Friday, 28 May 2010

Crime on The Writing Game

clip_image001Novelist Anne Cleeves in conversation on THE WRITING GAME. “What do you need to be a writer? The biggest thing is concentration – because you need to create this fictitious world and if it’s not solid and real in your head then it’s as though you’re writing from memory, not imagination, and you can’t expect your reader to join you in that world..…

(About her success) There was the chance of being on Shetland one winter and people on Shetland encouraging me to write that first Shetland novel. And then having a wonderful editor who will get behind you in a good publishing house you need an advocate for your book within the house. Mine was wonderful. She did things like send the first chapter to all the reps. She really got behind it.

I’m still of this big learning curve with my community programme The Writing Game but am making progress. I now know how to edit my own tapes that comprise the segments of the programme and spent yesterday afternoon with James Burrage of Bishop FM putting the segments together into one smooth flowing programme. (A new process which I’m just learning…) I glowed with pride when James nodded wisely and said the tapes were spot on. o now that one is put to bed ready to be broadcast next Tuesday 1st June at 7pm. Do listen if you are in the area or watch out here for the podcast.

It has been worth all the work because the production on this programme is much better. One improvement is that, on the advice of Al from Australia (he got hold of the podcast of Prog 1) I have not used music links. He was so right. Thank you Al. So my Crime Writing programme features conversations with Anne Cleeves the Gold Dagger Winning Crime Writer, Peter Walters: Wear Valley Writer Leader and a new Crime Novelist and we have Crime Novels of the Month from Glyn & Gillian Wales.

There is so much great stuff on there. Such great voices. Listen to Ann Cleeves dispensing fresh wisdom about her particular writing game. She's very generous and inclusive and has lots of really fine advice for new writers.

Part of my contribution was …

“‘Perhaps we all think we can write a story with a puzzle, a detective and a solution! Perhaps we could all have a stab at exploring the dark recessed of a criminal’s mind! Crime Fiction is the most widely read field of fiction and covers a whole range of styles from cosy whodunits to murder most gruesome. In this programme I will explore how working writers tackle this widely differing genre. Listen in on June 1st and share their world, and perhaps be inspired to have a go yourself…”

Happy listening. Happy writing.


Friday, 21 May 2010

Ah, Bluebells…

and more

In this household we know that the summer is on point when the bluebells arrive to strut their stuff our garden. We have this bank to the side of the house which, if left to its own devices, sprouts thousands of bluebells. In recent months/years it has rather been left to its own devices because of writing and other work. So up sprout those bluebells. Everywhere.

I read somewhere that when this happens it’s a sign of very ancient woodlands, even a thousand years old. As this house is in the middle of a small, busy town I think this is very precious.

G is setting up his very neat vegetable patch G Keeping and eye one things down at the bottom, with its small miracle of carrots, garlic, leek and cabbage, all now putting their tiny seedling heads above the parapet.


But it’s a bonus now, in going down there, to relish this mall miracle and be reminded that the large thousand year miracle of the bluebells and more still with us.all set with 140 year old wall

Another bonus is witnessing A, the boy who likes chocolate role-playing a social realist Russian Poster of the 1930s…

Angu being a Russian Social Realist Poster

bluebells again

Ah, bluebells…


Thursday, 20 May 2010

Getting Off The Gear

There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Night VisionBestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn't to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up. Stephen King

‘….He himself was lately dodgy rather than just dodgy because the gear started to make him throw up and he had somehow heeded the Dire Warning from a guy called Cragan whom he met in the Black Bull.

Cragan – a strange, uneasy sort of man - turned out to be a doctor and it was he who got Tegger off the gear. Cragan convinced him that he didn’t have an addictive personality. He’d just been having a really bad time and was self-medicating. They only ever met in the Black Bull but in those months Tegger got himself clean. He’d even shown Cragan some of his writing. There was trust between them. That last time they met Cragan brought him a pile of novels - battered paperbacks - and said he was going away to America, where he’s got this job in a psychiatric hospital.

Tegger never saw Cragan again. He read Cragan’s books, line by line and as he read them it was as though he were in the Black Bull with Cragan, arguing the toss. In the stories were people he recognised. There were even people like himself…’


Monday, 17 May 2010

Writing and Knowing

Writing teachers invariably tell students, ‘Write about what you know.’ That’s, of course, what you have to do, but on the other hand, how do you know what you know until you’ve written it? Writing is knowing. E L Doctorowhats etc 042

‘As the plane taxis, charges, and then rises into the sky, I find that Aurelie is a businesswoman to the fingertips. The free way she talks about herself and asks me questions tells me she’s not English. It seems she’s a buyer for superior English shops, shipping all kinds of goods from France to England. ‘And you? What is it you do, Ruthie?’ she murmurs.

We finally dispose of the fact that I’m a writer and she’s never-heard-of-me-but-will-look-for-my-books-in-the-future, when the flight attendant comes with her trolley.

We have tea and – at Aurelie’s insistence – brandy. Then we sit back in our seats, assessing each other as people do. Aurelie is tall, anything between forty and sixty years old. She’s fine boned, with a delicate, intricate face. In her faintly accented English she begins to speak of her love for the English countryside and I find myself telling her about the Foxe’s house and my plan for writer’s retreat. ‘In the end,’ I say. ‘It didn’t quite come off.’


Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Text , Sound and Cultural Taboos.

Putting your head above the parapet is often proscribed by powerful cultural taboos.  This is particularly so in the regions of the English working class from where I emerge. The old childhood maxim of not ‘making a show’ of yourself or drawing attention to yourself can bite deep into quite mature  personalities.

As a child and young woman I was achingly shy, didn’t like encountering strangers or being at a crowded gathering. In those early days, not ‘making a show’ of myself suited me fine. But it seems to me now that underneath the surface self of this watchful, tongue-tied girl, a raging exhibitionist was hiding.

It was hidden well. When I first went to college I lost my voice for a week before things normalised, But the inhibitions stayed. When I first started teaching I lost my voice for two weeks. I had this very boisterous class of twelve year olds in my first school. So I had to write QUIET!! in very large letters on the board quite a few times in those two weeks. They were great kids, though.

All that time,  though,  the exhibitionist was at work - writing articles, stories, mapping novels. It was a secret  nobody knew about. Writing was a perfect medium for this shy tongue-tied girl. She could say, imagine, invent what she liked without drawing attention to herself.

But the fact is that in teaching it only works if you do draw attention to yourself. Teaching children taught me not to hide behind my shyness, to let the exhibitionist inside have her airing.  She could be funny, daring, expressive. She could be herself. The children loved her, They didn’t know you shouldn’t put your head above the parapet or make a show of yourself so it was OK. That was a comfort.l

After that  working with adults in large groups was a very big leap for this shy girl, But she’d learned in school that there was something in her that could really teach people, really do this thing,  as long as she became her other, more exhibitionist self.

Then, when the books and stories began to be published it seemed that I was not just looking over the parapet , I’d leapt onto it. But now  I had the book to protect me. Or the books. It was not really me, it was them. They were the things  ‘making the show’. The shy, embarrassed  person that is still me was only holding them.

And now we have the crazy situation of the community radio programme. This voice that repeatedly let me down in the early days is put to work, up there to be judged.  I hear my voice on the tapes and think how strange it is, how thin and nervous I sound. But I’m pleased now that I’ve learned the basics of sound editing. Editing sound means that I can nip and tuck the excesses of the reluctant voice.  Just as I nip and tuck the texts of my novels and the stories, making them their best selves, I can begin to nip and tuck my voice so its becomes its best self for the programme. Which best self it expresses, the shy girl or the exhibitionist, I’m not quite sure.

I’m loving the creativity of putting The Writing Game together, and talking to and listening to these great writers and readers. Still though, the shy girl and the exhibitionist live on in me side by side and I have to deal with them.

The learning curve continues.


Sunday, 9 May 2010

The Joys of Cranking the Engine of a Novel

Recently, for the programme, I’ve been asking other writers how they start a novel and how they get on with completing it. I’ve also spoken specifically about how I was inspired to write my own novel The Lavender House. So, as I’m beginning a new novel, I thought I’d tell you how this process works in my case.

All writers work in their own way. I think I must be a seasonal writer. For years now, in late Winter/ early Spring I will be puzzling, speculating, making false starts, writing sketches (short scenes that may/might be in the novel) waiting for characters to walk onto my roughly prepared stage, into my dreamed landscape, demanding to be named and styled.

Notes, labels, names, sketches, images and maps start to litter the walls of my little room. My computer becomes petalled with notes and reminders. The novel grows first in a kind of impressionistic collage. The big table is stacked with opened books post-it-ed and ticker-taped with wild notes to myself.

In real Spring ( when the bluebells at the bottom of the garden are out) I feel impelled to start to write, to get into gear properly with this job . The story is bubbling up from the depths of my imagination, throwing up sentences and paragraphs like fire and gas from a volcano.The characters are elbowing their way out of the wings into the spotlight, moving from monologue to dialogue. Occasionally there are shrieks. Let me out! Let me out!

This is when I’ll write novel-stuff in my notebook wherever I am – car, cafes, hotels, park bench - taking pages like stored treasure back to the little room for the painstaking and rewarding process of transcription. Sometimes I’m amazed how brilliant the scribble is. Sometimes I can’t make it out, so perhaps it was too brilliant for this world… It's a mad, mad phase. I become more and more excited, and as the Summer moves into place I am buzzing away, writing every day, living the narrative and not noticing too much around me.

Sometimes at this midpoint there is a worrying haitus. Is it really a novel? Am I kidding myself? Am I deluded into thinking I can do this very hard thing? (Some people label this the Writer’s Block. I think it’s just the imagination muscle screaming for a rest.) So I take a good breather then I go back to the beginning and move more slowly forward again, editing and writing as I go.

With the coming of Autumn the days draw in and the growing darkness helps me to focus more closely on the way the narrative works. These latter stages are just as demanding and interesting but are as much intellectual as imaginative. This is the time when the firecrackers that I set away back in early Spring have to take their place in a coherent and interesting story. And in the end the form has to be right, The facts have to be right.

I don’t at all see this part of the process as a chore – it’s the final careful, creative act in making the novel work. It's like taking a garment you’ve just designed and made, and pressing it with care to make it fit and elegant for anyone who chooses to put it on.

By the beginning of December, with Winter set in, the novel is complete and ready to go on, on its own hopeful journey.

But now, with this lovely new novel (called so far XXX), I’m just at the beginning of this journey. I relish the familiar delight and and excited tension threading through my body. Writing like this is a visceral thing. Of all the things I do, my novel is where I am completely myself – travelling alone and enjoying it.


(Pic tomorrow…)

Friday, 7 May 2010

Books on The Writing Game

(Stop Press - Was invited by Norman Geras be profiled on his great weblog You might like to check it out Wx - )         Now back to books…

One feature of my radio programme will be a focus on the delights of reading, and how writers can use their reading to inform their writing. In the May programme we featured:  Books of The Month - chosen by Gillian Wales (Chartered Librarian & Ex Arts Centre manager) and Glyn Wales (Historian, ex Head teacher & University Lecture ).Their criteria are – Plot, Place, Character & StyleBishop FM etc 001

Their choices this month choice were   Chris Mullin: A View From the Foothills. (Profile Books) ‘A political diary of a Labour MP from 1919 to May 2005. Reading it restores some of my (Glyn) faith in MPs for it shows a humanity, selflessness and humanity notably lacking in the present parliament. The book’s also witty and entertaining and throws light on the roles of a back bench MP, a home affairs committee member and Junior Foreign Office minister. Uniquely Mullin remained a minister despite his opposition to the Iraq war… A man of principle.’(Timely in this week where we are left with a hung parliament. W)
David Lodge Deaf Sentence (Penguin) Good on style and character. ‘Retired professor coping in a good humoured was with the vagaries of the post professional and eccentric family life Touches on themes of a recession his and an increasingly electronic world of 2009 2010 Britain, Recommended.’

William Boyd: Ordinary Thunderstorms. Chatto and Windus
Better in plot and place, we think, though perhaps not so good in style. A conspiracy novel – a sort of 39 Steps for the Naughties It is about a man’s loss of identity and flight from pursuers. The Thames from London to the sea mirrors the hero’s own journey into the depths. A good read.’
Margaret Forster Isa and May – Deals with the relevance of the grandmother in today’s society and the controversial question of nurture versus nature. Novel will keep you guessing right to the end, despite, we think, an occasional overload of information
Philip Pullman The Good Servant Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. Pullman’s retelling of the gospels. Here Jesus and Christ are a pair of twins. Pullman destroys the gospel story and articulate his own disbelief in the myth of Jesus Christ Pullman believes in the democracy of reading and doesn’t think it’s the task of the author to tell the reader what the book means. He says he is in the “Once Upon A time business” not the “Message” business.’

And Some Books Mentioned during the Programme Avril Joy:     The Sweet Track: Flambard Publishing In her interviAvrilBookHomeew Avril talks about the significance of place in her writing – in this book, the Somerset Levels

Wendy’s Novels    I used my novel The Lavender House (Headline Book Publishing) to demonstrate the slender and exciting starting points when setting about writing a novel.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

On Air and In Shock

Well, the Writing Game went out last night on Bishop FM!!

It’s been the epitome of the cliché of a steep ‘learning curve’ in the Radio Times 002 Lisettelast month, learning absolutely new skills and gathering together ideas and people to generate this one hour radio show for this community station.

The programme was now all on tape so a few of us gathered to listen to it in my sitting room over glasses of white wine. Writers Lisette Rebecca Grout and Geri Auton were there already to record their piece for a future programme, and Avril was there for moral support.

The programme before The Writing Game was a very jolly, chatty, drive-time music show presented by two lively gRadio Times 001uys who were obviously having a good time. Like me they are amateurs but they sound so much more confident and polished than I know I feel about all this.

Then my music (Dave Brubeck) and my show. It’s very scary. I do sound nervous but I think I get better during the hour. I hope I’ll get more laid back and natural with more experience. My commitment shows through, I think. The contributors – Avril, Eileen, Hilary, Debora, Gillian and Glyn – are all marvellous. Apart from Debora, it’s their first time too. I have to say I feel there’s good, interesting content in the programme for both readers and writers.

Radio Times 003 Geri

Despite the great efforts of the lovely James Burrage of Bishop FM the continuity is just a bit bumpy – all my fault and I know I’ll make it easier for James next time.

One thing that surprised me was the surge of the sound of the advertisements half way through – a big contrast to our restrained voices discussing books and things, I’d forgotten about the advertisements. But it was very reassuring in its own way.

It finally dawned on me that this was the real world. That my programme, my Writing Game was really out there. On the radio. On air. Crikey!


People have been very kind – here are some reactions:

First from Station Manager Gillian Campbell

‘Oh, and the show was fabulous - thank you. I had a house full sitting
around the radio staring at it (that doesn't happen very often in my
house, trust me!)’

…and …

Fan mail already - wow, I'm very impressed - well done! ‘

From people who listened

  • ‘Congratulations. The Writing Game was such a success - a brilliant new programme that will be a treat to look forward to each month.’
  • ‘Congratulations! All your hard work paid off and The Writing Game comes across as well presented, interestingly structured and inspiring, The features were short enough to hold the listener’s interest and sufficiently varied as magazine-type programmes ought to be. Well done.’
  • ‘Many congratulations on a good first programme.. Here's to many more.’

That’s it – here’s to some more. Crime next time. I’ll just go and put a cold compress on my head


Monday, 3 May 2010

Crime , Ann Cleeves, and The Art Of Interviewing

On Saturday we drive across the moors to the HexhamAnn Cleeves Book Festival. PD James, whom we hear speak later, says she’s rarely up here but how wonderfully beautiful is the countryside her. Perhaps, she suggests, we don’t talk about it much because we didn’t want people coming up in hordes and spoiling it. Well deduced, PD.

We’re in time to witness this Empress of Crime Writing in conversation with the shrewd, flamboyant and generous VaL McDermid. This is no ordinary interview. It’s a merry, respectful conversation between two fellow professionals who know their art inside out. The generation gap between them is invisible. Their mutual admiration is evident. It’s all peculiarly intimate, given that they’re before a tiered audience of several hundred people.

The informality of the conversation is deceptive. It fosters a stream of insightful talk about the nature of the crime novel and its place in literature. It celebrates the diversity of the way writers work and think. It allows us to grasp something of the high professional commitment of this woman who has operated on top of her game through forty years who is till playing hard. She talks of just one more Dagliesh novel…

Then we have a rather surreal lunch at a Wetherspoons pub located in a rather lovely Art Deco venue that was once a cinema. (This reminds me of the Golden Age of Crime Fiction – ladies sweeping down staircases flaunting cigarettes in long holders, and all that.)

As well as sustaining the life of unusual buildings, these Wetherspoon pubs never fail to interest me in the diversity of their clientele – families equipped with drawing books, lone fathers with their children, brooding individuals, men in work clothes, blokes in groups, ladies who lunch lightly. It’s not Groucho’s, where like seeks like and where wannabes try on the Emperor’s New Clothes. It’s much better than that. More stimulating, So much more real life.

But the real purpose of my day is to interview crime writer Ann Cleeves for The Writing Game, my new community radio programme. Ann, Avril Joy and I sit in an upstairs room and talk about Ann’s writing life and how - after writing steadily for twenty years or so - she became an overnight success when she won the crime writer’s Oscar, the Golden Dagger Award and has not looked back since. Translations, film series have followed. One of several keys to her success has been the locating of the last series of detective novels on the Shetland Isles. She has a great sense of place. In fact she’s off to Fair isle tomorrow to celebrate - along with her agent, her publisher, her friends, fans and press - the launch Blue Lightening the last of her Shetland Quartet.

That will be some journey (13 hours from Aberdeen and then another boat trip…) and some party!

Our conversation is wide ranging and absorbing, reflecting, I think , the writer-to-writer style of the on-stage conversation this morning between Val McDermid and PD James. I know for certain that listeners to the programme with be fascinated with what Ann has to say about writing, crime, location and success.

Ann’s interview will go out in my second programme on Crime Fiction on Tuesday 1st June. I hope you get to listen to it.


PS I’m getting used to the little machine with the formidable general 009 broadcasting power, but on the way back over the moors I had a terrible panic that I'd not switched it on properly and the magic moment of this lovely interview was no more. When I got home and slotted it into my laptop, there is was, in all its verbal glory. Phew! I almost cried with relief. It was like one of those silly moments when you think you’ve left the iron on and your house is burning down …

Just to remind you:

The first programme will go out on Tuesday May 4th at 7pm and after that will be available as a podcast to download from

This first programme focuses on starting points in writing and features Avril Joy in her role of published author, and local writers Eileen Elgey and Hilary Smith.

Forthcoming programmes:

June 1st Crime Fiction Featuring Ann Cleeves

July 6th Children’s Fiction Featuring David Almond.


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