You Call it a Holiday – I Call it Research.

I began writing this blog apologising that it was non-writery, because it was a quick account of my trip to Italy, but then I remembered everything I do is writerly. Every fun (and not so fun) interaction I have with my teenage children, every time I have some disastrous domestic incident, and every new life experience – it’s all potentially going to pop up in a book or short story somewhere along the line, so I’m now going to tell you what I’ve been up to over the last few weeks and don’t want any of you thinking I’ve been off enjoying myself. It’s been work every single waking moment…

Birthday JK

I have four children. We don’t go abroad. In fact two of the children have never even left the country – and by that I mean not even been out of England, never mind Great Britain. So when an opportunity came up for my husband and I to stay in a very dear friend’s trullo in Italy (https://trullo-tranquillo.com/) it was a bit of a no-brainer. Especially when my phenomenal in laws offered to have my four gangly teenage boys for the week.

I thought about it for a nanosecond… and then I booked the flights.

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A great excuse to use the bra bunting under the guise of bikini bunting because, despite my firm conviction I’d left the bikini-wearing years behind about twenty years ago, turns out I hadn’t.

So on 13th June we flew to Brindisi airport in the south of Italy and spent an amazing week in Puglia (the heel of the boot) – often referred to as the Undiscovered Italy to stay in this little beauty:

 

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Trullo Tranquillo – in the middle of the Puglian countryside

The whole area has a rugged charm, and is famous for its olives, wine, fish and, of course, the trulli houses. So all of my favourite things in a hot climate with some of my best friends in the whole world.

bikini_clip_art_23237Puglia sits between the Adriatic and Ionian seas, which gave us a choice of coastline when we fancied a beach day. We visited several beaches, some sandy and some rocky – but all of them beautiful. My husband launched himself from a cliff, not to escape me apparently, but purely for thrills. (Video proof available.) I wore a bikini. (Video proof unavailable.) We visited the quaint Alberobello, a town full of these hobbit-like houses that the region is so famous for, and spent a day at the picturesque Lecce. I marvelled at the deep rich red soil and the acres and acres of olive trees that stretched as far as the eye could see. The locals were friendly and so generous, considering our limited language skills. It was truly an amazing experience.

Despite travelling around the region during our stay, what struck me was how content I was at the trullo. In fact, I have it in mind as a future writing retreat where I could stock up on the essentials and quite happily lose a week typing away in the shade of the afternoon sun.

I ate too much and drank the perfect amount. And I didn’t want to come home.

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But here’s the thing. Book four, currently on hold while I edit book three, has a small but significant Italian thread. Something that was in place before this holiday opportunity came up, so guess who can justify the trip as research now? #smugwriter

I returned from holiday to find my New Writers’ Scheme report had landed and eagerly devoured the wisdom of my lovely reader (thank you to the furthest star in the whole of the universe and back again – whoever you are). She was so generous with her feedback, and I had the real sense that not only was success within my grasp but that she wants me to to succeed. Currently up to my earlobes in edits (headphones on, Coldplay at high volume, wine to hand – you know the drill…) I am doing my very best not to let her down.

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As real life plods along in its own indomitable way, and the school year nears its end, I am looking forward to spending the summer with my wonderful boys (their holiday will be in a tent, cooking baked beans on a gas stove, and it will probably rain – a lot *evil laugh*). I am also keeping busy with my new business venture – selling a small collection of rare unused Edwardian marquetry panels. The craftsmanship still blows me away every time I look at them. Our first outing in Colchester at the start of July was incredibly successful and I’m looking forward to future events. (Oh, I feel a vintage themed plotline coming on…)

http://www.harebellvintage.co

And the swirly pink icing with glittery sprinkles on top of my wonderful cake of life  THE RNA CONFERENCE – is only a heartbeat away. Doubtless a blog post will follow. But remember, folks, it’s work, work, work all the way.WP header

(Postscript to my children. Mummy does love you really. Sorry she keeps going away without you, but, well, she just does. It’s a sanity thing.)

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Virtual Write-ins and Writing On…

As I skip merrily towards the end of my first draft of my current work in progress, I thought I’d share with you a recently discovered activity that’s helped me focus and get those pesky words written over the last few weeks.

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Tapping away to Countdown theme tune…

There are lots of downsides to being a writer, but the solitary nature of the craft and digging deep for motivation when four hundred and ninety-seven other things are calling me, are two that I sometimes need help with. However, I have stumbled across a way to solve both of these issues; the Virtual Write-In. I didn’t invent it – it’s a thing, but I’ve wholeheartedly embraced it.

The idea is you post, via private message or in a social media writing group, when you’re about to write and if anyone else is around, you sit at your virtual desks together, pass around a huge plate of virtual HobNobs and get those words down. I tend to plug myself into a pair of headphones to demonstrate to people in my real world that I’m busy and can’t be disturbed. At the end of a specified time, everyone checks in with their word count or number of pages edited – whatever they’ve been doing.

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The person I write with most frequently is the lovely Clare Marchant because we are often writing at the same time of day and are both frantically trying to complete our manuscripts for the New Writers’ Scheme, but I also join in when local online groups run write-ins, or persuade other fellow writers to join me at random times of the day and night. Sometimes I fly solo, messaging friends with word counts that mean nothing to them, but everything to me. And 80,000 words later, I can wholeheartedly recommend it.

So why does this work so well? After all, no-one even knows if I’ve written those words or just posted that I have – unless there’s a webcam in my study that I don’t know about. (If there is, I do apologise for the singing. And the occasional nudity.)

Firstly, the only person I’d be cheating would be myself. If I say I’ve written 1000 words when I’ve only done 70 and spent most of the time making tea, stroking #blindcat and painting my toenails a fetching shade of purple, my manuscript is only 70 words further on, and not the coveted 1000. So I take it seriously. Secondly, the feeling that I’m writing against the clock helps me to focus. My mobile is placed firmly out of reach, I don’t answer the phone or the door, headphones are plugged in and I make every minute count. If I want a wee, another Jammie Dodger or a quick peek at the news headlines, it has to wait until the end. And lastly, it allows me to be selfish, especially when other members of my household are about. They are told I’m on a write-in with real people, in real time, and because I have to check in, they must not disturb me unless their head is on fire.

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And it really works. In fact, it works so well I have been known to pop some headphones on and pretend I’m on a write-in, just to be left alone. (Shhh… our little secret.)

Once a week, I also participate in a Work Jelly (didn’t make this up either – it’s also a thing) with a friend who crafts; she makes her beautiful cards, I write. This one involves real tea and less opportunities to cheat – Jacqui will crack the whip if I’m daydreaming. Plus she keeps feeding me huge wedges of her delicious homemade Weetabix cake to keep my strength up.

So with a bit of help from the write-ins (both real and fake) the end of the first draft is in sight for Cupboard Love. It’s a rubbish first draft – they always are – but I enjoy editing, so I don’t feel disheartened. It’s a chance to layer my story and pull it all together. And add some more funny bits.

All the times in between these sociable writing activities, it’s just me and the keyboard. Which is how I wrote the first three novels, so I guess it’s also a valid way to go.

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Adding the writing equivalent of Baby Bio so these ideas can really grow…

Do add comments below, it’s lovely to hear from you, and let me know what helps you to focus on your writing. (And if you ever need a virtual write-in pal, you know where to find me… )

Being a Social Butterfly – The Duty of the Author.

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An author’s life can be a lonely life. Don’t get me wrong – after years of intense child rearing, the solitary nature of the lifestyle works for me during the working day, but I feel it is important – nay ESSENTIAL – to connect with real people regularly, be they writers, friends or family. Because without a healthy social life, I fear most writers would be in danger of spending their days in a faded towelling dressing gown with a half-drunk cold cup of coffee for company.

Oh – and cats. Most authors seem to be surrounded by cats and I’m no exception.

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#blindcat and his best bud

I consider the following types of socialising vital for my sanity; catching up with family, hanging out with friends, and writer-related networking. (There is one person in my life who manages to fall into all three categories, many who fall into two, and I am blessed with each and every one.) But I don’t want you thinking a social life is a luxury – that drinking, laughing, dressing-up, and going to exciting and interesting places is purely for fun. For a writer, every historic monument visited, drunken antic participated in, bus conversation overheard and long-forgotten tale from the depths of family history is potential material for the next book. It all counts as work – right?

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So having established the necessity of it all, what socialising have I been up to? Well, 2017 started off with a great New Year’s Eve that involved three of my favourite things; friends, wine and games. You can’t beat a good old-fashioned board game for bringing people together and having a laugh – often at my expense. (Yes, I did once fall asleep wrapped up in a Twister mat, and more recently during a games evening, popped to the loo, totally forgot I had guests downstairs and took myself off to bed. It was VERY late and I might have had a shandy or two.)

So back to New Year’s Eve, we were introduced to the Charades app on my friend’s iPhone, and played it for two days solid. The film category was popular in our household; you guess the movie by describing the plot of the film – preferably without mentioning character names – a great game for a writer. In fact, our New Year celebrations were so much fun that our friends stayed an extra night – even though they only lived ten minutes up the road. Ah, good times.

In January, my friend Clare Marchant and I attended a fantastic writing course in central London – Real People Write Books run by Sue Merritt and Liam Livings. The purpose was to learn (and I did) but again the social element was important; I was with friends and making new ones. Fantastic events, such as this one, remind you that you are not alone. It is a chance to share writing tips and see how other authors tackle the problems all writers face. And, of course, learn from the masters.

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Those who know me, know that I enjoy my dancing. Not just the merry swaying about in a dimly lit room clutching a bottle of Old Speckled Hen, but also the very grown up dance class that I attend every week. It brings a whole new group of friends, as well as the opportunity to take exams, earn medals, and perform in front of live audiences. Our group was recently the Grand Finale at a local event – outside the comfort zone for many in the group but we did it, AND we had to wear leggings… (ladies of a certain age will understand how our hearts sank. At least it wasn’t Lycra leotards).

And then to celebrate our fabulousness, we hired a hall and had a party – having failed to find a venue where we could have a drink and a boogie. (Nightclubs were out – we are the wrong demographic, but I’m still secretly hoping to open my own over thirties club one day that serves pots of tea at two a.m.) The party coincided with our dance teacher’s birthday (shout out to Kelly Clarke). She taught some impromptu routines to the husbands – who now appreciate our moves are not as easy as they look. (“Slut drops” are particularly tough on the leg muscles.)

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Make friends AND firm up the wobbly bingo wings.

All this socialising and we’re only just into February, but there are more events coming up. (Oh yes – my inner butterfly barely has a chance to spread her wings on the path and soak up the sun before she’s flitting off again.) There are RNA parties and Chapter Meetings that are always a joy to attend. In July I’m going to the RNA conference. Last year was so worthwhile – again from a learning point of view, and a networking one.

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A 2016 conference shot.

But my latest cause for celebration was booking flights for an Italian holiday in June – WITHOUT THE CHILDREN. (I know!) I’m so excited because our holidays usually involve gigantic canvas tents, piles of soggy towels that won’t dry and lots of sandwiches. To go abroad is a treat for us; to go without the children is nothing short of a miracle. We will be staying in a beautiful Trullo in Puglia (https://trullo-tranquillo.com) that is owned by a very dear friend. I feel some Italian storylines coming on…

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Trullo Tranquillo here I come…

So with all this essential socialising, I expect you’re wondering about the writing? Well, it fills all the in-betweeny bits that fall outside my heady social life, my job and being a parent. Two weeks ago I finally stepped away from the manuscript of Lucy’s Locket after some lovely beta reader feedback, and let my baby fly. It has undergone a rewrite, been edited within an inch of its life and sent to a few carefully selected agents and an ePrint publisher.

I have also been tweaking the website/blog. Oh WordPress, how I love thee and hate thee by turns. (Why can’t I get the posh swishy layout you tempted me in with? And where do my menus keep disappearing to?) And when that’s finished, I will be back to Cupboard Love – which I am now happily a third of the way through. It’s getting to the good bit…

So embrace your inner social butterfly my  friends – be you writers or otherwise. It is good for the soul and, in my humble opinion, absolutely essential to the writing life.

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To Plan Or Not To Plan…

 

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(Baubles – because it is nearly Christmas…)

A little update for you all, on this merry, nearly Christmassey-type day.

If you’ve been following my recent exploits on Facebook, you will be aware that, although traditionally a pantser, I have taken the brave (some say foolhardy) step of planning my current book.

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Ummm… now where to begin?

Standing back, I can see a case for both planning and pantsing. As long as the damn thing gets written, how you do it is completely up to you. Not everyone works the same way but I wanted to give planning a go – even if it turned out to be a total disaster.

Now, when I say planning, don’t get carried away. Unlike some of my much more organised and efficient friends, I did not produce a highly detailed breakdown of each chapter, but I did invest several weeks researching the idea (especially as there is a historical element), noting down major plot points and writing detailed character profiles.

As a result, when I typed my first sentence at the start of November, I had over fifty postcards, arranged chronologically, with a good idea of what was Printgoing to happen in each scene. Thunderbirds were most definitely go.

So is it working? I hear you ask.

Well, I’ve rattled off more words than an over-excited chatterbox at a national Who Can Say The Most Words In A Minute competition. So something must be. But I haven’t exactly stuck rigidly to the plan.

Much like in my pantsing days, I find I don’t really get to know a character properly until I start to write them. Even interviewing them beforehand, whilst it definitely helps me to get a feel for their voice, still isn’t sufficient for me to really know them. So as I was merrily typing away last month, it was only when poor Molly was confronted with each new dilemma, did I realise things needed tweaking. This, in turn, led to some new plot twists and before you could say ‘hey – what about the plan?’ I was skipping off in a random direction.

baoblesThis means the plan and I are currently not really communicating much, although I have high hopes of playing together again a bit further down the line, as I feel the process of planning has helped enormously – even if the final plan hasn’t been religiously adhered to. It has undoubtedly been beneficial to have a greater sense of where my story is going, and even though I am zigzagging along the path, I am most definitely moving forward.

However, I have now put the new novel on pause because, after a wonderful Christmas meal with the Chelmsford Chapter of the RNA and much bookish chat, I decided that I should head back to Lucy’s Locket and undertake those pesky rewrites. It’s a story I am pleased with and one that’s had positive feedback. Now that I have given it some distance I want to return to it and make it the very best I can.

I brainstormed in the usual locations (the car, the bath and the bed) and gaily threw myself back into editing book three. But more haste, less speed – for in my enthusiasm to crack on I foolishly spent two days editing the wrong version!

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I felt like crying. So I did. Then I drank gin.

After much bad language, a good night’s sleep and some more gin, I have corrected this error – and have also learned a lesson or two about saving too many versions of the same file. But onward and upward, the edits for Lucy’s Locket should be finished by the end of January and ready to send out to agents and publishers.

And lastly, the other news from the Keer-dom is that the frustrating situation of trying to write with only one laptop and crappy internet between six family members has markedly improved. Our in-the-middle-of-no-sodding-where village has finally updated to fibre (we now have a heady 4mbps instead of 0.4mbps – oh, I kid you not) and more than one person can now be online simultaneously. (I may have accidentally discovered iPlayer and All 4 as a result. Massive time waster, but I am hopeful the entire 3 series of The IT Crowd  will prove useful research at some point in the future.)

Number one son, after several months of saving, got himself a nifty (albeit second-hand) gaming laptop, and a lovely RNA friend (kiss, kiss) passed on a notebook she no longer uses. Suddenly I do not have to wrestle small children for a keyboard, or work totally unsociable hours. Hoorah!

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So as I look back on 2016, I feel satisfied that my writing journey is progressing. I will achieve my dream and it would be great if 2017 was the year I did so.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you all xxx

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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Book Four…

So what have I been up to recently? And why is my bunting covered in question marks?

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Well, here’s the thing. Novel number three, Lucy’s Locket, was finished in July, after six months of intensive writing. It was, by that point, as good as I could get it without the benefit of a professional eye – or two. So off it went in three different directions (the fabulous NWS, an agent who had requested the full manuscript, and my beloved and much trusted beta reader). I eagerly awaited their feedback as I launched myself into book four. (Going fabulously – since you ask.)

Fast forward three months and like buses, all the feedback pulled into the bus stop together. I read the various reports and comments, expecting united cries pointing out my errors. Perhaps I had an unbelievable character? Or a plotline that didn’t work? Or issues with style? At this point I would be able to roll up the sleeves of my winter jumper and embark on a thorough edit. The book would then be brilliant and snapped up by a publisher, blah, blah, blah.questionmark-bunting

So here’s the funny thing and the reason I’m writing this short blog…

The feedback I got was largely, although not exclusively, contradictory. While one person loved that my protagonist was based in an office and found it a refreshing change from teashops and similar tropes, another found the setting boring. One person thought my hero was unlikeable (yes he’s rude and grumpy but Darcy and Poldark seem to get away with it), yet no-one else had a problem with him. A moment of dark humour was described as distasteful by one, and funny by another. And so it went on.

I was fully anticipating, and indeed welcoming, the inevitable constructive criticism. It is almost my favourite part of the writing process because I learn so much from it. But I was naively assuming my errors would be universally acknowledged.  They would be forehead-slapping points  I could then correct. Clearly not.

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So what’s a girl to do? (Apart from turn to wine.)

This is a rhetorical question. I am fully aware reading a book is a personal and subjective thing. It’s why there are so many genres out there. While I love my happy but unrealistic endings, someone else will seek out a gritty story based on true events that leaves them sobbing into their chardonnay as they turn over the final page.

Having taken the time to fully digest the feedback, perhaps I should assume no unified cries of discontent is a good thing? Had all three readers insisted I’d got an element of my novel wrong, it would have been a sure sign that it needed changing. Perhaps ultimately I have to decide whose opinion I value the most, and trust my instincts to edit accordingly.

However, with words like humorous, lively and heart-warming being used by these three kind and very knowledgeable people, the end result is one delighted writer (especially as the agent has expressed interest in seeing a rewrite). But it has been a very interesting lesson: when three people read your book, you may receive three contrasting opinions on how to improve it. It is why aspiring writers are advised not to show their work to all and sundry, and why, when you are finally lucky enough to have an agent or an editor for your work, theirs really is the only opinion you should be seeking.

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Footnote: if you want to see your publishing dreams come true, the RNA New Writers’ Scheme is an invaluable step along the way. I was delighted with my report and have started to implement the technical errors that were pointed out.

My Tricky Middle

I’ll make the obvious joke about the bit of me that keeps growing the older I get. The bit that flops over the waistband of my jeans instead of laying flat.The bit that wobbles when I run and concertinas when I sit down. Yes, that’s quite a tricky middle but I think it goes hand in hand with the wine and the cake, so I guess I’ll have to live with it.

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However, as a writer, the REALLY tricky middle is the troubled waters I have to sail myself through in order to get to the magical island of The Finished Novel. Having been on this journey a few times now, I always seem to have trouble halfway through my journey. So this blog is my thoughts on why, and what I need to do to get back on course.

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This will be easy peasy.

Like me, I suspect many writers happily whizz through the first few thousand words. Hoist the sails and off we go, to continue the analogy. The waters are calm and the wind is behind me. And if I look through my telescope, I can see the magical island in the distance. I have had The Big Idea, roughly plotted where the story needs to go, assembled the necessary cast of characters and am keen to write the story that will have publishers everywhere in a bidding war to publish the Most Amazing Book Ever.

But even though I know where I’m going with my story, inevitably hitting about the 40,000 word mark problems arise. I can’t see land anymore, I’m isolated, my sails are blowing all over the place and I’m struggling to plot a straight course.

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Hmm… Getting a bit choppy out there…

 

SO where am I going wrong?

  1. The characters won’t do what they are told (rather like my children) but even though I shout at them they and threaten to impose an array of sanctions, they stubbornly do what they think they will and to hell with the consequences (unlike my children – who wouldn’t dare).
  2. It’s become a gargantuan task; plot threads are everywhere, questions have popped up that I don’t know the answers to, and some of my brilliant ideas just aren’t working. (What do you mean, you can’t quote song lyrics? But that’s what he does!)
  3. Self doubt starts to set in. Things I thought were funny/clever/attention grabbing don’t seem as powerful now that I read the story back. It’s not working. It’s not good enough. It’s rubbish. What am I doing? And who am I kidding?
  4. There is a very excitable New Idea jumping up and down next to me, poking me and demanding attention. Perhaps THIS is the story I should be writing?

boats3But as I sit there, adding to the word count at an embarrassingly slow pace, I realise I have been here before and managed to come out the other side. So what did I do? Because deep inside, I know I can do this…

  1. Write something – write anything – even if you think it’s total pants. Sometimes it can lead to a great idea, sometimes you delete the lot the next day, but it does get your floundering backside (and your tricky middle) moving.
  2. Stick something in there that takes you by surprise. Hopefully it will do the same to your characters and it might make them get up of that sofa, pop on some metaphorical running shoes, and stir them into action.
  3. Write sections that you want to write. Don’t worry about it being in chronological order. I was listening to an emotional song on my iPod and suddenly decided to write a weepy section near the end of the book. The whole scene wrote itself in my head so I quickly got it on the page. Some details may need to be changed when I reach that point, but it was 2,000 words that got me writing again.
  4. Try not to obsess over the number of words you have actually produced. It’s also productive to reread and edit (although don’t get bogged down in this either). When I’m writing I leave rows of “xxx”s if I need to research something or the scene isn’t coming to me. The tricky middle is a good point to go back and fill in some of those gaps. It adds to the words and it has sometimes given me other (truly brilliant) ideas for later in the story.
  5. If you are really struggling, give yourself some space… or some wine… or both. Walk away. Write something else. DO something else. Live life. Have an experience. Then write about it. It’s a bit like being married. Spend a few days apart and then when you get back together you have LOADS to talk about. (Although let’s skip over the initial conversation “How did the house get in this state? I was only away for the weekend!”.)
  6. Print your story off, sit crossed-legged on the floor, grab a Big Red Pen and analyse what you’ve written so far. Are there bits that can be cut? Do you really need a scene where all they do is drink coffee and talk about things the reader already knows? As brutal as it seems to take words away when you are trying to ADD to the word count, it is often necessary. Follow each character’s journey and see if it makes sense. Are there too many characters? Is there a strong hook? Basically have a good old spring clean.

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And before you can say, ‘How will I ever get through this disheartening and soul-destroying tricky middle bit?’ the little row of numbers at the bottom of the page that has been taunting you for the last couple of weeks says 60,000.

Yay!

You are more than halfway through, so by definition, OVER THE TRICKY MIDDLE.

It will be plain sailing from here on in… right?

 

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Search For a Star…

… but may need to work on my twinkle.

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Way back when the daffodils were in bloom… oh, hold on, I have freaky winter daffodils out at the moment. Way back when daffodils are supposed to bloom, my first novel Dead Gorgeous was shortlisted in the Choclit Search For a Star competition.

Six hopefuls were shortlisted on Valentine’s Day last year and the lovely Jan Brigden was announced as the winner in March 2015 with her debut As Weekends Go. To be shortlisted was a wonderful moment – making me believe perhaps I could master this writing malarkey after all.

As an optimistic, half-full kinda girl not winning wasn’t a big deal – being shortlisted was. You can’t over analyse these things – I just needed to work on my twinkle. I quickly wrapped up novel number two, decided it was a huge pile of pants that needed to go through the washing machine on a boil wash (but that’s a blog for another day) and embarked on novel number three.

Dead Gorgeous will always have a special place in my heart, and who knows? It may yet make it into print. Robert John Whitton was gorgeous and, interestingly, although he was over two hundred years old, he wasn’t dead.

So when is a ghost not a ghost?