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Saturday, 30 November 2013

Finding your writing voice

Many years ago, before I was published, I attended some classes at a local adult education college in Leicester. At the time, the classes covered novel writing, writing for radio, short story writing and article writing, but there was only one session on writing for children. How times have changed! But one thing which was mentioned and which comes up from time to time, is that publishers want to read a manuscript where the author has a distinctive 'voice'. They want the reader to be able to pick up a book and say this is by Eva Ibbotson for example, without having to know who the author is. All of those years ago, when first starting out, I understood the concept but wasn't sure how to find my writing voice. In the end it was quite simple - patience and practise.

Maybe some people find their writing voice straight away but for me it has been a twisty road and involved a lot of work along the way. But the more you practise, the better you get to know yourself and the style of writing which you feel comfortable with.

I believe the writing voice emanates from the authentic you. It is all those parts of your personality, some of which the outside world may not see, coming together, and expressing themselves on the page. It shows up as the length of the sentences and chapters, the words chosen, the words rejected, the mood and rhythm of the text. It is in the spaces, the pauses, the full stops. It is ethereal, mysterious, precious. It cannot be forced and whilst imitation might be the sincerest form of flattery, trying to emulate someone else will not work. Your writing voice may be shy and need to be coaxed out of you, even rewarded with praise or treats for a passage well written. Developing your own writing voice demands a degree of confidence and a consistency which is not always easy to find when you are at the beginning of a writing career. But it is worth the wait.

Paradoxically, I don't think discovering your voice necessarily makes the writing process any easier. I feel that Last Chance Angel is a good reflection of my writing voice, but it was not an easy book to put together. In fact it was the hardest thing I have written so far. Then there is the question of having different voices if you write different genres. If I write some young fiction my voice will obviously not be the same as for my teenage books.

After many years of writing, I also lost my voice for a time. I am the sort of writer who needs life to be on an even keel and when, a few years ago, several crises occurred, I lost a sense of who I was and, as a result, I definitely lost my writing voice. It took some time to get it back.

I also think that this is a journey without a destination. As you grow, as your writing evolves, so does your voice and that is how it should be. But, at its very core, your writing voice must still reflect the genuine you. Whether you are just starting out or have been writing for a long time, it is important never to forget that.

Thank- you for joining me this week and belated Thanksgiving wishes to my U.S. readers.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Pansies and promotion!

My parents were great gardeners so it is no surprise that I have always loved flowers. I first got the opportunity to show just how much aged 18 months, when I snapped the heads off all my father's newly planted night scented stocks. I think he had planted about 100 of them in a very large bed just inside the front gate and needless to say I was not popular! So I find this time of year very difficult, all of those dark, mainly flowerless garden days ahead.

The geraniums are all packed into the greenhouse.

As there is no heating in there, may have to be brought into the house or go to my husband's office, if it gets very cold. The dahlias are looking extremely sad and are ready to be dug up for their tubers to be stored in sand until next year. The fuchsias are still going as is a fantastic little rose underneath my dining room window which I bought  reduced years ago and it has repaid me more than I can say.

But there is not much more still in flower so, in search of some cheer we set off for the garden centre last weekend. It was the most miserable weather but the sight of all those plants does lift the spirits and we bought some wallflowers to put under the dining room window and pansies to fill some of the pots.

The French name for pansy is pensee and means thought. The Victorians loved this flower. The pansy is from the viola family and the plants are symbols of togetherness, tender attachment, concern and compassion. A gift for a friend would often contain an image of pansies, as might a gift from a lover and photograph albums often depicted the flower on their front cover. Apparently they are good flowers to have around you when you want to remember with fondness people who have died. The pansy was also a favourite flower of Queen Elizabeth I and appears embroidered on a pair of gloves from that time.

White pansies mean 'let's take a chance' which seems apt. As a writer you are taking chances all the time. You never really know, at least I don't, whether a story will work out and if it does, whether anyone will see in it what you do.

Apparently the Knights of the Round Table consulted the pansy to find out their fate by interpreting the number of rays from the centre of the flower. Seven was considered to be lucky. The pansy is also known as Heartsease because it was thought that by carrying it you would ensure the love of your sweetheart.

Violet pansies mean 'modesty', hence the term 'shrinking violet' and this is also a bit apt this week. One of the things I find more challenging about being a writer is all of the promotional stuff, but I am absolutely thrilled to report that Last Chance Angel has been short-listed for the Essex Book Awards. You can read about the books which have been nominated on their blog here and more about the awards themselves here.

My final pansies are lemon yellow.

This is the colour of new ideas, of cheerfulness, hope and optimism. Apparently it helps with decision making, clarity of thought and helps us to focus.

Who would have thought that three trays of pansies would contain so much information?! This weekend I shall enjoy planting them and next week I'm going to talk a little about finding your writing voice. I hope you will join me again. In the meantime many thanks for reading.

Friday, 15 November 2013

A Winter Warmer

This week we had our first frost. Crunchy grass underfoot and curls of breath rising up into the air. Darkness is coming early. Lights need to be switched on at about four o'clock in the afternoon. Winter feels as if it has arrived and this week I cooked an old favourite. I cut this recipe from a newspaper years ago and cooked it regularly as it is one of my son's favourites but it's funny how you suddenly forget about recipes and that is what had happened to this one.

But this week my son was at home for a brief break and I was looking to make something out of store-cupboard standbys. I suddenly remembered this recipe and it contains ingredients which I usually have to hand. The sausages I used are from Marks and Spencer because their premium range is wheat free but you could use any good quality ones.

Campfire Casserole
(Serves 3/4 depending upon how hungry you are!)

1 tbsp. sunflower oil
8 thick sausages, cut into thick slices
1 onion finely chopped
2 potatoes cut into chunks
3 carrots cut into chunks
300 ml (or slightly more) hot chicken or vegetable stock
420g can chopped tomatoes
1tbsp Worcestershire sauce
420g can baked beans
salt and pepper

Crusty bread to serve or garlic bread is nice.

Method: Heat the oil in a large casserole, add the sausage slices and cook for 7/10 minutes, stirring occasionally until brown all over and cooked through. (I usually take the skins off the sausages before cooking or you might find they shrink and need removing at this stage which can be fiddly).

Add the onion, potatoes and carrots to the pan and cook for 5 minutes, stirring until the onion has softened..

Stir in the hot stock, chopped tomatoes and Worcestershire sauce. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat, cover and simmer for 15/20 minutes until the potatoes and carrots are just tender.

Stir in the baked beans and heat through. Season with salt (you might not need any due to the Worcs. sauce) and pepper and serve with crusty bread.

My husband said that this is a good warming meal for a winter night and he's right. It is. As it's cooked all in one pot there's hardly any washing up to do afterwards which always goes down well.
I should have taken a photograph to show you but I'm afraid we ate it all before I remembered!
If you give it a try I do hope that you enjoy it.

Many thanks for reading and I hope you have a good week.

Friday, 8 November 2013

Explore. Dream. Discover.

This week I have completed a picture book text and sent it off to a publisher. I've never had a picture book published despite having some near misses. One manuscript was accepted three times by three different publishers and eventually fell through for a variety of reasons, some of which I still don't really understand. Sometimes I say to myself that I won't bother again, that it's better to concentrate on other things but, as I said the other week, if you have an idea, it's madness not to try and see what could become of it. And it is still one of my dreams to have a picture book published. I also found this quote a couple of days ago which seems so true.

'Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do, than by the ones you did do, so throw off the bowlines, sail away from safe harbor, catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.' Mark Twain.

Also this week we went to a fireworks display. I've always loved fireworks, although in moderation. I do think they should be reserved for one or two nights of the year as animals and my cat in particular find them so stressful. When I was small and living in a thatched cottage, with farms on either side, we were unable to have fireworks in our garden. But I had a friend who lived across the field at the back of our house, on the outskirts of the village. Her parents used to have wonderful fireworks parties. I remember holding jacket potatoes wrapped in foil between my gloved fingers, and as I released them, the steam rising into the chilly night air and warming the tip of my cold, cold nose. I remember the tussocky, frosty grass and the chill coming up through my wellington boots as my friend and I looped our sparklers up and down to write our names. I remember the stars in the inky sky and the tall silhouette of the hedges surrounding the field and I remember standing around the bonfire, hearing the flames crackle and watching the colours dance, orange, yellow, red as I bit into a hot dog drizzled with tomato ketchup. And of course I remember the fireworks, the sense of wonder as they exploded and bejewelled the sky.

But above all I remember the glow. When I look back at this scene it is bathed in a golden glow, not just from the warmth and reflection of the bonfire but from the friendships, the laughter, the sharing, the sense of community as people from the village gathered together. There was a real sense of belonging and, spectacular as our public displays of fireworks are these days, they cannot hope to emulate that. Also back in the day there was the unpredictability of it all; would the fireworks go off, would the wooden stick from the rocket fall back down and land on someone's head or would, in my husband's case, the Catherine wheel whirl free of its mooring, land in the tin of remaining fireworks and cause the most awesome display but mean everything was over in the space of a couple of minutes?! This unpredictability added a frisson of excitement which is also missing I feel, but maybe that is just me getting older and of course thankfully it is a lot safer these days.

So as I explore my memories, I dream of one day owning my own field and maybe even holding my own fireworks party there. But in the meantime maybe I have re-visited a memory which I can incorporate into one of my books.

Thank you for reading and may you get the chance to explore, dream and discover this week.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Looking at Light

It's probably not surprising that I've been thinking a lot about light recently. When in New England we went from the city to the countryside, from the coast into the forest. Most of the days were blessed with big blue skies and bright sunshine but a couple were cloudy and one was rain-filled.Whilst staying in lovely Lenox we visited the Norman Rockwell museum. His last studio, which he described as his best, was moved to the grounds of the museum from the nearby town of Stockbridge where he lived. The studio faced North as apparently this is the best light to paint by.

Talking of painting, at the end of the summer my daughter and I were browsing in a charity bookshop when she picked out this book for me.

Who could resist a book called Creative Freedom? The various artists talk about distinguishing light and shadow, the way light in a church filters through frosted glass. They talk of blending and softening, of light washes, of the ambiguity of light. The language is beautiful, uplifting, inspiring and thought-provoking for any kind of artist.

It's also that time of year when we move the clocks forward by one hour in the U.K. which means darkness falls before five o'clock in the afternoon. I don't like the cold but I like those dull, heavy days of winter even less.  We live in the city so our night time darkness does not have the intensity I remember from my childhood in a small village with barely any street lights. But about ten days ago, at two o'clock in the morning, our area had a power cut. Strangely, we awoke just as the lights went out. Looking out of the window the street was bathed in a soft blue-grey mist. It looked like a painting from Picasso's blue period. This was not the all enveloping darkness of the countryside but it was unexpected and I felt on edge. Why had it happened? How long would it last? Would all the food in my freezer de-frost?! Fortunately it didn't last long but it was enough for me to consider even more about the effect of light on our moods, the way it can lift or drag down, comfort or frighten.

I am working on my next teenage novel and I know that light is going to play an important part. In some way the nuances of light will afford my main character, Chloe, an opportunity to change her life. I am not sure how or when or where this will happen and that is exciting because it is making me more alert. I am trying to take more time to notice the way light changes from one moment to the next, the way it ripples through old glass or reflects off water. I am looking beyond the light and into the shadows, trying to capture that feeling of standing on the cusp. It is like crossing a bridge.

And one day I will have the answer to my question about Chloe and how and where the light or maybe even lack of it will transform her. Maybe it will emerge little by little or maybe it will suddenly be there all at once. That is the glorious thing about writing fiction - you just never quite know what is going to happen next.

I hope you have a good week and that it brings you whatever you are hoping for. Thank-you for reading.