I've set up this blog so that all my friends, relations and colleagues in the world of writing can keep up to speed with what I'm doing - from now on, I'll never have to say sorry for not keeping in touch.

Or anyway, that's the plan.

So do please link up with me on Facebook and Twitter - https://www.facebook.com/margaret.james.5268 and https://twitter.com/majanovelist

You can find my novels as digital downloads on Apple iTunes, Kobo, Kindle and Nook, and most are available as print paperbacks, too.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Exeter Novel Prize

The Exeter Novel Prize is fast becoming one of the most prestigious writing competitions in the UK, or rather the world.  The fourth annual competition is open to entries, so could you be our fourth winner, joining a host of now-published and soon-to-be-published winners, shortlisters and longlisters?


Provided you are not currently under contract to a commercial publisher or represented by a literary agent, you are eligible to enter. We welcome authors of self-published novels, too.

You can find out more by accessing this link on the CreativeWritingMatters website: http://www.creativewritingmatters.co.uk/2016-exeter-novel-prize.html

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Busy in the Library

You've always thought libraries were quiet places full of sharp-nosed, grey-haired librarians glaring suspiciously at people who actually dare to touch their books? You didn't really, did you? Well, if you ever did, an afternoon spent at Exeter Central Library celebrating the launch of Libraries Unlimited would have changed your mind forever. Here are some of the authors and staff at the event.

Libraries Unlimited is a new initiative dedicated to involving the whole community in reading and information-sharing. Devon is proud to be part of this new way of involving local communities and making everyone feel welcome in a public library.

Yesterday was a joyous occasion. The brilliant, multi-award-winning novelist Michael Morpurgo made an impassioned case for our free public libraries to be seen as just as important to us all as our free National Health Service, and we  - authors, readers, friends of libraries and library users in general - all agreed with him.

I'm a member of a team of authors who are collectively Creative Writing Matters, and here is what we have to say about libraries in the community. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZzMQnlKSpZg&list=PLL0HI7pPaaFtauVFJQKvNr7QgV1oK9jtD&index=12

So use your libraries, people! They're there for you. You don't even have to borrow books, even though (speaking as a novelist) it would be nice if you do. Go there to use the free wi-fi, have a bun in a library cafe, meet friends, do some work, have a little doze and generally enjoy being in a literary space. You'll love it, I promise you!

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Exeter Novel Prize

Well, yesterday was the day, and what a day!

We all convened at the historic St Stephen's Church to find out who had won the third Exeter Novel Prize. It's always a tense time, waiting to find out who has won a competition. But, before we announced the winner, we had to make the point that all six of our shortlisted authors were winners because being in the last six out of 340 surely makes you a winner?

So - huge congratulations to Lucy Welch, Lucy Ayrton, Louise Mangos, Lizzie Lamb, Mark Dlugash and Christopher Holt for doing so well, and an additional cheer for Lucy Welch who was the winner of winners.

There is a full report and also a lot of pictures on the CreativeWritingMatters website, so do please pop over and take a look?


Here are the shortlisted authors. Left to right: Lucy Ayrton, Louise Mangos, Lucy Welch, Lizzie Lamb and Christopher Holt. Mark Dlugash couldn't join us because he was in Los Angeles. Maybe next year, Mark?

Friday, February 19, 2016

Exeter Novel Prize - the Short List

At last, the short list...

After a very lengthy reading and judging process, the finalists in the Exeter Novel Prize 2015 can be revealed. Congratulations to you all and congratulations also to the people on the long list. We had literally hundreds of entries from all over the world. So, for your novel to be in the final few is an outstanding achievement of which you should be very proud indeed.

The Exeter Novel Prize 2015 Short List

A Place in Tumaini - Lucy Welch 

Heroine - Lucy Ayrton 

Orphaned Leaves - Christopher Holt  

Scotch on the Rocks - Lizzy Lamb 

Strangers on a Bridge - Louise Mangos 

The Fastest Girl in Red Hook - Mark Dlugash 

The finalists, who come from all four corners of the UK as well as from New York and from Switzerland, will each be presented with an engraved glass trophy. The winner will receive £500 and the runners-up will all receive £75. The members of the CreativeWritingMatters team are looking forward to the awards event on 12 March 2016 in (where else) Exeter, and we are hoping all the finalists will be able to attend in order to collect their awards and have a glass of something sparkling with us!

The London literary agent Broo Doherty will present the awards and tell us what made one particular entry stand out as the winner. We hope the third winner of this award will follow in the footsteps of the first two, Su Bristow and Clare Harvey, who are now both under contract to mainstream commercial publishers. 

The awards event is public, so anyone who would like to come is very welcome. There are full details on the CreativeWritingMatters website at www.creativewritingmatters.co.uk

We're looking forward to a great day!

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Exeter Novel Prize - the Long List

Yes, it's a while since I've posted anything on this blog, so what have I been doing?

I've been reading - thousands and thousands and thousands of words, because of course all the entries were read from the first word to the last - for the Exeter Novel Prize 2015.  This will be awarded at a ceremony in Exeter in March 2016.  The ceremony is a public event to be held in the historic St Stephen's Church in the centre of Exeter on 12 March at 3 pm, and everyone is welcome!

Today, the long list is posted on the CreativeWritingMatters website, which you can find at http://www.creativewritingmatters.co.uk/.

So how did we (the members of the CreativeWritingMatters team, Cathie Hartigan, Sophie Duffy and I) choose the long list?

We read in a spirit of optimism. We hoped every entry would deliver a great story written in an engaging voice which was right for its genre or sub-genre. This isn't to say we were looking for genre fiction only - please don't think that! Literary, commercial, traditional, experimental - we were looking for excellent writing that invited us into the world of the story and made us want to stay there.  We wanted to be sad when we found we'd read a whole entry and couldn't read any more.

We looked for stories which seemed likely to keep their promises - which asked interesting questions and suggested their authors would offer readers satisfying resolutions.

There were quite a few entries which did these things very successfully but didn't make the final long list. Those below are the entries which also had that very special something.

We're relieved we don't have to choose the short list, which is London literary agent Broo Doherty's job!

Congratulations to the authors of the entries listed below.

We will be revealing the names of the authors when we announce the short list. All the reading and judging is done anonymously. So, if your own entry is there, please don't shout out yet!

A Mole of Sorts
A place at Tumaini
Cloud Cover
Down by the Riverside
Going Back
Holly and Ivy
Large is the Smallest We've Got
Orphaned Leaves
Prodigal Honey
Scotch on the Rocks
Strangers on a Bridge
The Chernobyl Privileges
The Fastest Girl in Red Hook
The Last Tiger
The Staircase on Calle Mayor
The Whole Truth

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Meeting Alex Dunn, whose debut YA novel has just been published

Hello Alex

It’s lovely to have you here on my blog today. Do help yourself to a slice of Christmas cake. I’ll just get the coffee on and then let’s talk about your lovely new novel for The Red Telephone Press: The Demon Magician.

Please tell us about the genesis of this novel – who or what inspired it?

AD: As you know, Margaret, I love to write, so when someone told me about NaNoWriMo - an annual internet-based creative writing project to complete a 50,000 word novel during month of November - I knew the only way I could do it was to write about something I knew well.  My parents, and my mother in particular, loved horror and she introduced me to that genre very early in life.  Some of my fondest memories are staying up late on Friday night to watch the Hammer Horror films, Mum reading Edgar Allen Poe to me, and listening to old radio plays (in particular The Man in Black). This, combined with some of my other passions: gothic music, fashion and a good-looking, charismatic demon with a wicked sense of humour, is how The Demon Magician came about. I simply wrote about what I loved, all mixed up with love, humour and lots of drama.

MJ: When and where is The Demon Magician set, and why?

AD: It’s set in present day, in a small town fictional town somewhere in the south of the UK. Ultimately, when writing horror, fantasy or science fiction, you have to ground the story in a reality your reader can relate to.  Hence a normal town, with normal shops and a girl-next-door heroine leading a normal life - that is, until she meets the Demon Magician…  

MJ: The book has a gorgeously spooky cover featuring cadaverous hands and a hooded creature with a single red eye. Did you play any part in its design? What does the cover say about the story?

AD: I did have a hand in the design so I’m glad you asked me this. I brainstormed several ideas with an online designer and ultimately agreed on the lone image of a dark magician because it was the most powerful visual that summed up the story. Jonathan is a magician gone bad.  He’s in servitude to Belphegor, one of the seven archdemons of Hell, and lives his life in the shadows.  The cover needed to show him because he is at centre stage of all the events. I especially loved the font that was used and I’m very proud of myself finding it using a font search tool.

MJ: Who is your ideal reader for this novel?

AD: It is being marketed as a YA Fantasy Horror and would appeal to anyone who loved The Demonata series, The Vampire’s Assistant by Darren Shan, Charmed, and my personal favourite Buffy the Vampire Slayer. That said, I’ve always read YA and thoroughly enjoyed it. Thanks to a recent marketing survey, I’ve discovered I’m not alone because an increasing number of adults are now enjoying YA, which is one of the fastest-growing literary genres.

MJ: You’ve written the novel in the first person. Do you feel the first person viewpoint is the most appealing and do you always use it? Or was it merely right for this story?

AD: First person was right for this story. If it wasn’t written in first person, you’d have no sympathy with Ella when she knowingly takes a gift from a demon, or be able to experience the conflict with her on such a personal level when she realises she has to stop Jonathan who used to be the love of her life.  You need to hear her inner voice at all times – it’s what drives the story forward and sucks you into the magic underworld of demons and black magic.

MJ: You live in Hong Kong. Does Hong Kong inspire your fiction? Or, when you write fiction, are you escaping from Hong Kong?

AD: You can’t help but be inspired by Hong Kong.  It is amazing, and I can’t believe how lucky I am to be living here. We have ultra modern buildings, luxury shopping malls and spas built on top of and squashed between markets, temples, local medicine shops, lovely little tea houses and more restaurants per square foot than anywhere else on this earth, I’m sure of it. There’s also amazing countryside, beaches and some beautiful little islands, which are like stepping back in time – we’ve even got our own Gold Coast! It is a hundred different places in a relatively small surface area, with every nationality all somehow living in harmony. However, it’s the Hong Kong people’s spiritual beliefs and rituals that tend to inspire my writing.  They are a very superstitious people – 8 is lucky, 4 very unlucky (we have no fourth floor on any building).  When things weren’t going so well for me at work, one of my friends put curly bamboo on my desk to help change my luck and there are rituals to honour the dead.  What I really love is their temples.  You go there to pray for good luck, and if the prediction is bad, you burn it in the fires and leave all your bad luck behind, and if it is good – you take it with you.  You can’t lose!

MJ: What is next for Alex Dunn, fiction-wise?

AD: I’ve several other YA fantasy novels almost completed, but the one I am racing to finish is another demon story.  This time it’s about a demon who opens a spa and makes people thinner, younger and prettier in return for their souls.  It’s a lot of fun and quite topical given the obsession we all seem to have with outward appearance.  I’m also able to draw on my own diet experiences that are extensive and not all of them successful. J

MJ: You’ve successfully published your first novel. What advice would you give a new writer just setting out on the journey you took?

AD: Be patient, because getting a book to print is a marathon not a sprint.  It takes time to edit, time to make revisions, time to see if marketing strategies work – it even takes a long time to do fun things like the cover. Patience is a mandatory requirement for all authors.

MJ: Do you feel everyone has the potential to become a storyteller?  Or are storytellers born rather than made?

AD: I believe we all have it in us to write a story, but not everyone can tell one.  I listen to a lot of audio stories when I work out, and love listening to the likes of Stephen Fry, Rik Mayall, or John Hurt.  They perform the story. They make it come alive, and it’s the next best thing to reading the pages yourself.

Five Quick Questions

Do you prefer:

Animals or people?

Err, that’s a tough one, but I’ve never met an animal I didn’t like so I’ll have to say them, although that doesn’t mean I don’t like most people I meet, too.

City or country? 

City – I like convenience and excitement.

Company or solitude?

Solitude, but only because it’s a luxury these days.

Exercise or the sedentary life?

Sedentary – I go to the gym but I don’t enjoy it.

Ship or plane?

I really don’t mind as long as it’s first class. J

Thank you, Alex – it’s been great to chat to you! Good luck with this novel and with many more to come!

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Madness and mystery in Naples and Devon - chatting to Cathie Hartigan about her debut novel Secret of the Song

Hello, Cathie - welcome to my blog on this rainy morning! 

I'm delighted you've agreed to chat to me about your debut novel Secret of the Song, a time slip story set in Renaissance Naples and 21st century Devon.

MJ: What was the original inspiration for this novel?

CH: A few years ago when I was in a small choir we were given a song to sing by Carlo Gesualdo, one of the main characters in my book. I’d never heard of him. The music was difficult and we all got very grumpy. Although the music was written back in the 16th century, it sounded very discordant, almost avant garde. The choirmaster then told us about Gesualdo’s notoriety. When I did some research into his life, I was hooked.

MJ: What particularly attracted you to writing a time slip story?

CH: It was at the same rehearsal that I first wondered whether madness could be somehow transmitted in music such that it affected the musicians who performed it. When I think of those ‘maddening’ tunes that seem to go round and round in the head for days on end, earworms they’re called, then it seems quite likely. I thought I would write a contemporary novel about a singer finding out about Gesualdo and then wondering if a piece of music could be cursed, but when I read the witness statement by young Silvia Albana, I was so taken by her plight, that I decided to interweave her story. She was the seamstress and confidant to Gesualdo’s wife, a princess who behaved so recklessly that she endangered both herself and poor Silvia.

MJ: How do you work – are you a planner and are you most definitely in charge, or do you let your characters guide you into their stories and do you take your cues from them?

CH: I have a plan but it isn’t very exact, although I do know what the big questions are that I’m trying to answer. Writing a few chapters in order to really immerse myself in the world helps me too, and I get to know the characters more thoroughly. That’s usually when I pause and tighten up the plan.

MJ: As a classical musician and singer yourself, do you feel you have a mission to encourage more people to take an interest in classical music and – if so – was this one of your motives for writing this novel?

CH: I certainly felt I had a mission when I trained to be a music teacher but that was quite a long time ago. Now I think the best way to encourage anyone to do or enjoy anything is to be passionate about it. I absolutely love singing the sort of music I have written about and if I can enthuse my readers to go and listen to (or better still, sing) any Italian or English songs written during Tudor times, it would be fantastic.

MJ: Who is your favourite character in Secret of the Song?

CH: That’s very difficult because I’m so fond of several, but I think it’s got to be Mollie. She’s the precocious ten year-old daughter of Lisa, my contemporary heroine. There’s considerable negotiation that goes on between mother and daughter. There’s one particular scene I’m fond of where Mollie has a secret and Lisa is trying to find out what it is, even though she’s always told Mollie that secrets shouldn’t be revealed.

MJ: Do you have any tips for people starting to write a first novel?

CH: Ask yourself what your novel is about and keep asking until you can answer with confidence when someone asks you. Try practising on already published novels.
Think about your plot in terms of scenes. Start each one with intrigue and end with sufficient jeopardy (not necessarily life-threatening) to make your reader want to turn over.

Five quick questions

Do you feel more at home in a town or in the countryside?

I’ve lived in both and while I’m now more at home in a city, I do miss having the breathtaking beauty of the Devon countryside on my doorstep.

If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?

I love Devon so it would have be here, and I’m not a great traveller, but a small pad in London and perhaps the Dordogne, and somewhere near Florence, and maybe by the Med…

Who are your favourite composers?

I keep coming back to Bach when I play the piano, but I have a very eclectic mix of music on my phone. All sorts from the Renaissance period, but I also have Mozart, Brahms, Puccini, and quite a few albums by Pat Methany, the jazz guitarist.

Do you feel any other writers particularly influence your work?

I think all my reading has influenced me, but I remember loving a book by Barbara Trapido and thinking, she can turn the emotion on a pin. She could do funny and serious equally quickly and yet it didn’t jar. Could I do that?

What’s next on the writing agenda for you?

I have notes and a few chapters for two novels. One is a historical novel in which I revisit Renaissance Italy and it features one of the Catholic plots against Elizabeth I, and the other is a contemporary story about a restoring an old property in the face of considerable opposition. I’m not sure which novel will come first in my affection yet.

Thank you, Cathie - it was good to talk.  Many congratulations on the publication of this lovely novel, and here's to great sales now and in the future!