All Night At The Coffin Works: How do you stay up all night to write?

I had very mixed feelings about this event, I’ll be honest.

It seemed like a good idea, back in the summer when I bought the tickets. The nights were warm and stretched out way beyond teatime. Now, it was early October and, while not exactly cold, it was darker and Halloween was approaching with some determination.

Imposing door front. It was now or never!
Imposing door front. It was now or never!

I have always been someone who gets spooked easily, and right until the moment the event started, I had some misgivings about whether or not I would ever sleep again.

A coffin works. All night. What the hell was I thinking…?!

We settled in, eyeing each other with wariness. Twenty writers, most of whom had clearly never met each other, snugly fit into the room. I was very glad I had invited a fellow Swanwicker, Lol Barnes, along to join me. At least I would have someone to hold my hand, I thought, if it got spooky later on Like, in the dead of night. If the lights went out. Or something…

First thing’s first though, a tour round the museum.

Well, Newman Brothers’ coffin works didn’t actually make coffins, as it happens. They were essentially a brass foundry, so they produced all the accessories to go with coffins. Brass plaques, plates, crucifixes and handles were stamped and polished before being shipped out to the undertakers, where they would fit them to the coffins, ready for the deceased to be laid to rest.

Example os brass stamping machinery, still in working order.
Example of brass stamping machinery, still in working order.

Our guide, Owen Edmunds, was hugely enthusiastic about the place. Despite the music thumping from a neighbouring nightclub, we could still appreciate the ambience of this strange monument to Birmingham’s industrial heyday.

He showed us first into the stamping room, the presses still functioning after all these years (since 1882 to be precise) and making a dreadful racket as they stamped the thin brass plates into shapes, ready to be nailed onto someone’s coffin.

After the stamping room, we were ushered into the main building to see the warehouse. Here we learned the difference between a coffin as a casket:

Caskets are seen mostly in the US and are rectangular-shaped, exactly the same width at the top and bottom. You’ll see a single long handle fitted down the entire length of the casket which can be used to carry the deceased to their final resting place. A coffin, however, is tapered to fit the size of a human body as it lies facing upwards. Typically, you’ll have several smaller handles running down the side of a coffin which people can use to carry their loved one.

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Unbelievable variety of accoutrements you can have fitted to your coffin these days. Who knew???

The factory also has a sewing room, where ladies carefully stitched the shrouds for the deceased, in a range of colours. You could even have one made in the colours of your favourite football team, if you so desired.

Finally, we arrived in the factory office, left exactly as it was approximately seventeen years ago, as if it had just been abandoned for an untimely fire drill. The late Joyce Green who was the Managing Director at the time, had even left her reading glasses on her desk. (Slightly unnerving!)

I have to say, as a writing event it is definitely the most unusual I have ever attended. The tutors were friendly and gave us plenty of exercises to complete, along with encouragement into the wee small hours and beyond.

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Despite being dog-tired, there was something about the accommodation which didn’t seem appealing…

I was really pleased that I finally got to try my hand at some poetry, something I’ve been rather reluctant to try before. I don’t know whether it was as a result of sleep-deprivation but at 5.30am I even managed to produce some half-decent haiku. Watch out for some more of that to come perhaps…!

Many thanks to the wonderful team at Newman Brothers for letting us come to your fabulous museum.

Siren Spirit Goes Live on Amazon!

It’s so exciting to have my very first novella released and available to buy on Amazon!

I’m thrilled at the way the cover turned out (doffs cap to Andrew Brown at Design4Writers for an amazing job).

Cover design by Design4Writers
Cover design by Design4Writers

I can’t tell you what a fantastic journey it has been to get this far, to have my very own book in my hands.

Yes, I can actually say that because, even though the paperback copy is not yet available to purchase on Amazon, I am holding the proof copy in my hands as we speak. EEK!

Stay tuned to social media for more news on the launch: Facebook and Twitter are your best ways of contacting me.

“But first, this….” Procrastination and How Writers Deal With It (Or Don’t)

This coming weekend is a bank holiday in England and Wales. I’ve taken time off from my full-time job today and tomorrow, with the sole purpose of getting some serious writing done over the break.

I have about six projects on the go at the moment, all at various stages of completion. Some have barely been started, with notes strewn about all over the place, so it’s not like I’m struggling to find things to do.

I woke around 7am this morning, and between then and the six hours until lunch, I have

  • cleaned my car (it was absolutely filthy, it has to be said);
  • been to the shop for breakfast materials (no milk in fridge);
  • made and eaten said breakfast;
  • tidied up the kitchen;
  • cleaned the inside of the dishwasher (OK, I just inserted some device into the machine and set it on the highest programme, but still…);
  • had a bubble bath (by this time, I needed it);
  • put a load of laundry into the washing machine;
  • painted my nails.

In short, I have procrastinated.

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Courtesy of TheFreeDictionary.com

Now I have covered this topic here before, but this is not an affliction which resolves itself overnight. One has to work hard to overcome this particular bane.

Friends on Facebook have provided a selection of responses. Writers in particular though, seem to be bothered by this condition more than most, and have responded more than everyone else too.

“Amateur! Come back when your hair’s in cornrows,” said one friend. She’s a talented screenwriter (and Master Procrastinator, clearly).

But the procrastination sufferer does not need this kind of idea placing into their head. I am now seriously considering taking a couple of hours out to plait my hair, having surfed the web to discover that cornrows are far too difficult to do on my own. That killed another half an hour, mind you.

I need to know that I’m not alone here. I want to hear your procrastination techniques, large and small. Nothing is too crazy here. Feel free to spill all. I’m a nice, kind person and you’re guaranteed a virtual hug at the end.

In the meantime, I’m off to bake some muffins, or something…

 

Psychedelica: The Adult Colouring Phenomenon

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IMG_0873There are strange goings-on in living rooms all over the world. Colouring books are being completed. Under normal circumstances, this might not sound so unusual. But these books don’t belong to the pre-schoolers. It’s their parents who are picking up the crayons.

Forget yoga and meditation (although they do have their place). The new way to relax from your working week is to grab some pencils, pens or crayons, and get colouring.

It’s even thought to help counter mental health issues like anxiety and depression.

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The pictures in this book are all completed by my own fair hands, and from one such book: Being in the Now by Luscious Books.

I love this book because rather than just the pictures, there are wise words of wisdom, giving us handy life tips at the same time. Zen therapy, you might say.

It’s become the perfect way for me to wind down after work and get into the right frame of mind for accessing my creative brain and writing.

The paper isn’t very thick with these books, unlike those of Johanna Basford, so there is only one image per sheet. However, this allows you to carefully cut out each page and hang it on a wall, if you’d like to. Neat, huh?

I believe I may well do that. Just as soon as I’ve finished this little blue bit…

See here and here for more articles on this topic!

The Social Media Labyrinth

There’s no getting around it these days. If you want to be a successful author, you must have an online presence and this must include the use of social media, at least to some extent. I would recommend a Facebook Page (as distinct from your personal profile) and a Twitter account as the bare minimum.
The reason is very simple: readers expect it.
The days of an author being able to hide behind the security blanket of the publisher are long gone. Even those authors who are lucky enough to have a publishing deal are still expected to engage directly with their readership.
So, the question is no longer “Should I be using social media?” but “How the hell do I find the time to do all the social media engagement required?”
To resolve this issue, I used to use Hootsuite. Once a week, I would painstakingly trawl the internet looking for ideas and content to create a .csv file and upload it into the application. After a few attempts and subsequent corrections, eventually it would upload. This whole procedure would take me approximately two hours, to write 7 days’ worth of tweets at 6 tweets per day. Facebook was another task altogether.
Well, it didn’t take long for me to see the flaws with Hootsuite. For one thing, you can’t bulk schedule posts with images. Images are critical to reader engagement on Twitter, so I knew I was already at a disadvantage. Also, once a tweet has been posted, it is binned, never to be seen again. This meant I would have to repeat this laborious task every week. I began to dread Sunday afternoons.
[Exit Hootsuite, stage left]
Well, folks, I am very proud to say I have found all the answers I need in this cute little fellow:
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Cephalopod frenzy?
Now, I should point out here that I have a full-time job (as well as being a writer), therefore I probably have some more disposable income than some of you may do. However, I do consider this a very worthwhile $49 per month, and I’m all about value for money.
The system works very simply. Having signed up and linked your social media accounts, the next step is to create your categories. You might have one for writing tips, for example, and another for inspirational quotations. I have one for cat pictures too. (Sorry!)
After you have a couple of categories, you need to start adding content to grow your library. The Edgar library is really like a proper library of data. Once an item is saved, it remains in this repository for ever.
Edgar will then recycle these posts for you, over and over again, according to the schedule you give him. Now, let’s take Twitter. Apparently, the life of a tweet is just 24 minutes. Facebook, however, is much longer. Personally, I post 6 tweets a day (sometimes a few ad hoc), and a Facebook post just once.
Because I’m no longer under the pressure of doing a whole week’s worth in one go, I can now get ideas for content whenever I get a few spare moments. I have got into the habit of saving pictures and links I like whenever I’m on Facebook, with a view to following them up at a later date.
For me, Edgar is not free, but is very much about freedom, and in the 20-30 hours I spend a week on my writing business, I’m up for as much freedom as I can get my hands on. I’d highly recommend this to anyone for whom managing your social media feels like a burden. You’ll get some control back in your life and, ultimately, more time for writing!

The Sociological Spectre of Apathy

This is going to be one of those blog posts which asks more questions than it answers, so please bear with me. I like to prompt debate about things which matter to me; this is one of them.

books1I have a friend I’ve known for half my life. I don’t see him very often and when we do meet up, like many friends, the conversation revolves around work, family and mutual friends.

Recently, he happened to mention that his eleven year-old son hadn’t performed as well in school exams as he had expected, and my friend was concerned about this.

Now, his son goes to a fee-paying school. Both parents work – his wife runs a lucrative domicilary care business and he is a company director in another firm as well. This is not a family that is short of resources in the slightest.

“I bet I know one reason why,” I said, and shot him a knowing look. “When was the last time he read a book for pleasure?”

“Oh, I dunno,” came the reply. “Reading’s not his thing really.”

…not his thing…

I shivered.

Sadly, I fear that my friend’s son is not alone. I hear this much more often than I would like to, and it fills me with dismay.

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Studies have shown (click here to read more) that those who read fiction are more inclined to be quick to empathise with others and especially when this reading skill is developed in younger children. It teaches them to detect and understand how certain actions affect the feelings of other people.

We all know how a good story allows you to feel what the characters feel. How many of us have laughed and cried, felt the glow of romantic love or the despair of grief, when reading a story? This is the power of a good author. My favourite books are those which have taken me on an emotional roller-coaster. I want to be reaching for the tissues when I read, I want to be moved.

But for children like my friend’s son, brought up with no books in the house other than his mother’s nursing textbooks, what does this do a child’s emotional development?

Not having my own children, it may be inappropriate of me to comment upon the upbringing of other people’s offspring. But, actually, I think there’s a wider issue here.

If children don’t learn to empathise, what sort of people do they turn out to be? Isn’t that sort of the definition of a sociopath? And, are we convinced that enough emphasis is put upon reading books for pleasure, both in schools and at home?

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As a little girl, my mum used to take me to the local library. In the middle of the children’s area I remember seeing an enormous wooden box, full of brightly-coloured books for young children. (It probably wasn’t all that big, but I was only a toddler at the time!)

Mum tells me, even now, that I would have favourites that I kept asking for, week in, week out. The poor woman must have been bored to tears having to read the same books over and over! But, I am eternally grateful to her for bestowing upon me the greatest gift in the world. For, in teaching me to love literature, she taught me how to escape this world and travel to far-flung places, to have adventures beyond my wildest dreams.

I flew with dragons; I fought demons and befriended angels; I toppled evil tyrants and replaced them on the thrones of lands far, far away; and, I fell in love, over and over and over, with characters who possessed magical abilities, and yet, ultimately, very human traits.

My life would have been immeasurably different without books. Certainly, I doubt I would ever have become a writer. In my opinion, it’s shameful that there are children growing up in our society without being shown the door into this enchanting world of books.

So, I would welcome your comments here. What are your experiences of teaching your own or other people’s children to read? Is it really that important, or am I just banging on about something which is none of my business, being childfree?

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BooksGoSocial Writers’ Conference: Dublin, June 26th-28th 2015

NB: Apologies for the quality of these photos folks. My iPhone does its best, but it also relies on my (un)steady hand…

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Cocktail, retro-style – French 75 at Blanc et Noir, Birmingham Airport

It’s become traditional for me to treat myself to a champagne cocktail at the airport when I fly solo.

If I’m honest, I’ve always liked a bit of the high life. Unfortunately, I’ve yet to find the billionaire to go with it but never mind. This is not the time or place for lamentations on the topic of my non-existent love life.

It occurred to me (whilst sipping said cocktail) that I hadn’t packed an umbrella. Yes, that’s right. On a trip to Ireland! Luckily, I didn’t need it. Save for an unwelcome but not inconvenient downpour on the Saturday night, it was remarkably warm and dry all weekend.

I had chosen my courses carefully, based on addressing the one weakness I have found in my writing so far – writing dialogue – and the elephant in the room, my lack of business acumen and, particularly, marketing know-how.

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Saturday morning dawned bright and very early. My apartment in the Smithfield area overlooked the famous Old Jameson Distillery so I decided to take a deliberate walk past on my way to the Irish Writers’ Centre.

Following a cheeky McDonalds breakfast, I arrived at the centre in good time for my first Course, Dialogue in Fiction. It was a wonderful couple of hours spent talking about the importance of good dialogue and how it should be significant to the plot.

It was, however, also the day for Dublin Gay Pride. Not only that – they had organised to congregate right outside the centre in Parnell Square before setting off on their march around the city.

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Rainbow crocodile!

Margaret Murphy, our tutor, performed admirably to be heard above the noise of the pumping dance music. In one particular episode, we were discussing how the use of silence in a conversation can create tension, just as an enormous cheer from outside the window rang through our ears, to much hilarity from the class.

After a brief buffet lunch, Nicola Cassidy and I escaped into the street to join the throng of revellers gathering to see of the Pride Parade. Having been an attendee at Birmingham Pride for many years, it was refreshing to be treated to the Irish version.

The afternoon session was spent listening to the fabulous Catherine Ryan Howard talk about treating our writing as a business venture. This is a skill I need to work on very much, and it requires one to separate emotion from the creativity which is easier said than done.

Dinner on Saturday evening allowed us to socialise with one another, and also to listen to the inspirational Paul O’Brien talk about his dedication to his day job while juggling his passion for writing and a young family.

It was a pleasure to bump into the lovely Krissy V and chat about all things erotic until the wee small hours along with new friends such as John Pitts.

All in all, it was a fantastic weekend, packed with opportunities to all help each other along the self-publishing journey, and offering guidance, support and a helping hand among the group.

BooksGoSocial founder Laurence O’Bryan has built an empire of readers, eager to get their paws on good quality self-published books, and authors willing to provide such material. If you’re interested in self-publishing your work, these guys are essential. Hundreds of thousands of Twitter and Facebook followers, all tuning in for a dose of who’s got what coming out next.

I now have a To-Do list as long as my arm and I’m busy putting it all into practice.

Join the Authors’ Facebook Group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/booksgosocialauthors/?fref=ts

And, while you’re at it, the Readers’ Facebook Group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/booksgosocialreaders/?fref=ts

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Blimey! The Bard sure did get around…

 

 

 

Novel Extracts Available!

I was recently made aware of a wonderful little website called WattPad.

I seem to remember joining up a couple of years ago, because someone told me it might be a good idea, but then never used it again. Typical case of good idea, wrong time.

Regular followers of this blog and my Facebook Page will know that I have putting together a novel for some time. It started as just a tiny seed of an idea, some years ago now, and has now grown beyond all expectations, as novels are wont to do.

Anyway, I am very pleased to announce that you can now go and read these extracts online. FOR FREE! Simply click on the link below and it’ll take you straight there!

WattPad gives you access to thousands of pieces of writing, across almost every genre (nothing erotic, sadly). There is a social networking element to it, somewhat like Goodreads, where you can recommend items to friends. But the best thing for us self-published lot is that you can put out your edited pieces of work for absolutely nothing here.

The aim is to gain readers while your work is still in the draft stages and enable them to let you know, by way of comments, whether or not you’re on the right track. Absolutely great idea, especially if you’re lacking a little confidence, like me.

So, without further ado, please follow this link, and if you can leave a comment, I’ll be forever grateful…

Magical Writing Retreat: Kerivoa

I can’t believe it’s only three weeks since I returned from The Write Retreat. It feels like such a long time ago now.

It was the first time I’d ever driven abroad, having previously always been on city break holidays where you walk around everywhere, or beach holidays which involve far too much alcohol to even consider driving. So, a new adventure awaited me as soon as I trundled off the ferry at Roscoff.

The journey to Katherine’s was very straightforward. I knew in advance that the French tend not to label their signs with road numbers as we do, so instead I chose to navigate by towns. The journey from Roscoff therefore, involved following signs first to Morlaix, then Guingamp, then Bourbriac, where Katherine met me and we drove up to the farmhouse.

Sipping bubbles on arrival. Katherine is such a wonderful hostess!
Sipping bubbles on arrival. Katherine is such a wonderful hostess!

The site of the farmhouse is an old Bronze Age settlement (the old bread oven still stands a little way off the main track) and I got a sense of something very special about the place as soon as I arrived. The tranquility is almost palpable.

As regular followers of this blog will be only too aware, I adore animals, so I was overjoyed when Katherine’s Westie, Kerrig, put in an appearance, closely followed by Merlin, the gorgeous black Labrador and finally, the wonderful cat, Fifi, who took a particular shine to me for the entire week. I fancy he sensed I was missing Lily so made it his mission to fulfil surrogate pet duty!

Easter Saturday meant a trip to Guingamp to sample a little shopping and practice my very rusty French. Luckily, I got by rather well and purchased gifts for family and friends before setting off back to the farmhouse for Katherine’s delicious cooking and my writing. (Well, that was the reason I was there, after all!)

Guingamp Market square, Easter Saturday. The obligatory visit to the chocolaterie!
Guingamp Market square, Easter Saturday. The obligatory visit to the chocolaterie!

Sadly, that was the last we saw of sunshine for a good few days. However, I was there to write so it didn’t matter a jot. And, write I did. Lots. Over the course of the week, I wrote no less than seven chapters of my new book.

When I arrived at Kerivoa, I had three chapters completed for what I thought was going to be a short erotic novella. This has now morphed into a larger work, incorporating more characters and venturing off into a paranormal romance direction with just a couple of erotic scenes. Funny how that happens!

Beautiful Fifi - just the most perfect muse one could possibly wish for!
Beautiful Fifi – just the most perfect muse one could possibly wish for!

I achieved so much during that week, that I am now afflicted with trying to recreate that atmosphere here at home, which is easier said than done. I have the cat, yes, but I also have a full-time job, laundry, cleaning, tidying and other procrastinating, which is driving me mad.

On top of those things, I also have some wonderful friends who are writing and publishing new books which I want to read, so I do feel as though I’m spinning lots of plates right now. Having said that, it’s a fantastic feeling to have, as I know I shall never suffer from boredom ever again!

Writing outdoors, with Fifi and Merlin.
Writing outdoors, with Fifi and Merlin.

The best single thing about my week was Katherine’s support and encouragement to follow the story and her gift for creating a truly magical and inspiring setting, even when the heavens opened and I was mooching around in my PJs and slippers!

So, back to the retreat I shall have to go. Probably not this year, what with Swanwick looming and not being able to take any more time off work than I already have planned. I believe I shall make it a priority for 2015 though.

Watch this space!

 

 

Writer With Pets: Madalyn Morgan

I met actress, writer and radio presenter Madalyn Morgan at my first Swanwick in 2013. She was one of many people I met there who inspired me early on in my own writing journey and I’m thrilled that she has contributed to my blog.

Maddie has reminded me that it’s not just the cats and dogs which share our homes which we can consider pets. Those of us lucky enough to have gardens know that the great outdoors plays host to any number of wild creatures and they too can be an inspiration.

Which came first, a love of writing, or a love of animals?

Animals came before writing, but not before acting.  Let me explain.  My first cat adopted me just before I went to Drama College in London.  I had a hairdressing salon in Rugby and the girls who worked for me insisted I took in a scruffy little stray.  I said no, but by the time the girls had fed him for a couple of weeks, they had fallen in love with him and he had taken over my flat.  Toby Two-Shoes ended up living with my parents at the pub I grew up in, when I went off to London in 1974.

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Susie Kit-Kat adopted Maddie when she was an actress living in London

My second cat, Susie Kit-Kat, was fifteen when she came to live with me.  I was an out-of-work actress and she had been orphaned when her mum of ninety-three died.  The lady was famous in South London after a court appearance for not paying her TV license.  She told the magistrates that she had enough money to pay the TV license, or feed her cats, but not both.  She chose to feed her cats.  Susie travelled with me to several repertory theatres.  She wasn’t much help when I was leaning lines though, she used to fall asleep.

Describe your pets.

My first cat, Toby, was jet black with white front paws – hence the name Toby Two-shoes.  Susie was a tabby, very soft and very pretty with big eyes.  Her lips were strange.  Most of the time she looked as if she was smiling.  A regular feline visitor to my garden is, Blanca.  She disturbs my writing so much…  She stalks the fish in my pond, so I run out and shoo her off.  She is pure white with piercing blue eyes – and she is very cheeky.  She knows I would never hurt her, so she sits and stares me out.  Only when she decides to leave, does she slink off.

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Blanca, hiding in Maddie’s wildflower garden under the apple trees

Take me through your writing day.

My day starts early.  I wake as soon as it is light, which is not so bad in the winter but in the summer, it can be too early.  However, it is as I’m waking up that I have my best ideas.  I have to write them down immediately.  Like dreams, they are very real at the time, but they quickly go out of your mind once you’re awake.

Sometimes I’m bombarded with ideas for my next book before I’ve finished writing the current one.  I was line editing my second novel, Applause, for twelve hours a day.  Stupid I know, sitting at the computer for that long is bad for your legs.  However, two nights running I was kept awake by the plot of China Blue, the third book in the Dudley sisters saga,  which I haven’t started writing yet.

“Editing Foxden Acres, I had Applause wake me up. Editing Applause, I had China Blue wake me up.”

 

In the spring and summer, I make a cup of tea and switch on the computer.  While it warms up, I take my tea and walk round the garden.  I fill the birdbaths from the water butt, put down seeds for the birds and look at the fish.  One my garden creatures are happy I go back to the computer and, with a second cup of tea, check my emails, Facebook and Tweets, before opening my writing file.  Once I start writing it’s a cup of tea and a chat to the fish and frogs every couple of hours.

 

How do your pets help or hinder the writing process, and/or inspire you?

That is a good question.  They hinder and inspire in equal measure.  I was prone to being stressed, but my pets calm me.  Fish and frogs are fascinating to watch, which is relaxing.  On the other hand, if the weather is good, I am in and out of the garden all day, which is a hindrance.  In the summer, I eat my lunch outside so I can watch them.  By then the frogs are used to my voice and will sit and watch me as I am watching them.

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Frog sunbathing on a lily pad

The fish too are used to my shape and come for food.  But my favourite time is the end of my writing day.  Around six o’clock I sit and relax by the pond with a dish of olives and a glass of wine.  Perfect.

 

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Shubunkin, goldfish, yellow and black tench

Summer is the best time for man and fish, except when you lose one.  I was heartbroken when I returned from Swanwick in August 2012 and found a beautiful red, silver and black, Shubunkin and two red goldfish were missing.  My neighbours saw a bird of prey in my garden and I guess it took them.  However, the good news is, last year I saw two tiny baby ‘black’ goldfish.  I can’t wait to see how much they have grown, if they survived the winter, which I’m sure they did.

In the winter, my workstation faces the garden and I spend far too much time gazing out the window at the birds.  I hang suet balls, seed, and nut feeders in the trees for the tits and sparrows, throw seeds on the steps for the ground eaters like Robins and other small birds, and put currents and apples out for the blackbirds.  Two beautiful little doves visit every day and what they don’t eat the pigeons see off.  I love my garden, my birds and my fish and frogs.  I never tire of watching them – and I never tire of writing.

Popping in and out several times, a day is good for a writer.  I spent far too many hours at the computer without taking a break, while I edited Foxden Acres and then Applause, and had extremely painful legs as a consequence.  Writers need to get up every hour or so and move about.