Monday, 25 February 2019

Talking Writerly Stuff With Jo Derrick

 I'm delighted to welcome my good friend Jo Derrick to my blog today to talk about her wonderful short story collection White Sand Cocoon, and to answer other random writerly questions.

My favourite story in White Sand Cocoon is the last one, The Cleansing. Do you have a favourite?
What a difficult question to kick off with, Alison! It’s interesting that your favourite is The Cleansing, as it’s the oldest story in the collection and was written around the time of the death of my first husband. I think my favourite is The Black Queen, the first story in the collection. I wrote it for a competition in which one of the rules stated that you had to include the following words: A black queen chess piece, a bunch of flowers and a ten pound note. I found that quite a challenge, but thoroughly enjoyed writing the story. My favourite characters to write are children.

What do you find easier to write – flash fiction or longer stories?  And is it easier to edit a longer story or expand a short one?
I find flash fiction easier, because I can get right to the point or the essence of the story in the first line. I find it easier to edit a longer story, because I love editing (possibly more than writing!). Expanding stories is difficult for me, which is why I struggle to write a novel. I’m also an impatient person.

What made you decide to set up Yellow Room Press to publish your book?
I thought it would look more professional. 

Do you plan to publish more collections of your stories? And will you ever consider publishing the work of other writers?
I want to publish a second collection of short stories I have one ready, but good covers are expensive, so that’s putting me off a bit. I also have a flash fiction collection ready to publish, which was due to be published by Chapeltown Books last year, but the deadline came and went and they didn’t publish. That was very disappointing. At some point in the future, when I’m more confident about the whole publishing process, then I’d consider publishing other writers’ work.

Why do you think mainstream publishers are so reluctant to publish short story collections? And do you think there is any chance that will change in the future?

I hope it will change in the future. I’ve heard many readers say the reason they don’t like short stories is that they want more. They get a taste for the characters and the story, but their appetite isn’t quite satisfied. Short story collections aren’t that popular with readers and I think that’s why mainstream publishers won’t touch them, unless they’re by an already established and popular novelist.

You also write stories for the women’s magazine market. Does that require a different mindset?
Yes, it does. I have to really think hard about their readers and what they want. The People’s Friend rely heavily on setting and like stories to be upbeat and positive. I used to love writing for Woman’s Weekly Fiction Special, but since they demanded All Rights, I’ve stopped. That’s very sad. They took a wider variety of stories and pushed the boundaries a little. I want to write more stories for The Weekly News, but I’ve got out of that mindset recently and need to get back into it. I dearly wish there were more markets for women’s magazine fiction. I used to love writing for Woman’s Realm, which folded nearly twenty years ago now. 

I remember that band stories project you did a few years go, where you asked friends on social media to suggest the name of a band and aimed to write a story using them as a prompt every day. Some great stories came out of that. Any plans to do something similar again?
I enjoyed that project, although it was hard work. Yes, I’d love to do something similar again one day. I’ve been thinking about it quite a lot recently. 

If you weren’t a writer, what would be your ideal job?
I think it would be an editor for a big publishing company. I would have said librarian, if the role was the same as it was in the 1960s and early 70s. With the advent of computers, libraries are almost unrecognisable and the role of the librarian has become almost redundant. 

Do you miss producing The Yellow Room Magazine? I miss reading it! There’s nothing like that in print now.
In a way I miss it, yes. My favourite bit was choosing the stories to go into each issue. Choosing a cover was fun, too. The hard work was always putting the magazine into envelopes, writing or printing off addresses, putting on a stamp and taking to the post office. Then there was keeping track of subscriptions and sending out reminders. I don’t think anyone realises just how hard it is to produce a small press magazine unless they’ve done it. I can’t believe now that the first small press magazine I founded, Quality Women’s Fiction or QWF, once came out bi-monthly. Boy, did I work hard back then! 

What do you consider to be your greatest writing achievement?
Another difficult question! I think writing 20,000 words in 4 days on the Solus Or Writing Retreat in Scotland last year has to be up there. Being a regular winner of the Write Invite competition was also very satisfying. I think my greatest writing achievement will be when I get a novel published by a mainstream publisher and I can’t see that happening, to be honest!

Are you still working on your novel? Or have you started something new?
I’ve put the psychological crime thriller to one side for now. There are many different reasons for doing so. I have started something new, but not crime. I’m writing a novel for my own enjoyment and will see what happens. Writing should be joyful and playful. 

Do you ever give up on a story you have written, or do you keep submitting?
I keep submitting! The story might have a rest for a few months, but then I’ll drag it out of the closet and tweak it again. I love working on old stories. It tends to be a ‘way in’ to writing something new. 

Apart from ‘don’t do it,’ what advice would you give to a beginner writer?
Read as much as you possibly can! Anything and everything from short stories to books on writing to all genres like crime and historical. Read flash fiction, non-fiction, newspapers, magazines etc. Watching all sorts of things on TV helps, too. Our imagination and creativity feeds on all this stuff. There’s a hell of a lot in our sub-conscious to tap into when the time comes to write and we need to keep feeding that sub-conscious on a daily diet of real life experiences, communing with nature and absorbing others’ creative output.

Thanks Jo for answering my questions. White Sand Cocoon is available to buy here

Monday, 13 August 2018

When 'Normal Me' meets 'Writer Me'

If you're old, like me, you probably remember the cartoon 'Hong Kong Phooey' in which a 'mild mannered janitor' transforms into a canine superhero. Sometimes I feel a bit like him, although in place of 'mild mannered janitor' insert 'not very competent office worker with a life-long phone phobia', and you might start to get the picture. Most people who come into contact with my everyday persona no doubt assume I'm quite stupid. I give that impression on a daily basis. I'm not very good at my job, and am very lucky to have any kind of job at all, having, ten years ago, almost literally just picked up my handbag and walked away from teaching. If I hadn't done that I'd almost certainly not be around now to tell the tale. But it's a tale for another time.

Anyway, there is another me, the Hong Kong Phooey me, the superwriter. OK, there's nothing super about me, but I am quite proud of some of the stuff I've written, and had published. And until recently, mild mannered janitor me and Hong Kong Phooey me have peacefully co-existed. Nobody from life 1 was ever likely to come across the things I wrote in life 2. I kind of liked it that way. Then, in June, I had a story published in The People's Friend magazine (available at all good supermarkets and newsagents).

Mild mannered janitor me bought several copies, on different occasions. Each time I somehow managed to resist the temptation to turn to the relevant page, wave it under the cashier's nose and shout 'I wrote this!' I'm glad I didn't, because I'd have been dismissed as a fantasist. As a rule, overweight middle aged people with mundane jobs don't get published in mainstream magazines. But, in other news, this overweight middle aged person with a mundane job has just had another story accepted. And hopefully there will be many more. Watch this space though, because if you know me in my mild mannered janitor life, I'll probably never get around to mentioning it.....

Saturday, 14 April 2018

Anthologies, Poetry, Confidence, and What Not To Say To A Short Story Writer....

I got something nice in the post this week, which doesn't happen all that often. It was my complimentary copy of last year's Olga Sinclair Short Story Competition anthology. I was highly commended in the competition, which is a very well run one with a different theme every year. The theme for 2018 is 'Markets' and it closes in July. Read more about it here.

I love being published in anthologies, but I'm not stupid. I know the only people who read them are the people who are in them, and their friends and families. And let's be honest, most friends and family members don't actually read them. But at least, when you tell someone you're a writer, and they look at you sceptically and ask that most partronising of questions, 'Have you had anything published?' , a question almost always anticipating the answer 'No, not yet,' you can answer 'Yes, I have. And here is the link to it on Amazon.'

I had success in this competition with a story that I had previously sent out all over the place in various forms. It has been a flash fiction, and a longer story, and time after time it has wandered home with its tail between its legs. But finally it found a home. Never give up on a good story.

In other news, I have been brave. A few weeks ago I attended a poetry workshop run by lovely Lynn Gerrard, otherwise known as The Grumbling Gargoyle. It was a lovely, laughter filled evening at a newish local coffee shop Momo's. A year or so ago I would have run screaming in terror if I'd been asked to sit in a roomful of strangers and read out my rubbish offerings. And believe me, they were rubbish I haven't written poetry since my angst filled teenage years. But it didn't matter, and I'm just a little bit proud of myself for stepping (about a hundred miles) outside my comfort zone and actually daring to say anything at all.  And I've just booked a place on the next workshop, in May. Book your tickets here.

I'm always a little bit jealous of poets, because unlike short story writers I bet they don't continually get asked when they're going to write a novel. If you're a poet then you're just a poet. You're not seen as just practising to be something better. It depresses me. If you're reading this, and you know me in person, please don't ask me when I'm going to write a novel, because I won't be responsible for my actions.

Seriously, I would love to be able to write poetry well. And I do think that flash fiction is closer to poetry than anything else, especially in the way that every single word matters. Some of the shorter flash pieces I've written lately could almost be poems. I'm not quite sure what the difference is. So who knows? Maybe I'll be entering a poetry competition or two in the near future.

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Three Cheers For The Archers, And One For Me

If you know me well, you will know how much I love radio. And if you know me very, very well, which not that many people do, you will know that I have been a massive fan of The Archers since I was a teenager. I have rarely missed a Sunday omnibus sine the early 1980s. If I ever went on Mastermind it would be my specialist subject.

The Archers doesn't often make me cry. Well, not that often. I cried years ago when Ruth and David received her breast cancer diagnosis, and more recently I cried at the scene between Helen and her dad Tony after she was acquitted of attempting to murder evil Rob. I probably cried when John Archer died too.

The week before last, it made me cry again. Twice. Once on the Friday night, then again when the episode was repeated on Sunday morning. Because Nic Grundy died of sepsis. A fit, healthy woman in her mid thirties died a horrible agonizing death because she had an infected cut on her hand. This storyline came completely out of the blue. One day she was fine, and fretting over having lost her job. A few days later she was gone. That's what sepsis is like. That really is how quickly it can happen.

Many people think that soaps, or serial dramas, or whatever you want to call them, shouldn't be used as public information vehicles. It's a valid viewpoint. Their main purpose is to entertain. Having said that, most of what I know about HIV and AIDS I learned from Eastenders, and much later from Hollyoaks (Yeah, ok, you get the picture, I'm a bit of a soap addict...) But I'm willing to bet that Nic's story has already saved some lives, by raising awareness. Sepsis isn't glamorous or sexy. It's not a 'cause' that you see celebrities championing. It's cruel, ugly, random and, for the most part, completely avoidable. So well done The Archers for tackling it. Read more about Nic's story here

In other news, I'm having a rather better writing year in 2018. So far I've managed a shortlisting in the Retreat West Flash Fiction competition, with a brand new, never been anywhere before story called Curl Up And Die, and I'e been Highly commended, for the second time, in the Inktears 2017 Short Story Competition, with my story The Less Fortunate, which got down to the last 50 in the Mslexia comp last year. Never give up on a good story.

Most excitingly, I have sold my first ever story to The People's Friend magazine. Don't know yet when it will be published. I know magazines work months ahead. The People's Friend was always on the arm of my Nana's chair when I was growing up. I think she'd be just a little bit proud.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Not what this blog is for but.....

I like to think that I have a fairly good vocabulary, but almost exactly ten years ago I learned a new word. That word was sepsis, and it was written on my dad's death certificate. Four days earlier he'd celebrated his 71st birthday. Well, maybe celebrated isn't the right word. For the previous 19 months, since my mum had died, very unexpectedly, he'd been going through the motions. He was miserable, desperately lonely, and, as a fairly newly diagnosed type one diabetic, never really well and struggling to come to terms with his condition. He'd been happily married for forty five years, and he seemed to view the idea of being happy, after Mum's death, as some kind of betrayal. He didn't think his life was worth much, and I failed to convince him otherwise. His last breath was like a massive sigh of relief.  But his life was worth something to me, and it needn't have ended when it did. And who knows, if things had been different he might have come through that awful period of grief, and moved on with his life. Today, his 81st birthday, I might have been cooking his favourite paella. Or maybe he'd have cooked for me. Those years were snatched away from us.

If you haven't had sepsis yourself, or known someone who has had it, and you're not a medical professional, chances are you won't really know what it is. Which is a bit odd, considering it kills more people every year than breast, bowel and prostate cancer put together. Every so often a story attracts media attention. TV personality Fern Britton almost died from sepsis last year, following a hysterectomy, and was apparently only saved by a doctor's receptionist who trusted her gut instinct, overrode everyone else, and summoned an ambulance. That's the thing about sepsis. It can be hard to get anyone to take your or your loved one's symptoms seriously. On the night my dad was admitted to hospital, complaining that he felt as though he was going to die, he was provided with two cheese and pickle sandwiches, because he couldn't take his insulin on an empty stomach.

Sepsis isn't a new thing. First World War poet Rupert Brooke died from it, after a mosquito bite.  Not exactly a hero's death. Basically, it's blood poisoning, and without rapid treatment it can lead to multiple organ failure and death. A sufferer can go downhill in less than the time it takes to Google symptoms. A friend told me recently that her neighbour had died from it, after a seemingly insignificant cut while gardening.  Often, it can begin with a urinary tract infection. This is what happened to my dad and, seemingly, to many elderly people.

The tragic thing is that my dad had suffered from sepsis before. I didn't know this until, trawling through his things after his death I came across his discharge papers from a previous admission, three weeks after Mum's funeral.  What I had been led to believe was a severe chest infection was actually his first bout of sepsis. And yes, I'm fully aware that I should have asked more questions at the time, but I didn't, and I have to live with that now.

Which brings me, at last, to the point. If I'd known what sepsis was, and that my dad had a history of it, I'd have kept telling the people who were attempting to treat him until someone listened to me. As they say, knowledge is power. Most of us know, at least in theory, what to do if someone is choking, how to recognise the symptoms of a heart attack or a stroke, how to perform CPR. We all know, or at least we should do, that a rash that doesn't disappear when pressed with a glass tumbler could be meningitis. We should all know about sepsis.too.
  • Slurred speech or confusion
  • Extreme shivering or muscle pain
  • Passing no urine (in a day)
  • Severe breathlessness
  • It feels like you're going to die
  • Skin mottled or discoloured
This information comes courtesy of The UK Sepsis Trust. Their slogan is JUST ASK COULD IT BE SEPSIS?  Well, I'm old enough to remember the AIDS Awareness campaign of the 1980s, and I'm going to borrow a slogan from that.  DON'T DIE OF IGNORANCE. And learn from my mistake.Don't let the first time you see the word sepsis be on the death certificate of someone you love.

John Dudley Wassell 14 September 1936 to 18 September 2007

 Love you, Dad xx

Friday, 8 September 2017

Still Here

My blog has been, yet again, sadly neglected. I often feel that I have nothing to say that would be of interest to anyone else. But I started this blog so that I had somewhere to direct people, in the unlikely event that they were interested in the stories I have had published. So I've spent a bit of time this afternoon updating links, deleting those that don't work any more and adding new ones. I hope I've included everything. Probably the thing I've been most excited about in 2017 has been the inclusion of my 100 word story The Smoking Circle in Sleep Is A Beautiful Colour, the 2017 National Flash Fiction Day anthology. I'm a bit in awe of some of the writers in there, and can't quite believe I'm rubbing shoulders with them. Oh, and I made the longlist of this year's Mslexia short story competition, which I was more than a little chuffed about. It's been a quiet year, so far, but I hope to be posting a bit more regularly from now on.

Monday, 9 November 2015

Old Stuff, New Stuff

When I first started to write, around six years ago, being published in anything at all seemed like an impossible dream.  I've been very lucky. Since then my work has appeared in various places, both online and in magazines and print anthologies.  If you type my name into Amazon it comes up with stuff that you can buy containing my work. Yes, I've looked, I really am that sad! I'm not delusional. I know nobody has ever heard of me, and hardly anyone has read anything I've written. But you can't argue with an Amazon listing!

No matter how many times it happens, it never stops being exciting. And I'm especially proud to have a story included in the Momaya Short Story Review 2015.  The theme this year was 'Treasure', and I entered a new version of a story I originally wrote some time ago, which seemed to fit the theme perfectly. I've received my copy of this lovely, beautifully produced anthology, and there is at least one story in it that I wish I'd written.

I was also thrilled when another older story, The Secret, was highly commended in the last Inktears Short Story Competition. This story was the first one to appear when the site was revamped recently. It got some lovely, interesting comments, for which I'm very grateful. You can read it here.

Relying on old stories is all very well, but you need to write new ones, and try out different things. In September I went, with some trepidation, to a Woman's Weekly Fiction Workshop in Manchester. I've been submitting stories to 'womags' for some time, although I fear that the optimistic tone they require doesn't come naturally to me. I am a natural pessimist who expects my toast to fall butter side down. Most of my stories have sad endings. This won't do, apparently, in the womag story. There must be a note of hope. So I have a lot to work on.

Having said that, I had a fantastic day at the workshop, which was tutored by the lovely Della Galton, and the very witty Gaynor Davies, Woman's Weekly Fiction Editor. I learned so much about what Woman's Weekly is looking for, and what they don't like. And I was actually brave enough to read something out loud. If you know me personally you'll understand what a massive thing that is. I hate the sound of my own voice. The best thing of all though was the opportunity to spend a whole day just thinking about writing, in a room full of other people who love it as much as I do.

Stepping outside my writing comfort zone again, I entered the People's Friend Serial Writing Competition, which closed at the end of last month. I grew up reading my Nana's weekly copies of People's Friend. I can see them now, piled up in the corner of her sofa.  I suspect that there are some very special skills required to write the kind of stories that People's Friend likes. I also suspect that I don't have them yet. But I had such fun writing an outline for my 3 part serial, and the first 6000 word installment. I don't think I've ever worked so hard on anything in my life, and that includes my university finals. There have apparently been 116 entries for this competition. I don't for one minute expect to be successful, but nothing is ever wasted. I'm sure I can develop what I've written into two or three shorter stories, if nothing comes of this.

In other news, I had a pleasing little win last week in the weekly flash competition recently started by  The Short Story Website . My winning story, Lambs, was originally part of a much longer story. Re-reading, I realised that all I really wanted to say was contained in this little episode. I'm glad it's finally found a home. And this newish site is a wonderful thing for readers and writers of short stories.

My cat Lily remains unimpressed by my writing. All she really cares about is where her next packet of Dreamies is coming from. Can't say I blame her. Onwards.......