The Novella and The Risk of Reading


Katie – at what some described as a rather pagan wedding (I liked that, so did she) – she smiled all day!

As my daughter’s wedding and it’s afterglow receed so the writing emerges and the reading too.

On October 25th I’ll be running a RoomtoWrite day workshop with my colleague Wendy Robertson on The Novella – all the details are HERE if you’d like to join us for the day. As well as beginning a new novella – a form I’m really excited about – I’m reading novellas too. So far the prize goes to  Edith Wharton’s – Ethan Frome. New to me but how did I miss this? It’s captivating and unputdownable, in my opinion everything a novella should be.

Great fiction, like Edith Wharton’s, touches us and teaches us about  ourselves and the world. This is the premise of the Changing Lives Through Literature programme I had the good fortune to visit in Boston USA. It’s inspirational founder Prof. Bob Waxler has a new book out – The Risk of Reading.

It is an important and fascinating book especially for those of us who care about reading. You can find it HERE.

I pre-ordered my copy so I for one will be reading it.

In my newsletter this week – some American literary magazines to submit to and ‘Writing can be Scary.’ If you’d like to receive the newsletter – which is not really news but very much about writing –  free every Monday just e mail  at – and I will put you on my list.

Back to Arkansas

There are times in this writing life when life jettisons writing, grabs you by the hand and hauls you up and away from the notebook and the desk to somewhere else out  in the real world. These last two weeks have been such a time for me.  Helping my father move hundreds of miles from Somerset to be near us here in the North East has filled my days, my nights too, for there’s all the thinking and fretting that goes on in the dark hours, as well as  the sheer physical challenge of packing up  a home and starting afresh. He described it this morning as being ‘a touch overwhelming.’ I know what he means…

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Five Good Things for Thursday






It’s cold and wet, and grey and January, so we need something to cheer us up. Here’s what’s cheered me up so far this week:

1. Hooray for Nathan Filer who won the overall Costa Book of the Year  for his debut novel The Shock of the Fall – the most affecting novel I’ve read in a long time – it’s stunning, and everyone should read it. And for twice shortlisted Angela Readman who won the short story prize – another northern writer!!

2. The pictures of my daughter Katie’s wedding dress – it was bought in December and we’d almost forgotten what it looked like – the shop kindly took photos for Katie. I’d forgotten how beautiful it was and I can’t wait to see her in it on the day.

3. Making it to number 4 in the Amazon charts with my new book on writing  From Writing With Love -  slipping now but it was good while it lasted.

4. Some lovely messages of support about the book from my newsletter readers, like these:  thank you for the newsletter you send every week -it has encouraged a ‘new’ writer to keep on writing…. I always look forward to your weekly letter of support and signposts to further reading and writing…I find your blog writing encouraging, practical and inspiring.

The thing is, we mostly don’t know what people think until they tell us  and when they do it can be really heartening.

5. Looking forward to a glass of champagne with my writing buddy Wendy to properly launch our new books. Read about her writer’s memoir   HERE

So January’s not all bad – just February to go now and we should get a glimpse of spring.  And I forgot to say – also cheering me up this week, the hyacinths on the table and the snowdrops in the garden.

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Why Write? My Manifesto…

A Manifesto


Whenever I have serious doubts about my work or am bogged down with feelings of inadequacy, of not being a good enough writer, I ask myself the question, why write. This is my spontaneous answer, it’s what grounds me, brings me back to what’s important, to a place where I can start again…


I write because I discovered I could, because after years of looking for ways to express my creativity, without ever feeling whole, I finally found what it was I could best do. What it was I wanted to do.

I write to connect with the world, to reflect the lives of people who live on the margins, who others might think unimportant.

I write to make myself whole, to disappear in the act of writing, to lose myself completely, so that time passes unnoticed.

I write to spend time in other worlds that fascinate me.

I write because I get my own room with books and flowers.

I write because I love reading and words and I love polishing my words over and over.

I write because then I am never lonely.

I write to give purpose to my life.

I write because now I have to, I must, it has become an essential part of who I am.

I write because it brings me great joy and takes me to many places.


I note there is nothing here about writing for success or publication!

Why do you write?

Answer the question spontaneously as I did, then make it your manifesto. Copy it up, print it out and put it somewhere prominent. Don’t lose touch with what it is you love about writing.


Writing is not life, but I think that sometimes it can be a way back to life.

― Stephen King, On Writing

Five Good Things for Monday

Good Morning – Happy New Week – what better way to start it off than Five Good Things for Monday….

1. Nina Simone singing Feeling Good – Ray Mears chose it as one of his Desert Island Discs recently – good choice Ray!

2. I’ve just discovered ~ Keep This Bag Away From Children  – an art and literature magazine and press. The website is updated 2-4 times/week. New print issues are released every 6 months Here is a link to two poems by Claire Phelan

3. I’m currently reading a gobsmackingly good  book - The Spinning Heart – Donal Ryan   there are a lot of voices to get your head round but each one is rich and true, an amazing achievement…


Viburnum Bodnantense ~ Dawn

4. Viburnum Bodnantense – there’s one growing at the top of the bank on the riverside path up into Durham Cathedral, it smells like honey, such a thing of beauty when all the flowers are hiding

5. Am putting a day aside to read – Drysalter – Michael Symmons Roberts latest poetry collection takes its name from the ancient trade in powders, chemicals, salts and dyes, paints and cures – I’ve just downloaded it onto my Kindle but I know  I’ll have to buy a copy too, that’s the way with poetry.

If being here and now is nothing more

than memory on the fly, then love

is just a trace of having loved

Why Write?

I always like to keep my writing in mind over Christmas so that even if I’m not really able to get any writing done I stay close to it. Why? Because it’s my writing that, apart from family, most fully expresses who I am. Because in the still heart of writing I often find the greatest peace, because somehow writing keeps me feeling right if not sane…

People write for many different reasons. I’m currently reading Why We Write – 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do by Meredith Maran. The book features American authors. I’m not familiar with them all, there are giants like Isabelle Allende and Armistead Maupin, others are less well known to me but everything they say about why they write, the highs and lows of the writing life, the doubts, the lack of confidence etc  is familiar. Here’s a  taster:

Isabelle Allende – ‘…the best time for me was in 1981, when I was writing my first novel. There was no ambition to it, no hope that it would be published, no pressure of any kind.’

‘Excessive adjectives, excessive description – skip it, it’s unnecessary.’

Rick Moody ‘Whenever I am writing…or more accurately whenever I have written, I feel better and more at peace as a human being…. It’s  a peaceful cloistered space, the page, where I don’t feel pressured the way I do in the world.’

Walter Mosley – ‘Writing is a long term investment. If you stick with it, you’ll reach the level of success that you need to.’

Sue Grafton – ‘Eudora Welty once said “Every book teaches you the lessons necessary to write that book.” To which I add, the problem is that lessons learned from writing one book seldom apply to the next.’

‘ Terry McMillan never, ever reads her reviews. “You have a baby; do you really care if other people think it’s cute?”’

I could go on, it’s a hugely quotable book, almost every page has something you want to copy out in large letters and stick on the board above your desk – a great book to keep you in touch with writing over the Yuletide.

And now to reading – a fat pile of shortlisted stories for The London Magazine Competition has arrived this morning. I’m looking forward to getting stuck in.

Happy Christmas Everyone and a Great Writing Year ahead in 2014!

Reading Tim Winton

tim wintonI’ve not been writing much this week, mainly because my house has been in disarray due to the clearing out of rooms and the laying of carpet. But in between shifting heavy boxes and bagging up books I’ve been reading. Reading is of course a great escape from the world around us but for me as a writer, reading often proves my greatest inspiration. I guess I’m always looking for the writer who makes me think, I wish I’d written that; who makes me wonder, how did she do that? Why is he so good? And when I discover someone I haven’t read before who makes me ask these questions it’s always a source of inspiration.

This week it’s the Australian writer Tim Winton – yes I knew of him but I’d not read him – in particular his novels Dirt Music and Cloud Street.

Cloud Street opens: ‘Will you look at us by the river! The whole restless mob of us on spread blankets in the dreamy briny sunshine skylarking and chiacking about for one day, one clear, clean sweet day in a good world in the midst of our living.’ A bravura opening if ever I read one. I love what Winton does with language, mixing it up, sometimes inventing words, making it fresh. His prose is muscular- great verbs, but its lyrical too. He’s not afraid of omitting punctuation and letting the sense of the words just roll on. He doesn’t shy away from the romance of a place or of the people in it or of describing them to us. His evocation of place and person is masterful. He writes in Technicolor with a booming sound track.

So how did this inspire me? How should the best writers, the writers we admire inspire us?

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The Festival of Garden Literature

Travelling can be hard work. In the past ten days I’ve travelled to London, then on to Agde in the south of France, back to London – out to Hertfordshire –  to London again and finally home to County Durham. But although as the taxi driver said to me, ‘blimey you get about a bit don’t you,’ the rewards have made it all worthwhile: spending quality time with my daughter, soaking up the light and heat and writing up a storm in Agde, enjoying the serene beauty of the Festival of Garden Literature.

My travelling companions curtesy of Kindle and i-pod have been the best, my highlights being: James Salter reading Lydia Davis’s Break It Down – heartbreakingly good (Guardian book podcast), Natalie Goldberg (she comes everywhere with me) The True Secret of Writing and The Paris Wife - Paula McLain.

In Agde I stayed in a lovely apartment in the Place de la Glaciere. It’s owned by Keith who is a kind and generous host; even meeting me at the airport. It was very special: sweet, original, spotlessly clean, full of character, the perfect place to write in and the best roof terrace in Agde! I loved it, felt totally at home and wrote lots there – 14,000 + words, as well as spending time with my friends talking and drinking wine.

View from the Roof Terrace

At the Festival of Garden Literature I read my memoir piece in the potting shed along with the winner Lorna Gibb – great story! – and the other finalist Mrugesh Chauhan whose atmospheric piece  made me long to go back to India. In the prarie garden I shared a to-die-for hamper with my daughter – which included exquisite savoury tartlets, salads, strawberries, brownies and clotted cream. In the tent we listened to Adam Nicolson and later Penelope Hobhouse…in between we wandered the gardens and the mown paths feeling rather as if we were in a film.

The festival was like the apartment in Agde, small, intimate and dreamlike, and lingering in the mind long after the leaving…

Back in the B.A.T.H.

Tomorrow evening I’ll be reading, once again, from the Iron Press anthology Root, this time alongside writer John Price.

For me reading at B.A.T.H. – Bishop Auckland Town Hall - is like coming home. It’s where my serious writing began one inspirational weekend, in a workshop led by Wendy Roberston and the late Julia Darling. It’s where my first book, The Sweet Track was launched and, long before any of this, it was the place I gravitated to in Bishop Auckland when I first came to live in the North. It was stylish; full of art, music, writing and books – it was not just a library. It was an arts centre conceived and manged by leading light Gillian Wales, who I’m delighted to say is now a great friend.

If you come along I really hope you enjoy the evening and I’d like to thank you in advance as I won’t be posting here for a while. On Thursday I’m having an operation on my right eye – not too serious I hope – I expect to be writing again soon but maybe not on the screen. It’s sooner than expected, but the sooner the better – then on to the left!

Root – from Corbridge to Bishop Auckland

I had a great time on Wednesday evening in Corbridge (see previous post). For one thing it’s just so good to meet readers and for another the enthusiastic response they gave to the extract from my story Tough Love took me quite by surprise and was very gratifying. Mostly they wanted to know what happened to Dennis! Had he been buried in a hole along with the birds? What about his wife? Did I have a husband? And if you get to read the story you’ll see why they asked after my spouse!

The venue was perfect -Tea & Tipple cafe – and I was full of admiration for Helen of Forum Books who organised this packed event. I’ll definitely be back to browse the Forum bookshelves.

Meeting other writers like Beda who was also reading from the Root antholgy, was a huge part of the enjoyment- also via Twitter – writers : Mari Hannah, Hazel Osmond, Chris Marples - it was great to meet, have your support and share stories and a glass of wine – such a bonus. Also great to see Ian from my prison days

Of course Peter Mortimer and Kitty Fitzgerald from Iron Press - were behind the whole event – without them the book would not exist – they are just amazing at what they do – if you don’t believe me take a look at the programme for their forthcoming festival in May.

If you didn’t make it to Corbridge but you can make it to Bishop Auckland Town Hall this Wednesday 10th – 7pmwe’ll be doing it again. This time John Price and myself will be reading  HOPE TO SEE YOU THERE !