What I learned at Writers’ Holiday

I recently returned from the summer Writers’ Holiday 2017 at the Fishguard Bay Hotel in South Wales, sad with the knowledge that this was to be the last of an event I had been attending for many years. The journey home was filled with reflections on what I have gained from being at the summer Writers’ Holiday, first at Caerleon University college and latterly in the beautiful setting of Fishguard Bay.

Writing courses and retreats can seem expensive but I count as good value the writing skills I developed and what is priceless – the friendship and becoming part of an enduring nationwide writing community with all the support that entails.

One of the best things about this event was that it was always fun, never losing sight of the word ‘holiday.’ That was achieved by a relaxed atmosphere, the most helpful, attentive hosts and tutors hand-picked not only for the knowledge of their subject but for the ability to teach and to enable each delegate in the group to feel comfortable and included. In addition to a great variety of courses there were evening talks, pub crawls, open mic poetry nights and quizzes and at Caerleon a half-day trip to  places of local interest was included. I really enjoyed visiting Tredegar House, Hay on Wye and Cardiff’s St. Fagan’s museum.

The first Writers’ Holiday I attended would be about 1997. I was still recovering from severe injuries following a motorbike accident that had cost me my career and my self-confidence having been isolated at home for four years in a wheelchair and on crutches. I remember walking into the welcome meeting at Caerleon and being utterly terrified by the huge buzzing crowd. Everyone seemed to know everyone else and my first instinct was to turn and run. I managed to sit down next to someone who started to talk to me and by the the next day I was part of a small group which not only stuck with me all week but which reformed each year for several years after that.

Between then and now I think I only missed one or two years and the network of WH friends grew and solidified. One of the best friends I have now I first met at Writers’ Holiday, and some friends remain stalwarts from the early days. Some friends from those days are no longer around or simply stopped coming but some remain in touch on social media and others are fondly remembered when a few of us get together. And of course new people come and also become treasured friends over time. I took courses in poetry, short stories, novel writing, crime and romance and travel writing to name just a few.

The courses at Writers’ Holiday were always geared towards commercial markets and publication which provided a counterpoint to the academic writing theory I was by this time studying at my local university. When I first went to Writers’ Holiday I was a fledgling writer and it was the interest sparked on their courses that led me to embark on my MA and later, PhD in creative writing.

For the last few years I have been invited to the summer event as a course leader, a role which I have thoroughly enjoyed  – such talented participants. I was pleased to be surprised and amazed by some of the work produced.

And so I’d come to feel a part of the Writers’ Holiday ‘family.’ I’ve seen the hard work put in by Anne and Gerry Hobbs and come to feel a deep respect and affection for them, their son Richard (whom I watched grow from a teenager to a lovely man) and all their family.

So it is with deep regret that I say goodbye to the summer Writers’ Holiday but that’s not the end of the story. Those of us who have met up year by year keep in touch on Facebook and continue to support each other in our successes and our doldrums. And fortunately Anne and Gerry will still be running their other annual event the winter Writers’ Holiday at Fishguard Bay. I plan to attend the painting course run by Susan Alison with a couple of extra days at each end for writing and this will be a worthwhile trip and the chance to continue meeting up with friends old and new. And to all those no longer able to make that trip, please keep in touch, you were part of something special which I for one will never forget.

Writers’ Holiday will now be held annually in February. The next date is 23-25th February at the delightful Fishguard Bay hotel. Learn more at Writers Holiday

 

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Ghostwriting – is it to die for?

I was first approached in 2014 by a mutual friend to ghostwrite an autobiography for Gary Skyner, one of the first UK thalidomide babies. Gary grew up to be a high-achieving comedian, motivational speaker and tireless campaigner for compensation for thalidomiders. If I’d known what a protracted task it would be I doubt I would have taken it on. I went to the first arranged meeting, thinking ‘what if I don’t like this bloke? I won’t be able to do it.’

However, we got on like a house on fire so provided with some literature and cuttings  on Gary’s life I began researching the thalidomide disaster from the postwar period to the present day. It proved a fascinating journey and I became deeply immersed in the injustices at a personal level but perhaps more importantly in the failure within the national and international context to deal fairly with these people to this day, chiefly through corporate greed and political indifference.

For a year I listened to Gary’s story through a series of recorded interviews. It was a story of breathtaking courage and laughter in the face of terrible adversity but also a tale of heartbreak as the family was torn apart by the tensions of caring for a damaged child. Taking a chronological approach, I wrote up each chapter after each recording, incorporating my historical literature research as I went along. I was writing in the first person, as Gary, and of course the great difficulty was trying to capture Gary’s personality and not letting my own thoughts and ideas invade the text too much. Gary is a great joker so I put in all the funny stories he included in his interviews and I also tried to let his anger show at the way thalidomiders worldwide have been treated by governments and the pharmaceutical firms. In his career Gary has met many famous people, particularly sports celebrities and he has many photos of himself with footballers, boxers and TV personalities, as well as family photos, so these too had to be incorporated into the book. We decided on black and white photos throughout the text and to include a colour plate section at the middle or end of the finished book.

At last it was finished after two years of writing and editing. At the beginning of 2016 we began looking for a publisher. Several showed interest but eventually declined. Keen to see the book in print and confident of selling copies at his gigs and speaking events, Gary decided to publish the book through Troubador/Matador a professional self-publishing package. A tediously long re-editing process ensued . There were difficulties with the photos which had to be sent separately and their position in the text labelled in a separate document. This led to lots of problems of them being put in the wrong place and the captions going missing, partly our fault as Gary moved one of the pictures to another place in the text and that threw all the others out! However, it was so important that everything should be right so meticulous checking and re-checking of proofs could not be avoided. The first cover design we were offered we didn’t like but the final one is wonderful. We also went through several titles before settling on You Can’t, You Won’t: a Life of Unarmed Combat. The book was finally published in June of this year and Gary and I are very proud of the final result. It was a wonderful experience to open the first box of copies and actually hold it in my hands.

Overall the experience has been profound. I made a friend for life and I am honoured to have helped bring this account and the issues involved to the public arena. It’s a personal story but also exposes what happened and is still happening to all those people in a world where mothers-to-be took a remedy they were told was safe only to feel responsible for the injured children to which they gave birth. I think it’s a story that needs to be told. Older people vaguely remember the tragedy but younger generations will likely know nothing of it. Although law and practice on drug trialling changed because of the thalidomide disaster, drug companies are still motivated by profit and the potential for tragic mistakes is ever present.

The downside of the experience was that I virtually ate, breathed and slept this book for over three years with little time or thought left for my own writing. I got emotionally involved with the issues and though that may seem unprofessional  – I mean, if you make a career of ghostwriting can you let yourself be sucked in by every book? – it meant my heart went into the book and I think the book is the better for that.

Since the book was published I’ve had more enquiries about ghostwriting for others but I’ve turned them down. I’m a fiction writer by nature so I want to concentrate on the novel I practically abandoned to write Gary’s book. Would I ghostwrite again? At present the answer is no. It was a hard struggle and the positive outweighed the negative, I wrote a great book and I learned so much about thalidomide, but now it’s time to get back to my own thoughts and ideas, my own voice. If I did consider ghostwriting again, I’d have to get on with the subject and I’d have to be sure that the person’s story was one that addressed issues of value to the wider community. Maybe one day…………..You Can’t You Won’t is available from Amazon and all good bookshops

Coming soon —- my new novel ‘Mere’ a dark ghost story is to be published by Thunderpoint publishing in May 2018.img368

 

 

Is publishing short stories online a good idea?

Given the limited market today for short stories in print publications it would seem that online zines offer the short story writer a wealth of opportunities. E-zines pop up like mushrooms in all genres but think twice before posting your  precious work here there and everywhere.

It’s best to be picky about the sites you have your name associated with. There are sites where you can post your stuff without it being evaluated by an editor, or where other writers and/or readers vote for the best work each month  or so. I looked at a few of these but found a lot of my time was taken up reading work that wasn’t of interest to me or was not of publishable standard.

I recommend looking for zines that publish the kind of work you admire and check out the standard of presentation, the artwork and the public presence the site has on social media. Spend a couple of months  observing before attempting a submission.

Good zines will have an editorial process and won’t publish substandard work. A site that accepts anything and everything will hardly encourage good writing and always remember with each piece you publish you are building a public writing persona – a literary reputation that you need to safeguard if you are to be taken seriously.

Two online publishers I can recommend are Holdfast and Close2thebone. Holdfast publishes speculative fiction and accepted one of my stories but asked me to change the ending. I did this and had to agree it improved the story. The editing, presentation and artwork was very professional but I was quite surprised some months after publication to received a modest payment as a share of contributions to the issue. Now that’s the kind of site I like!

The other zine I like a lot, Close2thebone/Near to the Knuckle publishes fairly strong horror but it only posts clever, well-written stories, often with a psychological twist, not just grot and grue. I’ve had three stories published by them and while there is no payment, their presentation and artwork are great and it’s nice to feel that having been accepted more than once, your  style fits the zine and you are  likely to find a home there for other stories in the future.

So when you look for short story markets online, look for quality and excellence and a publisher that treats its contributors with respect. It’s better to hang on than to get published on any old site.

My latest story ‘Murder Me’ is published on Close2thebone. Feel free to check it out and have a look round the rest of the site while you are there.

 

Who are you writing for?

It’s a question I don’t often consider, except when stressing over some deadline or trying to fit a story line into a specific genre. For the most part an idea fishhooks me and hides in my brain, gathering layers over time like a pearl in an oyster until some trigger catapults it out through my fingers and onto paper. It’s a passion for making, just like crafts – gardening, textile arts, baking bread, making jams, things some might think more useful than the scribbling of words on pages.

So, if I write for myself, it matters not if no one ever sees it or reads it. True or false?

I find a sense of history-making here – a writing of the world as one person sees it, a recording if you like and that accounts for the variety of fiction sprouting from a few basic plots.

And that idea of recording, of writing history posits the presence of a reader, either now or in the future. Is that just an altruistic justification of an endless compulsion to write?

In my own experience as a reader history becomes multi-dimensional and rich through the perspectives of contemporary and present day writers. And writers of today flay the issues of the times and present analyses of geographies unknown to me far more effectively than any overexposed news coverage.

So in some ways I am always writing in hope of a reader but is this desire to put my work before a public just an ego trip? Is my desire more for recognition, approval, or even just to feel that others know I exist? What makes me think I have something valuable to say or even the capacity to entertain and lighten the lives of readers?

All these ideas are probably mixed up in my writing motivation but the ratification of writing is increasingly being pushed by the writing media and writing course designers towards consideration of ‘the market’. Which shelf would your book sit on in a bookshop? Where do you see yourself in five years’ time? How do you propose to assist in the marketing of your book? Do you tweet, blog, facebook? and so on and so on.

Now it seems, genre must dictate the shape of our storytelling. Fiction needs to have a predictable structure that can be neatly packaged and sold just like a bunch of bananas or any other commodity. By conforming to the book industry’s demands, the writer will acquire a loyal readership ready to buy the books the author is known for. That will jingle the pockets of all concerned in creating ‘the  product.’  So will everyone live happily ever after?

It’s perhaps less of a problem for writers than for readers who can become stuck in the groove of a particular genre and miss out on exciting stuff being written in other genres. Major competitions like the Booker may go some way to getting people to read differently. Writers, however, even those writing to formulaic genres, can’t avoid inserting themselves and  the issues that concern them unconsciously into their writing. Perhaps this underlying subtext within a given genre style is more effective than consciously riding a hobby horse about a specific issue which can take on a hectoring note if not carefully handled.

Even in these days of commodification a book remains a magical thing. In it the writer can say or discuss views rarely aired fully in conversation and can delve into issues in depth, hopefully to a wider audience than his/her immediate circle. Writers also unintentionally reveal themselves in a way they would never do in public or in face-to-face interaction. Readers gain vicarious knowledge of other lives, other experiences, both familiar and alien. They are able to learn of the dilemmas of lives quite unlike their own and also to examine their feelings about their own experiences in reading stories of similar lives to their own. Reading multiple works of the same writer can give an interesting oeuvre on that writer’s life, thoughts and motivation.

As writers we must expose ourselves to readers. We cannot know where our books will go, who will read them and what changes, personal and/or social may result from reading them. Storytelling, like other forms of art, seems to be  part of the human condition, a haven for reflection and consideration. As storytellers we write not just for ourselves but for the world, now and in the future.

 

 

 

 

The Writing Day (of mice and men)

 

 

Planning is the essence of successful writing. I learned the excellent skills of timetabling at university. Here is my plan for a typical writing day.

8.00 Breakfast in bed while writing notes for next chapter of novel.

9.00 Get up and take dog for walk

9.30 Go to workroom and begin writing next chapter (by hand).

11.00 Coffee

11.15 Continue writing

12.00 tidy house and make lunch

12.30 Lunch break

1.30 check emails then edit morning’s work onto laptop.

3.30 take dog for walk

4.00 coffee and craft work

6.00 Social media networking with other writers and writing groups

7.00 supper

8.00 family time, TV etc.

10.00 notes and timetables for next day

10.30 reading in bed

What really happens

8.30 Wake up late, start reading book I fell asleep over the night before, grab a cup of tea and a banana. Get immersed in final chapters of book and abandon notetaking.

9.30. Take dog for walk

10.00 Write rushed notes and settle down to writing the chapter

10.30 Distraught friend calls to discuss her partner’s latest infidelities.

10.45. Friend rings off, pick up pen.

10.47. Son rings to ask for lift to work

11.35 Arrive home desperate for coffee. Sit in garden to avoid phone and write in peace. Can’t settle due to very irritating weeds growing in the flowerbeds. Forced to go and pull them all up.

12.15 Partner arrives home for lunch. House is a tip. No food ready. Rush in kitchen and throw two sandwiches together.

12.30 Stare at Bargain Hunt and Lunchtime news while obsessing about not having written anything.

2.00 Decide to tidy house before starting to write. After all, who can concentrate in the middle of a clutter?

3.00  Check emails, send a few tweets and just have a quick peek at Facebook

4.00  Dog crying to go for  a walk. Useful time spent thinking about next chapter. Dog rolls in horsemuck and falls in mudhole while I am daydreaming.

4.30 Bath dog and clean bathroom

5.00 Sit down for coffee. Good film on TV so get out my patchwork, after all this is a time for back brain thinking – I will reap the creative benefits later.

7.30 Shove a pizza in the oven and throw a salad together. Guilty feelings about not writing, less guilty feelings about neglecting partner.

8.00 Daughter rings to talk about her new job

8.30 Go to workroom and try to write.

8.45 Partner comes to ask if I want a cup of tea.

9.00 Partner comes to ask if I am coming to watch a good programme on telly.

10.30 Partner comes to say he is going to bed. Reluctantly get up and get ready for bed.

11.00 Scribbling furiously in bed, nearing 1500 words.

11.15. Partner asks why I am always writing. Turns out the light and hands me a torch.

Can You Write Too Much?

A lot is written and talked about writer’s block but what about the opposite? Can you write too much? I once read that Beryl Bainbridge would shut herself up in her home alone for as long as it took to write a novel, and would sometimes go months without contact with the outside world or even family. Not for me, that; a couple of hours’ concentration is enough and I make sure I factor in exercise, leisure time, household tasks, time with family and so on.

That’s not to say that if I am deeply involved with a piece of writing, I forget about it when not actually writing, obviously it is going on in the back of the mind all the time and as the text develops it can colour thought processes without the writer being even aware of it.

My problem, if it is a problem, is having so many writing projects going on at once. Like a butterfly I find it difficult to stick to one thing at a time until it is finished although I do finish everything I start. There are too many interesting subjects demanding attention. When I first started writing I would complete one piece before starting another. I found that fairly easy as I was then exploring the short story craft and poetry. Soon I branched out into writing non-fiction magazine articles but this didn’t seem quite like creative writing so I kept up with writing short fiction at the same time.

I got the novel bug after completing my MA thesis in Writing Studies for which I wrote a novella but naturally the course involved also writing theoretical papers and essays at the same time.

I love the novel form for the depth of development it permits but these long term projects can be obsessive and tedious at times. Writing something short occasionally can be liberating and refreshing. However, I’ve been writing for many years now and besides my published work I have a number of novels and short stories that still require some revision to bring them to publishable standard. I’m getting the feeling that I’m starting to clog up.

These poor works languishing on my computer waiting to see the light of day haunt me but I currently have a deadline for revisions to a novel accepted for publication next year. Revision hardly seems like creative work so I’ve a short story on the boil and also another novel which is half-written and progressing slowly through cups of  coffee in cafes to satisfy my need for some ‘real writing’.

For some years I’ve also been writing a history of my home town, part of it I have already published and now I am being asked where the rest of it is but it is a real long term labour of love. I’d like to spend more time on it but have resigned myself to allocating one day a week so that at least some progress is made, but oh dear, so much research before actually writing anything.

More of my writing time is taken up writing reviews, judging writing competitions and preparing work for writing seminars and courses I am asked to facilitate. On top of that there are now so many social media requirements, blogging, keeping my website updated, facebooking, tweeting etc. etc. and there is always the need to make time for actual networking, attending writing events and writing groups.

Is it all too much? Am I jack-of-all-trades, master of none? Maybe but I’ve grown expert at timetabling and writing to demand. Does my writing suffer – lack depth- because of my inability to concentrate on one thing? I hope not but my readers will be judges of that.

There are many different styles of writing and I guess we each have to write the person we are. Some writers are prolific and eclectic, others write slow masterpieces over long periods. I’m just one of those writers constantly distracted by a myriad ideas. Even as I’m absorbed in writing one story, I can sense something else calling, some little bit of grit in my brain, working itself into a pearl. It may be something I heard or saw years ago that has lain there gathering until at last it flaps into motion, demanding to be let out on paper.

Will all my creations see the light of day? Who knows, perhaps it doesn’t really matter.

http://www.carolfenlon.com

 

 

 

Time to write?

‘I’d love to write a book, if only I had the time,’ I wish I had a pound for every time  someone has said that to me. I think it’s one of the most insulting things you can say to a writer. it implies that writing is a time-wasting activity of little importance, indulged in by those who neglect the duties of life for their own self-indulgence.

The  opposite is usually true, most writers fill in writing around career or day job and family responsibilities. Even if writers make a living they work as hard if not harder than many people in traditional jobs. There is no switching off at five o’clock , weekends or on holidays and who else carries a notebook at all times, ears flapping and eyes on stalks for the next original idea?

Actual writing is only a small, if the best, part of the job. There are the endless revisions, the critique groups to attend, the process of self-publishing or working with agent and publisher and increasingly nowadays writers must constantly promote themselves by attending literary events and readings, preparing and running writing workshops and courses and maintaining a plethora of social media profiles.

Finding time to actually write can be so difficult. One writer told me she wrote for ten minutes in the toilet each morning as this was the only place she could find privacy from her large family.  I can’t help wondering how she managed to access creative thinking in such a short space of time. Even if you do have space and time to write, self-discipline can be a major problem, there are always a million things you suddenly need to do before you can actually get down to putting pen to paper. The time you spend prevaricating however is not wasted, it is usually the first step in getting your unconscious to work on the piece of writing ahead of you.

Dedicated writers often have a separate office or garden room to separate home and working life but only those making a good living can afford this. Timetabling set periods for writing can be very useful, hopefully more than ten minutes at once. I find I need thinking time to recap what went before and preview what is coming next. I work well first thing in the morning before getting up. An hour with a cup of tea to start never fails to produce results. During the day there are too many distractions so I confine myself to research or typing up and editing work already handwritten. I always take my writing with me when I go out and generally wangle a coffee in a cafe  somewhere along the line. 30-40 minutes with a large latte will usually produce upwards of 1000 words. Funnily ambient noise doesn’t bother me, yet the slightest sound at home will drive me insane.

I’m a fast writer once I get started but tend to spend quite a lot of time in reverie playing out scenes in my head and I do spend time planning out a scene or chapter loosely before getting down to it.

So this is how I find time to write. I do believe writing is a compulsion and those of us who must write will find the time to do so somehow. This is why we are writers while others just wish they had the time. But, I wonder can you write too much? That’s a subject for a whole new blogpost.