Sunday, 27 February 2011

Interview with Catriona Robb our Speaker Secretary

The photo is of me on our friends' boat in Newfoundland and I'm holding Barnaby the Travelling Teddy Bear, whose blog I wrote and which can be read at
Catriona, when did you start writing?

I can’t remember exactly when I started writing but I first began thinking of myself as a writer aged 11 when my teacher at the time was sufficiently impressed with one of my stories to suggest I send my work to a publisher. He looked up an address in one of the books in the staff room and I still have the reply I received from Pan Books. No, they didn’t offer to publish me as a child prodigy but they did say my Enid Blyton inspired novel, The Mystery of Dundee Island (actually set in Newfoundland!) “showed very real promise”. That gave me the confidence to write down the stories I was constantly making up in my head in the belief that people would want to read them.

What genre do you like to write?

The story which impressed my primary school teacher was actually a fantasy about fairies (who emerged from eggs found in the back garden J) but these days, although I primarily write fiction, I focus on real life and particularly human relationships. My stories range from family sagas to romances with a healthy dash of action adventure. I’m more flexible as to literary genre writing both historical and contemporary novels as well as screenplays.

What things inspire you to write?

When I was younger it was simply wanting to share the story and, to a certain extent, find out how it ended as I tend to begin with a series of scenes and only a vague idea of where they might be heading. Since then I’ve taught myself to write to order, whether for an MA assignment or a competition, and that can have its own rewards too. You’d be surprised what you can come up with given a theme and a deadline.
That said my favourite ideas tend to come from my subconscious, whether informed by the news or work and life experiences and I’ve got at least two novel synopses from watching television adaptations and films.

What is the best piece of advice you have ever been given?

At a Historical Novel Society conference several years’ back, Bernard Cornwell was talking about how difficult it is to be objective about one’s own work, especially when it’s not going well. He said that once, when he was struggling, he typed up an excerpt from one of C S Forester’s novels substituting the name “Sharpe” for “Hornblower”. A few days later he re-read it, still thinking it was rubbish. Then he told himself that this wasn’t his writing, it was Forester’s and it had been successfully published. That gave him the impetus he needed to keep going.
I thought that was excellent advice but, if you can’t think of an author whose writing is similar enough to your own, then why not come along to the Tunbridge Wells & District Writers’ Circle? Our genre-specific workshops provide exactly this kind of encouragement in the form of objective, constructive criticism with tea, coffee and biscuits as an added bonus.

Do you have a writing routine?

My day tends to begin with checking my emails. Where it goes from there depends on whether there are any needing an immediate response and what my most pressing deadlines are. Ideally though I would concentrate on writing in the morning and deal with the business of life in the afternoon as it’s easier to switch mindsets from the creative to the prosaic that way round.

Who are your writing heroes or heroines?

Above all I like a good story, so as a child it was Enid Blyton (as already mentioned) and Arthur Ransome. I’m a huge fan of nineteenth century classics so I would also include Jane Austen, the Brontes, George Eliot, Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins … I could go on. Among modern authors I like Joanna Trollope, Rosamunde Pilcher, Giselle Green, Victoria Connelly, Christina Courtenay and Sue Moorcroft.

Which one of your characters would you least like to meet and why?

Probably the villain of my Italian Renaissance novel and screenplay, Castille. Like most bullies, he’s a terrible coward, nasty and vindictive but unfortunately he also has the power to make a lot of people’s lives very unpleasant indeed.

In what ways do you benefit from being part of the Tunbridge Wells and District Writers’ Circle? In what ways are you involved?

Writing can be a lonely occupation - to keep the perspective Bernard Cornwell talked about, it is essential to have writing friends who understand what it’s like: who can advise, encourage and, if necessary, cajole. Sheila Alcock is right about the alchemy that occurs when you read your work aloud and this is a profession where contacts can make a real difference. You never know who you might meet at a workshop or speaker event who could further your career.
I’m currently the Speaker Secretary of the Circle helping to organise each year’s programme of events as well as working to improve the profile of the Circle generally. In the past I’ve also edited the Circle Newsletter and continue to provide articles for it regularly.

Are you a member of any other writing groups?

My membership of the Romantic Novelists’ Association helped me to get my new job (see below) and I have benefited enormously from their New Writers’ Scheme. I have also made some extremely good friends who are now published and successful authors.

Congratulations on your new job. What is your job title and what does it involve?

At the start of this year I was offered the role of freelance production editor with a small women’s fiction publisher based in Surrey. I liaise with the main editor and author to resolve any issues with plot, characterisation and setting and also check for spelling, grammatical and factual errors before publication.

In what ways do you think it might benefit your own writing?

All writers need to learn how to edit their own work and there is no better way than to constructively critique others. It’s amazing how often, when reviewing a manuscript, you will recognise the flaws in your own writing and also gain insight into how to overcome them.

Does anyone else in your family write?

No one in my immediate family writes now but my late Grandfather had a series of articles published in Marbella’s M magazine in the late 1980’s. He lived and worked in Spain in the 1920’s and the articles contrasted the small fishing village Marbella was then with the upmarket tourist resort it has now become.

What would be your ideal writing retreat?

I’m lucky to have found a more or less ideal writing retreat not very far away in East Kent. I stay in a self-catering bungalow set in beautiful grounds, which I can explore when I need a break from the computer or to let my subconscious find the solution to a plot or character dilemma.
The estate is designed for retreats so there’s no television or radio and mobile phones aren’t allowed. It really does provide the opportunity to get away from day-to-day distractions and focus solely on my writing.

What would you take with you?

Besides my laptop, pads, pens, food (!) and research material, my friends Giselle, Jan and Cara are essential. Who but fellow writers would give you space to write when the work in progress is going well but be there if you need a chat, to give advice and to have a laugh together when you finish work for the day?

Finish the following.

It wasn’t a case of if she would tell – but when. She needed to time it properly.
Cora had kept the secret for so long now that to let it slip clumsily would ruin the surprise Golden Wedding celebrations she had worked so hard to perfect.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

The Writer in the Brave New World

At our February meeting our Guest Speaker was David Taylor of 2010Media, a company that specialises in helping people, companies and organisations improve their communications in the age of social media. It was a fascinating talk, and very informative.

Facebook, Twitter, Linked In, Youtube and all the others have completely changed the world. Most of us already knew that. But many of us have yet to realise how that change affects US. For years, we've plodded on, ignoring the inane comments on Facebook ("Had rice Krispies for dinner, lol") and the indecipherable text speak sentences on Twitter: ("R u coming 2 c me L8er 2nite?") We ignored Linked In, or My Space, and hadn't a clue about Youtube. It was for kids who'd left the age of the mobile phone behind, right?


In the 21st century, if we are going to achieve our dreams as writers, we have to do all we can to raise our profiles. Gone are the days of writing a book/script/article and shyly handing it to the publisher/director/editor before scuttling away to anonymity to write some more. Behind us are the times when the publisher's promotion team does all the PR work and leaves us to our art. A writer today has to be prepared to market their work, create interest in it, pitch it.

There is but one simple truth: the more your name appears in public, the more people will have heard of you, and if the name is familiar, they're more likely to give you time and space to make that pitch. They're more likely to take you seriously.

David showed us how it is up to us to use social media sites more effectively. We need to increase the amount of traffic we generate, and to make that traffic interesting, entertaining and informative so that readers will enjoy it and come back for more. To this end, it is imperative that the writing is of good quality - even within the 140 characters of Twitter. No point telling everyone you're a writer and then leaving a badly written sentence where the world and his wife can trip over it. That'd be like telling everyone you were a chef and then serving up burnt shepherd's pie.

My personal experience backs up everything David was saying. I've made many new friends and contacts through social media. Some of them are people who enjoy my posts, which is gratifying and boosts my confidence. Some of them share my passion for writing, which eases the loneliness of the work. And some of them have been in positions to help me, giving me tips to improve my chances of success, helping make the work better, advising me of markets and competitions that will do me good, introducing me to people who may be interested in working with me.

None of them are people I would have met in the street of my town. Most would never have opened a letter from me, or even an email. Yet, social media has made them accessible.

The world is shrinking. Opportunities are growing. All we have to do is keep up with the traffic.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

When you can't finish...

You've been working on your latest project for some time. You've researched, written, plotted and planned, found the weak points and chiselled them out, filled the holes and made it make sense. You're a few thousand words from the end. 

And it grinds to a halt. 

You know how it ends. You know what you want to say. You even have the wording for the very last line absolutely perfect. But you just can't seem to get there. 

If you're not deleting more than you're adding in, and not convincing yourself that every word so far is utter rubbish, then you'll be taking a degree course in procrastination. There is a sudden urgency to bath the dog and clear out the attic, or go back to the beginning and check for weak words like just and very and nice. Anything, ANYTHING, but write those final words.

Something I've found helps is to have another work lined up and waiting to be started. A few tantalising notes in a loose leaf book, a couple of lines about a character, a dialogue quote. What ifs and whys and wheres scribbled, or cryptic sentences spoken into a dictaphone. Pretty soon, a new project is taking shape and demanding to be written, and I am champing at the bit to get to it.

Suddenly, procrastination doesn't seem so enticing. I want to finish this work so I can get started on my new piece, a piece that is going to be the best thing I ever wrote, my great masterpiece, the ONE. At which point, I knuckle down and write those last few pages, and write those immortal words:

The End.

If you have trouble finishing, try it. It can't hurt. And it might just work.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Treehouse Press

Treehouse press - Three-in-One Chapbook Contest

For more information check out their website. Closing date 15th March.
Prizes £100 £75 and £50 plus publication in their Chapbook and 20 copies.

Entries must be three short stories. 10,000-15,000 words in total. Fee for entering £10.

Good Luck.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Flash 500

Flash 500 is a competition aimed at Flash Fiction Writers. Competitors must write a complete story in 5oo words. There is no theme stipulated.

To enter and read the rules follow the following link.

Now in its second year, this quarterly open-themed competition has closing dates of 31st March, 30th June, 30th September and 31st December. The results will be announced within six weeks of each closing date and the three winning entries each quarter will be published on this website.

Entry fee: £5 for one story, £8 for two stories
Optional critiques: £10 per story

Prizes will be awarded as follows:
First: £250 plus publication in Words with JAM
Second: £100
Third: £50
Highly commended: A copy of The Writer’s ABC Checklist

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Getting yourself out there!

When I was younger, I believed that "talent would out". I'd been given the ability to use the written word effectively, and all I had to do was practice my craft, hone it, and eventually success would be mine. Right?


Would that things were that simple. If only we could do our best, write our masterpieces and watch as, magically, the world clamours to read them. If only creating the piece was enough.

It isn't. A writer can be as gifted as Shakespeare, as astute as Austen, as witty as Wilde, but it does no good if the world is not made aware. Readers don't search for us in the dark shadows of our anonymity; we have to jump into the light and attract them.

But how?

Our guest speaker this month can answer that question. David Taylor of 2010Media ( will show us how to use the internet, and particularly social media, to our advantage, allowing us to showcase both ourselves and our work, tapping into markets that would otherwise be closed to us, networking, building contacts and increasing our chances of success. Come along, hear what he has to say, and take advantage of his expertise.

The talk is on Wednesday February 9th at 8pm and is at St John's Church Centre (opposite the M and S Garage as you go from Tunbridge Wells into Southborough). Writers Circle members £1.50, non members £2.50.

Hope to see you there.