Monday, 21 December 2015

A Year in the Life of a Writer

So, here are my highs and lows from 2015. It’s been a mixed year!

With Sir Tim Rice and Wendy Clarke
In January, I joined the Council of the SWWJ and agreed to re-vamp their Manuscript Appraisal service, and I have now taken on the role of competitions co-ordinator too! As a long-term member, I have always enjoyed attending SWWJ events, and being on Council now gives me more input in the planning and something to actually do (apart from chatting and eating) while I am there! During 2015, thanks to my new role, I have had drinks on the House of Commons terrace, attended a wonderful lunch party at the National Liberal Club, and had tea with Sir Tim Rice. Lovely!

As a member of the Romantic Novelists Association’s New Writers Scheme, I have enjoyed some lively social events and interesting talks too, and in the Autumn I received my best ever ‘reader’s report’ for my most recently completed novel, which was described as already reading just like a published book. Shame that the first publisher I then sent it to didn’t seem to agree! Still, it’s early days and that novel has already been submitted elsewhere.

Short story successes have continued to come in, with stories appearing in The People’s Friend and Woman’s Weekly, and my first appearance in a My Weekly annual (2016 edition, but published a few months ago). And I still write regularly for Practical Pre-School magazine on my specialist subject of working and reading with young children, with at least one, and often two or three, articles in each monthly issue.

personalised crossword
I also started my new crossword venture this year. Having loved doing cryptic crosswords for many years and seeing my book selling so well (despite a problem with lost royalties which the publisher still hasn’t managed to sort out after many months of trying), I thought it was time I started compiling some of my own. Since making that decision, I have seen my writing themed crosswords in print in the SWWJ in-house magazine and online at Kishboo magazine, and have compiled several personalised crosswords for clients as birthday and Christmas gifts for their friends and family. I intend to do a lot more of that in 2016.

I have continued to make new writer and reader friends throughout 2015, both in person at writerly events, and through facebook and twitter, and this year I launched my own facebook author page to try to separate the writing stuff from the personal. It gained over 100 likes in only four days, which I was very happy about, and I will continue to update the page whenever I have writing news.

The highlight of the year though, in writing terms at least, was when literary agent Hannah Ferguson offered to represent me and my novel 'After I Leave Her', and the excitement of seeing the novel being sent out to, and talked about by, lots of the top publishing houses in the UK. We had a great meeting with an editor who showed every sign of being about to ‘take me on’, until her finance and marketing colleagues decided not to go ahead. That has to rank as the greatest disappointment of the year… from high to absolute low in one easy step!

On a more personal note, 2015 saw one daughter graduate with a merit in her Masters degree (lovely ceremony at Westminster Hall), while the other started a new nursing job and a Masters degree of her own. My oldest schoolfriend celebrated her ruby wedding anniversary, although the celebrations were marred by the unexpected death of her aunt who was travelling from America for the party and died en-route. And Paul and I, more than a year after our wedding, finally found a house we both liked enough to rush to the estate agents and start the ball rolling for a house move early in 2016.

But the best thing that happened this year, or in just about any year, was the birth of my first grandchild – the adorable Penny. Watching her grow and develop, and listening to her little giggle is a real joy, and spending time with her is the only thing I will willingly leave the laptop for.

Penny meets Santa!
Wishing everybody - writers, readers, family and friends - a very Merry Christmas and a happy and prosperous 2016.

Viv x





Saturday, 21 November 2015

Learning to live with a split personality!

Since getting married last year I find I am constantly juggling two names.   

I have been called Vivien Hampshire for a very long time, and certainly for my whole writing life. Although I’m far from famous, I am known by that name, both in women’s magazine fiction and pre-school magazine circles, and I’m reluctant to change it. Yet, in my personal life, it’s expected that I take my new husband’s name and become Vivien Brown, and I am more than happy to do that, despite the hassle it causes. Passport, driving licence, household bills, bank accounts, library card, doctor and dentist records, you name it… they all have to be changed.

So, because there are two very distinct and separate areas of my life, each pleading a strong case for the use of one of my two names, I have decided there is only one answer. I will live with both names side by side - not just during the immediate change-over period, but forever!

But how do I manage that without tying myself up in knots and confusing everybody else? If you are about to get married, especially you writer ladies out there, believe me, there is a LOT to think about…

Firstly, I have no real choice but to continue to write as Vivien Hampshire. Using my new married name would have felt like starting all over again, with regular readers not recognising the new name at all. When it comes to those professional childcare and early education staff who read my articles about working with young children, it would also worry me that they’d have no faith in an apparent new writer and I would lose all the benefits (a wealth of knowledge, experience and credibility) that I have built up behind the old one.

So, I have opened a new facebook ‘author’ page where I will forever be Vivien Hampshire (Author) - it’s very easy to do – and that’s where my readers and writing friends will be able to find me and where I will talk only about my books, stories, and other writerly stuff. You can take a look at it here . This blog will also continue under the name of Vivien Hampshire, as will my Amazon author page – to ensure it matches the name on my books – and my membership of writing organisations like the SWWJ and RNA. As for twitter, I am Vivien Hampshire there too, and intend to stay that way, as most of my tweets are of the writerly kind.

For my general daily chat, friends and family, likes and shares, photos of my cats and granddaughter, etc. I am retaining my personal facebook page, where I have already made the switch to calling myself Viv Brown – with the old name retained on my profile page in brackets for those who are either curious or confused!

Email: Well, what can I say? The thought of the number of people I would have to tell if I changed my email address scares the hell out of me. And plenty of people use obscure email addresses that don’t include their name at all, so in that area Vivien Hampshire it is, and will (probably always) remain, no matter who I am communicating with.

As for the important finances… I’ve changed my name at the bank, but I’ve also kept just one small rarely-used savings account open at another bank in the old name, so I have somewhere to pay in the odd stray cheque that sneaks through the net bearing the Hampshire name. I was amazed at how soon my regular bank started refusing to accept cheques in that name, even though their records must show that I’ve been called by it for well over 30 years!

Of course, when magazines or publishers pay me fees or royalties, they need to know my ‘official’ name too – the one that matches my bank details, but they are more than happy to publish me under the old name, so I suppose Vivien Hampshire has now become my ‘pen name’. Lots of writers use pen names; it’s just that mine is my ‘ex-name’ and not a made-up glamorous one as many others are! Of course, I’ve had to tell PLR, ALCS, and DACS of the name change too, but they all have facilities within their systems to cope with authors' pen names (multiple ones if necessary). And when it comes to the tax man, he now knows me as Vivien Brown, with a ‘trading name’ of Vivien Hampshire. Simple!

Then there’s ID. I still haven’t changed my name on my passport, mainly because it costs a fortune to do it, so I’m waiting for it to expire, when I will have to buy a new one anyway. It makes holidays interesting, as I’m sure the hotels we stay in abroad must assume we are not married – not that they care these days. Just remind me not to book a double room in Dubai until it’s been sorted! But I have changed my name on my driving licence (to ensure it matches the name on my car registration documents and insurance), so by producing either the passport or the driving licence, both of which carry a photo, I can still legitimately prove my identity under either name, at least for now. And the marriage certificate comes in very handy sometimes to prove both who I was and who I now am – like when selling my house, which was bought when I was a Hampshire but is now being sold as a Brown. Oh, boy, isn’t it complicated?

And so all I have to master now is learning to sign my new signature without thinking about it, and without having to stop mid-flow and apologise that I’ve started to sign the old one. It still happens occasionally, after more than a year.

And, of course, most importantly, I have to remember which of my two personalities I am supposed to be at any given time - depending on where I am and who I’m talking to! So, on that note, it’s Goodbye for now – from both of us!






Sunday, 11 October 2015

PROCRASTINATION: A big word, and an even bigger mistake!

I must stop monkeying around!
Why is it so hard to get back into the swing of things after a week away?
Eight days away from my desk. That was all it was supposed to be. Plus maybe one day before setting off – for packing – and another after flying home – for unpacking! So, why is it that, a week after arriving back from my sunshine holiday in Lanzarote, I still haven’t managed to get back in the swing?

When I was still going out to work I would have had no excuses. Ignore the piles of washing and the half empty case still open on the bedroom floor and just set off for the office. It might have taken a few evenings to catch up with the household stuff, but catch up I would, and fairly quickly too. And my mind and body would have been right back into the day job as if I’d never been away. Working from home now, and being my own boss with nobody breathing down my neck, seems to have put paid to all that!

Since getting home I have washed my way through several loads of laundry, changed the bed (well, who wants to get back between the dirty sheets you left behind more than a week before?), collected the cats from the kennels, read through pages of emails (many of them of the junk kind), stocked up at Sainsbury’s, been to visit my elderly mum and helped her to change her bed and get her supermarket shopping too, done a little light gardening and a thorough hoovering of the house, and attended a funeral. All of which I would once have fitted in around work, but now these oh-so-essential tasks seem to spread themselves out and take over, so when it comes to my writing, I find myself sitting down each evening and thinking: It’s not worth starting anything now. It’s late. I’m tired. There’s always tomorrow. But tomorrow never comes!

Writing is supposed to be my job now. My priority. My passion. So why am I not doing any? To be honest, since arriving home, writing anything other than the shopping list has been pretty much non-existent. I did manage to rattle off an article one evening, mainly because it was commissioned, so there was a deadline – and a welcome fee - involved. But what I really want to write is fiction, so why am I not doing it? I'm procrastinating; that's why! Making excuses, and finding silly reasons to put it off. 

My latest published story
The one short story idea that did emerge this week chose late at night to pop into my head. I was already in bed but the whole first page was fully formed in my mind before I went to sleep. The trouble was - by the time I woke up it had disappeared without trace. Yes, I should have got up and made notes, but it’s hard to get motivated at one a.m., and I would surely remember at least the germ of it come morning, wouldn't I? Sadly not. I’ve spent a lot of fruitless hours trying to recover it, but I already know it’s gone for good. Still, one of my stories, called The Anniversary Waltz, is in the Woman’s Weekly Fiction Special that’s just hit the shops (November issue). It’s one I really enjoyed writing and am very happy to see in print, lovely illustration and all, plus I have just sold another story to The People’s Friend, so with that kind of boost, it won’t take me long to find another idea - and to nail it down next time. No excuses!

And, as for my novel in progress? Well, let’s just say that a novel is like another world, one that I have created in my own head, and I need to step back inside it as soon as I can... but it’s closed its doors to me. Temporarily, I hope. After just a short time away it’s been very easy to ‘lose the thread’. And there’s only one way back in - I need to re-read the whole thing right from the beginning to remember where I was, who’s doing what, where and when, and recapture what I had planned for them next. Luckily, I’m only a few chapters in, so it won’t actually take too long. But please, remind me not to go away again until it’s finished. Or at least to make some proper notes as soon as each new plot idea strikes, even if it is in the middle of the night. Losing the thread after 7000 words is manageable, but when I’ve got all the way to 70,000? I’m not sure I could cope with that!  

Sunday, 6 September 2015


Taking my writing in a whole new direction...

It’s September and I can hardly believe I’ve been married for a whole year already. Where does the time go? I wouldn’t say there’s never been a cross word between Paul and me over the last twelve months, because having a bit of an argument from time to time (or even every day!) is a healthy part of married life… isn’t it? But ‘cross words’ of a different kind do play a big part in our daily lives – those of the black and white squared variety.

Crosswords are great for keeping the old brain cells in good working order, playing around with words and expanding vocabulary, and for developing patience and persistence – all essential requirements for any writer – and no day is truly complete for me without enjoying, and finishing, the crossword in the paper! My record for the Daily Mail cryptic is now down to around eight minutes on a good day, but I have to allow a whole lot longer if I decide to have a go at the Telegraph Toughie!         

I often browse through ebay or Amazon looking for ‘crosswordy’ items too. There are so many – pens, egg cups, mugs, cuff links, ties… My crossword-patterned furry slippers all the way from America have finally fallen apart after nearly three years of wear but unfortunately nobody seems to sell them anymore, so I can’t replace them, but I have just added two great t-shirts to my collection: a black one with the logo ‘Live Breathe Sleep Solve’, and a grey one with ‘Black Belt in Crossword Puzzles’ emblazoned right across the chest. A bold claim, maybe, but I have been solving them for fifty years so it’s one I feel justified in making.

Since writing my book ‘How to Crack Cryptic Crosswords’ (details here) I’ve had a real urge to start compiling crosswords of my own, and it’s proving to be a great success.

I started earlier this year with a crossword to celebrate the impending birth of my granddaughter Penny, packing it with references to cots, bottles, nappies, rattles and all things baby – and I loved doing it. I also ran a small competition here on the blog, offering a personalised crossword as a prize, and the winner, Wendy Clarke, asked me to compile one especially for her husband Ian’s fiftieth birthday. What fun that was! Wendy gave me all sorts of information about her man and I weaved it into the clues – everything from his favourite drinks, cars and music to the names of family members and pets, holiday destinations, hobbies… and a whole lot more!

Then a friend I hadn’t seen for ages happened to spot me talking about the blog competition on facebook and got in touch to ask if I could make up a similar puzzle as a birthday surprise for her partner’s mum. My first paying customer! Emails went backwards and forwards, with more and more obscure facts about the unsuspecting Barbara changing hands, and again a highly personalised crossword emerged, with every clue having some connection with the lady’s life, work, friends and family, even though we have never met.

I have also started writing regular cryptic crosswords with a distinctly writerly theme for inclusion in the quarterly magazine sent out to all members of the SWWJ (Society of Women Writers and Journalists), and did another, with the clues all based around writing and reading, for the competition page of a recent issue of Kishboo, the e-magazine for fiction lovers. Both are worthy causes so I didn’t charge, although I have discovered that compilers can easily command a fee of around two hundred pounds or more for writing even a fairly small themed cryptic crossword puzzle for a popular newspaper or magazine!

So, to stop me worrying over the latest plot problem in my work-in-progress or wondering what’s happening with the completed novel that’s currently with my agent, I’m going to take occasional time out from my fiction and article writing work and compile (and hopefully sell) a few more specialist crosswords. Not to try to make my fortune, but because it’s fun to do, I’m getting pretty good at it and, as hobbies go, it’s a lot quieter than knitting - my husband just can’t tolerate all that rhythmic needle clacking!

My aim is not for my puzzles to appear in national newspapers - many more experienced people than me are already doing that, so the competition (excuse the pun) is likely to be fierce - but for them to become unusual and highly personalised keepsakes to be presented as gifts for birthdays, engagements, weddings, anniversaries, or at leaving parties etc. I might tackle some specialist topics too if I can get a trade paper or club magazine interested in publishing one for their members to crack. You name it… any theme, any celebration, any life story... and I will do my best to produce just the right tailor-made and totally unique crossword for the occasion. No two will ever be the same!

Rates start from just £15 per puzzle, depending on the size and level of complexity. Does that seem a lot? I hope not, as each one can take several hours to put together. Crosswords will be delivered to you as PDF documents by email, in colour and suitably decorated, all ready to print - or even to frame! – with the solution provided separately in case you get stuck.

So, if you fancy having a special crossword written just for you, or as a gift for a friend, please get in touch and help me to get this new venture off the ground. Feel free to email me at to find out more, ask for a price list, or place an order. If it takes off, prices will go up to a more commercial level next year, and I may even get myself a proper website. Wish me luck!


And, just to show I really can do it, here’s what some of my satisfied customers have to say so far:
I was wracking my brains trying to find something unusual to give my husband for his 50th birthday and Viv came to the rescue with the idea of a personalised crossword. I would say it was his best present! (Wendy Clarke, winner of my blog competition)

A wonderfully unique, personalised gift for anyone who loves cryptic crosswords. Viv takes the time and effort to find out many details about the recipient which makes the clues and/or answers particularly meaningful. She is able to tailor the difficulty to their level. You will even have fun finding out things you didn't know about your loved one. Highly recommended. 
(Sally Alfred)

Many thanks for creating a bespoke cyrptic crossword for the summer 2015 issue of KISHBOO e-magazine. It was a fun, fresh and original addition to our pages. and an enjoyable challenge for our readers. (Editor, Kishboo)




Friday, 14 August 2015

Welcome to the Ideas Factory!

While I take a rest between novels, I have returned to my first love – short stories. I find them enjoyable and remarkably easy to write, and I was lucky enough to see three of them in print in national magazines over a period of just eight days earlier in August. Here they are, all beautifully illustrated as usual!

My August 2015 published stories

I have to confess that I am not a great planner. I don’t agonise over plots and themes, bury myself in research, or delve around desperately for some great new idea or angle. I just write contemporary stories, about ordinary women in ordinary but emotional situations - stories that I believe the readers will like! So, in this month’s blog I thought I would take a brief look at that age-old question all writers get asked: Where do you get your ideas from?

What inspires me? What gets me rushing to the laptop or reaching for a pen? It can be a photograph of a person or place, a chance remark overheard in the street, or a human interest item in the news, but usually my stories start with nothing more than an opening line or a random thought that just pops into my head. I rarely know at that point who the story will be about or what’s going to happen to them. It’s not uncommon for me to have no idea at all about the ending either, or to set out with one in mind and then find myself heading off on a totally different route! Somehow, the emerging characters, and the situation I put them in, seem to draw me along in the right direction and the ending quite naturally writes itself, often surprising me almost as much as it does the readers.

The first of this month’s stories, Pink or Blue? appeared in The People’s Friend 1st August issue, and its inspiration was a very easy one. I wrote it just after the birth of my first granddaughter, and I even named the two main characters after my own daughter and
Illustration by Mandy Dixon
son-in-law. Should parents-to-be be expected to tell everyone the sex of their unborn child? What if they want to keep it as a special secret until the birth? And how would the prospective grandparents feel about being kept in the dark? Especially when they are eager to start buying and knitting baby clothes, but don’t know whether to pick pink or blue! I tried to inject a little humour into this one as various characters gossiped, guessed and generally got the wrong end of the stick. In my case, I was let in on the secret quite early on, so the shopping choices (pink, pink, pink!) presented no problems at all.

Next came Our Next House in Woman’s Weekly on 4th August. Most of my WW stories pop up in the monthly Fiction Specials, so it was nice to see one used in the weekly magazine for a change – particularly as it has a lot more readers! Having got married last year, the question of whether to move house has been on our minds lately, and looking at lovely houses online (especially ones we can’t afford!) has become a regular pastime. Who hasn’t wondered what it might be like to live somewhere else? In a bigger house, in the country instead of the city, perhaps close to a beach, or somewhere with a huge garden? Here, my main character is a single mum on a budget, so the reality of being able to live out her dreams seems way out of reach, yet we find her and her young son in a stranger’s house, struggling to figure out how to use the oven, confronted by a wary cat, packing up and trying to leave not a trace of themselves behind. Are they squatting? Have they broken in? No, they’ve found the perfect way to spend the summer, by house and pet sitting in a variety of lovely homes around the country, and it isn’t costing a penny!


The third story is called A Present for Max, and it appeared in The People’s Friend 8th August issue. This one started life as a twist ending story which the magazine didn’t like at all! But because I had been told which bits they did like, it was easy enough to rewrite it without the twist and turn it into a nice straightforward story with, I hope, a real emotional impact.
How I imagined Max!
When new neighbours Ella and Sam move in next door, retired couple Maureen and Gerald find that, despite the age difference, they all quickly become friends. The women have working with young children and a love of books in common (that sounds just like me!), and the men have their interest in the local football team, but what really brings them together is their childlessness.
In Maureen’s day, there was nothing that could be done, and she and Gerald have learned to accept their sadness and get on with their lives together, but for the youngsters (and for me!) it’s a different story. Medicine has moved on and IVF offers a possible solution, albeit one with huge emotional and financial implications and no guarantee of success. For me, twenty seven years ago, my fifth IVF attempt finally produced twin girls, but for Ella… well, that’s where Max comes in – a little puppy who brings unexpected joy and love into all their lives. Not exactly a surrogate baby, but surely the next best thing? For me, cats win over dogs any day, but this is fiction and the difference a pet can make is just the same, whatever animal you choose. And, of course, this time I just had to let art imitate life and give Ella her longed-for real baby by the end of the story, didn’t I?

The one thing all these short stories have in common is that they were sparked by the germ of an idea that came out of my own life and experience – becoming a granny, drooling over houses I can’t afford, loving a family pet, and remembering the stress levels that go hand in hand with infertility treatment, especially when it fails. But the idea is just the starting point, and what happens next often bears little or no resemblance to my own life. The people I create, how they think and talk and interact, the way their problems play out on the page, and the outcomes, whether happy or sad, are all fictional.

It’s a great compliment though, that my words sometimes come across in such a way as to suspend disbelief. I remember reading a poem I had written, called Losing the Left, to a group of delegates at a writers’ holiday a couple of years ago. It was about a woman who’d had breast cancer and had her left breast removed. I’d had a few health problems in that area, but nothing so drastic, and I knew that writing the poem in first person would give it a more authentic, poignant and emotional feel. What I didn’t expect after walking offstage were the looks of sympathy, the pats on the arm and the tentative enquiries about how long ago it had happened. One lady even told me how brave she thought I was to share such an experience with others in a poem. But all I wanted to say was:


I’m a writer, and it’s my job to sweep my readers up in my stories and poems, entertain them and, where necessary, deliver a liberal dose of emotion. To do that I often have to use a setting or situation that’s familiar to me, and tap into my own experiences, memories and feelings. If I can make my characters and their problems seem real, and can make a reader laugh or worry or cry alongside them, that can only be a good thing. It’s not my own life there on the page, but it’s that life that provides me with so many of the ideas that help me to get it right!

Sunday, 12 July 2015


I hate Marmite! Nasty smelly brown stuff. But I know full well that others love it. We all have different tastes when it comes to food, and so it is with writing. Sometimes I love what I do and others (editors and readers) love it too, and sometimes not!

My non-fiction articles July 2015
Take my non-fiction work, for example. This month I have had two articles published in pre-school professional magazines: The first one, for Practical Pre-School, was all about eggs, helping very young children to explore what they are, where they come from and what’s inside them. Now, I can honestly say that I hate eggs even more than I hate Marmite (Boiled, scrambled, poached, fried… I haven’t eaten one for well over fifty years), but the editor wanted 1500 words about them, so that’s what she got. At least I didn’t have to taste any!

The other article, for Child Care magazine, was about books. Now, what writer doesn’t want to write about books? This one was all about the fantastic annual Summer Reading Challenge, encouraging kids to go to their local library, pick up books and read them all through the long school holidays, with all sorts of rewards to collect and exciting activities to join in with at the same time. This year’s theme is record breakers, so there should be plenty of fun involved. If that article gets just one young family through the library doors who haven’t been there before, it’s been worth it.

My Peoples Friend story
Something else I love to write about is young romance, and my latest published short story, in The People’s Friend Special 109, is all about a girl who falls in love – not only with a young man but also with a house! I’d had to make a few changes to get this one accepted, and was a bit surprised to see that a few more had been made to the finished version without my knowledge, but the illustration fits the story perfectly and nobody but me will ever realise the story’s been tampered with, so no harm done.

This month’s ‘Marmite’ moments for me, when things have not gone quite so well, have been the rejections from editors – several for magazine short stories that didn’t quite make the grade, and a couple from publishing houses who had their reasons (each having a different reason, unfortunately) for not wanting to take on my latest novel. Of course, rejections are par for the course, and they haven’t stopped me banging out more words in the hope of a better outcome. Not as many as I had planned, with babysitting duties and lots of lovely sunny garden weather getting in the way, but any words are better than none, and the next novel is slowly and surely nearing completion.

Now to the good stuff: One of the really nice things about becoming a full-time writer is having the time and opportunity to meet others in the same boat and to learn more about the writing life, and during the last few weeks there have been three wonderful occasions for me to do just that.

At the London Chapter meeting of the Romantic Novelists Association on 20th June, after a lovely pub lunch, novelist Jean Fullerton gave a talk about nursing history and daily life in the East End in the 1950s, the backdrop to her successful Call Nurse Millie series, giving us insight into all the meticulous research that’s necessary to create an authentic historical novel, especially when it covers a 20th century period which readers can still remember - and will be sure to moan about if the author gets anything wrong!

Council members at the SWWJ AGM and Summer tea
Next on the agenda was the summer get-together and AGM of the SWWJ, held one sunny afternoon at the National Liberal Club in London, where a fine tea was on offer, along with the prize presentations to the winners of the Society’s recent poetry competition, and an interesting speech from the Deputy Editor of the old and much respected magazine Good Housekeeping. So nice to see so many members from all over the country in their finery, getting together for a chat and enjoying a very special social occasion.

Last, but far from least, was a visit to the House of Commons last week for a drinks reception on the terrace overlooking the Thames. By invitation of the All Party Parliamentary Writers Group, lots of writers, famous and not so famous, rubbed shoulders with others involved in and supportive of the writing life, including agents, MPs, and several Lords! Wine, delicious canap├ęs, inspiring speeches, glorious river views, and a sneaky nose around Parliament, from grand hall to gift shop, made for a very enjoyable afternoon.

There would have been a fourth writerly trip, to the annual RNA Conference, being held in London for the first time in several years, but I decided not to go in favour of staying at home to celebrate my husband’s birthday. Well, I can go to London any day of the week, and get there within the hour, so staying for a whole weekend wasn’t quite the draw it was for others. Nevertheless, I hear everyone had a fantastic time, and for me there’s always next year – when the Conference moves to Lancaster, a place I have never visited before. By then I may even be a fully-fledged published novelist!



Sunday, 14 June 2015

The SWWJ: What’s in it for me?

This month I want to dedicate my blog post to a fantastic organisation for professional writers called the SWWJ.

Although its full name is the Society of Women Writers and Journalists, and the vast majority of members are female, the SWWJ is not just an organisation for women these days. The doors are now well and truly open to male writers too, with men co-ordinating the drama section, helping with marketing and promotion, turning up and enjoying social events as associate members, and winning some of the regular members-only writing competition prizes.

The SWWJ is a long-established society for professional writers, and is now over 120 years old (This photo was taken at the 120th anniversary celebrations) - which can give the impression that it’s bound to be a bit old-fashioned and fuddy-duddy. Nothing could be further from the truth! Yes, quite a few of its members (me included!) are at the mature end of the spectrum, but that is usually because they joined many years ago and, having become a member of such a welcoming and supportive society, have never wanted to leave! That says a lot, doesn’t it?

The SWWJ is well aware that younger members are its future, and is extremely keen to welcome new writers of all ages. Novelists, journalists, playwrights, poets, writers of articles and non-fiction books… Society members come from all areas of the writing world. Geographically too, as quite a few live in other countries, all around the globe, keeping in touch via the Society’s regular magazines, e-newsletters and social media links. It doesn’t matter if you already belong to other writers’ organisations.  Many – like the Society of Authors, the Poetry Society, the Romantic Novelists’ Association or the Crime Writers’ Association - are very specialised, and the SWWJ certainly isn’t trying to compete when it comes to news, training and networking within a specific genre. But what the SWWJ can offer is the chance to meet writers and make friends from across all genres, learn and expand your writing knowledge in new areas as well as your own specialism, and enjoy some lovely social occasions.

The SWWJ’s new initials-only name and re-designed logo have, I think, helped to give it a much fresher and more modern feel, as has the new website, re-opened a few weeks ago - a complete transformation from its former dated look and rather limited content. There is a facebook  page (Please take a look and then press the Like button!), and the Society is becoming much more active on twitter too, so there are lots of ways to follow the SWWJ, find out what’s happening and spread the word about meetings, competition and market opportunities, members’ news and writing successes.

I have been a member of the SWWJ for around ten years now, and this year I joined the Society’s Council, where I am able to contribute to the planning of events and initiatives that are always so vital in keeping any society growing and thriving into the future. I have also taken on the specific roles of competitions co-ordinator and overseeing the manuscript appraisals service, whereby both established members and aspiring writers/non-members can access expert help and advice about their latest writing projects, particularly when trying out something new.

So, what’s in it for you, as a writer, if you decide to join the SWWJ?

 ·        Firstly, and most importantly I believe, you will become a member of a well-run, friendly and supportive society that offers regular get-togethers, both social (teas, talks and afternoon parties in lovely London venues with speakers and cake! plus a range of regional gatherings organised by members at local level) and instructive (workshops and talks at various venues), with the opportunity to network, make like-minded friends, learn, share and have fun! Guests are always welcome at all our events – or just buy a ticket and come along to see if you like us before you decide to join!
·        Every full and associate (male) member gets their own press card – a prestigious card that proves your credentials as a ’real’ writer, and is so useful as an introduction tool when meeting or interviewing, and for gaining admittance to press areas at exhibitions etc. Lots of places all over the UK will let you in for free with a press card, especially if you intend to write a review or article about the place in question or need to visit for research purposes. Sometimes it’s worth enquiring before you turn up, so they are expecting you or can send you a ticket in advance. The card alone can save you pounds in entrance fees which can easily re-coup your annual membership fee.

 ·        A quarterly colour magazine, The Woman Writer, packed with Society news, book reviews, market information, photos, articles and poems – much of which is contributed by the members themselves. And, so members don’t miss out on anything useful in between magazines, there is now also a new e-newsletter emailed out to every member who adds their email details to the mailing list.
 ·        More specific support tailored to your own writing interests and needs – eg. a thriving drama group offering the chance to read, perform and perfect your plays;  poetry meetings; the Manuscript Appraisals service, guiding your first steps into a new genre or venture (at a very competitive price); Scriptora, the Society’s assisted publishing service (helping you to produce your own book); workshops covering a varied range of topics; and lots more.

·        Regular competitions (poetry, short story and articles) which only SWWJ members can enter, with cash prizes, beautiful trophies and prize presentation ceremonies.

And, if you’re not a professional writer but want to support the SWWJ or get involved – perhaps as an avid reader, a book-lover, a librarian, an industry professional, a beginner or hobby writer – you can join as a ‘Friend’. The fee is cheaper because you are not eligible for the press card or to vote at the AGM, but you can still come along and enjoy all our events and you will receive the magazine. As a beginner or unpublished writer, you’ll find that mixing with established and successful writers at all stages of their writing careers can (and will) help you to learn more about the craft, make useful contacts, and move nearer towards the publication of your work and the chance to apply for full membership in the future.

Full details of all membership categories, together with current (and very reasonable) fees can be found here. Then just follow the links to a downloadable membership application form. You don’t pay a penny until your application has been considered and accepted.

I hope you will consider joining us. I’m sure you won’t regret it. I never have!




Thursday, 14 May 2015

Welcome to Camp Cat !

Whenever I chat with other writers on facebook or twitter, there’s one topic - apart from writing itself - that seems to crop up more than any other, and that’s our pets.
Pixie and Dixie: my babies

We all seem to know which of us are cat people and which are dog people (I am most definitely in Camp Cat), who has got themselves a new puppy or kitten, and what their names are. We hear about our animals’ latest antics, their illnesses and, sadly, their deaths. We share photos of them lying across our desks, our laps, our printers, even our work in progress. We even share photos and videos of random pets we’ve come across on the internet – ones we don’t know at all but are just too cute to ignore! Pets, it would seem, are a vital part of many writers’ daily lives. They make us laugh and cry, entertain us, help to keep us calm, and provide the much-needed companionship (and exercise) we so often need after spending hours on end with our bottoms glued to our chairs, staring at a screen.

Our pets don’t keep interrupting us with phone calls, the way our friends do. They don’t keep knocking on the study door and asking when dinner’s going to be ready or for help with homework, the way our kids do. They don’t point at the clock and suggest it’s time we close the computer down and come to bed, the way our partners do. Yes, of course, our furry companions need our attention too. They like to have their tummies tickled and their ears rubbed, a couple of meals a day and a run around outside every now and then, but somehow we don’t seem to mind that at all. They can be just as demanding as the humans in our lives but they do it in a different way – wordlessly, with a look or a lick, a pad or a purr - and we’re suckers for all of that. At least, I know I am.

That must be why I include so many pets in my stories. Looking back, I’ve had stories published about a vet who brings animals into a classroom with lasting effects on some of the kids, couples who meet while walking their dogs, a family who take in stray animals and fall in love with a very special cat, a lonely widower who takes an interest in goldfish, and even a mynah bird in a cage that helps a young couple get to know each other on an Italian holiday.
People's Friend Special 106

Take my latest published story – Under the Apple Tree – in The People’s Friend Special No. 106, in the shops this week. This one starts with the moment every pet-owner dreads – having to have an old and sick dog put to sleep, and burying her in the family garden. Too sad a topic for The People’s Friend, with its nice cosy image? You’d think so, but no. We all know you can never replace an animal you’ve loved and lost, but life moves on and there will be other dogs, and people, to love, as proved in my story when the hunky new vet and his pregnant dog come onto the scene, sweeping young Josie and her widowed mum off their feet! Happy endings always help to heal the hurt, and this one certainly does. It’s that warm uplifting feeling and an air of positivity that readers love, especially the readers of that particular magazine.

A story I have just finished writing is about two married couples (one young, one elderly) who live next door to each other and share not only a blossoming friendship but also a sad secret – their childlessness. Enter Max, a lovable puppy who brings the sunshine back into all their lives and, in his own special way, helps to make everything all right. I haven’t yet sold this story, but I have high hopes for it!

They say you should write about what you know. And we writers do know our pets! So, go on. Give a pet a home – in your fiction! After all, you can’t go far wrong writing about animals, can you? Oh, hang on a minute - yes, you can. Whatever you choose to write about, your story still needs to be original, fresh, interesting, surprising, exciting, emotional, or any combination of these - all the things editors are looking for to please their readers. So here’s a tip: Never, never, never, write your story from the pet’s point of view, or commit the even worse crime of writing a ‘surprise’ ending where your character turns out to have been a dog all along. Believe me, it’s NOT a surprise, it’s been done to death, and your story will slide across that editor’s desk and right off the other side in five seconds flat.

Treat your fictional animals the same way you treat your real-life ones. When you put them on the page, give them a purpose that makes them integral to the story. Give them plotlines that reflect all the fun and laughter, worry and pain that a real pet brings. Make them the heroes and heroines, the lifesavers, the sleuths, the comforters and the heartbreakers they are in real life, and together you will deliver all the conflict, warmth and emotion that readers crave.

Now, you will have to excuse me. One of my kittens is scratching at the outside of my study door desperately trying to get in and confront the goldfish, and the other is busy wrecking a house plant. If one of my human family was doing that, there’d be big trouble. But kittens… well, you just have to love them, don’t you?

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Thrills and Spills!

I’ve just finished watching the Grand National and, as usual, there were lots of thrills, spills and surprises. The whole thing is always so unpredictable – favourites fall, outsiders come from nowhere, some start off well but then seem to give up, and they all spend the whole race jumping over enormous fences, often with no clear view of what’s on the other side, and jostling and tripping over each other in their desperation to win. Sounds just like the writing world!

The books are, of course, the horses – lots of them all launched at once, with one or two destined to become bestsellers but the majority likely to have their short moment of fame before falling flat on their face or sinking without trace - and the writers are the jockeys trying to hang on and steer them to victory. It can be a very bumpy ride!

My entry into the novel-writing arena started twenty years ago when I won a ‘best opening to a novel’ competition and, as a result, soon found myself with a finished manuscript and an agent. I felt that I must be on my way to fame and fortune. After all, I had moved up from being an apprentice rider to proper Grade 1 jockey status, and the race had begun! What could possibly go wrong? But, as in any race, I soon discovered that plenty can. Some publishers just weren’t interested, one liked it enough to put it through four readings before saying no, and some said ‘Not this book, but let us see the next.’ Maybe I had become the right jockey at last, but I was still riding the wrong horse!

Taking a fall at that stage hurt. I jumped off the horse, put my novelist’s hard hat away, and became a successful short story writer instead, swapping the long hard unpredictable ride of the steeplechase for the more comfortable world of women’s magazines – a series of fairly easy short sprints with far fewer hurdles to overcome.

But, over the last couple of years, my mind has turned again to my real love – novels. Like veteran jockey A P McCoy, riding his last National today before hanging up his saddle for good, I may be getting older but I still want my moment of glory. I want to see my book traditionally published, sitting on the bookshop shelves, and selling well. And then to go on and do it again, and again. I want to be a winner. And this time, it just might happen!

My newly completed novel passed through the Romantic Novelists Association’s New Writers Scheme last year, not entirely unscathed, and after a bit of ‘grooming’ the hunt began for just the right trainer (agent!) to get it in tip-top condition and ready to find a permanent stable.

And now… I am happy to announce that I have just signed with an agent! The lovely Hannah Ferguson from the Hardman Swainson Literary Agency is exactly the right agent for me. We get on well, she likes my story and, with a bit of luck, the winning post could again be in sight!

And, today, I really do believe in luck. My baby granddaughter, just 5 weeks old, grunted at just the right moment when her mummy read out the list of runners, and her choice, ‘Many Clouds’, just won the Grand National, putting an amazing £500 into her savings account! Who says a beginner can’t, just occasionally, get ahead of the field and take the prize?

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Marching On!

It's March already, but what a very exciting March it is!

Firstly, and most importantly, the birth of my first grandchild, Penelope Vincent. Here she is with me, and even at just one day old she is looking absolutely beautiful.

Grandmothers have always been prominent characters in my short stories, and I'm sure they will feature even more frequently now that I am one myself!

But, back to the writing: March has again seen my work published in four of my favourite magazines:

In Nursery World, 23 Feb-8 March issue, I visit a wonderful bug hotel at a Children's Centre in Uxbridge. Don't know what a bug hotel is? Well, it's a fantastic structure made from wooden pallets, straw, twigs, flowerpots, dry leaves, sawdust... anything that will make little hidey holes and warm crevices for insects to find a temporary and safe home during the cold of winter. A great project that gets kids, parents and school or nursery staff working together in the garden and thinking about wildlife, recycling and the environment. The magazine used lots of my own photos too.

In March's Practical Pre-School I suggest ways that young children can learn by listening. Taking a walk and noticing all the sounds they encounter outside, maybe even taking a tape recorder with them so they can be listened to again and again, brings the weather, birds, leaves, machinery, planes, and lots more vividly to life.

But I've been busy with my fiction too, with two stories in The People's Friend this month, both tagged by the editor as 'inspiring'.

In the Spring Special (number 103), a single mum takes a faulty blender back to the shop and unexpectedly meets up with an old flame, stirring up memories, not all of them good! How different might her life have been? But how lucky is she to have the wonderful life she found after he was gone?

The second People's Friend story, 'Rambling Rose', is in the weekly magazine dated 14 March. Rose loves flowers and the outdoor early morning life. She doesn't enjoy late-night clubbing like her friends, who despair of her - However will she meet a man if she doesn't go out to the 'right' places? But, of course, she does meet a man - while walking at the top of the cliffs and looking out over the sea, enjoying what she loves doing best.

And, still to look forward to - the Romantic Novelists' Association Awards night on 16th March at the beautiful Gladstone Library at the National Liberal Club, with chandeliers, white flower-bedecked tablecloths, nibbles and drinks, wonderful views over the Thames at night - and the presentation of the awards, in several genre categories, for the very best romantic novels of the year. I had expected to miss out on being there this year as my daughter was due to have her baby the very next day, so thank you Vicky for doing it ten days early, so I can go after all! Hoping to see some of you there.

Best wishes and happy writing


Friday, 6 February 2015

And the winner is...

It’s been another winning month for me! Since my last post just three weeks ago, I have been lucky enough to see my work published in four national magazines (see photo).
My short story Motherly Love in the People’s Friend Special number 101 (in the shops now) tells of two soon-to-be grandmas who don’t seem able to agree on anything, right down to the sex of the baby! Obviously one of them is going to be proved wrong, but which one?  And once the baby arrives, does it really matter anyway? With a lovely illustration by Mandy Murray, this story is very close to home for me as I await the birth of my first granddaughter, due in March.
Bigger, which appears in Woman’s Weekly Fiction Special (March issue) is another story that came, at least partially, out of my own experience. It follows the very different but intertwined lives of twin sisters Susan and Linda, from childhood to their sixtieth birthday party. Growing up in the same time period myself (1950s and 60s) and having twin daughters of my own (one of whom has always loved to dance, just as Linda does) helped to make so much of this story very easy to write!

A Good Judge of Character is my first story to appear in Ireland’s Own magazine (13 Feb issue). And I can honestly say that, in this case, the overbearing and snobby mother who tries to rule her daughter’s life and control her choice of boyfriend is in no way based on me! Just a small line drawing for this one, but I am very pleased to have found my way into a magazine I had not written for before and to reach a brand new audience for my fiction.

Putting fiction aside, I also have two separate articles in February’s Practical Pre-School magazine – one about playing snakes and ladders and the other exploring some creative ways for children to use plastic drink bottles to make music, play games, and in art projects. This magazine is sold on subscription only and is read by nursery staff, childminders and nannies all over the UK, giving them lots of information and ideas to help them in their work with the under-fives.

My new novel is coming along nicely, having just passed the 20,000 word mark, even though I still have nothing to report on the progress of the finished one which is still doing the rounds of literary agents looking for a publishing deal. I have also returned to poetry, with two free-verse poems I feel particularly proud of now entered for competitions, in the hope of a prize. I am nothing if not versatile when it comes to my writing!

Now, over to my other love: cryptic crosswords. After 50-odd years of enjoying the daily challenge of cracking them, I have now finally compiled one of my own - which will, I hope, be appearing in the next issue of The Woman Writer, the members’ magazine of the Society of Women Writers and Journalists (SWWJ), whose Council I have recently joined. And that brings me to a very important announcement… the winner of my crossword competition, launched here on the blog last month.

I was a little disappointed by the low number of entries, but nevertheless I am very happy to announce that the winner is…  Wendy Clarke.

Wendy wins a personalised crossword compiled specially for her husband's upcoming fiftieth birthday, and I will be in touch with her soon to get a few ‘clues’ about him to make sure the finished puzzle really is all about him!