Thursday 17 April 2014

Heightened Sensitivity

The trouble with cancer is it's always there; scratching away, nails on the blackboard, a dog barking in the middle of the night or the wind rattling the windows when you've just watched a horror film. It's just there: first thing in the morning, last thing at night, meddling, fidgeting in your brain. Will there be more cancer? It asks. Hopefully not, they got rid of the original little pest and the chemo, radiotherapy, Herceptin and Tamoxifen – the wonderful medical people are throwing everything they've got at it – is the belt and braces to keep the little blighter away for good, I tell myself. Excellent, my grey matter responds. But then my irrational self shows its ugly little head and off we go again, Will there be more cancers…? You get the drift.

However, there is a flip side to 'cancer noise' and I can only call it a heightened sensitivity.

The first weekend after results day, the Friday of the week after Christmas which will be forever engrained in my brain, my oh so supportive hubbie and I went for a walk. We've done this walk several times. Local people will know it as the Fewston and Swinsty reservoirs walk. We first did it with babes in slings, then rucksacks, then prams (I use the plural as I had to return one which fell apart in just a year and was told that prams weren't really meant for walking with children but for loading into cars. But that's another story). We did it again with their little legs skipping behind, for a short while with their long legs skipping in front and now, well they tend to have better things to do.

So, it was just me and him walking a walk we'd done several times before. Funny, I thought. I've never noticed the smell of the peaty path quite so keenly before. Forgive the clich̩ but there was a glint of sun over the ripples on the lake and I thought it was mesmerising. Children laughing always makes me smile Рisn't that just the nicest of sounds? Рbut that day it made me beam. And then we went for a cup of tea. It was just a cup of tea in a refurbished pub on a cold day with a loud, crackling fire and candles oozing lavender and jasmine (I think) flickering atmospherically. That cup of tea was the most wonderful cup of tea I'd ever drunk. And I drink a lot so that's a pretty bold statement. And so it goes on. I can't really explain it. It's just that when people say nice things to me or others, I really, really notice. When people crack a joke, it's very, very funny. When a song comes on the radio which I love it makes me cry. But it's ok, it's just happy to be alive tears.

And all those moments, which happen several times a day, well they blot out the cancer noise too.

I hope I appreciated these things before.

And writing, writing really keeps me focused on the positive and I've been doing some of it this week. I've submitted to The Borough Press, an imprint of HarperFiction, as part of a two week opportunity to submit directly to a publisher who normally only takes agented submissions. Writer friends, you have until 21 April to apply so get to that pc forthwith! Click here for the website.

I've also sent my pages to Chase Magazine for the next issue – and the latest edition can be seen here: pgs 64/65. This month I finally take a look at some of the books languishing in my To Be Read pile, namely, The Hundred year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window by Jonas Jonasson (apart from the story, I marvelled at the translation from Norwegian), The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (inspired to read by Joyce's wonderful second novel, Perfect), God's Own Country by Ross Raisin (quite harrowing in parts but infinitely readable) and finally The Man Who Forgot His Wife by John O'Farrell (an amusing and touching romp by one of my favourite authors). If there are any of these lying forlorn in your TBR pile, I thoroughly recommend them all.

What books are beckoning you from your TBR pile?

Tuesday 1 April 2014

Psst! Young writers!

I've been lucky enough to judge a batch of stories in the 500 Words children's short story writing competition hosted by Chris Evans and Radio Two over the past two years. It's been an honour to be involved and the ability of our nation's young people to write a readable story within the confines of 500 words always impresses me. If you entered, I send you massive congratulations. Writing a story is an achievement itself, let alone editing and polishing it until it's fit to enter a national competition. The very best of luck to those of you who entered and I send you all great wafts of fairy dust as we count down the weeks until the winners are declared at the Hay Festival at the end of May. 

Although I am sworn to secrecy on the content of the stories I read, I can tell you that elements of every single story were entertaining and yet, of course, some of the entries had that little something extra which convinced me to give them the top marks.

And thus the reason for this blog. Both years I noticed that the stories which scored the best marks had something in common with each other. Let me explain.

The competition is divided into two age groups: nine and under and ten to 13 year olds. Each of the thousands of judges at this first stage is sent a selection of around 30 stories without knowing anything about the author, not even their gender or exact age. Judges are then required to mark each story on-line and award it a score out of ten in each of five categories:

* Originality
* Plot
* Characterisation
* Language
* Enjoyment

Once marked, each story is listed on the judge's page in order of score. The ranking of the titles constantly updates itself as more stories are marked. At first I was sceptical. How could I judge the 'feel' of the story and the impact on the reader simply by giving aspects of it a clinical mark out of ten? Surely a scoring system couldn't adequately reflect my gut reaction?

In reality, both years I've been flabbergasted by the accuracy of marking the stories in this way. And both years, I've seen it in black and white: a common factor linking the top three stories.

So, here it is. I noticed that the stories which came out top consistently scored highly in 'originality'. It wasn't that this was a superior category of the five used for judging, after all, a maximum of ten points was available in each of the five categories, but where a story felt original, it was much more likely to also score highly in 'enjoyment'.

This is logical and something we writers young and old should remember. It doesn't matter how well a story is written, the quality of the language used or the writer's command of grammar, if it's a story with nothing new for the reader, it's unlikely to keep their interest. Who wants to read a story where they know what is going to happen? Who will bother to spend the time reading something which asks no questions, where we don't have to think? There's Candy Crush for that.

But, I hear you cry, people tell us there are only seven types of story and everything ever written is based on one or more of those. How can we possibly be original living in the 21st century? This is true to some extent. There are certain themes, such as overcoming adversity: Harry Potter, or the great adventure: Robinson Crusoe, which are the backbone of all story writing. But this is all they are; a tool, a start point or a model. They are the base for a plot on which we add our own characters and situations; a base to add our writer's touch. 

We can take a familiar story and add different people, change the time frame, the country and the events themselves. Take Harry Potter, for example. How would he fare in the year 2114? How would his magic be received then? Would technology be better able or less able to cope with his tricks? How about the other characters? Let's change them a little. What if Voldemort really wanted to be nice? Or should we change our hero? Does he even need to be male? What if 'she' was a different kind of character at school? What if she wasn't very successful? What if she was a clumsy oaf whose only chance to escape ridicule – and death – was her magic but she kept making mistakes? All of a sudden you have more of a comedy but still with its element of adventure.

There are too many possibilities to count and this is true of all story telling. My advice is to start out with an idea and think how you can make it different. How can you make it special and individual? How can you make it your story? Tell yourself that you're not going to write Harry Potter again. After all, JK Rowling had seven novels to tell her story, you have only 500 words.

If, when you write, you can really believe that your reader would sit in a chair, on the bus or in bed bothering to take the time to read your 500 words over any other story they could pick from their book shelves or reader, then you are a long way to writing a story they will want to read rather than a story they've read before.

Write for your reader. Be original. And check your work – spelling and grammar mistakes distract us from the actual story. And by the way, having an adult check your work is not cheating - all professional writers have editors :)

This year's 500 words competition is now closed but there are lots of other competitions open to young people. Click here for a great list of local and national competitions in 2014. You can also find lots of competitions at  

Have fun! And let me know how you get on!

Your Personality in Your Hands

The road through Cancerville was a little rocky last week. However sure I was that I didn't want to use the much documented Cold Cap, however prepared I felt for my hair falling out; the speed with which it all disappeared was shocking. In three days it was pretty much gone. What feels like chunks of your personality falling out in handfuls can only be described as distressing. The seventy year old, uncannily reminiscent male I glimpsed whenever I had the misfortune to catch myself in the mirror, a reflection in the window or glass of a cupboard door – I never realised quite how much we see our faces through the day – was not a sight which gladdened my heart.

My indoor headwear of choice (thanks Susie!)
But, like those before me and those who will unfortunately follow, I have come through the other side and am starting to embrace life with a bald head. A very cold, bald head.

Now I feel able to say to anyone going through this, or holding the hand of someone who is, don't feel you have to pretend that losing your hair is OK, because it isn't. You don't have to tell yourself you look better bald, unless you do. But do remember that hair loss due to chemo is only temporary. For some little understood reason, hair often starts to grow back in cycle four of chemo, not weeks after the end of the final cycle which I'd imagined. And that means that in six small weeks, we could be seeing some tufts of new growth and wondering what colour the baby hair will be. (Anything but Silver Fox for me, please.) Will it be curly or straight? If I get the additional chemo curl, I'll have an 'afro', something which would gain me great kudos with my teenage children. If I go straight, finally I'll have the sophisticated-together look us curly haired mops can never quite pull off. Alas, I fear suave sophistication doesn't come as a package but a first impression of decorum wouldn't go amiss.

Going out for the first time with my wig on felt like I was wearing a sandwich board to broadcast the artificial nature of my head covering to all. But it doesn't anymore. Wearing a Buff, a sporty headscarf, to the gym felt like I was screaming, Caution! Very poorly person on treadmill! Albeit in reality, some people smiled, others gave me a hug and most people didn't notice.

Nonetheless, I did hibernate for a couple of days while I re-adjusted. It's just how I like to cope with things. So I retreated to my office and did my part in the judging of the 500 Words 2014 children's short story competition, hosted by Chris Evans and Radio Two.  This is the second year I've judged and again, I immensely enjoyed the experience. Every one of my batch of 34 stories was entertaining in an amusing, exciting or poignant way but, similarly to last year, I noticed a common factor linking the stories to which I awarded most marks.

I decided to blog about this in the hope it might help our writers of the future move forward not only with their writing generally but also in this and other competitions. I've posted the blog separately here: Psst! Young Writers! Here: Psst! Young Writers! and would be grateful if you could direct your young folk over there if you feel it could be of interest. I explain the categories used in judging the stories and also include some links for other short story competitions for young writers.

As for my writing, alas I didn't make the long list of the Bath Novel Award. But my short story, A Life with Additives, was read during A Roof over your Head, an evening of reading and music organised by the wonderfully altruistic writer, John Taylor  an event which raised in excess of £470 for the homeless charity, Shelter. And so I class that as a great week for writing.

And the pain of last week's hair loss feels a lot further away.

Have a great week!