Saturday 26 April 2014

Conversation at Auckland Castle With A Woman With Green Eyes

Cafe in Auckland Castle Library

Yesterday I wended my way through the tents and displays being put up in preparation for today’s Food Festival at the Bishop’s Castle. I was on my way to try out the new café in the Bishop's Library.

Then, in the castle doorway I meet this woman with green eyes whom I don’t know. She’s wearing a sage green jacket and has green eyes. She smiles. ‘Hello, how are you?’
I smile back. ‘Very well thank you.’
‘You look better than the last time I saw you.’
‘It’s the make-up,’ I say. I can’t remember meeting her before.
‘I’ve read your books. I’m just reading one of them. Enjoying it.’
I smile.
‘It’s the one about your life.’ She frowns. ‘Can’t just bring the title to mind. It’s about you and your childhood and your family.’
I smile again. ‘You mean The Romancer?’
‘Yes that’s it.’ She pauses. ‘You must have an amazing memory, right back when you were little. Photographic. You can just see it all. The people. The places.’
‘A good memory’s very useful for a writer. I remember what they said too. Word for
I met her here.
‘Really?’ Her green eyes widen. ‘Me, I can remember things from when I was two years old. People don’t believe me you know, but I can.’
She pauses again. To be honest, I want to get away. But then, really,  I don’t want to get away.
Then she goes on. ‘My father was one of twenty two children, you know. His father had eleven children to his first wife and eleven children to his second. And do you know, every one of them survived, all on a pitman’s wages!’ She pauses. Her timing is very good. ‘I knew his mother, my grandmother. From when I was very little I used to listen to her for hours as she told the tale.’
‘They all survived?’ I say.
‘Yes. My Grandma says their diet was all lentils, vegetables and porridge,’
‘Nowadays that would be seen as a healthy diet.’
She nods. ‘I suppose it would.’
‘I bet they had an allotment.’
She nods. ‘Yes they had long gardens down there.’

Then she told me a secret from her life which is private and has no part in this more tellable tale. Then she gave me her address to I could send her a signed copy of one of my books and we went our separate ways,

Afterwards I spent an hour scribbling in the library cafe, drinking coffee and spooning soup.

And then, as I came through the Castle gateway,I passed under a tree in full  bloom just like Auckland Castle itself.

Sometimes it’s hard being a writer but sometimes it’s truly wonderful.

Links for you.

Thursday 24 April 2014

Jamaica Inn: A Successful Take On The Dark Vision Of Daphne Du Maurier.

As a great fan of Daphne du Maurier, I have been watching the brouhaha over the excellent television dramatisation of her novel Jamaica Inn, with interest and with some bewilderment over the adverse reactions 

This dramatisation has been much criticised for the fact that the minutiae of the spoken word seemed to be lost in the brilliantly evoked roaring storms,  the swirling Celtic mists and the dramatic landscapes of nineteenth century Cornwall, where corruption, shipwrecking, smuggling and murder were a way of life. In this place at this time mere horse-stealing would count as a relatively innocent occupation.

First American Edition of Daphne's Story
We see Mary Yellan, the heroine, arriving by coach at Jamaica Inn to stay with her Aunt Patience and her Uncle Joss.  Rain and mud silt up the hem of her dress as plodges through mud, her hair blowing in the wind, hauling her trunk towards  the dark wrecked premised of Jamaica Inn.  

The force of the drama plunges us into the dark centre of Mary Yellan’s story without the back-story embedded in the novel, of Mary herself, her wrecked and bedraggled Aunt Patience, and her nightmarish, haunted Uncle Joss Merlyn, the charismatic heartless wrecker whom in the twenty first century we would label a psychopath.

In the novel we are also introduced to wild Cornwall as Mary travels in the rocking coach as it hurtles through the dark night and  the howling storm towards Jamaica Inn. But at this point Daphne’s prose on the page has already told us of  the whys and wherefores of Mary Yellan’s presence on this wild Cornish shore. We already know how her youth Mary’s Aunt Patience had been wild and independent and has worn ribbons in her bonnet and a silk petticoat. We know that she had a curled fringe and large blue eyes, and how she picked up her skirts and tiptoed through the  mud in the yard.

This prepares us to meet Patience again on that stormy night at Jamaica Inn. But now she is faded and abused and as much a wreck as any of the ships that her husband Joss had sent to the deep. In the drama we only meet this (wonderfully acted) version of Patience with no real sense of her backstory.

Mary Yellan’s first encounter with her Uncle Joss – again because of great acting – expressed tha sense of  dark menace that Daphne employed to create this terrible and profoundly haunted man.  The artifice of film – the dark ragged interiors of Jamaica Inn and the use of thin light – give us a certain access to this violent, explosive character. Although it does not replicate Daphne’s prose it does give a sense of the man.

And this must have been impossible to render directly/  Here is how Daphne describes him.

‘ … He was a great husk of a man, nearly seven feet high, with a creased black brow and a skin the colour of a gypsy. His thick dark hair fell over his eye in a fringe and hung about his ears. He looked as though he had the strength of a horse, with immense, powerful shoulders, long arms that reached almost to his knees, and large fists like hams. His frame was so big that in a sense his head was dwarfed and sunk between his shoulders, giving the half stooping impression of a gorilla with his black eyebrows and his mat of hair…’

Truly an apparition from a gothic nightmare. The fact is that in this television dramatisation the normal-sized, shaven headed actor does not reflect Daphne's prose description. And  yet the high quality of the writing, acting, and direction here  invoked  a sense of nightmare menace to match Daphne’s dark vision.

This drama is a great rendering of Daphne’s novel using the artifice of film to enlarge on the vast opportunities presented by her narrative.

In my opinion beside such a great production the mutterings about the drowned sound quality are less than relevant. In fact I think that the nature of this sound quality might add some meaning to the idea of an introverted and inarticulate community turned in on itself with its own private language and dark meanings. This is true to the spirit of the novel.

I think Daphne would have relished the drama and been intrigued to see what her dark vision  of 18th Century Cornwall, (written in 1935 when she was twenty nine) has evoked for the twenty first century audience.

I would highly  recommend watching all three episodes (no doubt there will be a boxed set) alongside a new reading of this great novel which truly stands the test of time. A double real treat for lovers of great stories.

Tuesday 15 April 2014

Setting about High Quality Self Editing for Short Story Competitions

You have drafted your story and transcribed it onto your computer. What next?

What follows is accumulated wisdom emerging from judging many short story competitions related to what I didn't find in the less good  entries and what characterised good entries.
You have drafted your story
 and transcribed it onto your computer.

Give your story the best chance by presenting it well

Layout – How it looks is the first thing the reader  sees when they handle a manuscript.

Don’t forget that your computer may be automatically formatted for business reports, brochures, and letters. (Like this page) You need adapt your layout  to make it  suitable for fiction. There’s nothing worse than trying to read a short story laid out like a business report.

Some guidelines for tackling layout.

1.            Line spacing  I.5  
2.            Indent every paragraph except the one at the beginning, when you place the first line at the margin.
3.            If you change place, time or action within a story, leave a double space and place the first line of the new paragraph on the margin and then continue indentation as before..

Laid out in this fashion your original drafted, transcribed manuscript begins to look professional. Now you’re looking at it more like the reader - or judge -will see it..

This will help you for the next stage of editing which is –

Passionate Substantive Editing –

Some tips:

1.Read the text out loud  right through. Just mark anything that sounds lumpy or doesn’t flow. Scribble in self suggestions. Have - and enjoy – a reader’s dialogue with the text. Insert amendments that enhance your meaning or improve the flow of your text.  

2. Sort out the paragraphs.
Paragraphs can be a puzzle. I meet good writers in workshops who haven’t yet got paragraphs nailed. It’s a bit of an ambiguous area. To a degree, paragraphing can be a matter of taste and style. Paragraphs in modern literature are distinctly shorter that those written in novels – say – before 1946.
If we aim for High Quality Self Editing we have to make our own choices regarding paragraphing.

Me? I’m of the opinion that white space on the page makes text more accessible and helps it flow forward.
So here are my useful rules of thumb.
·         New speaker, new paragraph
·         New idea, new paragraph
·         (As stated in Layout, above). If you change place, time or action within a story, leave a double space and place the first line of the new paragraph on the margin and then continue indentation.
3 That sorted, you can now move onto other things
·         Carry out a computer spell and grammar check to iron out residual mis-spellings, expressions and extra spaces that have escaped your eagle eye.
·         Read the whole text again (I know! I know! But after all this is still High Quality Self Editing Skills.
·         Now get your notebook and make list of the names you use in your story. Check back through your story and make sure they are consistent.
·         Turn a page in your notebook.  Now go through your story  and check the physical characteristics of your characters (hair eyes etc). Are they consistent?  Make tiny amendments to remind the reader of these characteristics as the story unfolds.
·         Spell/grammar-check any changed sections. Or the whole story again if necessary.

Hooray! Now you have your complete well written, well edited story, well laid out and easy to access.

So now give your story to a trusted writing buddy to check it out.  

Then one final and rigorous spelling/grammar check on your computer and you have what I call a story in Good Heart.

So it is near perfect. This is your final chance to look at your novel as a near-perfect whole and you can ask yourself some useful questions,
·         Look at the beginning and end of your story.. Are there valid connections here in terms of words, phrases or ideas? If not, think about inserting some. It could be a single word or phrase.
·         Look at your paragraphs in sequence. Is there forward movement? Is there flow? Is there some energy on the forward movement?
·         Consider again the first and last paragraphs Do they convey a kind of symmetry, however ambiguous?  I don’t mean here cute resolutions. Endings are not about explanation or expiation. However there should be a valid connection that momentarily gives the reader (however subliminally) a sense of the story as a whole.
·          Think whether  you have made your characters live and breathe and whether the end of a story is just the end of a beginning,
Now …er… one last mechanical spelling and grammar check. Ouch! Don’t hit me!

But now your story has really benefitted from your High Quality Self Editing Skills. You have become an editor as well as a writer. Your story is now endowed a professional identity to launch it into any competition,   including the

Room to Write Short Story Competition

Check it out under 'Compeition' at

C. Wendy Robertson

Now in Paperback and on Kindleon Amazon and in County Durham Libraries.

Happy Writing!

Sunday 6 April 2014

Writer Interview: An American in London: - Julia Platt Leonard

Today my guest is Julia Platt Leonard, a talented and upcoming writer  in the field of children's fiction: a name to look for. 

Julia  lives in North London but has meaningful roots  in Tennessee and Virginia in the USA. And Santa Fe in New Mexico. Like her namesake, the legendary Julia Child, our Julia is a dedicated  and talented cook. When we met for tea and cakes there was an  air of celebration in Julia's very urban kitchen, because it had just been fitted with a much
desired Aga...

Reading corner in
Julia's kitchen 

Wendy: What is the primary joy of writing in your life?

Julia.I love the eureka moments when I suddenly get it – when I understand a character or figure out how to solve a niggling plot point. And there are times when I become so absorbed that I lose track of time and find myself lost in the story. That is bliss.

Wendy: Does being American writing in England have an effect on your approach to writing?

Julia: I think it does. When I wrote my first novel Cold Case, I thought long and hard about where I would set it and chose Santa Fe, New Mexico because it’s a place near and dear to my heart. I didn’t feel ‘ready’ to base a story in London but when I started my second book, Stealing Time, I felt I was ready to have London as my setting.

Wendy: Do you have a specific feeling for the nature of your audience.

Julia: That’s an interesting question. I’ve been told that Cold Case appeals to boys and reluctant readers because it’s very fast paced with short chapters and lots of action. But it’s got a strong girl’s audience too – possibly thanks to Oz’s female sidekick Rusty –  so hopefully there’s a bit to appeal to lots of different readers.

Wendy: Have any books inspired you in the process of becoming a writer?

Julia: I was a voracious reader as a kid and still am today. I love lots of different types of books – mysteries and thrillers especially. The books I remember from my childhood with incredible fondness include To Kill a Mockingbird, A Wrinkle in Time, the novels of Daphne Du Maurier and Rumer Godden.

Wendy: When did you first know you were a writer?

Julia: I don’t remember a moment when it hit me – I suppose it was a gradual process. It started with a love of reading and that magical feeling when a book transports you. I can’t count the number of times I’ve missed my stop on the train or tube because I’ve had my nose in a book. At University I was an English literature major in the U.S. so I did a lot of reading and writing. And my first job after graduation was as a television reporter.

Wendy: What other aspects of your life find a place in your writing?

Julia: When I decided I was going to write a kids’ book I decided I wanted it to include things I love. I came up with a short list of three: 1) it had to be a mystery because I love reading mysteries, 2) I wanted it to include food since I’ve worked as a chef and, 3) it should be set in Santa Fe since that’s a place I love. The book I’m working on now has a lot of references to Charles Dickens who is probably my favourite author.  

Wendy: Do you have a writing routine?

Julia: I find I work/think best in the morning so I try to start writing as soon as I get back from the school run. If I can write for two straight hours that’s a success. I’ll tend to read through what I wrote the day before and make revisions and changes and then write another chapter. My chapters tend to be quite short
Julia in her study
so it’s doable if I keep myself off email and Amazon!

Wendy: What role does editing play in your writing process?

Julia: It’s funny because when I finished my first draft of Stealing Time, I thought ‘I’m done.’ But that’s a short-lived sense of satisfaction because to be honest, the hard work is ahead of me. The first draft basically gets the bones down on the page but then both the plot and characters need to be fleshed out.

Wendy: What is the best advice that you have received about your writing and who advised you?

Julia: I was lucky enough to take Children’s Writing classes at City Lit here in London. It was the best investment I ever made. I was taught by both Elizabeth Hawkins and Sophie McKenzie. The message from both of them was that writing is a job and you’ve got to put in the time to see the results. The difference between what gets published and what doesn’t is often sheer tenacity. And I find that the more time you spend with your story and characters, the better and richer they are.

Wendy:What advice would you give to writers in the first stage of writing their novels?

Julia: Get a rough idea of your plot before you dive in. Can you write a book without knowing where it’s going? Probably but you’re making your life as a novice writer even harder. Second, dedicate time during your day for writing. If you’ve got another job – like I do – or family – again, that’s me – then this can be difficult but it’s really essential.

Wendy: How long does it normally take you to write a novel? Has this changed?

Julia: It feels like forever! I’ve been working on Stealing Time now for a couple of years. Part of that is because I’m balancing writing with other work and a young daughter. But at some point, I think a book has a life of its own and you have to climb on board and stay with it until it’s done.

Wendy: What are you working on now?

Julia: I’m working on Stealing Time, an 11+ novel about a girl named Flint Dreadnaught who inherits a mysterious watch from her aunt. When a nefarious man named Witherwick steals the watch she risks her life to get it back. There’s a bit of time travel, a Victorian boy named Wilkie and a cameo by the novelist Charles Dickens.

Wendy: Tell us about your latest published novel.  

Julia: Cold Case was my first book. It’s an 11+ murder mystery about a boy named Oz who goes into his family’s restaurant early one morning and finds a dead body in the walk-in refrigerator. When his brother is accused of the crime, Oz must find the real murderer. There’s a great girl sidekick who helps him named Rusty

Wendy: What, for you are the best characteristics of a good editor?

Julia: A good editor finds the points where the reader stops being immersed in the story because of a flaw with the plot or the characters. He or she points those out, offers suggestions but doesn’t try to re-write it for you.

Wendy: Do you see any difference between American and British writers?

Julia: I’m sure there are but writing and reading has become so global that as a reader, I’m most interested in finding a good story – one that I can sink my teeth in.

Wendy: If possible can you give us a few biographical elements about Julia Platt Leonard and her life?

Julia: I came to writing after careers as a television reporter, advertising executive, and professional chef. I'm from the U.S. – a Tennessee native with stops in Ohio and North Carolina before going to college at the University of Virginia. I've lived in New York and Boston but have called London home for the past 16 years where I live with my husband and daughter and our cheeky collie-pointer cross, Olivia. I write (occasionally) about writing at as well as on my food blog

Thank you Julia. There is so much here with which I - and other writers, I feel - will identify. I too have always rated Rumer Godden and Daphne du Maurier for their great story-telling skills and their insight into the inner child. And I have just published a novel whose heroine is called Olivia. But she's not a dog.

I loved Cold Case and am so looking forward to reading Stealing Time. Flint Dreadnaught sounds like a great heroine... 

Wednesday 2 April 2014

So, What is Your Short Story About?

Today is the first of four sessions in the second sequence of the  Back to Basics series that Avril Joy and I are runningat Bishop Auckland Town Hall. The theme for this  sequence is 

The Short Story.

This is very timely as I’ve been buried for a month in the task of collecting together, , anthologising, revising, editing, proofing and printing twenty seven of my own short stories. These will be published in a singe edition. Some of these stories were written fifteen years ago; some were written much more recently.

In completing this rather arduous task I have discovered a lot more about myself as a writer and about the nature of the
Revising, editing,  proofing, printing
the collection.. And revising again,
proofing again ...
short story.

The collection will be published this month under the title of Forms of Flight: Twenty Seven Short Stories. The title story is about a woman, recently widowed who escapes into a second, more vibrant life in a battered old Dormobile, painted with the emblems of an aeroplane and a butterfly.

Writers at every level are often asked the impossible question What Is Your Short Story About?

You might as well ask what the moon is about? Or what is a butterfly about? This is truly mpossible to answer in a sentence.

Yet this is what I have made myself do in putting together  these twenty seven stories.   Every collection of stories must have a contents page. And in writing my contents page I have challenged myself to create a strap-line (such as you might see in a magazine) for each story.

This is because people tend not to read a short story collection as you might read a novel: they don’t read it from page one to page 200. They tend to cherry-pick from the list of stories, going backwards and forwards at will, So I created the contents page with a strap-line for each story to help in the cherry picking. A bit like pinning down butterflies, but here goes...

See the Contents Page for Forms of Flight below. How would you cherry-pick? 

(Today in the workshop we will ask ourselves What is a Short Story?. I will report back here on the inspired answers to this question…)

But first – here is the Contents Page for 

Forms of Flight: Twenty Seven Short Stories. 

1.Painting Matters: ‘ …his black hair shot up from his head and was cut oddly short at the side and. He was clutching big square parcel which he hoisted so she could see the label.  ‘Emma Unthank

2.Chaos Theory and Frost on Grass:  Lilah gets drunk and makes a new young friend…                                 

3.My Name is Christine: - Christine tries time and again to rescue herself from self-harming oblivion.


4. 1913. The Making of a Man: Rites of passage on a boy’s first day down the pit.

5.1936.  Vi’s Shifts: Stoical, humorous Vi, with her husband Ralph and a son both in the pit, and a son at school, works three shifts a day

6.Joe, Theo and the Silver Ghost: The unspoken love between Joe and his workmate Theo threatens Joe’s marriage.

7.The Story Of An Unusual Marriage: Imogen and Freddie live their own lives almost unbeknownst to each other

8.Oh Amsterdam: This would make a good start, thought Ernestine.  A short journey. A couple of nights stay. Her first,-her very own, - experiment in travel

9.The Nature Of Art: Using his phenomenal memory he painted pictures of the teaming city that were somehow drenched with the light and the movement of the ocean..


10. A Cloak with Pentacles: ‘takes the cloth from her and strokes it with a forefinger pocked with the prick of needles  as though teased by a nutmeg grater

11.Queenie and the Waterman: Queenie is a bag lady who sees angels and giants and lives an enchanted life


12. Sandy Cornell Saved My Life: A hounded adolescence saved by  the gift of friendship                                                   


13.The Paperweight:  A chance meeting with dark edges on a rainy night.      


14. Knives: A man who likes playing war with toy soldiers learns a true life-lesson about knives.                                        


15.The Glass Egg: She looked up to see a shadow looming across the glass roof-light.

16. The American. ‘Oh, really?’ The voice was American, a soft West Coast sound. ‘You people really read these things?’ He leaned across, picked up the Sylvia Plath…


17. 1946. My First London Spring:  My journey to London was a kind of pilgrimage, eager as I was to fulfil a promise to Josey Atkinson, one of the friends who had died in the cold. I still had his address, on the back of one of my drawings.


18.Turpentine. Embarrassment uncoiling in her senses, made her notice more intensely the smell of peppers in the gypsies food and the turpentine scent of the painter’s oil paints.


19.International Relations:  She brought the tales home to Patrick and they would giggle helplessly over their evening drink: Perrier water for him, gin and tonic for her.’              


20.Corn Rows:  ‘… blew her long hair dry, watching it rise away from the dryer like lifted silk ‘What beautiful hair you have, dear,’ said the old woman, looking up from her puzzle book 


21. Still Life. ‘Sometimes, without picking up a brush or pencil, the girl would sit hunched on her stool staring out of the windows.’

22. The Psych and the Poet: She sat down and faced  hi across the table. ‘‘If you’re going to do word association or show me inkblots like the last fucking shrink you can get lost.’                                                                              280


23. Letter to Emily: ‘Miss Lottie, the children!’ she said grimly. ‘According to your father you have been a little mother to your own sisters, I have seen little evidence of such qualities in my house. ‘See to your charges!’


24. Josephine’s Englishman: ‘When M’selle Josephine visited us Amalie was always on edge, uncharacteristically bad tempered. It took me some years for me to realise  that this was caused by jealousy.  


25. Forms of Flight: ‘Air Force trained him as a navigator. When he saw the land from the sky he said it fired his Romany blood


26. Spider:  ‘He has marked a column, headed  Knife Attack on Welder.  There is a photo of a handsome man in his mid thirties


27.  How I Became a Painter:  Edgar realised his friend was telling the world  This is me!  in defiance of his father who’d never been comfortable about his son’s soft habit of drawing every dratted thing he saw:                                                        



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