Sunday, November 29, 2009

Another alphabet...

Because I like playing with letters... and others do too!

That H to I segue always makes me smile!

Read more:

* Letter Porn

* Pop Up Alphabets

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Anyone for tea?

Got your handbag? Check.

And your raincoat? Check.

Friends? Check.

Starved for days to finish it all? Check.

And so it all adds up to a perfect treat!


God, I will never go to the statuary Christmas party again. It wasn’t the party games, despite Hercules winning every time, or snogging a drunken Aphrodite behind the grotto. No, it was the dancing. You would not believe just how heavy Venus can be when she steps on your foot.

Read More




Wednesday, November 25, 2009


Five ways to get your words read without a publisher

Most of us write in order to be read, but if you use your imagination, you don’t need to bookdeal in order to gain readers. I wrote these tips for an article on the Carrie and Danielle website earlier this year, from which this blog piece has been adapted.

1. In her excellent writing guide, Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg talks about how she set up a poetry booth at a fete. She sat in front of a table and wrote poems then and there for people who came to her with ideas. This is such a great idea as it lets you share your love of writing with other people. If you don’t like the idea of instant writing, you can always print out your poems in advance, tie them up with pretty ribbon and sell them under their general themes – love, gardens, nature, or whatever it is you write about. It’s a great tool for fundraising, as well as bringing people pleasure as they choose, keep and read your poems.

2. Share your writing as a gift. I’ve never forgotten going for a walk in a wood one day and finding a poem about that beautiful place pinned up on a tree. Can you believe how it made my day? You can leave poems and pieces of writing for people to come across just like that, or maybe in old books in a second-hand store or taped on benches in your local park or tucked into menus in cafes or even on the bus for the next passenger after you to find. Use your imagination, and don’t be shy. I still think of that poem I found as a gift.

3. Exchange writing with a friend. Earlier this year, I spent a great month sharing poems with another writer. It started with a comment he sent me, ‘sharing is for grown ups’ (OK, OK, I’m not very good at sharing my chocolate!). So I sent him back a poem with this title, and was thrilled a couple of days later to receive a poem from him based on one of the lines in my poem – ‘funny how expensive nothing is.’ The exchange lasted for several poems, and each time it was a treat to see what the other wrote. And of course this was how the Messages Project got started, one of the things I'm most grateful for in my writing life so far.

4. Find a writing project to join in with on the internet. One I always enjoy is the Apple House Poetry site (run by my own collaborator, Lynne!). As well as proving prompts for inspiration, by posting your responses you will quickly become part of a writing community, reading other people’s work and having them read you in return. Also don't forget the prompts on the sidebar of this blog, or the Snaps I publish. I'm always happy to see the work produced as a result.

5. Make your own books. Try a self-publishing company like Lulu, or think about an ebook. There's a wealth of information on the internet when you start looking - try this youtube video (I love this woman!) and Alison Baverstock's Marketing Your Book is well worth a read.

Do let me know of any other ideas you might have too - or any successful projects you've been involved in. I love the whole generosity involved in sharing words, whether it's reading poems out loud on buses, or in Marks and Spencers. Hell, you can even knit yourself a poem!.

Read more:

* Five Ways to Write More

*Your Messages. (Warning - this website isn't operating now, but the Your Messages up there are definitely still worth reading!)

Golden - A snap

It was her mother who first called her Mrs Midas. That baby can turn even the direst situation to her benefit, she’d said. Luck, they all thought. She's too young to manipulate surely? Corinne listened, smiling to herself. Oh look, they cried. It’s almost as if she can understand us.

Read more:

* Work

* Missing

* Night Confessional

Monday, November 23, 2009


She argues with the builders daily. She wants to keep the house’s character. She likes the knobbly plastering, how the old doors swell in the rain. She is comforted when the uneven stairs creak. The builders smile, pretend to listen. And then they start smoothing the walls, ordering more plasterboard.

Read more:

* Clockwork

* Coventry

* Dust


“Be a first rate version of yourself, not a second rate version of someone else” Judy Garland

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Letter porn...

Nothing makes me happier than when I can ogle letters. Particularly when they make me laugh like this version of the alphabet did:

One day soon I'm going to make my own alphabet. In the meantime, if you come across any similar posts or indeed if you've made your own alphabet, I'd love to see them. Please share!

Similar posts:

* What Are You Doing, Sarah?

* Pop Up Alphabets

* The Last Pick'n'Mix Bag

Enjoying colour where I can find it...

... on a grey Sunday!

Saturday, November 21, 2009


1. Write different
. In the same way that sportsmen try different sports for ultimate fitness, try new things on the page. Force writing muscles you haven’t used to wake up. Write in structured forms – a sonnet or an alphabetically organised story. Or freewrite – let yourself go. Write poems, or an essay, or a short story, or the first five pages of a novel. The key thing is not to let yourself get into a rut.

2. Write more. It sounds obvious but are you trying to write the one perfect piece and so stifling yourself before you start? Or are you saving up your best thoughts and images for one particular story? Be generous on the page. The more you write, the more you will have to write about, and the quality will – eventually – start to shine through. In the book, Art and Fear, there is a description of an experiment in which a sculpture class were divided into two groups. Half were going to be assessed on how many sculptures they created no matter the quality. The other half on the one perfect sculpture, just one for the whole course. Guess which group produced the better sculptures – yep, that’s right. The ones who produced the most.

3. Form a habit. Write at a particular time of day, or on a particular day. Be disciplined about it. Dorothea Brande in her classic book, Becoming a Writer is very firm about this. You make a writing date and you stick to it.

4. Remember what you like about writing
. I’ve lost count of the number of people who have complained that they can’t write but that they SHOULD be getting on with their poem, or their novel, or article. As if there’s someone forcing them to write. No wonder they don’t want to then. But, whisper this, the world will not collapse if we never write another poem. So somehow we have to get back to the joy of what we do. I find one of the best ways of doing this is to make a list of what I liked about the project in the first place, what I want it to achieve, what in a perfect world could happen to it, ie be published in The New Yorker! But if that doesn’t work – and it doesn’t always – I make another list of all the things I want to do when I’ve finished it and keep that to the side of the computer as a carrot.

5. And last but not least, turn off your internet. Now. Go on. Move away from the wi-fi, the twitter, the facebook, emails, blog reading. Use longhand if you must so you won't be tempted by the computer. I dare you!

Happy writing.

Related posts:

* On Refusing to Chose

Watching - a snap

He’s always preferred to watch the reaction of the audience to whatever is going on centre stage. By becoming part of something larger, he can forget himself. His ex-wife never understood. Look at me, she’d hissed at their wedding, but he’d gazed out instead. She never let him explain properly.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Butterfly of the moment

It is necessary to write, if the days are not to slip emptily by. How else, indeed, to clap the net over the butterfly of the moment? For the moment passes, it is forgotten; the mood is gone; life itself is gone. That is where the writer scores over his fellows: he catches the changes of his mind on the hop. Vita Sackville-West

Wednesday, November 18, 2009



1. Because writers need to stick together, and for me, sitting at my computer cosily writing fiction can sometimes mean I forget I'm part of the real world too. And just how lucky I am to have the choice.

2. Because PEN works "to promote literature and human rights. From defending the rights of persecuted writers to promoting literature in translation and running writing workshops in schools, English PEN seeks to promote literature as a means of greater understanding between the world's people." It also has cracking debates, events and possibly one of the best parties.

3. Because its current and recent campaigns include reforming the Libel Laws and challenging the Chinese authories to release prisoners jailed for expressing their opinion on air or in print. In addition, it supports writing in prisons, reading programmes with socially excluded groups including children, and supports literary translation in the UK.

4. Because their Seasons Greetings campaign, which organises seasonal greetings to imprisoned writers throughout the world to ensure they know they are not forgotten, reminded me just what a great organisation this is and how I've been meaning to post about it for some time.

Of course, the links above take you to English Pen. To go to the International Pen website, click here.


One of the good things about my newish job at the London School of Economics is having to find stuff out. Interesting how often this will be answers to questions that have been hanging around in the back of my mind for some time.

Such as what's the difference between THAT and WHICH?

So here's my answer to the THAT/WHICH rule:

That is defining, and Which is not, so you would use That in a restrictive clause.

Er, yes. And...

I know, that helps me like a sack of potatoes too. How about if you use them in this way:

The essays that have to be in on Tuesday should be written in black ink


The essays, which have to be in on Tuesday, should be written in black ink.


The THAT example implies that ONLY the essays that have to be in on Tuesday should be written in black ink, and the WHICH example suggests ALL the essays need to be both in on Tuesday and written in black ink.

I've looked back through my old stuff and I've - mostly - used these two words correctly so the rule must have been implanted many years ago, but I've never actually unpacked it before.

Call me anal, but I LOVE all this.

Any grammar questions/rules/tips you want to throw at me before the students put me on the spot will be gratefully received.

Related posts:

How are your sentences?

Writing Do's and Don'ts

I'm a Winnie the Pooh Fellow

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Friends - a Snap

Molly is crying at work again, so we gather together to help. A makeover! We tell Molly to sit down. Apply blue eyeshadow. Take off our own clothes and dress her in them. Put ribbons in her hair. Feel better yet, we trill. We do, so she must. Mustn’t she?

Monday, November 16, 2009


GETTING THE PICTURE, my new novel coming out in April 2010, has just received its first review from Publishers Weekly and phew, they liked it!

Getting the Picture Sarah Salway. Ballantine, $15 paper (240p) ISBN 978-0-345-48101-6
Salway (Tell Me Everything) refutes the adage about old dogs and new tricks in this breezy epistolary novel set in a British retirement home. Not that the residents of Pilgrim House don't know plenty of old tricks already: Salway's appreciation of her characters is refreshingly nonpatronizing—her oldsters have rich and naughty pasts, but live in the present, very much alive and eager to gossip, conspire, and seduce. George Griffiths is the archetypal stuffy widower, determined to control the behavior of anyone near him. He's also the only male resident of Pilgrim House until Martin Morris, a photographer who specializes in female nudes, moves in with his cameras and his photo collection. Martin's a schemer who, unbeknownst to George, had an affair with George's wife decades earlier and has been obsessed with her since; he saved all the letters he wrote her but never sent, and continues to write to her about his increasingly menacing plans. Although the epistolary device requires that some key revelations are reported from a distance, relationships and characters evolve nicely in this lighthearted novel about family and lovers and the not-so-lighthearted secrets that separate them. (Apr.)


I've just opened a 'store' on Amazon so that I have somewhere to point people for all the writing and inspiration books I love and use for my own writing and teaching. It's got five parts:


These are the books I pull down from my shelves the most often. Examples are Bonnie Friedman's Writing Past Dark which addresses many of the issues - jealousy, fear, self-belief - that writers don't often admit to, even amongst themselves, and Stephen King's On Writing - forget the autobiographical bit, his insights into the writing process are predictably brilliant!


I think this is going to end up being the biggest category. Even seeing these books together like this makes me smile. Here are the books I've scribbled over, adapted for my writing and teaching exercises, and most of all - and probably most important for me - sat back and just admired the writing and the writer. The best books let us look inside someone else's brain, and I like what I see in here!


A relatively new passion for me, but here are the DVDs I've watched open-mouthed and open-journaled. Partly the subject matter, but also the discipline, new ways of thinking, and connections made in these films make me want to do better, write better, think better. What I Want My Words To Do To You is American format only but is an inside look at how teaching writing in a prison setting can bring people back to life again. It's moving and most of all, human. All writers should watch Joseph Campbell's The Power of Myth at least once, if only to see how Star Wars was structured!


The shortest category so far, but these particular books are already dog eared and much much used.


This is definitely in progress because it's the area I'm working in most at the moment. Watch this space!

Feast - a Snap*

Celebrating their marriage every day was Jody’s idea. Friends said she was mad. That Jake would be embarrassed. But he loved it. My wife, he’d croon. Today and every day. Eventually she introduced another ritual. She started going out without him to celebrate her hen night. Tonight and every night.

*A Snap is my new name for the 50 word photostories on this blog. Do feel free to join in too with your own responses to either the photo or the story, here via the comments or on your sites. Send me the link and I'll put it up!

Sunday, November 15, 2009



CONFESSION of the week - I have a selection of poetry books by my loo but I'm not going to name them in case I get chucked out of the poetic community before I've even got my foot over that hallowed doorway. I put it down to having the wonderful, Verse and Worse* anthology always in the bathroom when I was growing up. However, I'm loving this guest post on the Me and My Big Mouth blog by Phil Norman, author of the Closet Reading - 500 years of British Humour, a book that sounds as if it's definitely one for the Christmas list.

*ps - best Amazon review ever for V&W? There are an awful lot of poems where the humour depends on finding a Chinese or Dutch accent hilarious. From a Mrs L R Fisher. And I don't know why I should find her review so funny. But I do. I suspect Mrs L R Fisher would not approve.

Words on Writing

I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of hunger for life that gnaws in us all. ~Richard Wright, American Hunger, 1977

Maybe - a Snap (50 word photostory)

From Lorraine’s list of the things that might or might not be true – lipstick is made from crushed beetles; the top of the Empire State Building is officially in space; people can spontaneously combust; elephants bury their dead; birdsong is in dialect. That life will always be this good.

Clockwork - a Snap (50 word photostory)

Simone doesn’t swim like other people. At the swimming pool, everyone else sticks to straight lengths, but Simone goes round in circles. The others shout as she bumps into them. She’s not sure who is the most wound up – her or them, but at least she’ll stop. They won’t.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Bovine - a 50 word photo-story

The cows are listening to Estelle again. She's telling them that they are superior beasts, with more tastebuds, longer tongues and double the stomachs of normal creatures. Estelle preaches on and on until the cows wonder what it must be like to have such little ambition. To be so human-like.

Monday, November 09, 2009

And another competition...

I have a chapter in the forthcoming guide to writing short stories, Short Circuit, edited by the brilliant Vanessa Gebbie and published by Salt Publishing.

Can't wait to get hold of my copy and see what fellow contributors, Tania Hershman, Elizabeth Baines, Linda Cracknell, Catherine Smith and so many others have to say.

But in the meantime, if you want to win a copy, there's a competition right here.

The Fish Prize

Some information below from an email about the Fish Prize - you can find more information here.

'Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.' Anton Chekhov
We are delighted to announce that poet John Hegley and writer/comedian Simon Munnery will judge the 2010 Fish One-Page Prize. This deceptively challenging form requires stories of no more than 300 words. We will publish the best ten in the 2010 Fish Anthology, alongside the best short stories and poems from the other Fish competitions. The first prize is 1,000 Euro and the nine runners-up receive 50 Euro and five copies of the Anthology. All of the details are on, including on-line entry and postal entry instructions.
Matthew Sweeney is the judge for the 2010 Fish Poetry Prize. He will read all of the entries himself, lest, as he says, one should get away. The competition closes on 30 March 2010 and results announced April 30. The best ten poems will be published alongside the short story winners in the 2010 Fish Anthology, and the first prize is 1,000 Euro. Entry is 12 Euro on-line or 15 by post.

The Fish Short Story Prize has reached the final month for taking entries. The competition closes on 30 Nov at midnight. For postal entries as long as the post mark is on or before 30 Nov they will be fine. The shortlisting is already under way, and we hope to have the stories off to judge Ronan Bennett by the end of January. The results will be posted on the website on 17 March, and sent to all who entered by newsletter.
The first prize is 3,000 Euro, of which 1,000 is travel expenses to the launch at the West Cork Literary Festival in July 2010. Second prize is a week’s residence at the wondrous Anam Cara Writer’s and Artists’ Retreat in West Cork, and 300 Euro.

Writers may also have their work critiqued, at a cost of 45 Euro for short stories, and 25 for poems and One-Page Stories. Postal entries must be sent to Fish Publishing, Durrus, Bantry, Co Cork, Ireland. Please do not put contact details on the story or poem, but on a separate sheet. Cheques for entry fee made to Fish Publishing.

If you have work that you would like to have edited (part or all of a novel for instance), then please go to our editorial consultancy page. Feedback on work can be on a one-off or an ongoing basis.

We would like to hear from previous Fish authors. Our Alumni Page has news of literary achievements from many of the writers we have published over the years. If you are a Fish Alumni and would like to be included on our web site, please get in touch!

Clem Cairns

Hobbies - a 50 word photo-story

Herbert’s wife loves his new hobby. She doesn’t mind sewing sequins on his outfits, or even washing the gunpowder off after. She especially likes the children who follow them around chanting, ‘Herbert, the Human Cannonball’. She feels famous by association. And besides, it stops all his moping around following retirement.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

On refusing to choose

Last month, I posted that I had just got a copy of Barbara Sher's book, Refuse to Choose, and promised I'd let all others out there who also want to do EVERYTHING know what I thought about it.


So these are the key points I took from the book.

Sher says that some people are just 'genetically wired to pursue many areas'. She calls us Scanners. We're not doing anything wrong apparently. And we're not quitters. It's just that we are looking for something different from a project than the outcome most people would expect.

Sher elaborates on this idea throughout the book. She says, 'To Scanners, the world is like a big candy store full of fascinating opportunities, and all they want is to reach out and stuff their pockets.' Sounds great, but apparently we're starving there, because we don't want to have to make the choice about which sweetie or candy to eat.


The first tool she suggests is the Scanner daybook. Everytime we think of a new idea, we spend some time writing it in our daybook. Then we go back to what we were doing, feeling safe that the idea won't go away. I've started to do this - I like the idea that it's almost an extension of my mind, and do you know what? I'm starting to feel proud of all these different ideas I have! My daybook is like some kind of weird novel in itself.

Another way of using the daybook was to go round the house and make a note on all the projects we find there. From those we've only just thought about, to those started. Make no judgments, just record. This was extraordinary - one thing I realised was that I would be a super-human if I did all those things I've been beating myself up for not doing. BUT also that I have some great ideas and I can get other people (experts) to finish some off for me. Upholsterers etc. I can still be creative that way.

And thirdly, write down a list of your achievements, big and small, even if you didn't finish what you set out to do, or it was just a plan. Write down the idea. I haven't done this, but could see it would be useful to stop all the 'but I never actually do anything' voices!


But there's something else that this list would be good for, and which I have done with other projects, and that is to ask two questions of each project:

a) What was the most exciting or interesting part of the experience?
b) Why did you stop when you did?

Sher says you may start to see a pattern - it might be you want to find out how to do something, or you are more interested in self-expression rather than commercial gain, or you like getting new information, or the learning experience.

And this is why you set out to do the project. When you get what you started it for, you stop. It's not that you've quit but that you've succeeded.

There are lots more similar type exercises - wrapping up all your unfinished projects with a label and putting them on a bookshelf to celebrate them, writing a list of 1,000 things you want to do before you die (like the books 1,000 Places To See etc), inviting friends over to show them the projects you're working on and hearing what they're working on.


One thing I'm going to be taking away is her idea of splitting the day up with a school-type timetable. Instead of 40 minutes of Maths, I'm going to allocate that time to a particular project. And then when the metaphorical school bell rings, I'll swop to another project. With huge dollops of the timetable put over to the job and other paid work, I should still have time to fit in other projects. Forty minutes at a time ...

Another thing I liked was her suggestion of getting about 20 three-ring binders and project boxes to keep the information separate, moving from one to another and just concentrating on the file that is open, putting everything away at the end of the time spent on it. Also adding to each binder or box anything on each project we find or think of as we go along.


All the ideas seemed to be at heart about looking at what we really want to get out of the projects we take on. One thing I realised is that I like to learn new things - and I like to tell other people about what I've learnt. Once I have the hang of something it's not so interesting to me so I tend to leave it to one side. Other people might like the materials involved, rather than the actual doing. Others want to create for themselves, turning a hobby into a business spoils it for them even if everyone is telling them that's what they should be doing until they believe it themselves. Sounds so simple, but it explains why I enjoyed journalism so much. A new subject to learn about every week. So now, with bigger book-size projects, I have to work out ways that allow me to keep learning and teaching. This may take the form, as Sher suggests, of new projects that I take on in the break-times of my school timetable!

And so what if I go slowly this way? At least I'll get more done than rushing round wondering what I should be doing and feeling guilty for what I might be missing.

Barbara Sher has a website here.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Dust - a 50 word photo-story

Bea began leaking on the Friday after work. All weekend she was thirsty. People started wiping their hands after they’d been near her. When she noticed how she left puddles if she stood too long, she moved faster. Drops of her landed everywhere, but everyone just brushed them away, unconcerned.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Not quite so freewriting

I'm a great fan of freewriting. If I don't start my day now with my morning pages then I will feel angsty until I can get to my journal. I use freewriting to find out what I might think about certain things, or to generate ideas for pieces, or to help me organise what it is I need to say in a journalism or non-fiction story.

And as any student of mine will tell you, I force them to do it too.

So it's a little embarrassing to realise that there are more than one way to freewrite. And that while it's impossible to get wrong, I could have been doing it better.

Hmm, what do I mean?

Well, I've been following the 'train of thought' method so far and that's worked for me. BUT I haven't really given the 'stream of consciousness' method much of a look in. And this is where I'm finding it exciting.

Here's some stream of consciousness writing from my journal this morning about the difference between the two methods of freewriting...

Train new places unexpected put hands in stream crocodile why danger the risk of writing the reader is crocodile or raft taking words new places the train who's driving the reader or writer ....

And here's some train of thought writing from the same session ...

The writer's always running behind the train trying to catch her thoughts, and so the hand is always going to be a the end of the sentence, so why does the stream seem like being up in the air? Is it because it's clear water. I should know this. It's interesting to think of this, and the idea of working backwards in planning. The drive of the story is at the front, pulling carriages behind, but is it also the fisherman in the stream. Are both catching thoughts?

OK, so neither exactly makes sense - this is taken directly from my journal, but the difference in the two pieces shows what is behind the process of writing both. It's much more than one is a series of random words and the other is half-formed sentences. It's more how different I feel at the end of writing both. With the train of thought, I finish the writing session (only normally about 5-10 mins) feeling grounded. As if I've got something out of my system. But with stream of consciousness, I'm aware of feeling as if I'm filled up with thoughts instead.

Neither one is better than the other, but to me it's one of those lightbulb moments in getting to know my own writing practice. I can see that using stream of consciousness* will help conjure up images, and by following my train of thought*, I can hopefully make sense of some of these. One is all about letting go, and the other is about capturing. Sums up the writing process really - we need to be aware of both.

And this post has been a little like a train of thought that is still in motion - I'd love to know how you freewrite and how it works for you.

*Ps I'm not sure if these are the correct definitions, but they're working for me!

Monday, November 02, 2009

A weekend of travel...

I've just had a lovely weekend running a writing workshop with the best possible group. We looked at looking mostly. How we didn't always do it, how we could do it better, how just by looking we could spin stories out of the air.

Here are a few of the exercises we did....

a) we made lists of ways we could record travel - by postcards, by scents, by journals, by luggage. As many ways as we could. Although we didn't go on to do this, there's so much you can do with this list - use one particular method to record a relationship for example. Or a psychological journey. But even just making the list made us all realise that there's never just one way to tell a story. And that often the slanted way tells more.

b) we wrote advertisements for our perfect muse. And then we wrote up what happened in the interview when s/he applied for the job with us - but from the muse's point of view! Amazing how much this particular exercise tells you - a way of watching yourself at work!

c) we drew up a list of the ten questions we would like to ask someone. Not the usual - where, what, when - ones. And then half of us become characters to answer these questions, before swopping over. It was magic to see the stories being written in front of us just from something as simple as 'what is your favourite food?' or 'what makes you cry?'. Best question, 'what music would you like to die to?' Oh, and we wore silly hats for this one. Silly hats are always good to get into character.

We did lots more too.

And then after we had thought and practised looking for what seemed like forever, I asked everybody to make a list of ten things they could see from where they were sitting that they hadn't noticed before. It seemed impossible to start with, but then of course we all ended up with many many more than ten. Some huge things too. That we just hadn't 'seen'.

Keep looking and you see more. It's exactly the same with writing. The more you do, the more you have to write about.