Monday, May 25, 2009

How are your sentences?

It's sad how many of the students and writers I work with will confess to not being sure about their grammar. I guess this attitude comes down to the way it was taught (or not taught) at school because most of the uncertainty seems to come down to a fear of getting things wrong. There's no feeling that grammar is a tool for us to use. If anything, it has become a monster we're almost frightened of!

When I tell certain students that grammar is fun, they look at me as if I'm mad. When I go on to tell them, grammar is your best friend, they are definitely looking for the door.

Well, hurrah, I've just found a new superhero for you ...

... meet Grammar Girl.

I'm loving her free podcasts because she proves me right.

Grammar definitely is fun. Did you really think all those dudes on the train were rocking away to the music coming through their headphones? Nope, I predict that they're just really really enjoying hearing about conjunctions.

You can even get a free daily grammar tip to cheer up your inbox.

The book I go back to again and again myself is the one I used at journalism school, but it's just been updated. It's English for Journalists by the sublimely named, Wynford Hicks. I promise you - if you're scared of grammar, or even a little bit unsure, you will have a new best friend. Grammar Girl isn't your friend, she is your punctuation goddess... and we all need one of those!

Friday, May 22, 2009

Not waving - a 50 word story

I shouldn’t have told Derek how much I miss swimming. Now he’s insisting we wear bathing suits inside and make breaststroke movements with our arms when walking. Today I came back to find he’d turned the sitting room into an underwater paradise. He calls me mermaid, doesn’t see I’m drowning.

(ps this was one of the gardens at The RHS Chelsea Flower Show this year - it was from the Cayman Islands and won the President's Medal for most creative. I just wouldn't want it in my sitting room, but luckily am not married to Derek)

Thinking about short stories ... again

May is Short Story Month over on the excellent Emerging Writers Network. Well, it's been going for several weeks obviously since, er, the 1st May, but well worth a catch up for some great recommendations, blogs and thoughts.

Anyway I thought I'd add my own views before May runs away with me, particularly as I had the chance earlier this year to work my way through a seriously huge pile of short stories as the judge for The New Writer Magazine short story competition. I can't wait for the stories to be published to hear what others think of my choices, but I'm convinced the right ones won. I said right from the beginning that I was looking for stories with personality - hard to describe but easy to spot. Here are some general comments I'd make about ALL the stories I read for the competition ...

What surprised me was how many of the stories …

* were in first person. There's nothing wrong with this, I think short stories lend themselves to that first-person-almost-whisper-like-feel in your ear but it did become predictable after a while.

* were about friendships rather than romantic entanglements. In fact, there were so many that I started to wonder what was happening out there in the zeitgeist.

* didn’t contain any contemporary references for the period they were set in. In my view, good writing is all about detail, so slip in what music is playing, what news stories are around, who are the heart throbs. The advantage this has in making your story effortlessly real is outweighed by any worry about the piece feeling dated.

* were of claustrophobic worlds (which I liked a lot btw!)

* had great first paragraphs but then fizzled a little in the middle. I was left feeling the writer had a wonderful idea but either got bored or didn't have the stamina to finish it. How many times can it be said that a successful writer is someone who slogs, rewrites, slogs and rewrites some more.

* didn’t contain humour. I got to LONG for some humour, just a small joke would have done me nicely

* came alive with the addition of concrete details - not just period details as above but specifics. What colour handbag, what flower in particular?

* and what a difference using the senses makes. Several times I went back to see what made a particular paragraph so satisfying and it would be a particular smell, or a sound, or how something felt to touch. It takes the reader onto a different level.

* repaid re-reading. And even more the third re-read. But I was judging a competition so I had some responsibility. It did get me thinking whether we always have that luxury as writers. Sometimes it's better to make things simple. Not write simple stories though, that's a different thing. I'd never call Carver's stories simple, for instance, but they are easy to read first time. And second, and third.

* followed a conventional structure – nothing wrong with this, but I would have liked to have seen more risk-taking, and definitely more playing. Too many stories were just too unambitious in the end - both in content and structure. I started to wonder if the writer really cared about what they were writing about, whether they were passionate, whether they were daring to be authentic.

And with the stories that won, these are the three general points I would make:

* The structure the writer used fitted the theme, so it added another layer rather than feeling forced or gimmicky.

* Characters were real and believable, but always stayed on the right side of the stereotype.

* I cared about what was happening - the authors had picked brave, meaningful themes. By this I don't mean war or the end of the world, but there was something at stake that mattered within the worlds they had created.

This is what I said in general about all the stories on my final list:
They were sympathetic, clever, optimistic, heartbreaking. They had the thing I was looking for which was personality. The best ones took me somewhere surprising, the writers kept the tension, the characters were ones I cared about. Nearly all were about human emotions – complicated, messy, spilling over the page. A short story knows just how an object can change our lives, a look can change our lives, what we don’t say can change our lives as much as what we do say. These stories were all about those moments of change. It has been a privilege to enter so many different worlds.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Blossoms - a 50 word photo story

He died in November. By the summer, Lucy is still finding messages he left for her. She wakes to find a climbing rose has reached her bedroom window, its tight buds unfurling. In the flowerbed, a white lily stretches over to the pink. It’s all fleeting beauty, beautifully fleetingly real.

PS Can you guess where I've been? This photograph is taken from one of the fantastic displays at RHS Chelsea Flower Show!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

In the driving seat - a 50 word story

Used to her car’s satnav, Jody had a special one implanted above her heart. It was essential for blind dates. ‘Turn around when possible,’ the mechanical voice would mostly chant. But then one night she didn’t have to hear the words, ‘Stop now', to know. She had reached her destination.

And this one is for Cally with special thanks for her CD, Drive Sarah Drive, which I LOVE! Here's the first track from it... enjoy!!

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Challenges - a 50 word story

The tasks Jon sets Suzanne are too easy. Anyone can teach dogs to read, or motorways to sing. At last he challenges her. She spends days carving nature out of ice, only for it to melt before she reaches the last leaf. Even after the fruit bruises, she stays frozen.

(And the inspiration for this prompt comes thanks to Dave who kindly provided the music ...)

Friday, May 15, 2009

No stories today.

Yesterday, my daughter and I did one of the things you hope you'll never have to do. We went to the funeral of a very special teenager. She really was a girl who, as the order of service simply said, was 'so brave, so loving and so loved.'

Although I think reading this line brought tears to everyone's eyes, it was the almost tangible and overwhelming feeling of love everywhere that somehow made the day bearable. The family were extraordinarily generous in both offering and accepting love too, and I think everyone was humbled by how they allowed us all to share their grief, but it's left me out of words. Instead I've been reading, turning in particular to Mary Oliver who always seems to know how to say things better.

The Summer Day
by Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean -
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down -
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your own wild and precious life?

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Lucky - 50 word story

At first she liked the way the villagers stared at her. And when the offerings began - flowers, gold, wine dropped on her doorstep - she thought she had it made. That is, until the morning they left a baby for her. A thousand shutting doors met her roar for help.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Keeping Up - a 50 word story

She doesn’t let more than a week go by before she matches the Jones’s. Her stone bananas when they put up those silly pineapples. The glow-in-the-dark curtains. ‘We’re building an extension,’ Mr Jones said one morning. She thought quickly. Surely her elderly neighbours wouldn’t need a whole house anymore.

(NB. Please feel free to join in with your own 50 word story via the comments. You might be kinder than me! This is a real house in London by the way... I don't know the story behind it, but would love to. This is all I could find in one of the tourist guides...

Look out for quirky details too such as strange numbering. Apsley House has a wonderful address – No 1 London. A house at Strand on the Green near Chiswick is number Nought, while another near Brick Lane is eleven and a half…)

The Story of Stuff...

Please watch The Story of Stuff by Annie Leonard. It's a 20 minute film that explains the real cost of what we're buying. This is something I've been thinking about a lot recently for a collection of poems about shopping I'm working on. What amazes me though is the reaction of schools and school boards to Annie Leonard's film (as shown via the blog).

Why is a discussion about our shopping habit quite so threatening? It is just shopping, after all. Isn't it?

Hear me, read me...

Two offers that have to be value for money....

The podcast of my short story, Dictionary of Death Dreams is now up and available - free! - from the Monkeybicycle website.

And my short story, For the Sake of the Children, is now up on the Night Train site. Again, all you need to do is click!

Thanks to both editors for this!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Nesting - 50 word story

He sends her a piece of grass every day. No letter, no note. At first she keeps them tied in pink ribbon. But then she starts to weave them into a shape moulded by her fingers. When she’s got enough, when she’s built their shelter, she knows he will come.

Anyone near Lewes?

Would be so good to see any of you who fancy coming to this reading. I've attended the Needlewriters evenings as an audience member before and it's been a brilliant experience, not least because it's a great venue (with cake as well as wine) and there's an excellent inspiring atmosphere. If you do manage to get there, please say hello if I don't know you...


and delicious food and drink, at the Needlemakers Café, West Street, Lewes
(for details and map see



Sarah Salway is the author of two novels, Something Beginning With and Tell Me Everything (Bloomsbury) and a collection of short stories, Leading the Dance (bluechrome). She judged the short story competition for The New Writer magazine this year, and is currently editing her second short story collection.

Andie Lewenstein has published poems and stories in anthologies and won the Ware Poets sonnet prize. She is currently drawing inspiration from fairy tale and the forest where she lives. She has taught creative writing in Adult Education, on Emerson College’s Word Work course, and she was co-director of the annual Poetry Otherwise conference in Forest Row.

Julie Corbin studied creative writing at Sussex University. Her first novel, Tell Me No Secrets, was shortlisted for two competitions: the Daily Telegraph's 'Novel in a Year' and the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook 'first 10,000 words of a novel.' The paperback will be published in July and has already been described by one reviewer as 'an absolute corker.' She is currently working on her second novel, also a psychological thriller.

If you plan to have supper at the Café, it’s probably a good idea to arrive in time to order and eat before the readings start.

– TICKETS: £5 (£3 unwaged), in advance from Skylark (Needlemakers) or at the door on the night.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Spoilt - 50 word story

They don’t laugh when he comes in looking for ferret jackets. Not even when he insists on Harris Tweed to match his. Lined with silk so that they slip easily into his pocket. And pink ribbon for the lady ferret.

No, they’ve seen everything. They’re much more likely to cry.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Heritage - 50 word story

It’s not too ambitious for the conservatory? he asks but she’s determined. It costs a fortune. The town is blocked for days during the delivery. They are interviewed on TV. But she’s still not happy. I’d forgotten it was round, she says. Something arched would go better with the curtains.

Surprise me!

There's a great interview with Kim Barnes up on the Brevity website right now about writing short non-fiction pieces. She talks about the 'factuality' of non-fiction and offers one of the best basic descriptions of emotional truth I've seen:

The “creative” aspect of writing nonfiction simply refers to the art, not the act of make-believe. It means that we heighten our use of language and shape our story; we impose a narrative of meaning that represents our individual emotional truths. That truth varies from person to person.

And in a moment of synchronicity, I'm listening to The Reunion with the Beirut hostages, John McCarthy, Brian Keenan and Terry Waite, along with Jill Morrell, on Radio 4 as I write this. It's worth having a listen to (on the wonderful Listen Again service, just click the link above) for two reasons.

One is how Brian Keenan describes the differences - of having a fifth gear in the car, of drinking beer from bottles - he was shocked by when he returned. These are the details writers need to think of when placing a story in a particular time because we forget and take for granted how things change.

But another key moment for me was Jill Morrell's comment at the end. She said that she found the programme useful because in talking again about what happened, she could make her own narrative clearer. By bringing in the truths of the others, she was able to colour hers in a little more, make it more substantial for her.

I like the idea of our life narratives not being firm like this. Of being aware of how they can shift and change depending on who is telling the story. It's frightening, but it's exciting too. We write to find out what we think and perhaps as much, we write to find out what happened to us. When we do this well, we turn our life into something others can share and respond to. And the secret of doing that successfully is that we should take nothing - not even drinking beer out of a bottle - for granted. As Kim Barnes answers with this question:

Q. Is there a moment in a short piece that you find yourself looking for as a writer and reader?

A. Yes – that point where the essay surprises me. This surprise can come as a word, a phrase, an image, an appropriate revelation. It’s what causes the essay to transcend individual experience and attain the level of art.

And if you are looking for somewhere to submit your essays, Conclave Journal are now open to submissions of character based essays and non-fiction amongst other things. Definitely worth a look, and also your support.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Being Alive

"There is a Latin saying: Ars longa, vita brevis. Art is long, life is short. But the true and beautiful thing is that nothing lasts. Everything changes and passes. The creative process is just that. Not a means to an end, but a continuing engagement with being alive.

Breathe in, and begin"

Kim Addonizio, from Ordinary Genius.

Boring - 50 word story

He’s not Mr Right, but at least they can talk. I’ve always found fish fascinating, he says. She hasn’t. And, hours later, she still doesn’t. The agency tells her she needs to make more effort if she’s serious about finding a partner. Her mouth opens and closes. She’s drowning.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Memories - a 50 word story

She says she'll divorce him if he brings in the clowns. And there’s no way she’ll weep while a stand-up comedian tells graveside jokes. And absolutely forget the slapstick. But he’s heard how she laughs with other men, and that’s all he wants. For her to remember him, and giggle.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Reflection - a 50 word story

Carly was horrified when the camera first went up. She’d hurry past, pulling up her collar and looking away. But then, she started dressing more carefully. Sometimes she’d even wave. She couldn’t stop wondering who was watching her. If he thought about her as often as she dreamt of him.

(If you would like to write your own fifty word story based on the photograph above, or any of the photographs, please join in via the comments. I'd love to see them, and will read all the stories. You can see past stories by clicking on the 'Fifty word story' label below)

Monday, May 04, 2009

My Writer's Animal is ... a porcupine!

I went to visit Penshurst Place last week. It's the home of Philip Sidney,

the poet and courier of the Elizabethan age. Anyway, apart from being beautiful, I was excited to see porcupines everywhere I looked ...

Now it struck me immediately that the porcupine is the perfect symbolic animal for us writers.

Several reasons:

1. The name "porcupine" comes from Middle French porc d'épine which could be translated as "thorny", "spined", or "quilled"

2. A group of porcupines is called a 'prickle'

3. From ancient times it was believed that porcupines can throw their quills at an enemy.

Also one of the few jokes I remember is about porcupines - how do porcupines make love?

Answer - very carefully.

OK admittedly that joke has nothing to do with writing whatsoever but it makes me laugh every time. Hmmm, anyway, moving swiftly on, I think we should all start wearing porcupines on our heads proudly when write, as on the helmet above. In fact, the first person to send me a photograph of themselves with a porcupine on their head will win a HUGE prize. They will deserve it.

Although if you're not quite up to that, you might think about visiting the 100 yard peony border, which is just getting ready for its big moment in June. Apparently it's breathtaking, filling up every sense. I can't wait. And in the meantime, try not to throw your quills at anyone.

A Door of Her Own - 50 word story

When Dotty insisted on her own entrance, he didn’t hesitate. He smiles still as he hears her door click, the tip-tap of her heels down the path every time she thinks he’s asleep. He knows what comes next. A knock on his door. Her night-time visit.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

On dreaming, gardens, new friends and bluestockings...

We've just come back from Shropshire. my favourite county, full of little lanes, and rolling hills, and woods. My husband and I played our favourite game of 'what would it be like to live here', but this time we took it further and actually took a detour to drive past a house we'd spotted in the estate agents window.

So, what would it be like to live there?


Oh dear. And then on the way back, we started talking about what we wanted in our dream house - a river at the bottom of the garden where I can canoe, a shed to work in, being able to look out of the window and see no other sign of habitation, one of those inglenook fireplaces, and a wood nearby that we can gather kindling etc from and spot primroses. A walled vegetable garden. Lambs nearby to watch. And so it went on, especially when we hit the traffic going south with us along the M25. By the time we hit our first traffic jam, I was feeling furious. It was completely and utterly unfair that I shouldn't have it all. Hrmph. Grumpiness is the side-effect you're not warned about on the daydreaming packet.

But then something wonderful happened. As we drove into our road, I started to feel excited about the seeds I planted last week on my windowsill. Would they have grown? I walked into our tiny little square of back yard and the blackbird darted into the bush where it doesn't think I know about its nest. I remembered how much I love the red wall in my kitchen. And I do have that disco ball in my tiny little writing room upstairs...

Here are three other things that make me happy to be exactly where I am...

1. One of my blog goddesses, Susannah at Ink On My Fingers has featured me on her site and I know some of her readers have been coming over here to visit. Welcome! Please leave a comment and a link so I can come and read you too... It's like finding new friends.

2. My tickets for various talks on different aspects of garden history at possibly one of the best and most hidden gems in London, The Wallace Collection, have arrived. Three Thursdays in May and June at 2.30 in the afternoon. It already feels decadent, like going to the cinema in the middle of the afternoon and coming out blinking into the sunlight after!

The latest copy of Selvedge Magazine was waiting for me, and hidden amongst the inspiring interviews and luscious photography, is an article about Bluestockings. Originally, the term was an insult for the 'homely dress' of Cromwell's 1653 parliament apparently, but then it was appropriated by three women of society in the mid 18th century - Elizabeth Montagu, Elizabeth Vesey and Frances Boscowen - to name the literary salon they founded so they could talk as equals with men. The article claims that by doing so they created the conditions for the seeds of feminism to germinate and ultimately bloom. As Nicola Donovan also says in the article, 'It is easy to forget the legacy of these women and take for granted our rights to education, expression and the pleasure of words. But once we remember and celebrate it, then to be called a 'Bluestocking' becomes the greatest compliment imaginable'.

I agree, let's take it back as a term of fabulousness. The Blues Sisters Joan Smith called them last year in The New Statesmen, saying they were
"the missing link in an unbroken chain of female creativity. The struggle for the right to be clever, sexy and feminine is still going on.

Here are the original three bluestockings, definitely clever, sexy and feminine, and inspiringly creative. So, ladies and gentlemen and blog readers, let me present my role models for May...

Friday, May 01, 2009

Loreena McKennitt sings The Mummer's Dance

Because, hurrah, May is here ...

Seeds - a 50 word story

Trust me, he says, and she doesn’t think twice, not even when he places the seeds on her tongue, calls her his little incubator. Her happiness is unbearable so she’s not surprised when she eventually explodes. She is a goddess, creating a new world full of creatures exactly like him.