Thursday, December 27, 2007

Sleepy days

And after Christmas there is too much chocolate to eat, too many books to read, lots of DVD's to watch, some bracing walks across the common, games to work out how to play ... but surely this is what the holiday is really for:

Monday, December 24, 2007

May the inspiration fairy...

... shine on you lots in 2008. I'm off for a while now, but have a good Christmas.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up. C S Lewis

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Family Christmas Fun...

So this has become one of our jolly wholeome Christmas traditions - to unscramble the names of famous people who have died during the preceeding year. It brings on such cries as 'I didn't know he'd died, why did no one tell me!' and 'you've spelt it wrong' to warm the heart. Please feel free to join in. There will be a prize for the first top answer to be emailed to me, or left in the comments if you want everyone else to see just how clever (sad) you are. The deadline is 27th December when the right answers will be given.

Name these famous people who died during 2007:


Friday, December 21, 2007

No more office working...

...for a day or two. Here's one of the wonderful animated New Yorker cartoons to celebrate!!! What exactly did Santa email? That's going to be my writing prompt for today.

Short story collections

Short stories are a pleasure to write. They let you explore an idea - so what would happen if an old woman bought the Holy Grail at a flea market (Neil Gaiman) - that might not sustain a whole novel. They let you use a viewpoint - second person, YOU! - that could get annoying after pages and pages. They can sustain a pace that would be exhausting to write - or read - for more than half an hour. Also you can see your end destination, unlike writing a novel which has been likened to driving in the dark with your headlamps off.

But apparently they're not so much fun to read. 'Allergic' is how publishers apparently feel towards them. Still, on a positive note, 2007 was good to the short story. Good for my own collection too. There was a fabulous conference at Edge Hill University, where even a short short six-word story - Funeral follows honeymoon. Groom was eighty - was discussed excitingly. There's a new website - The Short Review - which has reviews of upcoming and classic collections. Small publishers are taking the short story and seeing what they can do with it. There's a National Short Story campaign - although am I the only one who thinks this has fizzled out to a kind of worthy educational resource, and doesn't offer the surprises it needs to market the short story - certainly to new writers and readers? However, there's still a wealth of on-line journals that need filling. All of them run with passion.

So in the spirit of the 'Best of's...' here are my personal short story awards for 2007..

Best collection by a writer I hadn't heard of before (and also best title) ...St Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves
by Karen Russell
(although Philip O'Ceallaigh's Notes from a Turkish Whorehouse is a strong contender for both categories.

Best collection by a writer I'll buy without thinking twice ... Cheating at Canasta by William Trevor.

Best anthology that I turn to again and again ... The Burned Children of America - I can't recommend this one enough but looking at the Amazon prices I see it's practically a limited edition Harry Potter nowadays. I'll doubly not lend mine out now.

Best collection for finding a perfect sentence on every page ... Self-Help by Lorrie Moore.

Best promotion for a short story collection ... No one Belongs Here More than You by Miranda July. Is there anyone left who hasn't seen this yet?

And the most fun I've had with short short stories ... The Fabulous Your Messages project.

Not a bad list. Although I wonder if the short story wouldn't be better served if it takes back its place in popular literature - women's magazines, TV mags, newspapers etc etc - rather than becoming too much of a niche, poetry-style, literary form. There's something about the panic surrounding the short story at the moment that reminds me of campaigns to save engendered animals, so let's bring the short story out of the dark and back to the hearth, where it belongs. There's nothing wrong with being domestic sometimes. It lets us bare our teeth when no-one is expecting it!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Three things to read...

Here's an early Christmas present for you - the wonderful Smokelong short fiction journal has a list of on-line literary links that is second to none. I've been spending far too much time clicking through them, but here are three pieces I've bookmarked already ...

a) Exquisite Corpse's oracular review of 100 new books. Still trying to work out why I find this so satisfying but there has to be a short story in this format surely. It reminds me of the Neil Gaiman's magnificent oracular journal which is emphatically not a toy. Oh no.

b) Moro by Kathy Fish from Night Train. This story kicked far above its length for me, and I know I'll keep coming back to find out just how she got so much impact in so few words.

c) And if there was a drumroll, it would come now because this is my favourite. It's such a weird idea - the thoughts of famous people just at their moments of ecstasy - Robert Olen Butler's Couplings. It's an extract from a whole book of such imaginings he is writing, including, apparently, the interior monologues of a chicken and a rooster. Although on reflection I don't think they're a famous chicken or rooster so perhaps it's just the interior thoughts of just anyone. Including maybe... you. Now, there's a thought I didn't want to have. Hmmm.

Yay! TWO in the top ten...

And if it wasn't glittery enough that Tell Me Everything came Number Nine in Scott Pack's Top Ten books of the year(and jumped several million in its Amazon rankings as a result), I've just seen that Leading the Dance came in yesterday as his Number Four.

This looks like being an expensive list for me though - I've already ordered two of the others, Number Ten and Number Three. Hmmm.

Meanwhile, when they're not helping my fingers to click the 'Buy' button on my computer, my writing muscles are getting nicely warmed up as I prepare for going away on retreat in Virginia ...

And my writing prompt for today is ... Silent Night

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Like little twinkling Christmas lights...


(and thanks to the goddess herself, Karina for the link)

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

And another quote...

This time from the esteemed editor of Shedworking. I feel I've disappointed slightly here, but promise more sheds and garden office grappling in future collections!!!

"Despite some promising stories which feature a log cabin and a potential cellar-based shedworking atmosphere, Leading the Dance fails, as do sadly so many other titles, to really get to grips with what it means to work in a garden office. But if you can overlook this glaring omission, you will enjoy shaking up Sarah Salway's clever little snowdomes of light and movement and peering at what's left behind when the glitter settles." Alex Johnson, Shedworking

That nice Mister Gaiman...

...has given me a quote for my writing. I've raved about him before - often - so I think it's a given how much this means to me. Nothing to do with promotion, or sales (hmmm...heaven knows, book sales aren't my strong point!), but more when writers and readers you respect say good things about your writing, then it's all the motivation you need to pull your game up a notch so as not to let them down. And that's always a good thing. Christmas has come a week early!

Here's the quote. And now I can't wait for my next book to come out so I can see this emblazoned on the front. Meanwhile, I'm such a saddo I've put it up above my desk so I can keep reading it!

Sarah Salway is an astonishingly smart writer. Her fiction is always beautifully structured, touching and clever -- she manages the trick of making people that you care about in stories you admire. I can't wait to see what she does next.
Neil Gaiman

Monday, December 17, 2007

Colin Farrell in my hotel room!

Ah me.

Although, OK, I will admit it, not at the same time as me. Luckily it was only when we were checking out last night that we were told we'd stayed in a famous hotel room, used for the forthcoming film In Bruges with Colin Farrell and Ralph Fiennes, otherwise I might never have left it, not even to explore the chocolate shops. Reflecting all that glory takes time, you know.

And lucky too, that we only got to see the trailer when we got home - not just because our room is the one Colin Farrell's complaining about, but also because I have a nasty suspicion that when I watch the whole film, Ralph Fiennes is going to get murdered nastily in there. It was only a short drop down to the canal after all as I kept pointing out until I frightened myself too much to even go near the window. I'm one of those fun companions, you know. If there's nothing to worry about, I can make it up all by myself.

Still, particularly nice and unfrightening to come back to this. Tell Me Everything is Number Nine on Scott Pack's books of the year. I've never knowingly been on anyone's Top Ten before so I'm made up. I would have another Belgian chocolate to celebrate, except I've eaten them all, so I'll give Scott some good label companions instead.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

On Crying

As well as my 'normal' teaching, I work with some writers on a regular one-to-one basis. This is a quite different experience, and always rewarding. Yesterday though, something strange happened. As the writer was reading out an extract of her work in progress, I started to cry. Obviously I knew it wasn't a real story, I'd worked with her on the plot even, but there was something about the situation and the words that moved me so much that I just had to let the tears flow. Even more surprising, when I looked up she was crying too. We knew then that she'd got it cracked. This was GOOD writing. Anyone watching would have thought we were mad, cheering and crying at the same time!

No tears for the writer, no tears for the reader, said Robert Frost.

Which probably means that Markus Zusak must have kept tissue factories going during the writing of The Book Thief. I got this book after a recommendation from dovegreyreader, but it's taken me a long time to get round to it, partly because of the cover. At the end of a long day, the last person I want to curl up with in bed is death. But I think this is probably my best book of 2007. It's wonderful, it's funny, it's sweet, but god, does it make me weep. It's obviously the story, and the characters, but it's also because the old man in it, Hans Hubermann, reminds me so much of my granddad. He's even got a cellar like my granddad had, smelling of apples and coal. And I used to run to my granddad sometimes to avoid my granny's sharp tongue, just like Liesel does. So I don't want anything bad to happen to Hans, I don't want anything bad to happen to any of them, but I've not finished reading yet, and the narrator, Death himself, has already told me get prepared. I'm wading through the tissues as it is. I'm not sure I can take much more.

I'm living this book, and enjoying it, as you can probably tell. Nothing would be worse than living the lives of the characters in it though. Always on the edge waiting for a hand on their shoulder, or to be picked out of a crowd.

Two other writers who have made me cry this week are Caroline Smailes and Cathy at The New Notebook. Both have been writing about their experience of being bullied when they were growing up, and both capture what it must have felt like so exactly it makes me cold, even now I don't have to go into a school playground ever again (you may have to scroll down some of the entries on both blogs). I never bullied anyone, and was only on the danger list of being bullied a few times myself, but I did stand by once and think 'thank goodness that isn't me'. Never again.

Yours weepingly

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Because Christmas is all about embarrassing family...

And because he's been on the phone complaining that he's the only sibling who hasn't been mentioned on this blog yet, here is my other brother, the Big Brother himself, Stephen. I love the idea of this gardening project he set up at a nursery, although I don't know why he didn't give those little kids a full-blown statistics lecture (which is what he teaches at the universi..zzzz.zzzz.zzzz) Oops sorry, don't know what went wrong there.... and I'm teasing because I'm actually very proud of him. He's about the only person I've ever known who can make statistics interesting. Really. And what's more he's coming over from Canada next year so I can meet my nephew for the first time. And for that I really can't wait.

Kids Company and Your Messages

Really pleased to be able to confirm that Kids Company are our chosen charity for Your Messages. This makes me really happy - just hope we sell lots of books for them.

Here's a bit about the charity, but do visit their website too.

Kids Company

Kids Company was founded by Camila Batmanghelidjh in 1996 to provide for children and young people experiencing significant psychosocial difficulties due to the absence of a functioning parent or carer, which can often have a very negative impact on their ability to access education, health, housing, and meaningful employment. It currently supports 11,925 clients.

The organisation has a multi-disciplinary team working at street level delivering a preventative and reparative therapeutic service to children.

95% of the children refer themselves or their peers to our services, which are delivered through three key channels: 33 schools across London, a drop in centre in South London and a post-16 educational site.
Kids Company aims to promote and support emotional well-being. It assumes that the healing process for these young people is only possible in the context of sustained relationships, and strives to provide each of its clients with practical and emotional help they need.
Kids Company has already made a huge difference to the lives of thousands of kids thanks to the support of all our friends and benefactors over the past eleven years. But there's more to be done and more kids who need their childhood back.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Blame it on The L Word

Maybe we should have watched The Miracle on 34th Street or listened to Christmas carols as we decorated our tree last night. Instead, we had an L Word feast, and as Mama B and Mama T discussed their theories of attachment parenting, I started to wonder why we were so attached to the loo-roll fairy that was about to make her umpteenth appearance on our tree, despite having lost everything that made her anything but ... um ... a loo roll. Did I really want to hang loo rolls on my tree?

So I put my foot down, sent everyone back to the sofa, and declared the tree a tasteful zone (my taste):

laden with carefully chosen, interesting objects:

and a certain colour co ordination:

And just as I stood back waiting for the praise, I found myself in the middle of a revolution. Apparently we like loo rolls in the Salway household, and not only have I spoilt the tree, I've spoilt Christmas. For Ever.

Sadly although I did get a secret thrill from my brief dictatorship, I have to agree. So I'll have a couple of days of (my) taste, before giving in and letting our much-loved clashing Christmas friends out of the black bin-bag they're currently twitching in. No Grinch me. As if I had a choice. Because, look, a few favourites have already crept out and chanced their arm in the current pink and silver winter wonderland of the Salway sitting room:

It seems, despite our TV viewing, we are not as grown up as we think. Or at least not at Christmas.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Picking One Author

There's a new interview with me up on the excellent authortrek site, following their lovely review of Leading the Dance. One of the most difficult questions always is to pick the authors who have influenced you but at least Authortrek let me put down several.

Unlike our students on the MA I teach on, who we made pick just ONE author or book that had influenced them. The look of panic on their faces when they considered all the writers they had to leave behind was laugh-out-loud funny, but the variety of examples they then pulled into the classroom made it worth it. I wasn't the only one scribbling down names and feeling the excitement of all those new books to try. It certainly put paid to the idea that reading is a passive activity.

My choice was Alice Duer Miller. I first came across her work during a rainy holiday in the Lake District when I started exploring the bookshelves in the holiday house. The first book I pulled out, a novel in verse, Forsaking All Others, led - eventually and through a labyrinth of failed ideas - to Something Beginning With, which is why it's dedicated to her.

And it also led to a kind of one-sided love affair. I'm not sure we would have got on in person, but I certainly get on with her words. There's something about certain authors - A M Homes, Aimee Bender, Marilyn Hacker - who trigger something off in my writing. I love the series of poems ADM wrote for the New York Tribute, in particular. Are Women People? explored the case for women's suffrage by taking the mickey out of the anti-suffrage case. The thought of how they must have annoyed the hell out of the opposition still makes me laugh, this one in particular:

Why We Oppose Pockets for Women

1. BECAUSE pockets are not a natural right.

2. Because the great majority of women do not want pockets. If they did they would have them.

3. Because whenever women have had pockets they have not used them.

4. Because women are required to carry enough things as it is, without the additional burden of pockets.

5. Because it would make dissension between husband and wife as to whose pockets were to be filled.

6. Because it would destroy man's chivalry toward woman, if he did not have to carry all her things in his pockets.

7. Because men are men, and women are women. We must not fly in the face of nature.

8. Because pockets have been used by men to carry tobacco, pipes, whiskey flasks, chewing gum and compromising letters. We see no reason to suppose that women would use them more wisely.

And the following observation is perfect in its simplicity. It's one of the things I love most about ADM's writing - she never goes one step too far - and she trusts her readers to 'get it'. Especially the ones who she's writing against.

The Logic of the Law

IN 1875 the Supreme Court of Wisconsin in denying the petition of women to practise before it said:

"It would be shocking to man's reverence for womanhood and faith in woman ... that woman should be permitted to mix professionally in all the nastiness which finds its way into courts of justice."

It then names thirteen subjects as unfit for the attention of women-three of them are crimes committed against women.

Friday, December 07, 2007

A bit of Christmas magic ... No wonder I'm freaked out by Santas.

A National Post-it Shortage...

And you can blame it all on Will Self. Here's a photograph of his writing room. Just look at them:

And you can see the whole room, from every angle, here. Sadly, I have worked my way through all 70 shots.

But I am working too. Just finishing a piece I started at my Creative Non-Fiction workshop yesterday. One of the perks of teaching is that you get to do the exercises you'd like to work on yourself, and it was a great group. Really good writers, lots of fun, and - more importantly - some excellent writing produced. The only sad thing is that no one seemed enthusiastic about taking up the challenge to spend a week eating dog food, like one essay example I'd found, but I have hope...otherwise I might just have to do it myself.

The second edition of excellent Short Review is up now, with my review of Lorrie Moore's Self Help, plus lots of other collections worth looking at.

Thursday, December 06, 2007


I love graphic novels and Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis was one of my reading excitements for 2007. Set in Iran during the Islamic Revolution, it captures what was happening through the eyes of the six year old girl she was when the book began, not really understanding what is happening to her family and then as she grows up to be an outspoken teenager she starts to look outwards too. Always intensely personaly, it made me go and read more about what is happening in Iran, so I'm really pleased to find out there's going to be a film. Here's the trailer:

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Christmas sweets!

Despite pathetic attempts by Clare last night to persuade us that chocolate in the shape of new potatoes isn't really chocolate, she's redeemed herself totally this morning by mentioning this fabulous website where I have just spent a happy half hour ordering all my family's old favourite sweets (see above) for Christmas.

A Quarter Of really does have every sweet you can remember. Just looking through the pictures is a feast in itself. Mind you, there was a worrying moment when I saw some Cadbury's Creme Eggs on sale.

Surely not, I thought. EVERYONE knows a Creme Egg is just for Easter, but luckily they are out of stock. Phew. Back to the sherbert dabs and flying saucers...

A Commonplace Post

I should have identified where I got the rejection slip (below) from - it's A Writer's Commonplace Book by Rosemary Friedman. I picked it up in a bookshop yesterday out of interest, and haven't stopped browsing since.

It's full of all the quotes about writing, love, marriage, publishing that you could ever want. Some are reassuring - a surprising number seem to point at how a writer needs only write for three hours a day at the most, '...full time, which for a writer is three or four hours of creative composition a day ...', Anthony Blond.

- others are funny - '...most of society's rules dictate that man must be central or he will sulk', Erica Jong, or this one which made me laugh out loud - 'Literature is mostly about having sex and not much about having children. Life is the other way round', David Lodge

- while others I have written out straight away and put on my wall so I can see them continuously - 'Every reiteration of the idea that nothing matters debases the human spirit' David Mamet.

I can see that I'm going to have a little while of being that annoying person who replies with a well-judged quote to every question or statement.
Friend: My wife has just left me.
Me: '...the stronger the writer the stronger the suffering...' (Harold Bloom)

But hey let me not be insecure today. I made a bit of a fool of myself yesterday getting into an absolute panic about something I woke up in the night realising I shouldn't have got into a panic about at all, but my friend was kind and didn't laugh at me too much, and there's always this:
'Nervy, insecure and self-absorbed, first-rate writers are all too rarely first-rate people', Francis King.

And at least I'm not taking my clothes off too much in public.

Yes, there is always that.

We've been reading our Your Messages responses and found one that actually gave the number of times 'Sarah Salway Naked' comes up on google compared with 'Lynne Rees Naked'. Lynne and I were worried about this, not so much at the general idea, or that people had been googling us naked (it happens all the time, don't you know) but for different reasons. Me, that I only came up a paltry 505 times, but Lynne is a whopping 150,000 hits. She's always been ahead of me, that girl. I should stress none of the hits ACTUALLY show us naked, and that what is shameful is that we've both spent too much time worrying about this when we should be writing, but, as that wonderful 'source unknown' says:
'Life is in the distractions'.

And a lovely day of distractions yesterday shopping in London with my sister, who sometimes pays a royal visit to this blog. (Hi Mary!)

London lay itself open to us, as can happen sometimes. After a visit to a certain nameless (source unknown) shop, where we enjoyed a lovely piece of coffee cake, got 20% off everything, and found everything we needed, we decided 'we didn't like it there'. Still not sure exactly why, I do what Mary tells me and we certainly 'didn't like it' there, so we hot-footed it to another area of town. On the way we had an excitement - walking across a square we just caught the unveiling of an episode of Pimp my Ride. What made it particularly interesting was that the recepient didn't seem to like his new bright red jazzed up boys blaring etc etc car.
'What was it before?' I asked another gawper.
'A Bentley', he guffawed

Oh dear ....

And we also saw Elvis suits for dogs; two of those little yapping toys that toyshops seem to let loose on floors to annoy customers at Christmastime playing nicely until a bouncing rabbit with mischief on his mind leered up to them; enough gold dresses to satisfy both of us; a copy of the original The Million Pound Note at a knock-down price (yay); Tara Palmer-Tompkinson; the boys from Duran Duran (or so we thought, we weren't exactly sure although we gawped anyway) and, back to dogs - a dog wardrobe and a dog four poster bed (Dear Santa...).

AND my sister got winked at by a handsome young man, which made us BOTH blush like teenagers.

Life was good. And my Christmas has officially begun.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007


"We have read your manuscript with boundless delight. If we were to publish your paper, it would be impossible for us to publish any work of a lower standard. And as it is unthinkable that in the next thousand years we shall see its equal we are to our regret compelled to return your divine composition and beg you a thousand times to overlook our short sight and timidity."

A Chinese rejection slip (not mine, I hasten to add)

Monday, December 03, 2007

A good day already

I woke up this morning thinking today was going to go well. One of those 'right side of the bed' feelings. And on my walk this morning, these things made me smile:

* the way my dog trots like a little pony, lifting up each leg separately.
* the businessman dressed in sober colours who was walking briskly, solemnly, across the park, but then his coat flapped open and it was lined in bright blue. I couldn't help imagining how he would think about his blue lining when he was in meetings and that it might give him a secret thrill.
* there's a christmas tree in a window, and someone has stuck a notice in front of it so those passing by can read it. All it says 'I know', and it's like a reply to everyone (including me) who sees the tree and thinks 'that's TOO early'.
* the big teddy who always sits in an upstairs window has got a new hat on.

Filling Up

I'm working my way through the Your Messages responses in order to choose some favourites for the book we're producing. It's a privilege - they are so funny, and good, and moving (sometimes within the same 300 word piece!) Best of all is following the work of individual writers through the thirty day process. I think, in every case, the work gets better and better as the month progresses which brings me back to how important it is to write something every day. Several of the emails Lynne and I received from those involved in the project mentioned how the writers were using it as a warm up - some were writing something immediately, others were mulling an idea throughout the day before their writing time in the evening, but in every case it seemed that the writing created more writing.

I remember feeling frightened that my ideas for things to write about might run out. But it does seem to work the other way - the more I do, the more I want to do. If I'm only writing once a week then I feel I have to write something REALLY good, which freezes me before I even pick up a pencil. So we're going to do a writing marathon in my writing class this morning. I'm flexing my muscles already.

And the writing prompt I'm going to start with comes from the first two lines from one of Michael Laskey's poems, and it is this:
It's something I like you to find
me doing when you come home;**

**And the answer - for those of you with dirty minds - is piano practice!

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Long sentences and family pride

I was just looking again at my brother's website, and noticed this, which made me laugh because it's so clever. He's right, The longest sentence is sometimes the least important. It reminds me of how often when I was starting out writing, I'd really really ram home the point in the last paragraph, just to make sure even the dumbest reader knew what I was on about. Of course, it spoilt the whole story. And, still flicking through Lorrie Moore's Self Help, I see she ends perfectly on very short sentences: Ask for a 7-up. Or: You always, always, say: 'Fine'. And even (and I love this one): One of those endings. It leaves the reader just where they should be - back in their imagination.

And my writing prompt for today is: a story that ends with a one-word one-syllable sentence. FINE will do nicely. Right.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007


... have I not heard of Denis Johnson before. He's brilliant, and he's written lots. Yippee, I feel Christmas has come early.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Self Help Similes

I've just written a review of Lorrie Moore's wonderful collection of short stories, Self Help for the forthcoming issue of the Short Review, so I won't duplicate here what I've said.

But, oh, I wanted more space than my review to talk about Lorrie Moore's similes. Every one seems to be a gem, to be crafted so it shines - and yet, maybe because there are so many, they don't over balance the text in the way that makes you want to 'kill your darlings', as William Faulkner once said.

Here are some:

"He goes about the business of fondling you, like someone very tired at night having to put out the trash and bolt-lock the door."

Ouch. How about this childhood memory:

"This house is embedded in you deep, something still here you know, you think you know, a voice at the top of those stairs, perhaps, a figure on the porch, an odd apron caught high in the twigs, in the too-warm-for-a-fall-night breeze, something not right, that turret window you can still see from here, from outside, but which can't be reached from within."

And later in that paragraph, because Lorrie Moore matches long sentences with short ones just perfectly:

"The window sits like a dead eye in the turret."

More? Here's one that just hits the spot - I had to stop reading when I got to it just to admire for a few minutes:

"I look for tears in his eyes and think I spot the shiny edge of one, like a contact lens."

And this, just how I feel sometimes:

"Feel gray, like an abandoned locker room towel."

And last one, just the right hint of menace and foreshadowed pain:

"You are two spies glancing quickly at watches, necks disappearing in the hunch of your shoulders, collars upturned and slowly razoring the cab and store-lit fog like sharkfins."

Yep, this is FUN writing to read like when you meet someone who makes you talk in a way that makes you both sparkle. I want to tear it apart like a provincial dressmaker would rip into a ballgown to see how the real designers do it. Or to identify every spice in the chef's special like a zealous restaurant critic who wants to get the review right. I feel electric as if Lorrie Moore's switched on my reading lamp.

OK, OK, I'll stop now. But that's my writing prompt for today ... as many similes as I can list, and I'm excited by this exercise, like the geeky kid who actually takes end-of-term quizzes seriously.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Masks from Venice

Bringing endless fun to the Salway household...

Omigod it's a cat ... ohmigod it's a cat ... ohmigod it's a cat ... wait a minute, what's a cat?...

Ooo and look, it's a cog-dat...

And my writing prompt for today is ... the pet's revenge.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Tracy Emin in Venice

The French and British exhibits at the Biennale were next to each other at the end of the row. I went to the Sophie Calle first, and then dashed into Tracy Emin's out of a sense of 'oh, I have to do this because people will ask.' It's not that I don't like Tracy Emin's work, but more that I've always felt there's something a bit intimidating about it, as if I'm 'not going to get it'. This fear wasn't helped by the people coming out as I was going in, who all seemed to be shaking their heads and laughing a little bit.

I still don't know if I 'got it', but I got something, and that was enough for me. I got that I'd like to force all teenage girls to come in and see the British exhibit - and to really LOOK. It made me want to protect and attack all at the same time, a confused, uncomfortable feeling. Birds were a motif, as shown by the beautiful fragile light sculpture on the outside.

The central hall was filled with branches and around it charcoal sketches of women's private parts (God, I'm embarrased about saying that, like a prim aunt, but I don't want to get hundreds of google hunters coming here and getting disappointed.) Anyway, to me - and you'll understand now I'm no art expert - it felt as if there was something equally fragile, bird-like and transient about the drawings. Almost as if you needed to cup them in your hands. It wasn't sexual though, or voyeuristic. More ... oh, what do I want to say ... fleeting. That's it. I was very moved.

And then in the next room, I read this.

And round the corner, I came across this, which made me gasp out loud. Not the words but the way and how they had been written which made them so painfully polite but almost invisible - surely part of the point.

And this sums up this post for me, really. I think I know what the exhibit was saying, but oh I'm not sure, but on the other hand I think I know what I liked about it. Oh heck...why am I such a girl at saying what I mean, and striving to get to the point when I can say this is what I know I want to say, which is what I think the exhibit was really about.

And my writing prompt for today is ... the subversive stitch.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Sophie Calle in Venice

I've written several times on this blog already about my passion for Sophie Calle, so you can imagine how excited I was that I managed to catch the last few days of her show at the Biennale in Venice.

She took as a focus for the exhibition a dumping letter she'd received by email from a lover, which ended in the words 'Take Care of Yourself'.

Well, Sophie Calle knows how best to take care of herself - by examining from every minute angle the experience so as to own it better. She asked 107 women (actually 106 women and one parrot) to give their versions of the letter. This varied from a text message.

To a mathematical diagram.

And also included a deaf signing, a musical interpretation, a clowning, a mother's viewpoint, linguistic variations, a young girl's comments and many many more. It was moving and funny and I can't believe anyone - man or woman - could have walked round without thinking of their own relationships and what they REALLY meant. We too often see things just through our obviously biaised eyes.

It's hard to say which were my favourites. I loved the marital guidance session where Sophie Calle was filmed being interviewed sitting on one chair, while the letter took the 'husband's' seat, saying nothing but looking remarkably smug. I also giggled, along with everyone else, as a cook was videoed chopping up vegetables harder and harder as she read through the letter. And I barked with laughter and shock as the parrot actually dived in and ate the letter. I know I'll be thinking about it for a long time to come, and that - in some way or another - the ideas in that room will come out in my writing.

It's this response which summed up the whole exhibition for me.

I went to the exhibition with a group of women, and couldn't help but wonder what the male visitors felt. Was it their worst nightmare of how women discuss them? Because, to be honest, being surrounded by so many - sympathetic - female responses and voices made me think of numerous lunches I've spent analysing relationships. So perhaps it's not surprising that, according to the Guardian Interview Sophie Calle's boyfriend has made this request from her:

She doesn't use her all boyfriends as work, she insists. Her current partner has asked her not to do anything based on him and she has agreed.

And my writing prompt for today is .... A farewell letter.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Fish in Venice

No, not in the canals - or not that we saw, and we did look pretty closely. Here's the bottom of one canal, for instance. Takes some of the romance away, doesn't it?

But the true earthy (or sea-y) romance of Venice was still very much present at the Rialto market, where we had some of the best hot chocolate of my life. Just a cup of melted chocolate as far as we could tell, and thick enough to stand a spoon up in it.

And saw every kind of fish you could imagine.

Which made me sad all over again about how few fresh fish shops we have in Britain now. Anyone else remember being taken to Macfisheries when they were a kid? Although now, I have to admit, I wouldn't know what to do with half the varieties on sale at the market.

Apart from just gasp at how beautiful some were.

And my writing prompt today is ... Meeting your soulmate in a fish shop.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Books in Venice

I'm just back from a fantastic few days in Venice. Not sure my slow slow slow campaign worked, although a night time gondola ride was just the right pace for me. I could live like that. I'm still processing all the highlights but here's definitely one of them, which was finding a shop which made books into pieces of art.

Jeckyll and Hyde looks distinctively frightening:

Whereas The Lord of the Rings has a real hobbit-like feel to it, as if you would be reading private diaries:

But my favourite was definitely Treasure Island. How magical does this look? It feels like you, as reader, will be taking part in the adventure before you even open the first page:

Mind you, at those prices perhaps it was a good thing the shop was shut, although I did get a sneak look inside. It was like something out of Harry Potter in there...

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Slowly now...

I won't be posting for a few days as I'm away for some writing time with a notebook, the CD a lovely friend made for me, and just one book.

It's the last item that makes my heart race. Just ONE book. How will I cope? I normally take suitcases full, most of which admittedly I never get around to reading. But then it's this one, IN PRAISE OF SLOW by Carl Honore, and I've had it recommended to me so often, I've finally listened. I don't want to rush it - not when the second quote in the book is this one from William Dean Howells: 'People are born and married, and live and die, in the midst of an uproar so frantic that you would think they would go mad of it', and, to be honest, I have been worried I've been going a bit, not mad, but frantic from the franticism recently. So much has happened that I've just put it to one side to think about later because there's even more happening that needs to be put to one side... you get the picture.

And so I'm going to practice sloooow writing. I haven't even taken my laptop. I'll be writing just as fast or slowly as my pencil takes me.

For writing prompts, don't forget to visit Your Messages, or do yourself a favour and read the responses already up. They're absolutely amazing.

The photograph above is my writing prompt for today.

Friday, November 16, 2007

From the excellent New Writer Magazine


Prose and Poetry Prizes 2007
from The New Writer magazine
Now in its eleventh year, one of the major annual international competitions for short stories, novellas, single poems, poetry collections, essays and articles; offers cash prizes as well as publication for the prize-winning writers in The Collection, special edition of The New Writer magazine each July (back copies available from website).
Closing date 30 November 2007

Short Stories, Novellas/Serials - stories up to 4,000 words, serials/novellas up to 20,000 words on any subject or theme, in any genre (not children's). Previously published work is not eligible. Short Stories: 1st prize £300, 2nd £200, 3rd £100. Novella: 1st prize £300. Entry fees £4 per short story (TNW subscribers two entries at same fee) or £10 per serial/novella.

Single Poems and Collections - single poems up to 40 lines and collections of between 6 - 10 poems. Single poem entries must be previously unpublished; previously published poems can be included as part of a collection. Collection: 1st prize £300, 2nd £200, 3rd £100. Single: 1st prize £100, 2nd £75, 3rd £50. Entry fee £4 per single poem (TNW subscribers two entries at same fee, £10 per collection.

Essays, Articles, Interviews - covering any writing-related or literary theme in its widest sense up to 2,000 words. 1st prize £150, 2nd £100, 3rd £50. Single entry £4 (TNW subscribers two entries at same fee).

All work should be clearly typed, double-spaced (except poetry), on one side of white A4 paper and paperclipped. Entrants may make as many submissions as they wish but please include your name, address, title of entry, word count and category on a separate cover sheet with every entry. Preliminary judging will be carried out by The New Writer editorial board with guest judges making the final selection so there should be no identifying marks on the entries. Judges in recent years include Robyn Young, Robert Seatter, Mimi Thebo, Simon Scarrow, Jane Draycott, Ros Barber, Margaret Graham, Phil Whitaker.

Further information including guidelines at

Writers can enter at our secure credit card server at

We can supply this year’s printed Entry Forms on request, and in bulk to Writers' Groups.

Last year’s winners are listed at

My new writing partners

And hurrah for students who pass on good music to write to (or is to write behind/with/against?).

Welcome to my beautiful home....

Shall I tell you a little about my fabulous life? My mansions and penthouses and stays in luxury hotels? My mirrors made from ancient Egyptian glass found in sealed tombs. My bathrobes trimmed with ostrich feathers. Shoes made from the skin of exotic animals. My writing desk which once belonged to Shakespeare. My mega-buck book contracts, views of land I own, how Victoria won't stop ringing me up for fashion advice...

Actually, and I hope you're not too shocked, none of the above is true. Apart from the fact that I do have a life. Maybe not always fabulous, it has to be said, but hey, some of the 'interesting times' are good material to put in the compost heap for writing. And on Thursday 6th December, I'm running a day course on Creative Non Fiction - how to write about your life in a creative and interesting way. It'll be held in Tunbridge Wells, just one hour from central London, and there are two places left. If you want to find out more, email me.

One of my many beautiful and talented household servants may answer you....

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Christmas has come!

My home town of Tunbridge Wells is definitely full of surprises. One of which is, I'm sure, the window of the slightly stuffy department store that greets people getting off the train. Last year, the mannequin wore a very skimpy g-string but there were so many complaints that the g-string was soon replaced by a pair of very very big knickers. I kid you not. But now the Christmas windows are up, we're all very pleased the tradition has continued. So for strangers coming here by train, this is the first thing you'll see...

At least all the windows are beautiful, I have to say - they're not always. (The rubbish theme springs to mind here.) But this year the theme is ballet and fairy tales. I have never ever fancied a shop window dummy before, but TW has something for everyone, and just between you and me, here is a very fine specimen...

But, oh look, that hussy from the first window seems to have got there first. This has to be one of the most enthusiastic public wake-up kisses I've seen. 'Get a room', I heard one passer-by say. I expect a 'Disgusted from TW' letter any day soon ...

And my writing prompt for today is - waking up in shop window.

A touch of starry-dust

I am in danger of going to see Stardust every night at this rate. I don't even need to defend my obsession - it makes me happy and fills up my imagination so I really want to write. And then last night, I came back from the cinema to an email from my publisher directing me to Caroline Smailes's wonderful review of Leading the Dance. So now as well as D M Thomas's quote, I now have "Sarah Salway injects fragility and grace into the art of storytelling."

To say I'm chuffed is an understatement - and I haven't even had to find a fallen start to cut her heart out to put this spring in my step!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

A good blurb

D M Thomas's The White Hotel is defintely on my list of the top ten most influential books for my writing, so you can imagine how surprised, proud and grateful I am to hear that he enjoyed my short stories, Leading the Dance and has given me this quote to use for them:

"These short stories explore the often wavering borderland between love and boredom, sensuality and repression, fidelity and betrayal. They are written with a spare and subtle elegance." D M Thomas


I'm off on a jaunt today with one of my favourite companions, so here's the writing prompt I'm planning to work on in the train - a piece which includes EVERY word of the dictionary definition of gallivanting (well, maybe except Thesaurus, that might be hard to fit in, although ....) - To go out looking for entertainment or amusement. Thesaurus: traipse, ramble, meander, junket, travel, wander, roam, stray, rove, gad about, range.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

And the good news...

keeps rolling in... Although it has to be said, the scientists don't seem to be totally convinced. This quote in particular made me smile:
"And much as we logically like the idea that men are interested in the waist to hip ratio, it actually features relatively low down the list of features males look for in a potential partner."

So I'm wondering now what men DO want if "fatty acids found on the hips" doesn't - logically - do the trick. Honestly, talk about fussy. I mean, look at us women, happy with a red dress (or two).

ps I know, it's Nigella again. What can I do, she's stalking me.

And my writing prompt for today is going to be ... curves.

Happy talk

I'm very happy to be hosting the latest leg of the Steve Stack mighty world tour, to promote his book, It is Just You, Everything's Not Shit, copies of which should be in everyone's stocking this Christmas.

IIJYENS (actually it took me longer to work out those initials than if I wrote it out in full but never mind) is an alphabetically based response to the question posed in the book, Is it Just Me or is Everything Shit?, and is a collection of everything Steve Stack finds good in life. Now we like alphabet books on this blog so Steve was on to a winner immediately. Even more so, when I started my own dialogue with the entries. Chinese chips I can understand (yes, yes, yes, at last I find my soulmate) but several entries (model villages!!!!) leave me cold, but that's the fun here. I have ordered several copies with personal dedications for some family members and am looking forward to some enthusiastic disagreements.

Anyway in lieu of pinching Steve Stack to find out if he was always as cheerful as he seems, I asked him some questions (oh but hey, we have the same initials so I can't do that SS to SS thing):

Sarah: What does happiness taste like for you?
Steve: Cake

Sarah: And what does it feel like?
Steve: Bubble wrap

Sarah: Sound like?
Steve: Church bells

Sarah: Smell like?
Steve: Play-doh

Sarah: Look like?

Steve: The woman I love

Sarah: Do you think it would be boring to be happy the whole time? If so, what's your favourite sad thing?
Steve: Oh god yes. Life needs its comparisons. Happy isn't happy without sad alongside it. My favourite sad thing is probably the final scenes of Life Is Beautiful but remember, it is only sad because of all the happy scenes that came before it.

Sarah: What's the best way to cheer up winter?
Steve: A log fire and lots of hot buttery crumpets

Sarah: Can you describe the happiest day of your life?
Steve: For legal reasons I probably shouldn't go into too much detail but it involved chorizo, a European capital city and a bed with flashing lights.

Sarah: Don't you think - in your heart of hearts - that there's really something creepy about model villages?
Steve: Not at all. When I see a model village I think of Camberwick Green
(Hmmm, still not convinced, Steve. all those puppets appearing from and disappearing into that 'magic musical box' used to freak me out a little)

Sarah: What is the question - on your world tour - that you wish you'd been asked? And what would your answer be?
Steve: Would you like a cup of tea and a slice of cake? To which I would have answered 'yes please'.

And no sooner said, than done. (although don't tell Steve but the tea is actually whisky so I can find out more about those flashing lights...)

Monday, November 12, 2007

Don't forget Burma

Someone called Sophie left the following message as a comment on one of my blog posts, so I'm bringing it up to give it some attention:

I am writing to you to ask for a favor, I would like to request for you to post this new campaign Don't Forget Burma on your blog and have you also participate as well. I hope this is not too much trouble for you. We created this site because we wanted a space where normal people could show that although the media spotlight over Burma may have dimmed, we are still thinking of Burma.

The team that runs this site came together through the "Support the Monks' Protest in Burma " Facebook group (439,000 members) and has created the website

We're a team of activists from around the world that work around the clock on our sites, we were key to coordinating the Global Day of Action for Burma on October 6th 2007 and Aung Sang Suu Kyi day (October 24th 2007).

We'd like to thank our launch partners who have helped make this project work., they are: Burma Campaign UK, The US Campaign for Burma,, the European Burma Network and .

About Burma

Burma is ruled by one of the most brutal military dictatorships in the world; a dictatorship charged by the United Nations with a "crime against humanity" for its systematic abuses of human rights, and condemned internationally for refusing to transfer power to the legally elected Government of the country รข€“ the party led by Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

In September 2007 monks led thousands of peaceful protestors onto the streets of Burma. The Burmese military put this peaceful uprising down with ruthless brutality routinely using violence and torture against the protestors, even the monks. The people of Burma have lived under military dictatorship for 45 years. The last peaceful uprising that occurred in1988 was brutally put down by the army killing at least 3,000 people. However the West didn't act because very little news came out of Burma. This time is different, we know people have been tortured, we know hundreds and possibly thousands of people have been murdered by the regime in an attempt to put down the uprising.

To make sure the world doesn't forget get active, submit a photo of support to this site, join the Facebook group and find a local activist organisation via

Red dresses...

I wish you could see the new dress I'm wearing today. It's a dress for chasing squirrels in the park; for catching every train you think you might have left it too late to get; even for writing things that make the reader gasp. I'm struggling to keep up with it to be honest, so it definitely deserves its own poem.

Which is lucky, because that's exactly what we're about to do in my writing class later this morning. Not just write poems to my dress, of course, but about the clothes you put on that make you just know you can rule the world. Do men have those? Perhaps a red tie or a red t-shirt does the job as well, although somehow neither would make me feel I want to walk on tip-toes or do pirouettes in between sorting out international crises. Anyway, part of the inspiration comes from the poem: ‘WHAT DO WOMEN WANT?’by Kim Addonizio. You can hear her read it here but meanwhile here's a taster:

I want to walk like I’m the only
woman on earth and I can have my pick.
I want that red dress bad.
I want it to confirm
your worst fears about me

And to move to the end of Kim's poem, here's my other writing prompt for today - what would you like to wear to be buried in?

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Hey cupcake, how are you doing?

(cartoon from the wonderful Harold's Planet)

What's not to like about cupcakes? I made my first batch for possibly years the other day and it was pure pleasure - not least because I'd forgotten how much fun icing is to plan, to scrape on, to decorate after, and to look at (and to just dip your little finger into when it's on the cake and try to get a taste without anyone noticing the mark). Admittedly Nigella Lawson is a problem. 'Oooo, you've been reading Nigella,' some nameless-never-to-be-offered-cupcakes-again-person said when I handed him the plate. I really really hate it when people claim ownership by stamping their names on things which should be universal, as Nigella Lawson seems to have done with cupcakes. In fact, this is probably one of the reasons why I'm developing an itch against academics. They say something completely obvious to the rest of us, write it again and again, albeit in slightly different ways in a book or a paper, and suddenly it is 'their theory' and you can't mention it again without quoting their name. Anyway, she (NL, not the particular academic I have in mind) has done the same with denim jackets - has anyone else noticed that no one with dark hair can ever wear a denim jacket again without people saying 'Ooo Nigella,' in silly voices. It's just not fair. But back to cupcakes, mine were delicious and made us all very happy and I'm still clearing up the hundreds and thousands that didn't make the final jump on to the top of the icing, albeit very slowly with a wetted fingertip so I can savour them more.

And I'm going to do a writing prompt today - and that is SCRAPING THE LAST ICING FROM THE BOWL.

ps don't forget Your Messages for daily November pleasure. The responses are absolutely amazing. I don't fancy the chances of Lynne and I choosing thirty without coming to blows as to which we'll be forced to leave out.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Stephen Benatar Rocks

I'm not sure I could do this - however much I manage to control it, I'm still stupidly shy and so have enough trouble getting up the nerve to sign a book someone has bought without having been accosted in the first place, but here is a man with real style. I'm impressed, and jealous. I think I might even buy the book.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Pop Ups!

The last thing I need is another obsession, but recently - and this is normally how I know I've been hit - I've been finding myself in the pop-up section of the bookshop. I'm not sure if I'm going to be able to resist the immediate gratification of a Wild West pop up book which includes pop-ups of "an entire old west town, teepee, holster and pistol with a working trigger, cattle on the trail, and cowboys on horseback" (there's even a free-standing cowboy in full regalia as an extra. My!), or can I put it on my ever-growing Christmas list and wait mooonnnnttthhhssss for Santa to decide whether or not I am worthy:

And then, joys, browsing further on the internet, I find this, a pop-up book of altars:

So, for the moment, I'm going to make do with a writing prompt - to come up with the most unlikeliest pop-up book and write a scene when this is presented as a gift.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

The Oven House

Good golly, miss molly, have you seen the responses to Your Messages? Lynne and I are overawed. Which is why it's probably a good time to mention that Lynne's novel, The Oven House, is about to be re-issued and it's sexy, funny, sad and just slightly obsessive. It's a strange thing to read a book by someone you know well - if you don't like the book, will you still like the person? When we started Messages together, we didn't know each other very much at all, but as the project progressed and we started to see each other more outside 'work' it was as if we were having two different conversations - our dialogue through Messages and our writing, and our one about mundane daily things. Sometimes we'd meet and not talk about Messages at all, but I'd come back and find one waiting for me from her in the inbox. So I'd reply without mentioning it either, although I might be emailing her a follow-up of our social conversation at the same time. It was as if we'd created a third person - lynneandsarah who writes in 300 word pieces. But The Oven House (which is slightly more than 300 words) is purely Lynne - it's brilliant.

Monday, November 05, 2007

So where do you drink?

Here's the round table at the Algonquin Hotel in New York. You see, I'm getting ready for my writing trip to America (I know, I know, it's MONTHS away). Best possible research - where do writers' drink?.

Friday, November 02, 2007

The Short Review

A great site for picking up short story recommendations has just launched here.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Just a little - well mannered - rant!

I must have been about eight when my convent school had it's first 'wear what you want' day. We talked about nothing else for weeks, and I just knew my dress would be the best. It was yellow with mock leather trims (I know, I know, I want one NOW too!). Anyway, I hardly slept all night but imagine my horror when my mum dropped me off at school to find another girl was wearing exactly the same dress. I did what any self-respecting fashionista would do - I stomped out and walked the six miles home, bother the consequences.

Anyway, that dress was from Marks and Spencer and it was a family joke after how I'd never buy anything from there again in case someone else wore the same.

So maybe that's why the adverts featuring Twiggy in a gondola are worrying me so much. Because after all, all she's doing is sitting in a boat looking, apart from the slightly scary eyes, perfectly ordinary.

And then I get it. That's what annoys me. Presumably M&S picked Twiggy because she's an icon still. She represented a whole decade if those photographic collages of the 60's are anything to go by. And she did this by daring to be a bit different. Absolutely not wearing the same dress as anyone else, and people of that age wanted to look llike Twiggy exactly because of that.

I don't believe the M&S ads. I don't believe the same Twiggy who stood gazing at the camera in the 60s - her eyes anything but scary - would choose beige clothes that make her look like anyone else, if a little bit cleaner.

And - to me - she's not a role model for how I want to look when I'm over-50 either, so I can't believe those of that age now want to either. She doesn't look like someone who wants to celebrate her age, but to hide it by becoming too safe. Unthreatening. Beige. Neat.

And that's exactly what Twiggy in the 60s wasn't. She changed the whole way we think about our bodies, right or wrong. But she made things happen.

God when I'm over fifty, I don't want to care what anyone thinks of me anymore. And I certainly don't want to be an M&S Twiggy trying to become invisible, and hoping I might pass for thirty-five.

It's like putting a beautiful fifty year old woman on dull tranquilisers. Break out Twiggy. Rock that boat and make us think again about our bodies - albeit slightly older ones!