Beverley Birch at Hampshire Writers’ Society

Report by Peter Hitchen

The Society’s April gathering hosted two exceptional women writers, both ideally placed to talk with insight and experience about the very specific nuances and skills involved in the subject of writing for children.

Special Guest: Judith Heneghan

Being the Director of the Winchester Writers’ Festival and a highly regarded and extensively published specialist of children’s literature, Judith Heneghan was ideally placed to open Tuesday’s proceedings.  Judith is a Senior Lecturer and also a Programme Leader on the University of Winchester’s Creative Writing provision where she has taught since 2006.  To date she has written 50 nonfiction books as well as feature articles, novels and shorter fiction for children.  Previously to her role at Winchester, she worked as a commissioning editor of adult nonfiction and a freelance editor of children’s nonfiction.

Judith’s enthusiasm for Winchester’s annual Writers’ Festival was infectious.  She explained that its aims for this year were to build on its past successes and to inspire, encourage, educate and to facilitate learning for all the delegates. Networking opportunities for novice and experienced writers attending this year’s festival will be more extensive than ever, as will the list of contributors from the greater writing world.  Contributors will include luminaries from some of the best known publishing houses and literary agencies in the country as well as the wonderful author and broadcaster, Lem Sissay.  Further information about the planned programme, along with competition and other details can be found here: http://writersfestival.co.uk/

Main Speaker: Beverley Birch

Beverley Birch is a prolific author of critical acclaim having produced in excess of forty books.  Her prodigious output includes picture books, novels, biographies and retellings of Shakespeare.  Her publications have been translated into more than a dozen languages.  They are in the admirable position of being amongst the top ten per cent of books borrowed from UK libraries.

Beverley’s own childhood years were spent in East Africa where the wide open spaces of Kenya afforded the opportunity for formative and adventurous experiences largely free from the interference of adults.  She eventually left Africa for England to study for ‘A’ levels before graduating from Cambridge University with a degree in Economics and Sociology.  After graduation she started to work as an editor and in 1981 she became a full-time writer.

As would be expected of someone with the breadth and depth of Beverley’s professional literary experience, her talk was packed with insights into what being a  writer entails and what writers have to do to produce work of real merit.  Of course, ‘merit’ in writing is a subjective quality but Beverley’s appraisal of what it really means was grounded in a plethora of practical and theoretical examples.  ‘We need to constantly refresh our understanding of why we need to write’ she told her audience and then explained that this writing should be centred on exploring the underpinning themes of the stories that writers create.  All stories, we were told, have specific, fundamental themes that should challenge child readers to see things anew. In doing this, it should enable children to reposition themselves in the light of these new, vicarious experiences.  But what are these themes?  They are many and varied and over her long career Beverley has seen all of the following underpinning the work that she has been involved in either as a writer herself or as an editor for others; love and friendship, loyalty and betrayal, redemption, loss, maturation, power, obsession and corruption are all on the list.

Beverly was at pains to explain that this was by no means a definitive list but that whichever of these themes was at the heart of a story,  they should be rendered in a way that is suitable and accessible for children.  The narrative gravity associated with these thematic issues should be apparent to discerning writers as they produce their work and this in itself is indicative of the fact that ‘writing for children’ is not a euphemism for dumbing down the literary responsibilities of the author.  If anything, these responsibilities should weigh more heavily on children’s authors than they do on those involved in other aspect of producing good writing.  Beverley said that children’s authors should ‘dive inwards in the process of writing and that in doing so they should trust their subconscious to render a story that is both important and transporting for the child’.  She concluded by offering some sage advice for those starting out on their publishing journey.  Writers should not write in order to seek or support the contemporary ‘hullabaloo’ that seems to be endemic in the contemporary literary scene for ultimately that hullabaloo is ephemeral.  Rather, writers should stay true to themselves and produce work that will endure beyond the here and now.

Surely this is what great writing is all about.

April 2017 Competition Results – Beverley Birch

Beverley Birch was shortlisted three times for the Branford Boase Award in recognition of the editor’s role in nurturing new talent and, as a prolific author, she was also nominated for the Carnegie medal. Hampshire Writers’ Society is most appreciative to Beverley, who graciously came to our rescue by agreeing to be our April adjudicator as well as our speaker. In return, our members managed to supply entries that made it difficult for her to choose the usual two highly commended places. The competition, ‘Write a children’s story, inspired by a well-known story for children’, meant that after choosing 1st, 2nd and 3rd place, Beverley was unable to decide and ended up choosing four additional pieces to praise.

1st Place: Cass Morgan – Mrs Bilious

2nd Place: Kristin Tridimas – A Koala Named Sydney

3rd Place: Matthew Cross – George and the Dragon

Highly Commended: Annie Vine – The Wild Colt

Highly Commended: Linda Welch – Unexpected Treasure

Highly Commended: Ant Ridgeway – Friends

Highly Commended: Kim Howard – Mirror, Mirror

1st Place: Mrs Bilious – Cass Morgan (Inspired by Roald Dahl’s Matilda, or, more specifically, by Miss Trunchbull and the chapter, ‘Bruce Bogtrotter and the Cake’).

Beverley Birch: This was altogether strong. The punchy opening brings the situation instantly to life, the child point of view keeps us locked in the story through a distinctive sense of voice, good narrative flow and pacing. And a tricky situation for the child characters to escape (always appealing), is enlivened by effective and efficiently used imagery. A definite winner!

Winner First

At 11:57, putting a handful of insects into the lunchbox of Mrs Bilious was funny. At 12:03, the reality was hilarious. At 12.05, it was the worst thing they’d ever, ever done.

Simon shuddered as he looked at Joel. His best friend’s left eye stared in horror. His right winked as something scuttled across his eyelash. Hands clenched to the chair seat, shoulders high to his ears, Joel’s cheeks puffed out wide. Two ants emerged from the corner of his mouth, ran across his face, over his ear and into the safety of his hair.

Hot breath blew onto Simon’s cheek. He turned towards the cherry-cheeked face of Mrs Bilious. She leaned in close. Through cement-coloured teeth came odours of sugared tea and half-digested digestives.

‘Eat up,’ her voice whispered.

‘No.’

‘Sandwich-spoiling brats will be punished. Now, EAT UP!’

Her yellowy eyes sizzled and locked onto his. There was nothing he could do but scoop his hand into the lunchbox. Ants scurried and hurried onto his hand, up his arm and into his sleeve. Others dropped to the table in their bid to escape. The unlucky ones stayed where they were, with no idea what was coming.

Back leaned Mrs Bilious. Every part of her blazed in delight; her mouth tight in a triumphant smile, her eyes agog, her grey curls bounced in anticipation. Even the hairs in her nostrils quivered in glee.

Simon closed his eyes, opened his mouth and threw in the ants.

If they were mad before, now they were livid. Up the insides of his cheeks they darted, over his tongue, through the gaps in his teeth. It was like popping candy gone horribly, horribly wrong.

He wanted to spit out. He had to. But the smell of tea and digestives wafted in his nostrils. There was no going back, and he knew it.

2nd Place: A Koala Named Sydney – Kristin Tridimas

Beverley Birch: A very close second. Koala’s eye-view and voice has great appeal, laced with a wry humour. Excellent command of language, and pacing, and sets the scene, backstory and predicament swiftly without losing momentum.

Winner Second

It was hot and uncomfortable inside the human girl’s bag. He had been bashed and banged and now seemed to be travelling along something which kept changing direction. And to make things worse, he only had one cough sweet left. He’d saved it for emergencies, wrapped up in his bandana.

Great Aunt Victoria had been very clear. ‘Don’t let anyone see you, or they’ll send you back. Even worse, they might put you in a zoo!’

Surely one quick look wouldn’t do any harm?

He hooked his claw round the end of the zip and pulled. Poked out his nose. This place smelt of plastic and metal and tired people. He put his eye to the opening. He was moving slowly past a forest of legs. For a second, he thought back to his gum tree home in the Australian bush. He could smell the eucalyptus. Hear the kookaburras.

His home was gone now. The bush fire had destroyed it.

A pair of familiar pink legs swam into sight.

‘Dad, it’s my bag!’

He shrank back down inside.

He seemed to be flying but then there was a big bump.

‘You wait here while I get the suitcase. I shouldn’t be long.’

Footsteps, going away. People talking. The rattle of wheels.

The screech of a zip.

The zip!

The girl’s face was inches away. Her eyes were open wide.

‘What are you doing here?’

He gave her his friendliest smile. ‘G’day!’

She yelped and jumped back.

A second later, her face came close again. ‘You can speak!’ she whispered. ‘What’s your name?’

He clicked and whistled. ‘That means Climbs to the Edge in koala.’

‘I’m Jenny. You need a real name.’ She looked at something above his head. ‘I’m going to call you Sydney.’

He was safe.

3rd Place: George and the Dragon – Matthew Cross

Beverley Birch: This is a clever, funny take on the traditional tale, bringing both George and the dragon instantly to life, each with a distinctive voice and a convincing relationship that promises fun ahead.

Winner Third

A chilling roar caused him to raise his shield. Instead of fire, the cavern filled with thick white smoke and a fizzing sound. George stepped softly towards the source. It was a young dragon, squeezed into a whalebone girdle, its wings and legs tied with rope. He crept forwards and drew his sword.

“Hello.” It said in a low rumbling voice. George paused, he wondered whether he could kill something that said hello to him. “Look, this is rather embarrassing. If you could be a good fellow and cut me down, you may choose any treasure you desire.” George hesitated, then raised his sword and severed the ropes. The dragon prized itself from the girdle before sitting on its hoard. “All I want is a peaceful place to hibernate, a comfortable hoard, and the occasional sheep for a snack.”

“Oh, the kingdom ran out of sheep.” George sat opposite the dragon, his shield close just in case.

“They sent their own kind instead – who does that? Why not a goat?” The dragon burped another cloud of smoke and fizz.

“Your breath poisoned a nearby village.”

“Eating humans gives me terrible indigestion. I had to take antacids.”

“Why did you keep eating the tributes?”

“Humans are like chocolate, I can never have just one.” George pulled a packet of jelly babies from his backpack and offered one to the dragon. “Yuk, how can you eat those?”

“So how did you get stuck in the…girdle?”

“The princess jumped me when I left the cave. That girl is malicious, no wonder the king left her as a tribute.” The dragon appeared deflated.

George eyed an ornate wine bottle among mound of treasure. An idea spread from his mind into a smile on his lips. “I have a cunning plan, put the girdle on again.”

Highly Commended: The Wild Colt – Annie Vine (Inspired by Jill’s Gymkhana by Ruby Ferguson)

Beverley Birch: A good, tight narrative style which brings the setting, character, and particularly the colt’s character and terror instantly alive. A good sense of audience here.

‘He’s eight months old. Sire’s a half-thoroughbred and Dam’s a Welsh Mountain,’ said Tom, his cheerful voice unusually tense. ‘First saw a human six days ago. Had a heck of a job getting him into the horsebox.’

A powerful hoof assault made the box quiver. Edie peeked through the eye-slat. The colt’s neck muscles were so taut they made his head twitch upwards. His wide eyes relayed his fear – no pools of melted chocolate – they were steely black with whites that resembled human’s. His muddy, matted coat, now dry and cracked, had turned into dragon scales, sliding smoothly as he moved. Barbs shortened his tail – the web of hairs gripped them like cossetted treasure.

Edie’s fingers itched to caress, to reassure, to calm.

Don’t worry, little colt, you’re mine now. You’re safe.

‘Help me with the door,’ ordered Tom.

With the latches straightened, the door slid open.

The colt leapt from the back of the horsebox into the gaping hole of light.

Tom’s shock was audible. ‘Lucky I backed up and opened the gate.’

Edie’s heart flipped as she watched the rump muscles gather and stretch as the colt bolted away. Despite his nervousness, his poise was faultless. Once he realised he was safe, he would hold his tail confidently, not hanging like the flag of a lost battle.

‘Look at that stride,’ admired Tom. ‘You’ll be winning the gymkhanas with him.’

The colt slowed to a trot. Lean, smooth legs stretched.

‘Or the dressage…’

Galvanised, the colt broke into a canter and raced towards the wooden fence.

Edie gasped. If he rammed it, the wood would slinter into deadly spears.

His timing was perfect, forelegs rose with tucked hooves. He cleared the fence gracefully.

Edie bit her bottom lip. ‘I think my dream of showjumping has just become a reality.’

Now all she had to do was catch him.

Highly Commended: Unexpected Treasure – Linda Welch

Beverley Birch: Lovely flavour and rhythms, enhanced by quirky detail and swiftly conveyed, convincing characterization of a boy and his grandfather with the promise of interesting action to come.

Jamie loved weekends with his Granddad. He picked him up from school on Friday afternoon and they had fish and chips for supper, straight out of the wrapper.   On Saturday morning they got up early and drove to the Municipal Dump.   The sign on the gate said Household Waste Recycling Centre but Granddad said it had been the Municipal Dump ever since he was a little boy himself (about a hundred years ago, Jamie thought). Jamie was supposed to stay in the car because there were cars and lorries manoeuvring about the yard, but he was allowed look around the small shop where they sold some of the things people were throwing away.

‘People buy rubbish?’ he asked incredulously, and Granddad laughed.

‘One man’s rubbish is another man’s treasure. You never know what you might find.’

Today Jamie bought an old binocular case that was just the right size to hold a bottle of juice and a banana for school. The man only charged him 25p and Jamie hurried back to the car to wait for Granddad.   As he knelt on the seat and looked out of the back window he saw another little boy climbing over the back fence of the tip.   No-one else seemed to notice him slide into one of the skips, but as Jamie watched, he saw him throw a piece of corrugated plastic out of the skip, and climb back out again. Jamie got out of the car and went over to him.

‘You’re not supposed to be wandering around, it’s dangerous. What do you want that for, anyway?’

‘Roof,’ the boy said.

‘Cool! Are you making a den?’ Jamie asked, not waiting for him to answer. ‘What’s your name?’

‘Stig,’ he said, and disappeared back over the fence, dragging the plastic behind him.

Highly Commended: Friends – Ant Ridgeway

Beverley Birch: A very effective voice (a donkey) brings the reader convincingly into his state of mind and character, with some light touches of humour. Tightly written with a good narrative flow.

I’m bored. I’ve been standing alone in my field all day. There’s an itch on my back. I tried rubbing against the fence but I can’t quite reach it. The three ponies in the next field are eating grass. Lovely shiny coats they have. Not like mine, rough like tree bark. I trotted over to say hello.

‘Eeeaw, eeeaw’.

One of them looked up, tossed her mane and carried on munching. The other two took no notice as if I wasn’t there.

It’s cold today. Wind and rain have soaked me to my bones. My shelter blew down. There are trees where the ponies are. Not here. So I’m standing all alone, head down.

Wait. Who’s that climbing over the gate in his yellow coat and hat? It’s the boy. He’s got that little animal in his hand, the one which doesn’t move. Says it’s his bear, whatever that is. Says it has very little brain. That bouncy puppy’s with him too. Wish I could wriggle under the hedge like him. I’m too big. Don’t like his nippy teeth. Seems to think my hooves are for nibbling. Last week, he ate my best thistle. I was saving it for breakfast. He didn’t like it. He started yelping, pawing at his mouth. If he’s not careful, I’ll bite him. Or maybe I’ll kick him.

‘I’ve bought you a birthday present,’ the boy said.

Is it? I thought. Wasn’t that a long time ago? I swished my tail. ‘It’s a pot. It had honey in it. We had to eat it ‘cos it was a long journey.’

He put it on the ground.

‘There’s a balloon too. Sorry it popped on the thorns.’ I glimpsed aflash of red inside the pot.

‘Eeeaw, eeeaw.’

The boy laughed.

Not alone anymore.

Highly Commended: Mirror, Mirror – Kim Howard

Beverley Birch: A clever and successful send-up of several fairy tales, with life seen from the point of view of the mirror fed up with the fairyland beauty leagues. Dry humour and quirky detail – lots of fun in this.

The lack of manners upsets me most. I never get a ‘good morning’ or a ‘how are you?’ It’s always “Mirror, mirror on the wall….”

Of course I’m on the wall. A heavy chain and some hefty nails make sure of that. They aren’t interested in me. No one ever compliments me on the carved wood of my frame or says ‘wow, have you been polished?” They only want to know one thing – where they rank in the fairyland beauty leagues. They have no imagination. They must be able to say something other than “…who is the fairest of them all?”

As if I’m going to tell them what I really think. It can be tough, but I always try to find something positive to say. Not because I care about how the silly self-obsessed things feel. I can’t risk someone getting upset enough to start throwing things. I’m made of glass. I’d never recover if someone smacked me in the face with a hairbrush.

I was chatting with Cinderella’s glass slippers the other day. The one who stayed on her foot is too smug for words, but I really feel for the other one. She was convinced she was going to shatter when those big ugly sisters tried to stuff their fat feet inside her. And she still hasn’t got rid of the bloodstains. Fortunately, since their mother chopped their feet about, it’s harder for them to hobble up to the castle. I dread telling them their league status.

Uh oh. Here comes the little girl with the scarlet cloak. Well, not so little any more. She’s a stroppy teenager now. Since that incident in the woods with her granny and the wolf, she’s started carrying an axe in her basket. Someone should tell her that red isn’t her colour, but it won’t be me.

Adele Parks at Hampshire Writers’ Society

Report by Peter Hitchen

The Society’s March gathering hosted two very successful women authors, both providing realistic insights into the processes and practices of writing professionally.  Each in her own way was brilliantly informative and acutely inspirational.

Special Guest: Cathy Woodman

Like many, Cathy was inspired by her early reading experiences but for her that inspiration was carried a little bit further.  As a devotee to the wonderful world of  James Herriot’s Yorkshire, Cathy determined that she too, would become a veterinary surgeon.  After qualifying, rather than treating large farm animals she found herself in the pristine confines of a clinical vet setting ministering to cats, dogs and variety of other small animals.  Not content with emulating Herriot’s professional vocation, she had ambitions to emulate his artistic one as well.  Cathy acted on her long-held ambition.  Her writing talent quickly evolved and she produced her much loved Talyton St George series. the first novel of which became one of the best- selling debuts of 2010.

As a testament to Cathy’s creative drive she changed artistic direction and moved into the genre of Victorian fiction to produce another very popular saga.  ‘Have more than one book to pitch’ was her advice when approaching an agent.  The rationale being that an agent will see you as being serious about your ambitions.  Bringing the potential to sell a series of books to publishers is an effective professional strategy.  Cathy’s experience proves that agents and publishers can be very demanding in terms of output. She related how she has been expected to work to tight deadlines to produce a book every six months.  Crucially, we were told, in order to enhance the chances of securing an agent, the first goal of any author is to make that first book as good as it can possibly be.

Cathy’s creative output continues prodigiously and she closed her talk with the encouraging thought that hard work would bring success and that being published could become more than a dream.  The idea that ‘the writers who work the hardest have the most luck’ became a theme continued by the second author of the evening.

Main Speaker: Adele Parks

Born in Teesside into an extended matriarchal family, Adele Parks found her early domestic experiences to be fertile ground for the germination of her creative fiction.  Her childhood was rich and intriguing, full of the opportunity to eavesdrop on the machinations of conflicting and reciprocal familial relationships.  With a childhood already full of vicarious adventure, further imaginative excitement was available in her local library, a haunt that became almost a default second home.  A chance comment by the librarian that Adele might herself one day aspire to become an author set in motion a pathway into the writers’ world that retrospectively seems to have been pre-ordained.

Reading had become a means of release for the young Adele Parks, an escape into a parallel world.  The idea that writers should be the most avid readers was one that Adele was at pains to impress on her listeners.  As an English undergraduate, Adele took her own advice and devoured everything on her course reading list. She continues to be an avid reader to this day.

Like so many vulnerable writers in the early part of their development, Adele viewed writing as her own slightly embarrassing secret, but writing was to become so much part of ‘what she was as a person’ it became central to all the important decisions of her life.

Following a very challenging period she reassessed her life-goals and she found that these difficulties actually provided renewed focus for both her creative output and artistic ambition.  Her advice was that if writers don’t take themselves seriously then they can hardly expect others to do so and this realisation was the catalyst to submit a speculative ten-word pitch to literary agent, Johnny Geller.  ‘Anna Karenina meets Bridget Jones but heroine gets to live’ were the fateful words.  To Adele’s astonishment, on the eve of her 30th birthday, she got the news that Geller was interested in reading the rest of her book.  Note to self (a la Bridget Jones) finish novel before pitching to agent. Despite working flat out for three weeks, Geller could see that the new material was rushed by comparison.  Rather than walking away from the disappointment of rejection, Adele decided to re-double her efforts until the manuscript was in the best possible shape.  She reworked the POV into 1st person rather than the original 3rd (what was that she said about working hard and taking yourself seriously?) and resubmitted.  The result was that five publishing houses tried to option the manuscript and the rest, as they say, is history.

Despite her prodigious success, having already sold over 30m copies, Adele offered some interesting thoughts on what success actually means.  The only time writers fail is if they decide to quit; and that is a very comforting thought indeed.

March 2017 Competition Results – Cathy Woodman

Cathy Woodman, our adjudicator for March, again spoilt us. She has commented on all entries so expect your personal notes via email soon. Alongside her series set in the fictional village of Talyton St George, Cathy is now writing a series under a new name, Evie Grace. The historical sagas are set in rural Kent. The stories are based on those of her own family, who lived there in the nineteenth century. The first, Half a Sixpence, will be available in the summer. The competition was: ‘Describe a meeting where a present-day hero or heroine meets their later love-interest.’

1st Place: Colin Johnson – First Encounter

2nd Place: Andrea Parr – The Blue Doll

3rd Place: John Quinn – OK People

Highly Commended: Sarah Lines – The Vet and David Lea – Later Love-Interest

1st Place: First Encounter – Colin Johnson

Cathy Woodman: This caught my attention from the very first word – Wow! I loved the way the writer set the scene and created that wonderful sense of attraction and lust at first sight. I really wanted to read on to find out what happens to the young man yearning to find out more about his love interest who makes eating chocolate crumbs sexy!

“Wow!” he thought, “what a smile!”

She was older than most students. Maybe 30? Or a bit more? At least 10 years older than him.

She had come over to sit at the next table. She spoke to him, interrupting his re-run through yesterday’s rehearsal. He saw her lips move and took off his headphones. She repeated the question: “Excuse me, is this your bag?”   He pulled his bag off the chair and she sat down, looked at him and smiled. “Thank you,” she said.

That was all. That was all it took. Her voice was like a cello, Jacqueline du Pré making music again. Clear brown eyes, no flicker, no blinks, just still reflections of the world, taking him in and assessing his own face. She had freckles on high cheekbones, and full, gentle lips. Her long chestnut hair was held back, tied behind in some kind of chiffon scarf.

“No trouble,” he said, and looked at his phone again. He could think of nothing to say. How could he ask her name? Find out her email? Anything, so he could see her again?

She drank her coffee and ate her two-finger KitKat. When she licked her finger to pick up the chocolate crumbs, his stomach felt suddenly empty, his sudden intake of breath almost loud enough for her to hear. God, that was sexy!

She left. Without moving, he followed her across the concourse into the revolving doors. Through the glass wall he watched her cross the central courtyard into the Psychology building.

“Who was that?” he said to no-one. Still without moving, he played through the whole encounter again. He hadn’t needed his phone on record, the playback in his head was clear and precise. Her voice was pure Elgar. He had to hear it again.

2nd Place: The Blue Doll – Andrea Parr

Cathy Woodman: A very close second. I loved the imagery of what is a defining incident set in a playground where the protagonist takes a risk for love. The writer took me straight into the hero’s head with choppy dialogue and phrasing, and plenty of action. I really wanted to read on to find out what happens next. Wonderful.

The doll set Jimmy off. Knew it would the minute I saw it. She was clutching something she loved, and Jimmy never could resist a thing like that. His mean streak was about a mile wide.

No time to warn her. He pounced like a cat catching a bird. Held the doll above her head and laughed.

“Give it back,” she said. “Please.”

Not an order, but definitely not a beg.

He wouldn’t, though. Dangled it just out of reach, trying to make her jump for it. Got bored when she wouldn’t. He could’ve given it back, but, like I said, Jimmy was a vicious sod.

“Don’t you want it?” he said and threw it, hard as he could, so it wedged in the tree at the edge of the playground. A big old pine with needles like razors and no footholds. It hung there, that doll, like a little blue rag.

“Come on,” said Jimmy, so we left. I couldn’t resist looking back, though. She was standing there, staring up and the butterflies took off, wings beating inside my stomach.

Later, when I turned up at her house, she was sitting outside, legs pulled up, skinny arms resting on her knees. Streaks down her face like she’d been crying. Didn’t move, even when I skidded my bike so close it kicked small stones up onto her.

“Here,” I said, pulling the doll from my pocket. “Got this for you.”

For a minute, she stared, then grabbed it and held it to her face. No thank you. No nothing.

It seemed stupid all of a sudden. Scratches all over my arms and a hiding coming for taking my old man’s ladder without asking. And for what?

Then she lifted her head, and looked at me. And she smiled.

3rd Place: OK People – John Quinn

Cathy Woodman: The first line grabbed my attention and set the scene for a humorous piece of fiction. Sound characterization, introducing a clumsy actor and a flirtatious leading lady. I found myself wanting to read on to find out what happens to them. A little more attention to detail on the proofreading side would perfect your presentation.

‘Watch out!’ The boom mike swung through the air at a speed it was not designed for.

Patrick heard the warning, tried to duck and succeeded in falling inelegantly over, losing his dignity and the opportunity of being decapitated in one, unsmooth motion.

‘You bloody idiot’ Steven, the director, screamed at the boom operator, who continued to smirk inside his headphones.

Patrick picked himself up and tried to dust off his formerly immaculate white shirt ‘No great harm done,’ he smiled.

Steven was not convinced and snarled towards the boom operator ‘You could have put our star in hospital on the first day of filming… one more cock-up like that and you’re off the set.’

‘Should I go and change this shirt,’ Patrick asked.

‘Don’t bother, it’s only set up shots this morning’ Ella said before anyone else could respond ‘and I don’t mind my men being a little dirty.’

Steven knew he would have to cool his famous star’s ardour at some point and here was a golden opportunity. ”Look Ella, if you could leave the flirting until at least day two, I, for one would be most grateful. And so would our young star, wouldn’t you Patrick?’

In truth Patrick was in awe of the two times golden globe winner and three times divorced leading lady but was keen not to show it; he was, after all, an actor.

‘Ok, I’ll stick with my dirty shirt’ he said.

‘What, no reposte, no stunning one-liner, no request for me to unbutton you and rub your hairy chest better? Ella’s voice dropped an octave ‘ I’m dissappointed in you Pat. I was hoping for more…’

Patrick knew he was being paid well for this, his first starring role, but he wondered if it was going to be enough…

Steven re-exerted control ‘Ok people, positions… and action!’

Highly Commended: The Vet – Sarah Lines

Cathy Woodman: The writer created a sense of place from the very first paragraph, showing how you can find love anywhere. I enjoyed the gradual reveal of the hero’s situation, and the way his love interest is completely oblivious of her effect on men in general. Great imagery too – the daredevils crashing and burning.

Paul was tired of staring at his blank computer screen, waiting for inspiration. “Dazzle me”, his boss had said. What could anyone find remotely dazzling about selling diapers? The advertising industry was already like an overcrowded train, full of people shouting, pushing and shoving, eager to be on time for the ball game.

All he could think about was Emma. Now she was dazzling – no, even better, she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. She possessed a natural beauty; luminous skin, dark glossy hair and the most entrancing violet, blue eyes. What made her even more attractive was the fact that she seemed completely oblivious to her effect on men.

Emma had only started last week but Paul had already witnessed a constant stream of male attendees at her desk. They would dream up the most pitiful excuses to go over and talk to her, ask her out for coffee, to drinks or dinner and Paul listened with some trepidation as each of these heroic daredevils crashed and burned on their first mission.

The light was beginning to fade as the working week ended. Paul tidied up his workstation, straightened his Marine Corps tie pin and slipped on his jacket. Most of his colleagues had stampeded to the elevators that would doubtless transport them to their expensive cars, gorgeous wives, laughing children and unnecessarily opulent mansions.

Paul sighed. As the elevator was about to close, Emma hurried over. Paul, unable to believe his luck, held the doors open with the edge of his wheelchair.

“Which floor?”

She smiled shyly. Her eyes sparkled.

“I was hoping you’d ask me out for a drink.”

Her English accent was so incredibly sexy.

“Would you like to…”

“Yes please”, she said.

As they made their descent, his heart soared.

Highly Commended: Later Love-Interest – David Lea

Cathy Woodman: Lovely thoughtful writing. Compelling to read. I was caught up from the first sentence. I enjoyed the way the writer gradually revealed the identity of the hero and that of his love interest. The piece gave a real feeling of how love can take you by surprise.

I never thought to fall in love again at my age, but I have all the symptoms. He is uniquely engaging and I delight in almost everything he does and says. It is obvious to me that he is more than usually physically attractive and I see that others are also drawn to his beauty. I watch for his effect on people when we are out together. Eyes are drawn to him, particularly women’s eyes. And people comment. Do I compare him with the other boys? How could I not?

I was not prepared for this at my time of life: I thought the time for giddy joy was over and had reconciled myself to the comfortable companionship of a marriage that would run its course until the death of one or both parties.

I had to try and manage the coming, inevitable decline with honour and grace. I did not expect to be taken out of myself again, to be transported.

I am more settled now: less at the mercy of his unintended or intended slights, less eager for his attention and sometimes glad to get away from him and his demands. Apart from anything else, this love is physically very demanding and I do get tired now.

My first sight of him was of a vague and blurry shape in a photograph. When his arrival was announced, I was less than enthusiastic. And when he finally arrived, he was nothing out of the ordinary: much the same as all the others. But now; now he is irreplaceable.

I am saddened that I shall not see him in his pomp, for he will surely make his mark when he is grown. He is now four and I hope he will remember this foolish, fond old man, his mother’s father.

Crime at Winchester

Whether you write police procedurals, psychological thrillers, classic murder mystery or gritty crime noir, this year’s festival can help you twist the knife.

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Friday 16 June

‘How to Thrill and How to Kill’ – a highly practical all-day course with William Ryan, author of the Captain Korolev novels, shortlisted three times for the Irish Crime Novel of the Year. Learn the technical aspects of crime writing, the role of ‘the format’ and how not to underestimate your audience, with plenty of hands-on exercises.

Saturday 17 June

‘Learning the Language of Crime’ with novelist Helen Fields, author of Perfect Remains.

‘Whodunnit: How It’s Done’ with Linda Bennett, commissioning editor for crime fiction at Salt Publishing.

‘How to Get Published in a Global Market’ with literary agent Lorella Belli from LBLA.

‘The Agent’s Eye View’ with literary agent Diana Beaumont from Marjacq.

Then listen as novelist Helen Fields reveals how she drew upon her experience as a criminal barrister to write her thrilling debut novel Perfect Remains during the Saturday Festival Dinner.

Sunday 18 June

‘Tightening the Noose’ – an all-day workshop with novelist and BBC crime correspondent Simon Hall, author of the TV Detective novels. Explore how to use jeopardy and suspense to make your story compelling, and learn how to raise the stakes by creating characters who have everything to win or lose.

PLUS over a dozen agents and editors seeking to acquire debut crime fiction.

Interested in investigating further?

View the programme at http://www.writersfestival.co.uk

Claire Fuller’s Swimming Lessons is Now Published!

Swimming Lessons has now been published in the UK, Canada, US and as an audio book. And I’m delighted that it’s already number nine on the Canadian bestseller list! It was selected by Canadian bookstore chain, Indigo as their book of the month for February, and also as February book club pick for women’s fashion brand TOAST.

Win a tote bag from TOAST

TOAST has reviewed Swimming Lessons and is offering a tote bag to one person who comments on their review. Click here to read and enter.

Recommendations and Reviews

I’m sure you know that most books are bought on recommendation, either from an online review or from someone you know. All reviews and recommendations help increase the awareness of a book, and so I’m asking if you’ve read and enjoyed Swimming Lessons to write a short review or recommend it. Whether that’s on Amazon (even if you haven’t bought the book from there you can still leave a review), tweeting about it, posting a picture of you reading it on Facebook, or just telling a friend about it – it all helps spread the word. Thank you! 
Amazon UK  Amazon US  Amazon Canada

Simon Brett, OBE Speaks to Hampshire Writer’s Society

Report by Peter Hitchen

The Society’s February gathering proved to be an occasion of great contrast, hosting Marian Forkin of The Book Bus charity and Simon Brett OBE, multi-award winning author of serialised crime fiction novels, radio and television producer and script-writer.

Special Guest:  Marian Forkin.

Marian explained that the fundamental aim of The Book Bus organisation was to enhance the life chances of children in Third World countries through the provision of books and libraries.  These are children who would otherwise be unable to develop their potential.  That simple truth was the catalyst for the formation of The Book Bus project in 2006 by founder, Tom Maschler, remembered as the publisher of Penguin, when he saw first-hand the sheer scarcity of books in the remote areas of Zambia that he was visiting.

The charity is now centred in Malawi, a country where only 5% of children receive a secondary education.  Marian shared a stark and inspirational example of how books can change lives by explaining how African boy, Kelvin Doe, invented a wind-powered electricity generator so that he would be able to read at home in the evenings.  It was Kelvin’s access to a book, helping him realise that simple but life-changing aim, that eventually led him to present at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a 15-year-old and finally to embark on a PhD in the United States of America.

Marian was keen to show how the ethos of The Book Bus organisation was based on a desire to promote enablement through access to books and thereby foster independence and self-determination.  The children accessing the programme have their reading levels monitored and are assessed and measured against standardised attainment targets so that individual progress is a tangible, organisational outcome.  The annual cost of running the Malawian programme is a modest £15k and similar projects seek to achieve equally beneficial outcomes across Africa, Asia and South America.

To round off an inspirational and very affecting presentation, Marian shared a video of the wonderful work that The Book Bus organisation is currently undertaking.  For more information on this important and far-reaching initiative, please visit: www.thebookbus.org

Keynote Speaker: Simon Brett, OBE

After graduating from university, Simon started a long career in both radio and  television, but it is as a prolific writer of crime fiction that he is perhaps most well known.  To date he is credited with over 80 crime fiction novels, his work comprising favourite collections including the Charles Paris, Mrs Pargeter, Fethering, and Blotto & Twinks series.  Further to these much loved and intricately plotted books, Simon has also written successful non-series novels with his Shock to the System (1984) being produced as a film starring Michael Caine.

In 2014, in recognition of his lifetime achievement, Simon was awarded the Diamond Dagger for Crime Fiction and in 2016 he was invested with an Order of the British Empire.  Not bad for someone who started his working life as a Father Christmas in a London Department store!

The longevity and breadth of Simon’s success offers a wealth of practical  experience from which he can draw and from this he was able to relate valuable and grounded advice to new and seasoned scribblers alike.  Simon alluded to the idea that to choose to be a writer was by definition to choose a life, if not of loneliness, then solitariness.  For a large part writers have to be content in their own company while they create the worlds of fiction that their characters inhabit.

From Simon’s work in broadcasting – particularly his work in radio (a medium, he said, that lends itself particularly well to the writer)  – he found great inspiration for many of his story ideas and his future writing career.  His early adaptation of a Dorothy L Sayers ‘Lord Peter Wimsey’ adventure was the catalyst that launched him into full-time writing.  Perhaps it was the levity to be found in Sayers’ prose style that was to become part of the wonderful signature humour that underpins much of Simon’s work.  And to this end Simon was keen to explain that writers should not be bound or stifled by the accepted norms of a chosen genre and that taking narrative risk was key to writing with originality while simultaneously avoiding the pitfalls of producing derivative material.  He was at pains to highlight the importance of giving characters dramatic moments and that these moments reward the reader as they progress through the story.

As a testament to Simon’s creative intellect,  he told the audience that involvement in the process of producing a first draft is where he finds the greatest artistic satisfaction; that while many writers toil over numerous re-drafts that approach wasn’t for him.

Simon’s presentation was packed with humour and anecdotes from his long and illustrious career.  The audience was treated to wonderfully informative practitioner’s advice communicated in a riveting and very entertaining raconteur’s after-dinner style.

February 2017 Competition Results – Carolin Esser-Miles

Yet again, Carolin Esser-Miles, Medievalist and Senior Lecturer, University of Winchester, went above and beyond with her adjudication. The competition title was ‘Create a detective with unusual or quirky habits’ in 300 words. Carolin was generous enough to write a few words for all entries, not only the placed five, very kind as feedback is always appreciated (I have emailed the comments to individual entrants). The winners are below, followed by the winning pieces with Carolin’s comments.

1st place: Nan Keightley – Mrs B and the Hoodie

2nd place: Wendy Fitzgerald – A New Pin

3rd place: John Quinn – Demi John

Commended: David Lea – Josna Pandi and Gill Hollands – Detective Farr, Homicide

1st Place

Mrs B and the Hoodie – Nan Keightley

Carolin Esser-Miles: Here we have the first encounter of a potentially great pair. The two strikingly different characters are both given enough space to come alive independently. Both have interestingly odd back stories that are promising in their own right. Within our 300 words, we see a dynamic developing between the two that promises sparring partners connected by mutual respect and a lot of scope for interaction. I would love to find out what happens next.

‘’Oo did you say you were, again?’ Mrs B defended her doorstep from the hoodie in front of her. She pulled a tattered arran cardi close across her stubby figure, and tutted. A warrant card was shoved towards her.

She handed it back, held between finger and thumb, as if contaminated. The cop’s overlarge parka, she noticed, was not quite hiding a gossamer-thin frame.

‘Well, DS Ellie Wilson, what do you want, besides a few good meals?’

‘Am I in the right place? I’m looking for Marina Beecham? The woman who shot Harry Winfield?’

‘Yes, kiddo. That’s me.’

Ellie gawped, speechless.

‘What?’ said Mrs B. ‘You don’t believe an all-action forensic psychologist could be old as Noah, and wear slippers? Or live in a suburban bungalow full of kitten ornaments and chintz?’

‘I didn’t say that.’

‘Didn’t need to. I read your mind.’

Mrs B shuffled into the kitchen. She pushed a plate of homemade gingerbread at Ellie, who hovered by the door.

‘Come on. I’m not going to eat you.’

‘The boss said you could help us find Angelika Harrison’s killer,’ mumbled Ellie, through a mouthful of crumbs.

Mrs B replaced the empty plate with a pile of potatoes and a peeler.

‘Where did that lot go?’ she asked. ‘Have you got hollow legs or something?’

‘The boss thinks I must have worms, ‘cos I can eat for England and never put on a pound.’

‘Hmmm. If you want my help then you can peel these spuds. Fish and chips do for you?’

‘You don’t have to feed me. I only need advice.’

‘Your boss didn’t tell you anything about me, did he? I cook. A lot. It helps me think. Nobody escapes this house unfed. Now, peel, and talk!’

2nd place

A New Pin – Wendy Fitzgerald

Carolin Esser-Miles: We spend these 300 words following our detective through a surprising amount of well-placed garden paths and detours. Expectations are built up to deceive, and we are prone to fall into the trap just as the characters in the story are supposed to judge falsely. Upon rereading, we are presented with a cleaning detective, formerly from the Met, now working class Miss Marple. While the cover that cleaning provides will be quickly blown at the police station, the provision of holiday lets gives ample opportunity for undercover work.

I walk to work in the early light: it’s fresh, calm and serene. Little waves wash up on the shore; seagulls swoop and bicker. The sun rose ten minutes ago into the pearly dawn, a glowing, optimistic beacon. Peaceful, life-affirming. A far cry from my days at the Met, where dark, dingy streets festered every deadly sin; long nights in gloomy offices, desk lamps and single malts burning. Remembering, anxiety rises within me. I stare out to sea to cleanse my mind again. The lightest of breezes, deep breaths and the wide blue expanse expunge, as they always do.

I enter the police station and its main office. It’s tiny. What you’d expect in a remote backwater like this. A rare violent murder is reflected on the whiteboard: an attractive fifty-four year old woman, single, bludgeoned to death with her own rolling pin. No signs of burglary. She’d been baking, for the charity cake stall. As they do in these parts. I pick up the files but there’s nothing new since yesterday. She lived alone; in a cottage set back along a lane. Semi-detatched, but to a holiday let. No-one saw a thing.

My senses prickle. Worryingly, she looked not unlike me.

That will be my next job. The files in the holiday let company. It’s mid-summer: a popular spot. Then I’ll check the charity. Something tells me this is not a random killing: there was real hatred behind that pin.

I open the cupboard and remove the vacuum cleaner. Strangely, there’s cake crumbs on the floor. I clean three offices, three mornings a week. This one, the estate agent-come-letting company and the solicitors. You’ve no idea how useful that can be. Well, no-one ever notices the cleaner, do they?

3rd place

Demi John – John Quinn

Carolin Esser-Miles: One of the two character studies among the submissions, Demi John has a rather complex life. He is a single father with Olympic potential in clay shooting that is thwarted by his son’s football needs, this character needs space to be fully introduced. But given that, there is a lot of potential, especially with additional public settings such as the family café as an opportunity to blend family trouble with a potential case.

Demetrius Jones is a North London detective who’s second generation Greek-Cypriot, born in Palmers Green after his parents fled the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974.

To his colleagues he’s too Greek, to his parents and the Greek-Cypriot community he’s too British and he is never fully happy in either world.

Tall and swarthy, with black hair that is longer than normal and a full moustache, he’s handsome and he’s often told he looks like Tom Conti playing Costas Dimitriades in the film Shirley Valentine.

Demi-John, as he’s known by colleagues ‘because he’s big, never full and you can see straight through him,’ is running to seed, weighing some 100 kilos. He says ‘it’s a Greek thing’ and is trying to quit smoking and diet but cannot resist döner kebabs or his Mum’s mezes.

He looks younger than his 40 years ‘ever seen a crease on a balloon?’ is one of his ever-ready quips. He uses his natural warmth, humour and the ability to invent ‘an old Greek saying’ to win trust.

A North-London Turkish family killed Demi’s wife after he put away the patriarch and two eldest sons for a series of armed robberies.

Arsenal supporting Demi brings up his son, James, 12, with the help of his parents, who should be retired but still run the family café in ‘Palmers Greek.’

Taught to shoot by his father, Demi has a chance of representing Greece, Cyprus or the UK at the next Olympics at sporting clays but refereeing James’ football matches and work interferes with practice.

Demi listens to George Michael songs whilst driving his mustard 1974 Rover 3500 his Dad bought on arrival in the UK, spending the family’s savings: ‘You don’t get a second chance to make a good first impression.’ It does break down!

Commended

Josna Pandi – David Lea

Carolin Esser-Miles: Josna Pandi will most likely not have many friends. She is too perfect in most ways. But other great detectives have demonstrated that success through unflattering habits is possible. One might think of the Mentalist, Sherlock Holmes, or Stella Gibson from ‘The Fall’.

Josna Pandi is thirty years old. She is a Detective Constable with the Hampshire Constabulary and is on the “Police High Potential Development Scheme”.

Her father, Sanjit Pandi, manufactures textiles in India and imports them into Britain and Europe. He is a rich man and Josna does not have to work. Her mother died in childbirth and Josna has no siblings. She has lived in Britain all her life and went to Cheltenham Ladies’ College where she was captain of the lacrosse team. She is an accomplished horsewoman and dinghy sailor. She has also represented her country as a fencer. She lifts weights and is highly proficient in Hatha Yoga. She keeps dumbbells in her locker at Basingstoke nick.

She gained a first in Law at Edinburgh and then joined Goldman Sachs. She was doing extremely well until asked to take part in a deal that she believed to be unethical. She then joined Mckinsey Global Management Consulting, but resigned after her paper on plans to rationalise the delivery of policing concluded that more police were needed on the beat.

Her “quirks” are attributes or character flaws, depending on who is at the receiving end. She has a fierce intelligence, combined with a frighteningly accurate moral compass. She is unafraid to “speak truth to power” and is disconcertingly honest in both personal and professional interactions. She believes in the rule of law and in the need to uphold the law, even when the law is an ass. She has an upper middle class accent and speaks and writes English with great precision. She is unusually tall, has very dark skin and long, jet-black hair. She has a habit of adopting extreme yoga positions when she needs to solve a problem. She is very beautiful, but has difficulties maintaining romantic relationships.

Commended

Detective Farr, Homicide – Gill Hollands

Carolin Esser-Miles: Here we are dealing with a true quirk, both the ferret as partner and the sensory abilities of the detective themselves. There is potential here, for a ‘just right’ over the top storyline á la Monk, which needs to play out as realistically as possible and as relevant for the cases.

‘This way, Detective Farr.’ The dubious constable pushes open a battered door. Sunlight floods into the dingy corridor. I look down, blinking.

Merit pokes his nose out of my yellow waterproof pocket for another snack. I fish a pellet from inside my hat; avoid sharp little teeth as he snatches.

‘What the ‘ell’s that?’ The constable steps back, eyes round.

‘It’s just my sniffer ferret.’ I hook Merit out, dangle his snaky body. ‘See?’ I set him down to start work.

‘Ha! Never ‘erd of one o’ them!’ He backs away, shaking his head. The usual reaction.

‘He’s very helpful to me, officer.’

Watching Merit, I sniff too as he scuttles under a chair. The scent of despair assails me. I wince, catching my haggard reflection in a spotted mirror: Must try to sleep soon.

I take in the crime scene; a tragic apartment; peeling grey walls, rank, mould-coated ceiling. My fingers scrape neglected wood; I taste betrayal. Dust is often my friend. Merit brings me a wrap of paper, darts away, sneezing.

A coffee table lies on its side in a splash of magazines. Yellowed, photos curl on the wall around one threadbare, fireside chair in the corner.

Ragged curtains shiver by the smashed window. I step nearer, my feet sticking to the mat. Broken glass lies, sparkling like a snowflake, on the mossy balcony.

I tug open the balcony door, admitting more freezing wind.

‘You kin see that from inside!’ Yells the officer, gasping behind me.

‘I think better outside.’ I step out, shut his whining off with the door. Now I can think. I fondle the wrap, the scuffed moss, feel where he was thrown…

‘Outside eh! So that’s why the yeller coat!’ He flings the door open, breaks the spell.

Watson, he is not…

New Course: On-Air Drama – Writing for Radio

Hugh Costello, best known for writing the ten-time Emmy nominated teleplay Bernanrd and Doris, is running a Writing for Radio one-day course next month.

Tickets for the course have just gone on sale but it hasn’t been officially publicised yet so now’s the time to get in early.

About the course

Radio and other audio platforms offer a huge opportunity for new drama writers to pursue unusual and ambitious projects with a realistic prospect that they will be produced. This one-day course focuses on the special demands of writing for radio, exploring the best ways to turn those voices in your head into intriguing and suspenseful dramas.

  • What kinds of stories work best for the ear?
  • How does a writer grab the audience’s attention from the very beginning of a story?
  • What are the best ways to to create distinctive characters and sustain suspense?

You will learn how to structure and present radio drama scripts, and how to go about pitching stories to commissioners and producers, both in the indie sector and at the BBC and Audible.

The course will be led by writer Hugh Costello, and will include a session with Boz Temple-Morris of Holy Mountain Productions.  Hugh is an Emmy-nominated screenwriter who has written more than two dozen audio dramas, and has worked with indies such as Big Fish and Whistledown Productions.  Boz is a leading audio producer/director and recent winner of Best Drama Producer at the Audio Production Awards .

When: Friday 24 February 2017
Where: Central London venue, TBC
Time: 9.30am-5pm
Cost: £130 + Vat – book your place at v1.bookwhen.com/rigtrain

 

Portsmouth Book Fest 2017

The Portsmouth Book Fest starts on Saturday 11 February and runs through till the beginning of March.

There are many varied events from ghosts and criminology to Morty and knitting!

Costs vary also depending on who, what, where and how long your chosen event is, many are free though! Follow the link to book.

http://www.portsmouthbookfest.co.uk/2017-programme/