Thursday, 18 August 2016

M.K.Tod and the Making of a Novel

I've had a very busy creative writing teaching schedule this summer, plus I've given a lecture at Oxford University on writing historical fiction and am getting ready for the Historical Novel Society conference here in Oxford at the start of September - I've been helping judge the short story competition and I'll be on a panel at the conference discussing the relative advantages and disadvantages of traditional and self-publishing. With this focus on historical fiction, I'm particularly delighted to welcome M.K. (Mary) Tod to Literascribe with a guest-post on how she set about writing her third novel, Time and Regret, published this week by Lake Union Press. If you're interested in historical fiction, Mary also writes a brilliant blog on it at 

Each author creates and writes in her or his own way. There is no best approach; what matters most is whether in the end the story is compelling from a reader’s point of view. I tend to get an idea and then put flesh on it using a detailed chapter outline before I begin the real writing. The idea for my latest novel, Time and Regret, came while travelling in France with my husband Ian to visit the battlefields, monuments, cemeteries, and museums dedicated to World War One.

On that trip, we went to Bailleul, Lille, Amiens, Ypres, Mont St. Eloi and other towns and villages, and to memorials at Vimy, Courcelette, Thiepval and Passchendaele. We visited the Musée de la Grande Guerre in Peronne. We stayed at a charming hotel that used to be a château and dined at its next-door restaurant. Those places and the landscape of the region engaged every sense and, along with the hundreds of pictures taken have fuelled descriptions of meadows, villages, windows, tastes, gardens, restaurants, and other parts of Time and Regret.

Of most significance to this novel is the night we spent at a café in the small town of Honfleur across the mouth of the Seine from Le Havre. Shortly after the waiter poured our first glass of red wine, I wrote a few words in a small notebook.

“What are you writing?” Ian said.

“An idea for a story,” I replied.

Refusing to be put off by my cryptic response, Ian persisted. “What’s the idea?”

“Nothing much. Just thought it might make a good story to have a granddaughter follow the path her grandfather took during World War One in order to find out more about him.”

Ian took on a pensive look and no doubt had another sip of wine. “You could include a mystery,” he said.

Now, you should know that mysteries are my husband’s favourite genre. Indeed, I suspect mysteries represent at least eighty percent of his reading. So I played along.

“What kind of mystery?”

And that was the birth of Time & Regret, as ideas tumbled out and the plot took shape. Needless to say, the bottle of wine was soon empty.

Tackling a mystery was new for me – my first novels were a combination of war and romance. But a mystery, well, that’s something different. Mysteries need clues artfully dropped in an unsuspecting manner and more than one potential culprit. The plot needs to be full of tension and drama and unexpected twists. And you have to wait until almost the very end to reveal ‘who dunnit’.

To make the job more difficult, I decided to write Time and Regret with two time periods, one in early 1990s and the other in World War One, which meant interleaving chapters in a way that was effective rather than confusing.

The Town Hall at Bailleul
As with any historical novel, research was critical. Beyond the trip to France, I spent ages investigating a particular infantry unit of the Canadian army (my WWI protagonist is in the Canadian army although after the war he moves to New York). For purposes of story and authenticity, I needed to know his whereabouts and the battles in which he participated. Fortunately, the Canadian government has stored battalion diaries online which meant I could read about troop movements, casualties, weather conditions, important visitors, training programs, skirmishes with the enemy, battles, preparations for battle and other details the battalion commander chose to record during every day of the war.

Beyond that, I researched casualty clearing stations, hospitals in London serving WWI officers, the effects of shell shock, military weapons, the use of tanks. And for the more present day portion of the story, I found things like information on French beers, French food, fashion styles and major events of 1991, the world of museums and art galleries and many more details.

Writing is a labour of love. Passion and serendipity keep me going.

Time and Regret: A cryptic letter. A family secret. A search for answers.
When Grace Hansen finds a box belonging to her beloved grandfather, she has no idea it holds the key to his past—and to long buried secrets. In the box are his World War I diaries and a cryptic note addressed to her. Determined to solve her grandfather’s puzzle, Grace follows his diary entries across towns and battle sites in northern France, where she becomes increasingly drawn to a charming French man—and suddenly aware that someone is following her.

-- Juliet Grey: author of the acclaimed Marie Antoinette trilogy

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET will be published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website

Thursday, 30 June 2016

Winchester Writers' Festival 2016: Meg Rosoff and Magical Fierceness

Meg Rosoff giving the Keynote Speech
at Winchester Writers' Festival 2016
Rather unbelievably, it’s time for my annual follow-up post on the Winchester Writers’ Festival, where I gave a lecture on self-editing and a day course on building character. There was the usual buzz of creativity and connection as writers milled around, attending readings, talks, courses and one-to-ones with agents, editors and writers like myself.

What do writers talk about at events like this? Well, their writing, of course, their hopes and their struggles, their frustrations and their triumphs. All of this against the backdrop of the annual review of the State of Publishing. We listen to those in the know, those in the trade – but also those in the independent sphere. Both schools of publishing practice have learned to co-exist fairly amicably, really. Perfection doesn’t exist on either side: indie authors sometimes haven’t taken on board the need for professionalism in presentation and content. Trad publishers are often way behind the times in their view of the indie world. But, catching up has been done, on both sides.

Every year the Festival officially opens on Saturday with the Keynote Speech. This year featured Meg Rosoff, with a quirky Powerpoint sequence behind her, discussing the nature of ‘voice’. This it turns out, is your ‘DNA’ as a writer. It’s your individual personality in words. It takes some finding and developing. When found, it creates that state we all seek and sometimes achieve:  the zone, ‘writers’ magic’, the state where you tap into your true self and meaning, where inspiration and expression fuse.

The Stripe Auditorium
In case this all sounds a bit airy-fairy, let me assure you that Meg was sharp as a tack, cynical, acerbic and total fun. She introduced us to the wonderful German word Durchlässigkeit, which means ‘throughness’, for that sense of a perfect flow of energy between conscious and unconscious mind. The term comes from dressage, referring to the harmonius co-operation of rider and horse. She said that a wall exists between the conscious and the unconscious and it’s up to us to establish and encourage connections: ‘If there’s a wall, you won’t get resonance.’

Meg went on to stress that we need to access the ‘dreamy state’ by such practices as morning writing, when ‘the brain hasn’t closed the bridge’. She herself waits for her books to come to her and tell her what their meanings are, what their resonance is. This is a process you can encourage but not force: ‘Sometimes you need to wait for the brain to be ready.’ If you want to home in on what is important to you, storywise, she recommends you to consider the turning points of your life and what they meant to you.

Throughout her speech the audience responded with laughter and murmurs of agreement: she really spoke to us, part-reassuringly, part bracingly. It was clear that writing – which she came to at the age of 46 after a rocky career in advertising – was as frustrating and rewarding to her as it is to the rest of us. She described the months when the book won’t come, the glorious breakthroughs of meaning, the buzz of inspired productivity. She spoke to an audience resonating to her message.

I came away struck in particular by one thing she’d mentioned: early in her career she’d written a pony book, which was no good, she claimed, but which got her an agent. Her agent said, ‘There are no rules. Write as fiercely as you can and I’ll find someone who will read it.’ I loved the idea of fierce writing – and the idea of a champion who would fight for that writing to be read.

During my one-to-one appointments
A couple of hours later I was meeting writers for one-to-ones in a room full of agents and editors, all listening to pitches, all responding to dreams and aspirations in a world that is commercially hard-headed and has always had to be. Yet I know that in that room, a writer or two will have fired up an agent or an editor with enthusiasm and months down the line we’ll hear of the book deal and the dream fulfilled.

Keep crossing that bridge into your inner life and self. Keep writing fiercely. Keep trusting that out there is the agent or editor or reader who will look at your work and ‘get’ it and champion it.

Finally - shout outs to my lovely friends at Winchester: Judith Heneghan, Sara Gangai, Barbara Large, Adrienne Dines, David Simpkin, Judy Waite, Nik Charrett, David Evans - and also to Imogen Cooper, Beverley Birch, Jenny Savill, Eden Sharp and Andrew Weale for fascinating conversations.

After the Festival Dinner

Conference Director Judith Heneghan at the Festival Dinner

With Adrienne Dines

Thursday, 2 June 2016

Moonstruck: Meeting Buzz Aldrin

I’m sitting in the gallery of the Sheldonian Theatre, one of the most beautiful if not one of the most comfortable venues in Oxford. Looking down across the packed floor, I see a tanned face and a white beard through the glass of a side door. Moments later, in he comes, wearing a beige blouson jacket with embroidered badges on it. He waves like a king and air-punches like a prize-fighter as he makes his way through the applauding crowd.

He’s Buzz Aldrin.

His sassy, witty ‘Mission Director’ Christina Korb conducts the interview, trying to keep him on the straight and narrow, but even she has trouble managing the blurted reminiscences and anecdotes. The man is bursting with things to tell us. He’s opinionated, forceful, waving be-ringed hands, boasting about the Omega watch he wore on the outside of his spacesuit because it’s kinda hard to see the time otherwise.

I read Andrew Smith’s fascinating book Moondust: In Search of the Men who Fell to Earth several years ago, struck by the poignant reason for its composition. At that time, only nine men were alive who had walked on the surface of the moon, so he set about interviewing them while he could.

Well, there’s fewer than nine now. That is why several hundred people have queued in the chill rain outside and will later queue for the best part of an hour to get their books signed. I’m one of them. For a moment, we’re in contact with history, with what now seems a lost idealistic era. I grew up with the sense that space held all potential. I’d read Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Martian and Venusian series, and Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke and Ray Bradbury. The stars, the planets and the dear old moon itself held out dreams of human aspiration, adventure and fulfilment.

So we lap up the bombast and the showboating, enjoy the clearly oft-repeated wisecracks, the whole display of it, because although this man is 86 now he is more alive than most we’ll ever meet and this man walked on the moon! He wears a T-shirt saying ‘Get your ass to Mars’ and is passionate about sending humans there, saying that a human can do in a week what took Spirit and Rover five years. He describes his spacewalk, saying he ‘wanted to putt putt putt around like George Clooney in Gravity.’ He’s contemptuous of the Russians – yes, they put Sputnik up there but ‘if you put up a dumb satellite you don’t give it a parade and everybody loves a parade!’ What’s more, they put a dog in orbit and left it there – ‘at least we brought our monkey back.’ He expresses regret at the loss of Neil Armstrong and talks of his family and the kind of destiny he’d felt – his mother was called Marion Moon and his father knew the Wright brothers – yup, it was all meant.

The door of the Sheldonian open with a view
 of the Bodleian's Divinity Schools behind
When I eventually reach the head of the queue and he signs my copy of No Dream is Too High, I burble something about looking up at the moon from a Scottish garden when I was a little girl, amazed to think he was up there. ‘My mother came from Edinboro …’ he smiles and I pass on, past the selfie-taking crowd. Outside the Sheldonian I wish the clouds would part and I could see the old man’s stamping ground.

I remember another night, years ago, when I looked at the moon and it gave me an idea for a story of ‘something strange, spectacular and out of this world’ that grew into a children’s book, Hinterland, still not published though it made it to the shortlist of a significant prize in 2013. I remember the magic of writing that story, of describing grey dust and a terraced crater like an amphitheatre and ‘hanging like a jewel against the dense black void, with fat blue oceans and swirling white clouds’, our planet. And I think to myself, I need to rediscover what that story meant to me, and maybe, just maybe, roll it out onto the launchpad once more and send it into the ether myself.

So thank you, Buzz.

And thank you, Blackwell’s Oxford (best bookshop in the world), for hosting this event!

Further reading:

Buzz Aldrin: No Dream is too High – Life Lessons from a Man who Walked on the Moon
Andrew Smith: Moondust: In Search of the Men who Fell to Earth
Andrew Chaikin: A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts

Raindrops really, but these white globes
lend a suitably otherworldly tone to this picture of the Sheldonian!

Thursday, 28 April 2016

Reaping a creative harvest: interview with new author Paul Cranwell

This week I'm delighted to interview Paul Cranwell, author of A Material Harvest. I've known Paul for a number of years and he and his wife have attended quite a few of my Fictionfire workshops, so it's a particular pleasure to see him finish his novel and bring it out into the world. In this interview, Paul discusses what he's learned from creative writing courses, what inspired him to write the novel and the publishing choices he made.

Welcome to Literascribe, Paul!

Hi, Lorna. Thank you very much for inviting me to your blog interview.

We first met at the Winchester Writers’ Festival – can you tell us about what made you want to get your writing career off the ground and what part courses, workshops and conferences such as Winchester and Swanwick have played in helping you on the way?

Although I enjoyed writing in my youth, my wife, Mary, has always been a keen writer. Eight years ago she saw an advert for a writing weekend at Farncombe, sadly now closed as an adult learning centre. The course was run by Crysse Morrison, the first of several inspiring creative writing tutors that we have been fortunate to meet. Not having written creatively during my professional career, the weekend was a revelation. For the next four years we were avid consumers of writing courses. Those courses taught me the basics of creative writing and encouraged me to lean the craft of writing. I supplemented the courses by reading the required reading lists for the masters’ degree in Creative Writing that several universities publish on the internet. Amongst the various courses and conferences, we attended a number of workshops. The opportunity to practice writing and learn from others is important. Fictionfire is a good case in point. The chance to consider a particular facet of writing and to put it into practice is invaluable. We are also members of an excellent writing group, Stratford Scribes, facilitated by Cathy Whittaker. Fictionfire provided the inspiration for a number of fictional pieces that formed part of my masters’ degree. Without these courses I would never have written anything.  

You have been involved in the organisation of the Swanwick Summer School – what advice can you offer to writers thinking of attending such events to make the best of their experience there?

Swanwick is the longest running independent writers’ conference. For a week every summer the school runs a packed programme of writing courses and entertainment. The timetable runs every day from 8.00 a.m. to midnight and can be exhausting. So, the best advice is to select the courses you want to attend and not feel that you have to go to everything. The school attracts writers with every level of experience from complete novices to those authors with over a hundred published titles to their name. The quiet surroundings and friendly environment give you the opportunity to mix with fellow writers and to learn from them. In terms of conferences generally, one piece of advice that may help is to read the tutor biographies. Some of the best courses I have been to have not been in genres I would normally relate to, but have been taken by inspirational tutors.

You’ve also completed a creative writing degree at Brookes University, Oxford – can you say in what ways this complemented or added to what you’d learned about writing elsewhere?

I wanted to take a professional approach to learning the skill of creative writing. In my view Stephen King was absolutely right when he said that, “with practice and hard work, it is possible for a competent writer to become a good writer.” Studying for a masters’ degree in creative writing was a logical next step in that process. The course at Oxford Brookes is a practical one, based on assessing published authors’ work and learning from them. It has made me read with a more critical eye to identify which techniques work and which don’t and, more importantly, why. I should also say that the chance to immerse myself completely in writing for a year was wonderful – a real privilege.  

How important is it for a writer to network with other writers?

Networking is such an important way of learning about new trends and developments in writing. The world of publishing, in particular, is changing fast and readers are becoming more demanding in the way that fiction is delivered to them. For instance, writing for audio books was once an arcane activity with limited application, but with the advent of downloads for mobile phones, people listen to stories as they exercise or travel to work. That in turn shapes the length and type of fiction they want. Without networking it is impossible to keep up with these developments. It is also important to realise that you are not alone. I’m very fortunate that my wife is also a writer. Without her my writing life could easily become a lonely one.

Your partner, Mary, is also a writer – how important has it been for you to have one another to provide mutual support or a sounding board/giver of feedback? Are you writing very different types of work? Are you different or similar in your writing practices?

I am lucky to be married to Mary. She is a talented writer and editor. Whilst completing my novel, to have someone of her skill to help me with both the structural edit and the copy edit was invaluable. Having a shared pursuit gives us both an understanding of the demands that writing imposes. We have very different writing interests and different strengths. Mary has a Carveresque style: a penetrating understanding of character and dialogue that I can only aspire to. She also loves memoir. For my part my novel is a thriller, but I also enjoy writing humour and poetry. We are also different in how we structure our writing day. Mary can write all day for a few weeks, but I find I am better at writing in shorter bursts over a longer period.

Tell me about your newly-published book, A Material Harvest. What is it about? What led you to write it?

A Material Harvest is about Michael Turner, a senior banker with Scottish Imperial Bank. He is at the pinnacle of his personal and professional career. Michael disappears after his mother’s funeral. At Scottish Imperial Bank, files for one of his most important clients are also missing. His colleague and friend, Alex Shepherd, takes charge of the Bank's investigation. He follows a dangerous and complex trail to find Michael and uncover the truth.

My professional career was in finance and corporate banking and I wanted to explore that world in my writing. Having an understanding of the financial world made it easier for me to write it than might otherwise have been the case. I wanted in particular to look at the reasons why there are so many examples of fraud and misconduct in banking. I started the novel as the major project on my masters’ degree and was fortunate to have feedback from Oxford Brookes along the way.

Luck plays a part in these things. The story deals in part with non-disclosed companies and offshore funds. The recent events in Panama with Mossack Fonseca, have led me to believe that there is scope for a sequel.
You chose to write under the pseudonym of Paul Cranwell. What was the logic for doing so?

I write in a wide range of poetry and prose forms and in a number of different genres. From a presentational point of view, it makes sense to identify one genre with one brand. In this case Paul Cranwell is the name I will use for thrillers. If I publish my humorous stories or poetry, I shall do so under a different name. More prosaically I like the name Cranwell

How long did the novel take to write? Were any aspects of its composition particularly easy or tricky?

The idea was conceived during Christmas 2013 and the book was first published in March this year. As a project it took just over two years. However, I took a break between writing the first draft and undertaking the edit. It took about eight months to write the first draft and then six months to edit. The easiest parts to write were those scenes that I could readily identify with. The hardest, conversely, were those that required an understanding of character that only came as I completed the book. As a result, there were parts of the book that were rewritten during the edit, including the ending.

Tell me about the route you took to publication – what governed your choices and what advice do you have for other writers on this?

I listened to all the advice about publishing on the various courses I’ve been on. I very early realised that, for me at least, there were two possible options. If I wanted to attract a mainstream publisher, and possibly to make some money, then I would need to write a commercially oriented book. That wasn’t my objective. I simply wanted to write the best book I was capable of writing; to enjoy the process; and learn as much about writing and publishing as possible along the way. The only way to do that was to set up my own publishing company and have full editorial control over the book.

The novel has a beautiful and striking cover – would you like to tell us what choices were made and why? Did you employ a cover designer?

My sister-in-law runs a website design business and has been involved in graphic design as well as publishing. She was the first person to read my completed novel and I asked her if she would design the cover. She selected a range of images that represented the story. The moment I saw the image that we ended up using, I knew it was right for A Material Harvest. The coastal location picks up some of the key moments in the novel and the unsettled sky reflects the tone of the book. Brenda also did the typesetting for me, something I would have struggled to do for myself.
Are you working on a new project now?

I have three projects that I’m working on. I have a collection of connected humorous stories that I would like to expand; my aunt’s memoirs – she was one of the last missionaries in China and India; and a sequel to A Material Harvest.

What three writing/publishing/marketing tips can you offer would-be writers?
  • Write because you enjoy it.
  • Only aim for a mainstream publisher if you want to target the mass market, otherwise self-publish.
  • Make sure you have comprehensive distribution agreements through the printing option you choose. 

Thanks very much, Paul! I wish you every success with A Material Harvest and your future projects. 

A Material Harvest is published by Speart House Publishing, ISBN 97819113230200099.

Buying links: 

I'll finish with a quick reminder that Fictionfireby the Spires: Get into Character weekend workshop/retreat takes place May 21-22 2016. You can come for the full weekend or on a single day basis. Four workshops will help you create and develop believable and engaging characters, there's delicious food throughout and you'll have time for your own writing too. Find out more at - places are very limited.

Before then, two Saturday afternoon workshops in May:
How to Write Short Stories: May 7th
How to Edit your Submission: May 14th – details of these are at 

Thursday, 21 April 2016

The importance of book cover design - advice from award-winning designer JD Smith

When you're in a bookshop, what draws you to pick up a book? It might be that your favourite writer's name is on it or your best friend told you it was a great read. Or it might be the cover seduced you, startled you, lured you in. I'm delighted to welcome Jane Dixon-Smith to Literascribe. As JD Smith, she's a book cover designer who has developed a loyal customer base not just because of the quality of her covers but because of the ease of working with her. I should know! I commissioned Jane to produce the cover of The Chase when I republished it. She also produced postcards for me, and has designed all the logos for my Fictionfire Literary Consultancy.

Jane has just written a book, The Importance of Book Cover Design and Formatting for Self-Publishing Authors - I think the title tells you all! In it she discusses the elements of good cover design, what is and isn't effective - and why - and how writer and designer can work together successfully. She shows you examples throughout the book - it's an enlightening and invaluable resource for all writers, whether self-publishing or not. (I'm also delighted to feature as one of the case studies!)

Here's my interview with Jane:

Could you briefly state how you came into the world of book cover design? 
I’ve always worked as a graphic designer, and when I was made redundant a number of years ago my two passions (books and design) collided and I began specialising in book cover design.

What do you enjoy most about doing this work?
Working with authors. They are so excited about working on their book cover, having spent so long working on their novels. It’s a really special experience, and so much more rewarding than working on brochures and catalogues and so on for corporate clients.

What do you see publishers and self-publishers most often getting wrong when agreeing to commissioned designs or designing them themselves?
Not hitting the right genre, or generally cutting costs and either designing themselves or commissioning cheap design.

Do you think authors can design their own covers effectively – or should they always pay for a professional to do it?
I’ve always said I would never say authors should have a professionally designed cover. It really depends on their goal and what they want to achieve. Are they serious about sales? Do they want to publish purely for their own personal enjoyment and aren’t bothered about sales? Is the book a freebie and if so is the cover on display to entice a reader? I think if people are serious about sales then they need a pro-cover, unless they have a very good eye and an extremely good understanding of why book covers work.

The beautiful cover for The Chase,
which Jane designed.
How important is it to have input from the author or publisher commissioning you? What sort of information is useful to you?
Hugely important. There’s so many markets you can aim a book at it’s really important to know which one the author or publisher intends to aim for, otherwise the cover won’t work. To get this information I usually ask which authors in the marketplace writer similarly, whose readers are they aiming for and so on.

Do you read the books for which you produce cover designs?
No, the marketplace is more important than the book, and the author or publisher is in the best place to state which market they want to go for, which dictates the design much more than the content of the book, although I will ask for descriptive passages of certain elements we might use on the cover.

How many iterations of the design are you happy to produce for an author? Is it ever frustrating to see an author opt for a choice you feel isn’t the right one for their book and its market?
As many as it takes, usually, although the way I work generally means we’re following a path to the right design and the author has input all the way. It is frustrating if I think another design is the right design, but it’s the author’s call if they feel it’s the right one for the book. I’ll always say what I think, it’s up to them to take on board my opinion or not.

How important is it for an author to have a range of publicity material in order to promote their book (apart from the power of the book cover itself)? Which kind(s) of publicity material do you think the most useful and worth spending money on (e.g. bookmarks, postcards, business cards, flyers, posters, banners, social media banners etc)? If an author on a limited budget could choose only one of these, which should it be?
It depends on the authors marketing tactics, whether they attend a lot of events in person or are they more into social marketing or both. Bookmarks, postcards and any printed materials are great for events, and banners for social media.

JD Smith
You’re an author as well as a book cover designer – did you find it hard designing your own covers? Did this give you any extra insight that has fed into how you design for others?
I find my own really easy. I know what I want and I only have to please myself. I don’t do various designs, I just do what I know works and tweak until I’m happy, whereas I produce options for clients because they need to have feedback into the process.

What three key pieces of advice would you give to any author intending to commission a cover designer?
Ask for recommendations. Look at the portfolios of the designers. If you’re not happy with the quality of the covers they have in their portfolio (which should be the best covers they’ve produced) then  you aren’t going to be happy with the cover they design for you. And ask them about how they work before engaging them to design your cover. Does the process make sense? Is it comprehensive? Do you feel comfortable?

Thanks very much, Jane!

Jane is also a novelist in her own right and I’ll be interviewing her again about her series of historical novels featuring Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, in a few weeks’ time.

JD Smith is an award-winning book cover designer and author of The Importance of Book Cover Design, available from Amazon

Finally, last call for this weekend’s Fictionfire by the Spires retreat weekend, with four workshops focusing on how to create rich, believable characters, lots of peaceful time to write, delicious food, encouragement and support. The retreat takes place here in Oxford on Saturday 21st and Sunday 22nd May – you can come for the whole weekend or on a single day basis. You can find out full details of the schedule and the content of the workshops by going to - and here's my logo, designed by Jane!

Monday, 18 April 2016

Oxford Literary Festival 2016 - events and intersections

You can’t live in Oxford and not be aware of intersecting circles of literary activity. As the year rolls round to spring again, so the gargantuan Oxford Literary Festival swings into action. I’ve mentioned in previous years how I attended the very first OLF back in 1997, when it was a weekend affair held at the Oxford Union. Since then, it has grown, just a bit …

This year I attended David Grylls interviewing Tracy Chevalier about her career and her latest novel, in the Divinity Schools of the Bodleian Library. Here’s the thing about OLF - the locations are a great draw in themselves, regardless of who’s speaking. Over the years, I’ve sat in the Oxford Union debating chamber, various rooms in Christ Church and Corpus Christi, the Convocation House … History swirls around you as words fly up and lodge in arches and carvings, dart under oak doors, swirl down stone spiral staircases …

The Divinity School beckons you to crane upwards at its remarkable stone hammerbeam ceiling, studded with shields and angels, or out through its many-paned windows to the Sheldonian Theatre looming just outside. 

Tracy Chevalier and David Grylls
Tracy Chevalier, meanwhile, discussed her career trajectory, talking about being supervised by Rose Tremain at the start of her career, about being an American living for many years in England, about how her career has developed without any rigid plan: ‘I never really know what I’m going to write next’. She focused on the importance of research – ‘It triggers the story’ - and how research methods have changed from hours in the library to the treacherous ease of the internet: ‘I’ve learned what I can trust and what not’. She then gave a reading from The Edge of the Orchard, which is set in 19th century America, and features the Californian gold rush. (Tracy Chevalier will also be appearing at the Historical Novel Society Conference here in Oxford, 2 – 4 September. See

Exeter College Chapel
Historical fiction was also the theme a few days later: Paul Blezard interviewed three HF writers in the no less glorious surroundings of Exeter College Chapel. Once again I found myself gazing up and around at the general gorgeousness while the three novelists answered questions about their work and about HF in general.

Robyn Young, who has written about the Crusades and about Robert the Bruce, is embarking on a new series set in the 15th century, starting with Sons of the Blood. She talked about ‘method writing’, meaning that she learns skills like black-powder firing to bring the history to life – she could describe the ‘mad, fizzing noise’ of the powder in the barrel of an arquebus, adding ‘How can you put it into a book unless you’ve experienced it?’

Antonia Hodgson sets her work in the 18th century, a period often overlooked by readers – her latest, The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins, is a sequel to the very successful The Devil in the Marshalsea. In the debate about whether historians are justified in looking down their noses at fiction-writers, she reminded us that ‘every historian is writing a story as well’. For her, research ‘triggers the story’ because something in it ‘will just resonate’, but that ultimately the research must be ‘put to one side’ for the story to thrive. 

Jason Hewitt
Jason Hewitt’s second novel Desperation Road is set at the end of World War Two, which he regards as ‘a huge vat of stories’. He walked two thirds of the route his main character takes in his search for identity. For Jason, to be exhausted and ‘folding in on’ himself was ‘inspirational’ and far better than just sitting in the British Library. (I knew Jason already from his appearances at Short Stories Aloud in Oxford and I’m looking forward to reading Desperation Road, one of several purchases during OLF week.)

Clare Armistead chaired a discussion the art of short story writing at Jesus College – the location this time a less romantic modern lecture theatre. I was particularly interested as I’m teaching a Fictionfire workshop on writing short stories on May 7th. Helen Simpson described her process of composition as a slow accumulation: ‘they build up like a coral reef’, the stories often triggered by a situation where ‘someone is uncomfortable’. Frances Leviston is a poet now making the ‘journey’ from poem to story and finding the ‘discomfort’ of expanding, having to force herself to be relatively ‘long-winded’. As you’d expect, both celebrated the precision of observation and the economy of composition the form demands, while highlighting the problems of readers assuming stories are autobiographical or inhabit a peculiarly feminine sphere. They also compared short stories with novels, describing how ‘the mundane is freighted with more than it is in the novel’ and how readers are more forgiving of a novel, implying that there’s more effort involved, paradoxically, in reading a short story, precisely because of that weighted quality. They both talked of the discipline of editing: Frances said ‘nothing on the page is sacred’ and that you should experiment with how much you can take out.

Worcester College
Finally, dear reader, I appeared at the Festival this year. I’ve been a member of local organisation Writers in Oxford ( since the 1990s: this year we were offered a spot during the festival to promote how we can be of use to local published writers. I was one of those volunteering to give a short talk and reading at the free event at Worcester College.

Barbara Lorna Hudson
We were delighted by the numbers who turned out to our event and the Q & A session afterwards was a lively one. My fellow writers Marcus Ferrars and Barbara Lorna Hudson gave readings – and Barbara later also gave a reading at a free event in Blackwell’s Marquee. She has just published her novel Timed Out and her reading went down very well – and the book was a sell-out! She was accompanied by fellow WiO member Sylvia Vetta, whose Brushstrokes in Time was recently launched at Blackwell’s. The intersections of literary activity have been working brilliantly lately. A couple of weeks previously, I’d chaired a Writers in Oxford panel on the book-retailing industry at Waterstone’s, with representatives from local independent bookshop The Book House and Blackwell’s giving us detailed feedback from the bookselling front. They were quite optimistic about the current state of book-retailing. People, it seems, still read and love books and booksellers have become ever more imaginative and resourceful in the way they sell books.

Blackwell's Marquee at the Festival
In OLF week, our local newspaper, the Oxford Times, included in its Limited Edition magazine an article on Oxford as a city of inspiration to writers – the feature included contributions from Robert Bullard, the chair of WiO, and from me.

Coming up:

Literascribe interviews with novelist Paul Cranwell and book cover designer Jane Dixon-Smith.

Fictionfireby the Spires: Get into Character weekend workshop/retreat takes place May 21-22 2016! You can come for the full weekend or on a single day basis: still time (just) to book! Four workshops will help you create and develop believable and engaging characters, there's delicious food throughout and you'll have time for your own writing too. Find out more at - places are very limited.

Two Saturday afternoon workshops in May:
How to Write Short Stories: May 7th
How to Edit your Submission: May 14th – details of these are at 

Friday, 1 April 2016

Fictionfire - new directions for spring

What have you been up to lately? I ask because I haven't spoken to you for a while on this blog!

The truth is - and I think you'll recognise this - it's so easy to be pulled in multiple directions. It's also easy to see the days flitting past (and they flit faster, I swear, with every passing year.)

I hope 2016 is panning out well for you. Personally, I feel a blink of the eye has happened since I was drawing up my plans back in December.

I aimed to run more Fictionfire Focus Workshops and Retreats and I've done precisely that. The Simply Write Day Retreat and workshops on writing covering letters and synopses, plus how to improve your descriptive powers, all took place in February and March.

I've also been editing and mentoring - and am delighted to have been named by writing guru K.M. Weiland one of the top recommended fiction editors around:  

But early in the year, I made the decision that this was the year to take my business to a new level, in a new direction. If you're regular readers, then you'll know that I started Fictionfire Literary Consultancy back in 2009 as a sideline to my main work as an English Literature teacher. I gave up conventional teaching in 2012 in order to concentrate on Fictionfire, apart from teaching gigs on behalf of Oxford University and the University of Winchester.

So, I lead a multi-stranded life (and one, thin, often-overlooked strand is my own writing ...)

You wouldn't think I'd want to take on more, would you?


I've been working hard over the past months on a whole new strand to weave into the Fictionfire tapestry. I'm not saying more about it right now, except to tell you that if you're interested in finding out about it before anybody else, I recommend you subscribe to my mailing list on the welcome page of my website here, because I'll be telling subscribers first and offering them ...


All good things come to those who wait.

In the meantime you can join me in Oxford for the final Focus Workshops of the season: How to Write Short Stories on May 7th and How to Edit your Sample Submission on May 14th. Find out more on the Focus Workshops page of the website.

Or if you'd value some peaceful time to write, some great food, friendly support and inspiration, plus four invaluable workshops on creating and adding depth to your characters, then come along to the second Fictionfire by the Spires retreat weekend. The dates are 21st-22nd May 2016. You can opt to come for the full weekend or on a single day basis. Find out all about the workshop contents and the schedule for the weekend by visiting the Fictionfire by the Spires page on my website.

Remember, sign up for my newsletter at for news, articles, inspiration, exercises and competition news. Oh, and advance notice of that new thing I was talking about ...