day of our tour was 1st October - which was the beginning of the Chinese National Holiday - lasting a whole week. This meant the city was even more crowded with tourists than usual, because people from outlying parts of China came to spend their holidays in Shanghai (especially as the Expo exhibition was taking place). Some of these Chinese nationals from more rural areas obviously weren't used to seeing Western tourists, and we got plenty of attention from people staring and laughing at us (good-naturedly, but very openly!) and even taking photos of us. Apparently the Chinese refer to Western people as 'Big Noses' or 'Long Noses' - because of the obvious difference in our facial features! Those of us with fair hair, and those who were particularly tall, got the most attention. I began to wish I'd taken some of my business cards with me to hand out ('Yes, you can take my photo. Did you know I'm an author'?)!
The crowds made it quite difficult to move around: the sea of people in the main shopping areas was quite intimidating, especially as so many of them carry umbrellas - both when it's raining, and when it's sunny. We were glad the timing of our tour had avoided the rest of the National Holiday!

Nevertheless we enjoyed the whole tour and would definitely recommend it - and also the tour company we used (Wendy Wu Tours). Our tour guide Maggie was absolutely fantastic - she was with us for the whole three weeks and as well as giving us so much information, she looked after us like a little mother hen, especially when people were sick (unfortunately, about 90% of our group caught a nasty virus, some being more ill than others). The tour was very good value for money, including three meals every day and the hotels we stayed in were all good.

Would I go back? Probably not, as I feel that I've seen everything I wanted to see, and there are lots of other places in the world I'd still like to see, (given the time, health and money!). If you want to visit China - I'd say go sooner rather than later, as it will only become more crowded, more expensive, and more tourism-driven as they become an even bigger world power.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

China: the whole story! (Part 1)

Some of you asked me to tell you more about our tour of China. I've waited till now, as it took me a long time to go through the hundreds of photos we took ... and having chosen the best ones, I made them into a photobook which has now been delivered. So, with my book open in front of me to remind me of everything we did and saw, I can now take you through the tour and show you some more pics!

We started off in Beijing. It was mid-September and very hot - about 35 degrees - but most of the time it was overcast. This is a feature of the weather there, because of the pollution apparently.
However we did see some sunshine on our first day, visiting the Temple of Heaven

and then the Forbidden City.

Everywhere was very crowded. Tourism in China has become very popular during the last few years - not just with overseas visitors but also Chinese people, now they are becoming more affluent, wanting to see the sights for themselves.
One exception was Tiananmen Square, which is so huge it didn't seem crowded! There's very heavy security in the square, police very conspicuous, and our guide told us that no discussion of (as they refer to it) the 'incident' in 1989 is allowed.

One of the most striking things, was the cleanliness everywhere: not a scrap of litter, no graffiti anywhere. (Our tour guide was bemused when we asked about graffiti - she couldn't understand what it was). I'm sure there would be very heavy penalties for litter dropping!

On the second day in Beijing we visited the Great Wall of China. There are apparently several places where the Wall can be accessed from the Beijing area, so I don't know how they compare in terms of difficulty etc. We started out early, with the aim of beating the crowds - and I certainly wouldn't have liked to be there later in the day! - as in places where the steps were narrow, there was quite a bit of pushing and shoving through the crowds. This is another feature of life in China which surprised us, by the way: the people are so very polite in so many ways, and yet we were shocked by the way they push and shove! - not caring who is elbowed out of the way, old or young, man or woman. I guess it comes from living in such crowded cities but I was nearly knocked over on several occasions, finding it hard to stand my ground and push back!

The average age of our tour group was probably 60+, and our guide warned us to take the climb steadily and not go further than we could manage. The steps up the Wall were uneven and many were steep. I'm normally reasonably fit but had a bit of a bad back at the time, so didn't climb right to the top.
Himself went on ... only to turn back soon, saying the view wasn't much better from the top because of the cloud/mist.

Nevertheless it was an impressive sight and an experience I wouldn't have wanted to miss.

Later that day we were taken to the old area of Beijing (the Hutong), where we were driven around on a rickshaw. I just felt sorry for the guys pedalling the bikes. We're not particularly massive people but bigger than most Chinese! - and pulling the weight of two of us must have been really hard work. Of course, this was all laid on specifically for the tourists, including a visit to a 'typical' home. I felt a little uncomfortable as we all crowded into this lady's tiny house and nosed around ... but I suppose she is being well paid for opening her home to the likes of us.

The third day in Beijing, we visited the Summer Palace. It's situated in lovely gardens on a lake, which made a nice contrast from the crowded city streets. Later we were taken to see the Olympic Village - and in the evening, saw a very impressive acrobatic show. There were several shows during the course of our trip - some included in the schedule, others 'optional extras', and all were different and definitely worth seeing.

From Beijing, we flew to Xian, famous for the Terracotta Warriors. This was definitely a highlight. I'd seen photos, of course, and had naively believed that when the warriors were first discovered, they'd looked exactly the way they do now - but no, they were lying in pieces and have been painstakingly put together ... a process that's still ongoing. The ranks of completed warriors in the pits is an absolutely amazing sight. Every one's face is different! The hairstyles and various features indicate their rank. I particularly liked the cavalry men, and the kneeling archers which are preserved under glass in the museum.

We had a hot sunny afternoon for our stroll on Xian city walls, which are decorated with all manner of flamboyant animal and flower illuminations: I'd like to have seen it at night. We also visited the Muslim quarter of Xian, including the Great Mosque which was a peaceful oasis in the city.

On the last morning in Xian -which happened to be our Ruby anniversary! - we visited the Little Wild Goose pagoda - again, set in beautiful gardens. The Chinese love their parks and public gardens by the way - because most of them live in apartment blocks in the cities and don't have any open space of their own. We were astonished by the crowds of people in all the parks, often doing tai-chi or impromptu line-dancing or keep-fit in big groups! They also sit in the parks to play mah-jong or cards, to chat together, knit or play music together. Our guide explained that the retirement age is 55 and retired people enjoy their social lives in the parks, which benefits their physical and mental health.

That afternoon, we took our next flight, to Wuhan, and from there we had a long coach journey to the beginning of our Yangtse River cruise.
We boarded our boat in the evening. Himself and I had decided to splash out on an upgraded cabin - as it was a special occasion - and the facilities and comfort on the boat were very good. We spent three days on the Yangtse; each morning there was a shore excursion, and the afternoons were spent resting on the boat, watching the scenery, which was quite a pleasant break in an otherwise hectic schedule!

The first morning, we visited the Three Gorges Dam, which was an impressive sight, probably far more interesting to those with technical minds (!).

But the next day's trip was more up my street - a cruise to the Shennong stream (a tributary of the Yangtse), where we were 'loaded' onto 'pea-pod' boats and rowed along the stream by a team of very strong guys (again, I felt sorry for them!). The scenery was lovely and we enjoyed such things as the music of a pipe being played by a goat-herd on the bank of the stream ... until we were told that he was actually a government employee who was there purely as a tourist attraction! There was quite a lot of this kind of thing!

The final trip on the Yangtse cruise was to the riverside town of Fengdu, known as the City of Ghosts, where the many shrines and statues depict judgement day and the tortures of hell. Actually a lot nicer than it sounds!! This was a drizzly day, and as the ghost city was at the top of a mountain we went up there by cable car rather than walking up in the rain. That afternoon, it rained properly for the first time, putting an end to our afternoons of sunbathing on the boat! The weather became much more unsettled after this, with less heat and some showery days.
We ended the cruise at Chongqing, another huge Chinese city and major port, from where we were driven to Chengdu for the next part of our tour. Which seems a good place to pause ...

To be continued!

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Writers' Forum feature - and an event last night

The December edition of 'Writers' Forum' has just landed on my doormat - and I'm pleased to say it contains the feature I wrote back in the spring, about novelists who start off as short story writers. I found it a really interesting piece of research to do - and many of you helped me by telling me about your own experiences. So if you want to read my findings ... get your copy of the magazine as soon as you see it in the shops! And thanks again of course, to all those who helped with this project.
The various ways we arrive at our destination as published novelists is always one of the topics discussed when I'm part of an author panel at a writing event. I took part in one such event last night at Gants Hill Library, near Ilford - with fellow authors Sue Moorcroft, Jean Fullerton, Juliet Archer and Heidi Rice (in that order in the picture). Believe it or not, the colour co-ordination of our outfits was completely accidental: great minds must think alike, or we were all in purple moods last night!
It was a really nice evening, although sadly the attendance was depleted by absolutely horrible weather. As always, though, 'the show must go on', and I think those who braved the rain and wind to turn up were interested and appreciative. Those of us on the panel always enjoy ourselves, and for me it was a great opportunity to meet, and chat with, those of the group who I'd only known by name before.
In between my writing projects at the moment, I'm spending a bit of time going through the hundreds of photos that Himself and I took on our trip to China. I'm trying to make a photo-book from the best pictures, and as you can probably imagine it's quite a lengthy job, editing, choosing, deleting, arranging - but it's enjoyable too, especially as it's helping to keep the memories sharp in the ageing brain! I haven't forgotten that I promised to post some more about China on the blog, and I'll be doing that, together with a few more pics, when I've finally finished going through them all.
But for now - back to editing a new short story for People's Friend - the editor likes this one and just wanted a small change made to the ending, so fingers crossed it's a happy ending for me too!

Saturday, 16 October 2010

China ... and life in general!

SO! Here we are, back from a very special holiday, planned to celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary. Well, it had to be special, didn't it - I think we both deserved a bit of a treat for putting up with each other for all these years! The destination was China. I don't quite know how that happened. I'd professed an interest in Canada, and when Himself came back from the travel agent with China brochures I presumed he'd suffered some momentary dyslexia or bad eyesight.
'I've always fancied China,' he explained with a pleading look.

Me? I hadn't, particularly. But then I started looking at those brochures, and I was hooked. So much to see, so many different and exciting places. We swiftly booked a 3-week tour, which we both agreed was great value for money as it included 4 internal flights, two river cruises, all 4-star hotels, 3 meals every day and all admissions to the sights and attractions. We'd never have been able to afford it if we'd done the trip independently.
OK, so I don't like flying (I get horribly air-sick unless I take drugs that make me even dozier than usual), but I just have to get on with it, otherwise we'd never go anywhere. And we'd never done a tour-group type of holiday before (apart from a week on the Nile, which we loved so much we did it twice!) - and we weren't sure whether we'd actually like it. Also I was a little bit worried about what I'd eat and the effects on my digestion (I'm a vegetarian and I - correctly, as it happens! - imagined three weeks on a diet of rice and vegetables). But nothing ventured, nothing gained! (Oh, and I lost half a stone so it wasn't all bad!)

Well, the result was an amazing holiday - and yes, the sights were spectacular. Everyone's asking us what were our favourite places, and it's so hard to choose. I think I particularly enjoyed the scenery on the Li River - very atmospheric, especially as it was misty. The Terracotta Warriors were an awe-inspiring sight. And I just loved seeing the baby pandas at the panda breeding centre. Oh, and the Great Wall, of course!

Our group of 28 people - mostly (ahem) round about our own age-group - were great company. The group was about two-thirds Aussies, one New Zealander and the rest Brits. But I must admit, although a tour is definitely the only way to do a trip like this, it's not the sort of holiday I'd want to do every year. It was a very busy tour, moving on from place to place with a lot of long journeys by coach as well as the flights - and I suppose I missed not having any time to ourselves.

Also, (and obviously), everywhere in China is very crowded!! - the traffic in Beijing, for instance, is the busiest we've ever seen, anywhere in the world. Makes the M25 look like a country lane! And the crowds in Shanghai, especially when they all have their umbrellas up, are actually quite frightening! It was definitely one of the most interesting countries we've visited, but the one I'd least like to live in!! I'd never have the courage to cross a road, for a start! But everywhere was spotlessly clean, with no graffiti or litter to be seen. In fact our tour guide was astonished when we asked about graffiti - we had to explain what it was.

Unfortunately, about 25 of the 28 of us fell victim to a virus that swept through the group like wildfire, affecting some worse than others - and leaving us all with a hacking cough. It didn't spoil the holiday for us: I only felt ill for one day but because I'm asthmatic the cough has really taken a hold - especially as the pollution in China is bad for asthma anyway. Himself didn't go down with the virus till the last day - he rarely gets ill so naturally he thinks it's the end of the world that he's still got a cough, but I think he'll survive!

I'd definitely recommend the trip, and the company we went with (Wendy Wu). It was a very different way of celebrating a special occasion - and we took full advantage by upgrading our cabin on the Yangtse River cruise, as we were on the river for both our anniversary and my birthday! We were treated to cards from all of our 'gang', and a cake, which provided a welcome addition to the rice & veg! (Seriously, the food was actually very good, and it wasn't till the third week that I began to fantasise about cheese sandwiches!).

Sadly, we came home to a horrible shock ... our middle daughter had been admitted to hospital while we were away, and has since been recovering from major surgery. I fully understand why the other daughters didn't tell us: I'd have tried to get a flight straight home. But the upset of this kind-of wiped out all thoughts of the holiday for a while, as you can imagine. I'm only now, two weeks after our return, looking through my photos and remembering it all. Pleased to report she is on the mend, although it's been a horrible time for her and her little family - especially for little Noah who at only 13 months has had to cope with mummy being away in hospital, and since then not being able to pick him up. Luckily his daddy is a great dad, and I know his two aunties did lots to help too, while we were away.

Writing has taken a back seat, needless to say ... but there isn't much to report, apart from the fact that the editor of 'Yours' was frantically trying to get in touch with me while I was away, to accept a Christmas story - which I'm really pleased about as it was a favourite of mine. Meanwhile still waiting to hear back from an agent who requested the whole of my new novel some months back ... trying not to think too much about that.

Tonight we're getting together with our group of close friends - two of whom have also done a tour of China so we'll have a lot to discuss and compare! And tomorrow we're having a quiet lunch in a local pub-restaurant with the immediate family as a delayed Ruby anniversary celebration. We're so lucky to have such a lovely family - they're more important to me than anything in the world. We don't tend to come out and say it. But we all know it's true!

Monday, 6 September 2010


Well, hello! I haven't 'set foot' in this blog for quite a while. I suppose that's because there hasn't been too much to report, writing-wise. I've been concentrating on short stories recently, and my success rate hasn't been bad. Of course, a fair proportion have come winging back, as always - but quite often they end up being accepted elsewhere after changes. And then there are the others - those that eventually get 'shelved' - given up on, after being rejected by everyone. If the message is that clear, I can take the hint! Recent acceptances have been with The People's Friend and Woman's Weekly (my best two markets), and a nice surprise was an acceptance - my first! - with The Weekly News. Even after all these years, it's exciting to be accepted by a completely new (for me) market. Publications recently have been (again!) in The People's Friend and in Yours. My next one will be in the 18 September issue of The People's Friend.

During the past few weeks, we've started looking after our little grandson Noah once a week, now that his mummy has gone back to work. It's been lovely to see him so regularly - and this week is very special, as tomorrow will be his first birthday. We had a family gathering here yesterday to celebrate. Of course, Noah has no idea what all the fuss is about, but it was a good excuse for all of us 'big people' to get together to sample some of the delicious chocolate hedgehog cake his mummy had made (as well as some wine and other goodies!).

Here he is with his mum and dad and The Cake!

And here, with his two lovely aunties - what a lucky boy.

As always, yesterday I found myself remembering similar occasions when the three girls were little themselves. Our first daughter was born in the summer, and her first birthday was in July 1976 - those of you old enough to remember will know that it was the hottest summer for decades, and we took her to the seaside on her birthday, setting the pattern for years to come. Her birthday parties were always held in the garden, with barbecues being the thing as she got older!

Then the second and third babies both came along at Christmas time - so their birthdays inevitably became part of the family celebrations: especially for the youngest daughter, who was born on Boxing Day. We always gave her a party just after Christmas. When they were toddlers they enjoyed having a big joint party between their two birthdays, but of course, once they were at school and making their own friends this wasn't fair, so with two birthday parties just after Christmas, it became a very busy and expensive time in our house!

None of our girls ever had to go to school on their birthdays - one being in the summer holidays and the other two in the Christmas holiday. But, as a September baby (like me!), Noah will be one of the oldest children in his class. But I think it's important to look for the advantages, whatever time of year a baby arrives, and not focus on the negatives. Our Christmas babies could have felt that they missed out in some ways - but on the other hand their birthdays were always at an exciting time, with so much going on and all the family together to celebrate with them. Equally, I don't think our summer baby was disadvantaged from being one of the youngest in her year, despite dire warnings about it: she still did really well at school and got a good degree too, which is a lot more than her September-born mum ever did!

So that's our first year of grandparenthood gone past already - and we decided he's now old enough to buy him his first car! Happy birthday little man!

Well, the next big celebration is our Ruby wedding anniversary, and we're off on an exciting holiday very soon in honour of that. So, as well as some great experiences, I'm hoping to have some good inspiration for my writing! I'll keep you guessing about where we're going ... and promise to write about it on the blog, with some pictures, when we come home.

See you soon -

Friday, 23 July 2010

Mums, daughters, and good advice!

Tomorrow would have been my mum's 90th birthday. Sadly she passed away three years ago, exactly a week after her 87th birthday. Needless to say, I still miss her, still wonder (as we always do) if I could have done more for her, still feel sad that she didn't live to see her granddaughters' weddings. But this isn't going to be a maudlin post. I just want to tell a story. I know I don't write on this blog very often so I realise there's probably nobody reading it - but that's OK. It's just something I wanted to write!
Mum was born in the East End of London and left school at 14 with a fairly basic education. But she had a determination to 'make something better of herself', and attended evening classes and day-release classes from her job, to get qualifications in English, French, Typing and Shorthand. She progressed to a very good secretarial post, and after my brother and I were born, she began teaching typing in the local college of further education.

Mum and Dad on their wedding day in 1943:

Mum and Dad weren't well off, but we lived in a fairly ordinary suburban semi and my brother and I benefited from grammar school educations. After my O-levels, I had what, in those days, passed as career advice: a short interview with my hated headmistress about what I intended to do. I only knew that I wanted to be a writer, so I planned to train as a journalist after taking my A-levels. But my headmistress quashed this ambition very firmly, telling me that although she believed in me as a writer, I'd never make a journalist as I 'didn't have the right temperament'. Her advice to me was to become a teacher, and use the school holidays to write my novels. I hated the thought of teaching and refused to contemplate this option, so went home in a massive sulk, feeling completely at a loss.

'There's nothing else I want to do,' I told my parents. Journalism had been my one and only idea.

'In that case, why not become a secretary,' said my mum.

I can remember scowling and making some retort along the lines of it being boring. Who wanted to sit in an office all day, typing? Of course, I didn't appreciate that for my mum, becoming a secretary had been the route out of the prospect of dead-end factory jobs - and also that it was all she knew, apart from teaching, which I'd already rejected!

I'd planned on taking my best three subjects at A-level: English, French and Geography - and we needed to be sure these were the best choice for whatever lay ahead. My school (unusually for those times) was very keen on getting as many girls to university as possible, but I decided I wouldn't go unless I needed a degree for a specific job. Secretarial subjects weren't taught at the school - but there was an option - slightly looked down upon - for sixth-formers to take a two-A-level curriculum at school in the mornings and transfer to the college where Mum taught, in the afternoons. When I still hadn't come up with any other career idea weeks later, I gave in grudgingly, dropped the planned Geography A-level and registered for the secretarial course.

Mum wouldn't have me in her typing class. I don't blame her. I was still a bit resentful about the whole thing, still not sure I even wanted to be a secretary at all. I didn't particularly like typing, found shorthand very difficult, and as for 'Secretarial Duties' (yes, that was an exam subject then!) - my friends and I called it 'Secs Duties' with the obvious connotations, and messed about in every class.

Somehow I passed all my exams. Somehow, in those exciting days of publishing during the 1960s, I got a job with Hodder & Stoughton, as secretary to the Rights manager. I didn't stay there: I moved on to work in a fashion company and then to a hospital, eventually becoming a medical secretary and finally finding my niche. To my own absolute amazement, I loved working in the hospital environment and spent almost the rest of my working life doing something that I'd never have imagined wanting to do, when I was at school!
Of course, I also, eventually, fulfilled my ambition to become a writer. Maybe if I'd followed my headmistress's advice it might have happened sooner - who knows? But over the years, I've come to appreciate Mum's advice far more than I ever admitted - or told her. If I hadn't learnt to touch-type, (quite apart from the vast amount of fast typing needed during my working life), I wouldn't be half the writer I am now. I can't imagine not being able to type my own books. Even typing this post would have taken me ten times as long. If I hadn't persevered with Pitman's shorthand, I wouldn't have been much use to my boss when he needed to dictate a quick urgent letter while holding the phone in one hand and his scalpel in the other; and I wouldn't now have the means to scribble quick random passages of prose that come to me in the middle of the night, or on a bus journey, or while watching TV. I can't say much about the 'Secs Duties' though, to be honest!
When my own daughters were teenagers, and at about the stage of choosing their careers, I remember listening to a conversation between them and some friends, when opinions were being given loudly and confidently that NO WAY would they want to work in an office - boring! - and certainly not being somebody's secretary. I smiled and didn't comment. After all, I'd been a lot older than them before I'd finally realised that 'an office' can be so many different things - and being a secretary (maybe not now, but certainly back then) was a good way of experiencing life in different environments before deciding what actually interests you. I never found secretarial work demeaning, either. As the PA of a consultant surgeon, I wasn't in the least subservient: we worked together as a team and he treated me as an equal.

The three girls now (like most of us, really!) all work in offices - all in completely different careers, all happy and successful, and none of them secretaries! Many more options are open to girls now, despite the economic climate. But it worked for me, so thanks, Mum!
There's a nice PS to the story. My first baby was due on Mum's birthday; she arrived three days late, but we often had family gatherings to celebrate their birthdays together. As often seems to happen, Mum and I became much closer when I got married and had my own children, and she adored her granddaughters. And so it's fitting that when I remember Mum at this time of year, I also remember the excitement and pleasure of our lovely eldest daughter's arrival. Happy birthday, baby!

Me with No.1. daughter.

Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Career, Job, Occupation or Hobby?

A few weeks ago, we had an interesting debate on the Romantic Novelists' Association forum, about whether we consider our writing to be a hobby or a job. I've often discussed this topic with fellow writers and it seems to be something that some of us can get quite hot under the collar about, so I thought I'd throw it open to bloggers too!

For those who are really successful and earn their living from writing, I can quite see how they would be offended to have it called a hobby! In their case, there isn't any doubt in the matter – it’s their career, obviously.

But what about the rest (the majority) of us? Personally, before I was published, I thought of my writing as a hobby – simply because I had a full-time, stressful job, three children and everything else that had to be fitted in – how could I possibly think of my writing as another job? I’d have felt even more stressed. It was a hobby that I enjoyed whenever I could, it relaxed me and then brought me in a bit of extra money occasionally when I started getting short stories published. To be honest, at that stage I'd have also thought I was being a bit 'up myself' if I'd referred to it as anything other than a hobby - (but perhaps that just showed my lack of confidence as a writer!)

That certainly changed when I had my first novel published – but I still needed the day job, and with eight books behind me now, I still would need, at the very least, a part-time day-job, if it wasn’t for the fact that I’ve since acquired both my State and my NHS pensions. Anything I earn now from writing is the icing on my financial cake but it certainly isn’t a proper income – and never was. I know I’m not a best-seller, but nor are the majority of authors. The Society of Authors' figures bear this out: a pitiful few of us earn a living wage from our writing. We obviously all have some other means of support – whether that’s a day-job, a pension or a rich partner! So can this underpaid majority of us really call writing our job?

Don’t get me wrong – I love the kudos I get from telling people I’m an author, a writer, whatever - yes, I'm proud of it, because it's what I've wanted to 'be' ever since I was a small child, and I'm thrilled that I finally achieved it after years and years of trying. I love putting it down as my occupation on forms. But before I retired, I tended to put down 'medical secretary' even though I was a published author - because it was my day-job that actually kept me financially afloat, paid my Tesco's bills and helped to put my kids through university, not my writing. (Ironically, the only form where I needed to write down both of my occupations was my tax return!).

Yes, part of me does bristle if my husband sometimes refers to my writing as my hobby, as if it’s a bit of knitting. So, personally, ‘occupation’ best sums up the way I think of it now. To be honest, thinking of it as a ‘job’, for me anyway, would make it a lot less attractive! A job is something you have to do whether you like it or not. Something you only do because you need the money. I realise that for some successful authors who don't have (or need) any other form of income, and are contracted to write book after book, it must start to feel like a chore. In a way -although I would obviously dearly love to be that successful! - I think it must be quite sad to feel like that. Half the pleasure must be gone.

Of course I agree with those who say they want everything they write to be published. So do I, desperately! I'm sure it's the aim of nearly all writers. Sadly, it’s often unrealistic, but surely the whole point is that we keep on trying, and live in hope. But I DO advise would-be writers, whenever I give talks, to think of their writing FIRST as a hobby – in other words, do it first because you enjoy it, rather than having some wholly unrealistic plan of giving up the day-job and earning pots of money.

In a perfect world we’d all be paid pots of money for what we do, but I don’t want to be miserable about the thing I love doing the most! If I had to think of it as a job, I'd say the pay is abysmal, the prospects very limited, but the working conditions (hours completely flexible, come and go as you please, work with glass of wine on desk and cat on lap, or in garden on laptop, stop to read e-mails and look at Facebook whenever you like, etc etc etc!) - absolutely amazing!

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Ten bits of scrap!

Colette over at The Pink Pen ( has passed this on to me:
And apparently it means I have to tell you ten bits of stuff about myself.
I found Colette's snippets really interesting and feel like I now know her better!
But I'm not too sure I can tell you anything half as interesting about me.
Come along now - it's a well-known fact that all writers love nothing better than talking about ourselves, isn't it? So surely I can dredge something up!
1. I didn't learn to drive until I was in my thirties and was so scared, I used to come back from lessons crying and needing a drink. I passed the test on my fourth attempt and didn't stop being scared of driving for years.
2. The first time I went abroad was at about 15/16 on a school trip to France. Some friends and I went out of the hotel on our own at night and got chatting to some French boys, but we were caught by one of the teachers and spent the rest of the trip in disgrace.
3. I drink pints of real ale - but not as many as I used to! I also like red wine but too much of it can give me an asthma attack.
4. I met my husband when I was 17 and still at school. We'll be celebrating our Ruby Wedding this year.
5. I wasn't allowed to take 'O' level maths because I was so bad, the school didn't want a failure to mar their reputation. Instead I had to sit an 'easy' arithmetic paper - and failed, badly. But I got A-levels in English and French.
6. After a bit of a wait to get started, we produced three daughters within three and a half years. Their time at university overlapped, with all three of them being at uni in one particular year (at different ends of the country) - and they all got married within just over a year of each other.
7. My first 'books' were teenage romances handwritten in sixpenny notebooks and passed round the class. But my first actual publication was a letter to 'Essex Countryside' magazine when I was nine-and-a-half, about a bird I thought I could identify.
8. I'm a vegetarian, with a particular aversion to fish - the sight and smell of it makes me feel sick - but I cook meat with no problem.
9. I love Shakespeare, and I'm going to the Globe to see Macbeth today!!
10. My favourite band is Bon Jovi, and I'm going to see them at the O2 on Wednesday!! I also like Coldplay and Queen and most rock and pop music.
** Sorry to be a spoilsport but I just can't do the thing where I have to nominate three more people to do this ... they would probably be the same people that have been passing it on already!
But if anyone reading this wants to have a go at this on their own blog - let me know, and I'll read yours - hope you can find something more interesting than mine! **

Thursday, 17 June 2010

BBC Radio Essex interview

At quite short notice, I was interviewed on BBC Radio Essex yesterday afternoon. We'd originally applied to be interviewed as a panel, about our 'Essex Writers' Panel' library events - but because of the short notice I was the only one available, and in fact when it came to it, I was asked to just talk about my writing in general. Fortunately I did manage to get in a quick plug about the panel, though!

It's about six or seven years since I was last interviewed on BBC Essex. That was my first experience of live radio and I was terrified! I remember telling someone afterwards that it was worse than going to the dentist. But (whether it's a good thing or not!), yesterday I found it a really enjoyable, and even relaxing, experience. Maybe it's because of all the talks I've been giving ... but maybe it's something to do with age, too ... I sometimes think that the older we get, the less we worry about making mistakes, making a fool of ourselves or what other people might think of us. Life's too short!

Anyway, here's the BBC I-Player link if you've got time to listen:
It seems quite long because, of course, the time I was 'on' (less than an hour) was broken up with music, and also with chats with the other guest - an energy-saving expert!
I particularly like the fact that they played 'Paperback Writer' by the Beatles as a kind of introduction to my interview!

Local radio, like the local papers, is another great way for authors to reach out to their local community and get our names into people's consciousness. OK, I don't for a minute think the listeners are going to rush out and buy all my books - but they might remember the name if they see my books in libraries, for instance. It all helps. So I'm really grateful for the opportunity and would certainly do it again!

Monday, 14 June 2010

Feature on short story writers becoming novelists

Just wanted to let you all know that the feature I wrote for Writers' Forum about short story writers who go on to become novelists (and novelists who never write short stories!) has been accepted for publication. So thanks again to all those who helped by contributing - I know lots of people who follow other blogs came over here to 'vote', and I had a great response - couldn't have done it without you.

I haven't got a date for publication yet but I'll let you know when I do. It might be worth mentioning, for anyone considering writing for WF, that the editor, Carl, has told me he's using less stand-alone features now and filling the mag more with series. He's also absolutely snowed under, and isn't likely to need any more features this year.

This is the third feature I've had accepted by WF but it looks like there won't be any more for a while! But this one did involve a lot of work and research so it's particularly gratifying to know it's not going to be wasted.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

A talk? or just a friendly chat?

If you've read my ramblings on this blog before, you'll know that I always enjoy the opportunity to give talks about writing ... either on my own (which takes a bit of preparation and thought, planning a talk of the required length and targeting it for the type of audience), or with our recently formed panel of 'Essex Writers' - with my friends Fenella Miller, Maureen Lee, Fay Cunningham and Jean Fullerton. The panel events are a lot more informal and because of audience participation, tend to be fairly 'ad lib' - a comparatively relaxed experience for us!

I've given talks on my own to audiences of all sizes ... well, OK, not to anything the size of a stadium! - but from a packed hall where people were standing at the back, to disappointingly low turnouts which turned into enjoyable cosy chats with a few gratifyingly keen and interested people. I've learnt never to mind the latter ... as long as there's at least one person there, and as long as they want to listen, I'll go ahead and hope we both gain something from the experience.

Our panel events have attracted some encouragingly good audiences so far ... so it was initially a bit of a surprise to find only a handful of people at Monday's event at Ingatestone Library. More than anything, I felt sorry for the organisers - I know Sharon there had done her very best with the publicity, and I'd done my bit too - getting a write-up in the Essex Chronicle, mentioning it everywhere I could think of and including it on a leaflet-drop in my own village for anyone who couldn't make the previous event at our own library.

But hey - these things can't be forced, and can't be predicted. It may have been a bad day for people, for any number of reasons. But those who HAD turned up were very enthusiastic ... in particular, it was lovely to see 'Jarmara' again, with her sister - we've met a couple of times before and I know how keen and interested she is in everything about writing. Take a look at her blog where she's kindly given us a write-up about the event:
Thanks again, Jarmara, and I'm glad you found our chat helpful!

Because that, of course, is one of the benefits of a small audience ... the afternoon turned into a cosy chat between friends, where we all had time to ask and answer as many questions as we wanted to.

I ought to say, at this point, that I've never considered myself an expert on anything writing-related! I've never taken a creative writing course, I don't have a literary background and I'm not (yet, anyway!) a best-seller. So I realise people might wonder who the hell I think I am, putting myself forward to stand up and talk about writing to them. Well, I thought the same thing too, when I first tried it ... but after I'd given one of my very first talks (merely about 'how I got published'), a lady from the audience came up to me and told me how encouraged she'd been to hear about my experiences ... because I was just an ordinary working Essex mum who had been lucky enough to have some success with my greatest dream. Since then, so many people have made similar comments that I now feel able to speak with confidence about my own experiences ... and that includes the agonies and disappointments as well as the joys and triumphs!

As Jarmara mentions in her blog ... we discussed these at some length on Monday and I suspect people are often surprised that even after becoming a published author, the rejections, sadly, aren't always a thing of the past! Nor are the re-writes, the long waits for responses to submissions, or the days when everything you write is rubbish. BUT, of course, the excitement of an acceptance - any acceptance, however qualified ('We like this story but please re-write the entire second half, cut it to a third of its size and change the tense and the names of all the characters ...') never fades. The thrill of receiving messages via my websites from people who have not only read one of my books, but taken the trouble to get in touch with me and say they've enjoyed it, is still like manna from heaven. Seeing copies of one of my books in a bookshop and in the libraries is a joy I never really expected to experience ... and every magazine containing a short story I've written is a precious gift. If those things didn't outweigh the serious disappointments, we probably wouldn't soldier on!

My friends on the panel and I, are a mixed bunch of writers: some more experienced; some more successful; some writing novellas as well as novels, others writing short stories too; some writing historical, others writing contemporary. But between us we seem to have a lot to say about our writing lives! So don't ever be put off from attending events like ours, by the potential size of the audience - large or small. It doesn't put us off, and we hope everyone gains something, regardless of how many turn up.

PS: On the subject of successes, I've a short story in this week's 'The People's Friend' (12 June issue), and two more on the way: one in 'Woman's Weekly Fiction Special' issue 6, and one in 'Yours', 13 July issue. So who cares about the four that have just been rejected!

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Every picture tells a story

One of my stories (written, as usual, under my real name, Sheila Norton) is appearing in the 12th June issue of 'The People's Friend'. (Yes, the magazine that's still my best friend! I REALLY can't imagine why I seem to be best at writing stories for the ... ahem ... more mature ladies, but there it is, can't deny they take more of my stories than anyone else does!). This particular story ('Buttons and Bows') was the result of an interesting experiment for me. My friendly editor at P.F. had asked me if I'd liked to have a go at writing a story to 'fit' a spare illustration. They apparently had several . This was my first attempt, and it was great fun! The picture I was given, happened to be quite an obvious theme: a little girl dressed in what could have been a party dress but I decided was definitely a bridesmaid's dress, and a lady who just had to be her mum, also dressed in a nice satin number - so I made her a bridesmaid/matron of honour, too, and wrote a wedding story, from the child's point of view. It went down well, pleased to say, and was accepted straight away.

The whole exercise reminded me of being at primary school, having my favourite lesson ('composition' as we called it back then) - being given a theme, or maybe a choice of themes - or sometimes just a title - by the teacher and having to write a story around that. It was the one thing I really excelled at, at school, and I decided very early on that I was going to become a writer so that I could sit around all day having that kind of fun! Well ... maybe things didn't turn out quite like that (something called earning a living got in the way), but yes, in the end I did become a writer and yes, the best thing about it is that it's still (most of the time!) great fun!

Being given a theme by someone else is a really good way to kick-start your writing if you're in the doldrums. That's why I've always recommended writing competitions to new and aspiring writers. I won two of the short story competitions in 'Writers' News' magazine myself, back in the 1990s, and apart from the confidence this gave me to keep going, I think I also learnt a lot from the experience. You can't expect to get anywhere in a competition unless you stick strictly to the word count, the given theme or title, and any other instructions - and this is all good practice for following the magazines' fiction guidelines.

I enjoyed the experience of 'writing around a picture' so much that I've recently asked to have another go - and needless to say, just to make sure I don't get too sure of myself, I found this one a little trickier, so the jury's still out on whether it gets accepted. Fingers crossed ...

So if I get stuck for ideas in future, I might just pick a random picture from a newspaper or magazine, without reading the story it accompanies, and make up one of my own to fit it. Give it a try!

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Essex events

Just a quick reminder for anyone living in the Essex area - book now if you'd like to come along to our Essex Writers' Panel next event at Galleywood Library (near Chelmsford). It's from 2.30pm this Saturday (22 May), and will be an afternoon with authors Maureen Lee, Fenella Miller, Jean Fullerton, Fay Cunningham and myself - talking about our writing and answering questions from the audience. There'll also be time at the end for informal chat and the opportunity to buy signed copies of our books.

Anyone who'd like a FREE place at this event, please contact the library on 01245 259042. It's only a small library, space is limited so don't delay!

And if you live in the area but can't make this date, our next event will be at Ingatestone Library on the afternoon of Monday 7 June, again from 2.30pm. The number to call for this occasion is 01277 354284.

Fingers crossed, no fire alarms going off this time ...!

Saturday, 8 May 2010

An alarming experience at the library event!

Our panel of Essex Writers gave another appearance this morning, at Chelmsford library. This was an event arranged specifically for the book groups attached to the library, and once again we were made very welcome by the library staff, and by a lovely audience who asked lots of interesting questions.

With five of us on the panel, it's a very relaxed way to conduct an event. When I give talks on my own, I always spend quite a while preparing my talk, making sure it's appropriate to the type of audience I'm going to address, making notes and then practising it aloud to make sure the timing's right. I enjoy giving these talks, and now I'm used to them I'm fairly relaxed about them - but with our panel, it's a different thing entirely, and it doesn't really need any preparation at all. After each of us introducing ourselves and chatting a bit about what we write, etc, we ask for questions from the audience and there's then a lot of inter-locution amongst the five of us. Fortunately it works well because we're all good friends!

This morning was a little more exciting. Just as I was answering the usual question about 'where I get my ideas from', there was a loud jangling of bells and it was 'Everybody out!' - the fire alarm had gone off. We obediently traipsed out of the fire exit and into the street, where it was cold and raining but several of us managed to get under a bus shelter! We thought at first it was a fire drill (we'd all been carefully instructed before the event kicked off, about fire regulations - but of course, that's all a necessary part of Health & Safety now). But when (after thankfully only about 10-15 minutes) we were allowed back in, we were assured it wasn't a drill - the alarm had actually been activated so the whole building had needed to be checked.

Chelmsford Central Library is a large building in itself, and it's under the same roof as County Hall - the main Essex County Council premises. Everyone from there also had to be evacuated, including a bridal group! The poor bride was shivering outside the hall, her little bridesmaids sitting glumly on the steps waiting to be allowed back inside. How awful if the alarm had gone off just as she and the groom were about to make their vows!

But of course - being writers - by the time we were allowed back into the library, the five of us had started inventing stories around the situation. Those who write romantic fiction were concocting scenarios where the bride's ex boyfriend had turned up and set the alarm off to stop the wedding so that he could run off with her, or where the bride and groom had been turned out of the hall but were determined to marry at all costs so repeated their vows on the steps outside; whereas Fay, the crime writer of the group, was determined to get a murder in somewhere and had ideas of someone being deliberately run over as they left the building ... It would be quite interesting, in fact, if we were all to write our own version of one of these stories and see how differently they turned out!

It was a relief to get back inside and continue answering our audience's questions. We ended up overrunning our time slightly to make up for it - but then again, that might have had more to do with the fact that we were fed, along with the tea and coffee at the end of the morning, with a choice of delicious home-made cakes (thanks again, ladies!).

Our next event will be in two weeks' time - 22 May - at Galleywood Library on the outskirts of Chelmsford. This is my own village library, a much smaller venue, but I'm looking forward to it because it's my 'local' and I think it'll be another nice friendly event. I've made some leaflets to 'canvas' my neighbours about it - I didn't want to deliver them until this weekend, as I didn't want people throwing them away assuming they were election leaflets! - and I've been promised a piece in the Essex Chronicle about our panel too.

All good PR, and a fun way of showing our support to the library service as well as meeting new readers who we hope will go on to buy our books - or at the very least borrow them from the library! All that, and inspiration for fire alarm stores too!

Friday, 16 April 2010

Old friendships being renewed

Off on another jet-setting break on Sunday (well, only to Yorkshire and Northumbria, actually, which is probably just as well, given the current problems with flying!) - isn't life great when you're retired from The Day Job! Sometimes I almost feel guilty that we are starting to have such fun in our lives, popping off for short breaks (and long breaks!) whenever we fancy it - but then I think: Nah, to be honest I don't feel guilty at all! While I'd never want to imply that we had a tough time when we were younger, we did choose to have three children quite close in age when we were averagely young (for those days) - and so we never had much in the way of holidays, and certainly never went abroad until when the kids were a bit older we started going to caravan camps in France. We didn't used to have a car, or a lot of the mod cons we now enjoy - but that wasn't unusual back then. So now we haven't got to worry about the '9 to 5' and we've still got reasonable health and fitness, we're going to do our best to enjoy ourselves before we get old and decrepit! Yay!

We'll be staying for a couple of nights with an old schoolfriend of mine, and her husband, who we haven't seen for quite a few years so we're looking forward to getting together again. Jen and I were only at school together for one year - when we were about 13 - but it's an age when deep friendships are forged, and when her family moved back 'up North', my other friend Sue and I continued to get together with Jen during the summer holidays. I think it was a good experience for all of us - travelling between Essex and Chester by coach, staying with each other's families for a couple of weeks at a time. My best memory of those years was the evening we travelled from Chester to Liverpool for a night at the Cavern Club! No, the Beatles weren't performing there then, they'd recently become famous, but I was a huge fan and it made a great impression on me, just being there!

From Yorkshire we're going on for a few days of exploring the wilds of Northumbria - just cos it's there! and we've never been there - and then staying another night in Yorkshire on the way home to Essex, getting together with my 'penpal' Dawn and her husband. This is where the 'writing' part of this blog post comes in!

Dawn and I met back in 1993 (I think that was the right year anyway!) when we both won first prizes in the Writers' News short story awards. I think it was their first year of running their competitions. Anyway, up till then I'd only written children's stories - but I entered a story in the adult story competition and won first prize. Dawn, it turned out, had already been writing short stories for the women's magazines, but had entered the children's short story competition - and won first prize in that! We were invited to an awards ceremony in London and presented with shields and cheques, and it was while we were chatting over a glass of wine afterwards that we discovered our 'role reversal'. Dawn very kindly gave me the contact details for 'Woman's Weekly', and I began to submit stories to them straight away - being lucky enough to get an acceptance very quickly, which really got me started on my writing career.

We've kept in touch ever since - by letter to begin with, and then when we both got the internet, by e-mail. In those days I didn't know any other writers, and it was so good to be able to share hopes, dreams and frustrations with somebody else who understood. And it still is! Because we go back quite a few years now, we've shared the ups and downs of our writing careers with each other and Dawn has always been so supportive. When I got the contract for my first novel she was so excited for me - and when she acquired a really good agent I was over the moon for her. Whenever we've had disappointments we've been there with the sympathy and understanding. Nowadays I've got lots of other writing friends - through the RNA, blogs, Facebook and the lovely group of Essex writers I meet up with - but the 'pen friendship' with Dawn has always been a bit special.

This will be the first time we've met since that awards ceremony in 1993 - and as Dawn said to me in a recent e-mail: Do you think the husbands will get a word in edgeways?!? (Husbands? Oh, are they going to be there too?!)

Charlie the Cat is sadly being sent off to his Holiday Home (local cattery), but we know he'll be looked after and as he'll be 14 this year, was very ill last year but has this week been pronounced to be 'in the best of health' by our vet, we think he won't suffer any harm!

On the writing front I'm still waiting to hear about my feature on novelists who start off by writing short stories ... and still waiting for any luck with the new novel ... but have had one short story acceptance and one 'please change a few things and then we'll have another look', recently.
So it could be a lot worse, couldn't it.

I'll report back on the trip after next weekend and meanwhile hope you all have a good week.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Thanks to Julie

Julie at Julie's Quest has awarded me this 'Beautiful Bloggers' award - how nice! Thank you Julie. It's probably the first time I've ever earned the word 'beautiful' - ha ha!

Now, I'm supposed to nominate ten other blogs to receive the award . It reminds me of when my children were little and they used to insist on me choosing which of them had painted the best picture/made the best Playdoh model/baked the best jam tarts ... etc etc ... and I always refused to choose. 'I like them all the same,' I used to say, and they'd get really upset and insist that I had to choose, so I had to compromise and say that one daughter had chosen the best colours, another had chosen the most unusual subject, and the other had applied the most paint (or managed to get the most actually on the paper!) ... they weren't impressed!

But mums can't be expected to choose between their children! And likewise, how can I choose between the blogs I enjoy reading? I'm not the most prolific blogger in the world: I sometimes don't look at my blog (or anyone else's) for days or weeks at a time (do I really deserve the award?!) - but when I do, I enjoy catching up with everyone's news, even if I don't always take the time to comment. I often pick up on comments from other bloggers, and have a read of something I find interesting on their blog, without becoming a Follower - but those I've chosen to follow must be those I'd nominate, mustn't they? So I'm nominating as many of those as possible. Here goes:

1. With ink from the pink pen

2. Bucolic Frolics

3. Kate Hardy

4. Sue Moorcroft writes

5. Strictly Writing

6. Romantic Novelists' Association Blog

7. Women's stories: read, write, enjoy!

8. Quiller's Place - The View From The Spire

9. Sarah Duncan's Blog

10. The Long And The Short of It

I purposely haven't checked my list against Julie's as I didn't want to be deterred from nominating the blogs I wanted to: but I'm aware that I've probably duplicated some of her selections and that just goes to show what good taste she has! Thanks again Julie!

Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Joanne Harris at the Essex Book Festival

My eldest daughter and I went to see Joanne Harris last night, making an appearance at a school in Great Dunmow as part of the Essex Book Festival. The large school hall was packed to capacity, and Joanne proved to be an amazing speaker. She mostly talked about her forthcoming new book 'Blue Eyed Boy' - which sounds like yet another brilliant novel from her! - and also read a couple of passages from the book.

It was interesting for me, having given quite a few 'author talks' myself now, to see how a true expert does it! I always make notes, but try to use them only as a guide, to keep myself on track and make sure I don't forget things I want to say. Joanne had some notes with her but barely glanced at them at all - even though she started off by saying that this was her first talk promoting this new book so she expected to ramble slightly! Not a bit of it ... she was extremely eloquent and there certainly weren't all the 'ums' and 'ers' I find myself so guilty of uttering!

She talked at length about how she got the idea for 'Blue Eyed Boy' and developed it into a story, and also about the characters and their relationships with each other. Somehow she managed to do all this without giving away very much of the plot - afterwards I found myself wondering how on earth she talked about it for over half an hour without doing so! She then took questions from the audience, and when she was asked about her own favourite books as a child, my daughter and I exchanged raised eyebrows! My own responses would have been something along the lines of 'Heidi' or 'Wind in the Willows', (and of course, Enid Blyton's Famous Five books!), but Joanne's were far more serious and intellectual and made me aware of how different her upbringing must have been from that of, perhaps, the average reader. Obviously a very clever child who grew up to be a very clever lady!

Well, we're all different, aren't we, and thank goodness for that. I love Joanne's novels and I loved listening to her speak; but when I give my own talks, one of the things that gives me great satisfaction is that people often remark that they find it interesting to hear about my life as a writer, and how I got published, simply because I'm from a fairly 'normal' background, without a degree or any writing qualifications. Perhaps it gives hope to other aspiring writers.

I was thinking about everyone being different, and enjoying different types of books, when I read a feature in yesterday's paper, too - about the lack of 'real men' as heroes in modern romance novels. The feature focused on the short-listed books for the Romantic Novel of the Year Award, and has inevitably led to a lot of discussion among my fellow members of the Romantic Novelists' Association. Apparently the writer wasn't keen on the sensitive, 'New Man' type of heroes, or stories focusing on problems in people's lives - although it's been pointed out that the feature has of course been edited and cut so that the writer's opinions aren't being represented quite the way she intended. Anyway, I reckon it's just another situation of 'horses for courses'. If you don't like certain types of books, with certain types of heroes, you won't buy them. If they're selling well, then lots of people obviously do like them!

If only I had been as gifted as Joanne Harris and could write the type of novels she writes ... ah, if only! But we're all different in our capabilities, as well as in our reading tastes, and we have to be realistic. I hope to continue to have books published and to have readers who enjoy them; that'd be good enough for me, and I'd be very grateful too!

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Responses to my survey - thanks again!

When I started writing my feature about novelists who start by writing short stories, I hoped to ask perhaps a couple of dozen writers how they started. I know everyone's busy with their own work so I thought I'd keep it simple and just ask for a 'yes' or a 'no' ... never anticipating the generosity of SO many writers, who took the time and trouble to send me e-mails or messages on the blog, Facebook or the RNA forum - and SO much valuable information!

As someone has so wisely pointed out to me - I should have known that a load of writers * would not be able to stop at one word answers - don't we all just love the opportunity to write about our writing!

Well, it's certainly been fascinating reading all your comments; and it's lovely to welcome some new people to the blog too. My feature is now virtually finished; I even managed to do percentages (with the help of an on-line percentage calculator!). I'm not going to reveal all the statistics that will appear in the feature - if/when it's accepted - but I CAN at least tell you that those who wrote short stories before progressing to novels are in the majority. You'll have to wait to find out the rest ... hopefully until the magazine publishes the feature!

The short story I was expecting to be in the last issue of 'Yours' wasn't: it's in this week's. And I've just had another one rejected. Which just about sums up a writer's life, doesn't it!

* What should the collective term for a lot of writers be? A scribbling of writers? Any thoughts?

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Our Essex Book Festival event

Here's my lovely group of Essex writing friends at our first Essex Writers' Panel event, this afternoon at Halstead Library as part of the Essex Book Festival.

From left to right, Maureen Lee, Fay Cunningham, myself, Fenella Miller and Jean Fullerton (who did a great job as our chairperson, keeping us all in order and making sure none of us did more than our fair share of yakking!).

The event went really well: Halstead is a lovely library in a beautiful small Essex town, and the people were all so friendly and welcoming. We all chatted a little about ourselves and our writing, and then answered questions from the audience.

In fact we could have gone on answering questions for the rest of the day, they were all so lively and interested!

As you know I give quite a few talks to various groups on my own, and I enjoy it, but being part of this panel is a whole different experience - great fun, especially as we all get along well together (it does help!) and we all write different types of books so each of us brings something different to the discussions. Actually although we advertise ourselves as a panel of five, I think they are getting real value, as I am there both as Sheila Norton and Olivia Ryan!

We all enjoy giving something back to the libraries, as they provide such an important service - and an important part of our income through the Public Lending Right payments. Now we've done our 'inaugural' event as a panel, we're looking forward to further events we've got booked, after the end of the Book Festival. If they're all equally successful, I think we'll be very happy!

Monday, 15 March 2010

Short fiction to long: can you help with a poll?

As I've probably said dozens of times on this blog already (sorry, is it a sign of old age - repeating yourself? Hope not!) - I started out as a short story writer before becoming a novelist. Winning two short story competitions was what really made me believe in myself as a writer, and spurred me on to getting published.

I often mention this when I give talks, too, as for me, it really helped : I don't think I could ever have written a 100,000 novel without first having mastered the art of the short story. But everyone is different, and I know there are plenty of published authors out there who went straight into writing novels without trying short fiction first.

Well, this is what I'm trying to find out - and I need your help!

For a new feature I'm writing for 'Writer's Forum', I want to find out how many novelists (the percentage of those who respond to me) started off as short story writers, and how many plunged straight into writing novels. The more responses I get from any authors out there, the better - so I'd be really grateful for just a quick 'yes' (if you started with short stories) or 'no' (if you didn't) via this blog, or straight to me via e-mail ( if you prefer. Thanks so much, in advance! Oh - and if you've got time, and don't mind copying this request to your own blogs, to reach even more writers, I'd really appreciate that too!

That's just the first and most important question. There are others ... for instance I'd be interested in hearing from short story writers who never switched to writing novels because they prefer short stories. And in following up some of those who did make the switch, to find out whether they found the transition difficult, and whether (like me) they're still writing short stories alongside the novels. So if you're willing to be quizzed further I might come back to you.

I'll be repeating this request on Facebook and forums to get as wide a coverage as possible. Hoping the results will be interesting! Thanks again for any help you can give.

Friday, 5 March 2010

'Yours' magazine

Any short story writers amongst you who might have submitted to 'Yours' during 2009 and haven't had a response - please take note! I queried one of my stories that had been out with them since June last year, as the wait seemed a bit excessive for them. Marion Clark has got back to me saying it must have gone astray because they've now returned all submissions received before December 2009. I was glad she let me know, because I had another one outstanding since August, so presume that one's gone astray too!

Marion has invited me to resubmit, but has also warned me that their story length requirement has now changed from 1000-1500 words, to 1000-1200. Quite significant as I find it enough of a challenge to keep below 1500 words, so mine will both need to be cut before resubmitting!

Good luck anyone submitting there. I've got a story out with them next week as it happens!

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Essex Book Festival

This morning I've been along to Chelmsford Library for the launch of this year's Essex Book Festival. It was a superb event - quite a few of us local Essex authors who are taking part in the Festival were there, and other big name authors including Barbara Erskine and Penelope Lively. It was a lovely opportunity to mingle and chat with local librarians, as well as people from reading groups (there are 500 groups in Essex!) - and the whole thing was live on BBC Essex.

I'm excited to be appearing in this year's Festival as part of a panel of Essex writers, together with some good friends of mine from the Romantic Novelists' Association: Fenella Miller, Jean Fullerton, Fay Cunningham and Maureen Lee. Don't be fooled by the term 'romantic': in fact we all write completely different types of books. Maureen is a hugely successful 'Liverpool saga' writer who now lives in Colchester; Fay writes crime novels and has been shortlisted three times for a Crime Writers' award; Jean writes historical novels set in East London and has recently been shortlisted for the 2010 Romantic Novel of the Year award; Fenella writes historical romance novels and novellas; and I write contemporary relationship stories, both as Sheila Norton and as Olivia Ryan.

As a group, we were delighted to be given the venue of Halstead library, on Wednesday 17th March at 2pm, for our event. We will be 'five for the price of one' - what value! - and as a panel, will be there to answer questions from the audience, to meet, chat, and offer signed copies of our books. If anyone from the Essex area would like the chance to buy a ticket (£4, or £3 for concessions), please visit or call Halstead Library on 01787 473431.

Following this, we're taking our panel 'on the road', to appear at various libraries in Essex after the end of the Book Festival. The idea has been very warmly received, and already we have bookings for the libraries at Chelmsford, Galleywood, Ingatestone, Harwich, Frinton, and Chipping Ongar - with others in the pipeline. Some of these will be 'closed' events for local reading groups, others will be open to the public: so if anyone's interested, let me know! I'll be posting details, and dates, on the Blog after the end of the Book Festival.

It was great, today, to have coffee and cakes with the rest of the group, after the Festival Launch, and discuss our forthcoming events. We've organised all this ourselves between us, and feel very optimistic and enthusiastic about it. We all appreciate the income we recieve from library readers, via Public Lending Right - and these appearances, as well as being a good PR opportunity for us all, are a chance for us to 'give something back' to the libraries. Without them, we'd be a lot less read, and a lot worse off! I'll look forward to reporting back on the Halstead event in due course but meanwhile, please do pass this on to any friends in the Essex area! Thanks. x

Monday, 1 March 2010

Talking ... about rejections

The talk I was supposed to give last week to a creative writing class was postponed because the class tutor had the Flu. In a way it did me a favour because I had a croaky sore throat myself (not that I'd wish the poor woman the Flu, of course!) ... and I'm now due to give the talk tomorrow.

It's quite timely. One of the things I always stress when giving talks to any group of writers or would-be writers is the importance of anticipating rejection, not taking it personally, treating it as part of a writer's life and taking it on the chin. And so on. Of course, we all know it isn't always easy to follow that well-worn piece of advice! - but it's important to recognise that rejection goes with the territory and that it's possible to recover from it.

I'm aware that, because I've had a small degree of success over the years, some of the people listening to me spouting this stuff might think, "It's all very well for her to talk!" Of course, I tell them about all the rejections I had before I finally had a novel accepted - and about all the short stories I've had rejected over the years, and still get rejected now - and I like to think that this gives some of them a bit of hope: I did get lucky along the way, and it could happen for them too.

But I certainly never got complacent! I often quote Graham Greene's very depressing statement that 'For a writer, success is always temporary. Success is only failure delayed.' ! Of course, there are those writers who find success easily, and go on to be successful for the rest of their lives ... but these are the minority. For most of us, we're only ever as good as our last contract, and those contracts are increasingly difficult to secure.

My recent writing career hasn't exactly gone swimmingly. I had an agent briefly last year, who having been enthusiastic about my work and professed herself optimistic about getting me a good publishing deal, worked hard with me for a few months and then abruptly left the agency, informing me that none of the other agents there were interested in handling me, and leaving me wondering if it was something I'd said! So I was back on my own again, unagented as I'd been throughout most of my writing life, and (to be honest) thinking maybe I'm better off that way.

As some of you know, I've recently had a stab at writing a serial for one of the women's mags. This was my first attempt and I knew it wasn't going to be easy, but the editor was really helpful and encouraging, and I tried my best to follow her advice - ending up doing two complete re-writes. I can honestly say it was the hardest thing I've attempted to write - and I've just heard that the third version hasn't been successful - so that's the end of the road with it. Maybe I can eventually adapt it and try it elsewhere, but for the moment the thought of doing that is quite overwhelming and I'm just going to sink back into the comfort of writing some more of my new (as yet unsold) novel!

I found writing the serial a tremendous challenge - and quite a humbling experience, not that I needed one! - reinforcing my admiration of those writers who do write them successfully. Of course I'm feeling disappointed, but (always looking for the silver lining), I'm now in exactly the right frame of mind to talk to the creative writing class about coping with rejection!

Today I've visited my ex-colleagues at the hospital where I used to work, and as always, found myself wondering if I wished I was back there. The answer is always NO - although I still miss them all, and have some great memories of my years there, I know I'm happy with my life now. I refer to myself as a full-time writer but in fact, I think it's important for those of us who aren't MEGA successful (!) to have lots of other things in our lives as well as our writing, so that the disappointments don't feel like the end of the world.
And yes, I'll be telling the creative writing class that, too!

Here's one of the other lovely things in my life!

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Thawing out!

Himself and I are just back from a short break in Tallinn (Estonia). Don't ask why we decided to go away in February to a place where the February temperature never gets above freezing point - especially as I hate the cold. If I just say 'Air Miles' and 'Free', you might begin to understand, but I still can't quite work out why we opted for February! However, we bravely decided to look on it as an 'experience' and an 'adventure'. When we arrived in Tallinn, our taxi driver told us it was currently Minus 5 degrees ... and trust me, it got colder! And at night ... more like minus 14.

However, Tallinn was very pretty, and we decided that visiting this sort of place in the winter has a lot to recommend it (can you hear my Positive Thinking ticking over?). For one thing, it wasn't crowded! (most tourists have more sense, and go in the summer!). And for another thing, the snow-topped roofs did add a certain charm to the place. OK, I give up, I can't think of any other reasons! We went out wrapped up in so many layers of clothes we could hardly walk. Whenever we went into a nice cosy cafe to have hot chocolate, which I can assure you was often, it took ages to get all the top layers off - but every cafe and restaurant had cupboards or coat-stands, as everyone there is wearing loads of clothing!

Me, dressed very fashionably, Tallinn-style!

On the third day we went on a day-trip to Helsinki ... 50 miles across the FROZEN sea: yes, frozen all the way across! We could hardly believe it, but the ferry just ploughed through it. It was even colder in Helsinki but we just had to say that we popped over to Finland for lunch!

And this is the interesting thing, coming at it from a UK point of view: no matter how bad the weather, they just keep going. There was heavy snow yesterday morning and we wondered if our flight home would be affected - but no, all planes were still taking off as normal. Nothing stops, nobody turns a hair. Of course, they are totally used to it, and it would be ridiculous if they threw up their hands in shock at the snow, when they have it throughout the winter - but it was certainly a contrast with the fuss we all made this winter. It felt positively balmy here when we returned to Heathrow last night!

In future I will definitely be more appreciative of our very temperate climate. I enjoyed the break but I would hate to live in that sort of climate, I'm sure it would make me very miserable.

Just to add to the whole thing, I wasn't feeling in the best of health - have had one rotten virus after another since Christmas and just before setting off for Tallinn I completely lost my voice! Some people might have felt it was a blessing, but my throat was so painful too, and I felt quite rough into the bargain. Fortunately my voice is back - husky but audible - which is a good job as I've got another talk scheduled for this Tuesday. And luckily it's only a small one, to a creative writing class! They might have to strain their ears!

I seem to make a habit of having something wrong with me whenever we go away. It's becoming annoying now: as soon as we get the suitcases or passports out, my body seems to start plotting how best to upset me. I'm not going to let it beat me. But what with my regular asthma and thyroid medication, and all my anti-sickness, anti-headache, anti-everything-else-that-might- strike tablets, I do seem to get some suspicious looks when my hand baggage goes through the security check. At Tanninn Airport they actually had dogs climbing over all the baggage on the carousel, sniffing it for drugs - as well as sniffing around everyone as they walked through! Never seen that before. I did worry that they might find something to bark about, in my 'medicine supplies' - but thankfully we got through unscathed. If I carry on like this, nobody will want to come on holiday with me!