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 21, 2015

A patchwork of history

What do writers do all day?

When they're not writing, they're imagining, and sometimes they go on outings to fascinating places, which is what a group of Exeter Writers did yesterday.

A group of writers prepares to boldly go...

We went to Poltimore, which some of you might remember from the BBC's Restoration series. Alas, Poltimore didn't win, so it's still waiting for a zillionaire with a stack of cash to happen along.

Do we need hard hats?
No, we're writers - we're hard enough!

As a nation, we're practically buried under the layers of our history. Devon is particular rich in history, featuring the Jurassic Coast charting the birthdays of the world from aeons before human beings came along to, more recently, some astonishing buildings in various states of magnificence or - sadly - decay.

Poltimore House near Exeter is in a state of decay and needs millions spent on it. Well, if it's to be restored to anything like its former glory it does. When it was sold by the Bampfylde family in the early years of the 20th century, its decline had already begun, and its subsequent tenants did little to preserve its beauty. It became a girls' school, then a boys' school, then a private hospital, then an NHS hospital, and finally a private nursing home. But, as costs mounted, its resources diminished and  finally it was abandoned. The vandals moved in, stealing, stripping, looting, scavenging and burning. It's now home to a very vocal flock of jackdaws, lots of pigeons and a few bats. Some of its former magnificence still remains, however, and there are many features worth preserving.

The Tudor Tower and Courtyard

The Georgian Plasterwork

The Entrance Hall

Nowadays, several teams of volunteers, who are determined the place should be magnificent once again, are working on its restoration. We salute their efforts and can assure you Poltimore is well worth a visit. Anyone who is interested in volunteering to get involved in the restoration project can get in touch via Poltimore's website -  http://www.poltimore.org/

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

A feast of midsummer gorgeousness

Today, my special guest is Alison May, whose delicious romantic comedy Midsummer Dreams is published this June, appropriately enough at midsummer!

Welcome, Alison – come in, sit down, have a glass of something light and sparkly and some chocolate-coated strawberries?

Thank you kindly. *swigs enthusiastically*

These days, you’re making quite a name for yourself with your brilliant adaptations of the storylines from some of Shakespeare’s plays. What made you choose A Midsummer Night’s Dream as the inspiration for your new book?

Well obviously A Midsummer Night’s Dream was a serious and considered choice. What definitely didn’t happen was that I went to my first meeting with my publisher and panicked and said the first Shakespeare play that came to mind when she asked what I’d be working on next. That absolutely and categorically didn’t happen at all.

I think what did entice me about A Midsummer Night’s Dream was the way that it interleaves fairies and magic with the ‘real world’ characters. I write what I tend to call ‘rationalist romance’ so I knew I didn’t want it to be a paranormal novel, so the challenge was how to bring the magic in while staying in the ‘real’ world.
Tell us a little about the heroes and heroines of your story?

There are four main characters and they’re all a little bit broken at the start of the story, although I don’t think they necessarily know that themselves. Dominic and Emily have got their lives all mapped out. Alex has no plan at all, but thinks that suits him just fine. Maybe the fourth character, Helen, is the only one who realises that she’s stuck in limbo. Although I don’t think she has the smallest clue what to do to change her situation.

I like writing about characters who are trapped in some way, usually by their own flaws or failings, and all four main characters in Midsummer Dreams definitely fall into that category.

Did you have any input when it came to designing the gorgeous summery cover? What does it tell us about the novel?

The cover is all down to the genius of Berni Stevens. I think what it tells you about the novel is summed up by both the images and the tagline – Four people. Four messy lives. One night that changes everything.

I love the way the characters on the cover almost look like they’re penned in by the foliage around them. It’s beautiful but at the same time maybe a tiny bit claustrophobic? Mainly when I look at this cover though, I just jump up and down shouting ‘So pretty! So pretty!’

I hope you’ll be happy to share a little background stuff with me? Do you come from a family of writers or are you the family maverick? When did you first decide you wanted to write fiction, and what drew you to romantic fiction in particular?

I’m not from a family of writers, but I am from a family of readers. I remember trips to the library with my mum from a very young age, and I grew up in a house full of books and bookshelves.

I’m not entirely sure what drew me to romance. I do read a lot of romantic comedy and contemporary women’s fiction. I love writers like Marian Keyes, Mhairi McFarlane, Sarra Manning, Julie Cohen and Jane Lovering. So probably it just comes down to writing what I love!

Do your heroines take after you in any way? Or are they the kind of person you would like to be?

I seem to write two different ‘types’ of heroine. The ones that are outwardly confident – like Trix in Sweet Nothing or Helen in Midsummer Dreams, and the type who wear their neuroses on their sleeves – most obviously Henrietta in Sweet Nothing, but also the heroine I’m writing at the moment, Jessica. I’m probably more the first type myself, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have any neuroses; I just do my best to save them up and put them in a book!

Planner, vague outliner or planning phobic – when it comes to working out the storyline in a novel, who are you?

It varies. I seem to be becoming more of a planner as I get older and more haggard and world weary. For Sweet Nothing and Holly’s Christmas Kiss  I started with nothing but the vague plot idea, and then I wrote into the ether and hoped for the best. Now I tend to have at least a few notes and an idea of the shape of the book before I start. It almost always changes massively as I write though.

Five quick questions:

What is your best time of day for writing?

Morning. Or very late at night.

Who are your favourite romantic hero and heroine?

Benedick and Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing. Closely followed by the Doctor and River Song from Doctor Who.

If you could interview any historical figure, real or imaginary, who would it be and why?

The Doctor. Because he’s the Doctor and, well just because he’s the Doctor. Failing that I would have loved to have met Terry Pratchett. I’m genuinely gutted that I’ll never get the chance.

Do you have any special non-writing ambitions?

To fly away in the TARDIS. Are you sensing a theme here?

What’s next on the agenda for Alison May? I bet it’s not updating Titus Andronicus

Yeah – I’m going to do a rom com version of Titus Andronicus. Why ever not? Seriously, I’m just getting my third Christmas Kisses book ready to send off to my publisher. That story is all about Jessica, a woman who had the perfect first kiss but followed it up with a disastrous marriage.

After that, I’m not quite sure yet. There are certainly Shakespeare comedies I’d still love to adapt, but I might do something a little bit different first. Watch this space…

Four people. Four messy lives. One party that changes everything …

Emily is obsessed with ending her father’s new relationship – but is blind to the fact that her own is far from perfect. 

Dominic has spent so long making other people happy that he’s hardly noticed he’s not happy himself. 

Helen has loved the same man, unrequitedly, for ten years. Now she may have to face up to the fact that he will never be hers. 

Alex has always played the field. But when he finally meets a girl he wants to commit to, she is just out of his reach. 

At a midsummer wedding party, the bonds that tie the four friends together begin to unravel and show them that, sometimes, the sensible choice is not always the right one.

About Alison

Alison was born and raised in North Yorkshire, but now lives in Worcester with one husband, no kids and no pets. There were goldfish once. That ended badly.

Alison has studied History and Creative Writing, and has worked as a waitress, a shop assistant, a learning adviser, an advice centre manager, and a freelance trainer, before settling on 'making up stories' as an entirely acceptable grown-up career plan. 

Alison is a member of the Romantic Novelists' Association, and won the Elizabeth Goudge Trophy in 2012. She writes contemporary romantic comedies, published by Choc Lit. In addition to Midsummer Dreams, she is also the author of Sweet Nothing and the Christmas Kisses series.

You can find out more about Alison’s books at www.alison-may.co.uk/books/ or by following her on Twitter @MsAlisonMay

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Self-published novelists - could you be our next winner?

It's been and continues to be a hectic time at CreativeWritingMatters HQ. But being busy is fun when you're doing something you love, and being part of the great team that is CreativeWritingMatters is certainly something I love.

These days, CreativeWritingMatters founder Cathie Hartigan, together with her loyal team consisting of Sophie Duffy and me, run lots of competitions for writers. We are happy to see the Exeter Novel Prize growing in popularity and international appeal, and to be supported by our wonderful local MP, Ben Bradshaw.

Last year, the prize attracted entries from every continent in the world except for South America. So this year - the third in the competition - we're hoping for some entries from Brazil, Peru, Argentina or even the Falkland Islands, although I know these still belong to the UK and aren't, strictly speaking, part of South America.

We've changes the rules slightly this year, so please have a look at our website for updates, even if you've entered the competition before. All self-published novelists, provided they are unagented and do not already have a commercial publishing deal that ties them to a specific commercial publisher, are eligible.

At the moment, the three of us are reading entries for the Exeter Story Prize, a new competition.  This is for an unpublished story up to 10,000 words long and there are lots of cash prizes and trophies to be won, including a special prize and trophy sponsored by Sunday Times bestselling novelist Trisha Ashley for the best humorous story.

It's a huge privilege to be among the first to see a novel or a story that could end up becoming a classic.  I'm having a great time reading my selection from this year's entries. Later this year, we'll be having an event in Exeter to celebrate the first Exeter Story Prize.  More details to come!

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Exeter Novel Prize 2014 - the final reckoning!

On Saturday 28 March 2015, the Lord Mayor of Exeter Councillor Percy Prowse, the Exeter MP Ben Bradshaw, our judge Broo Doherty, the CreativeWritingMatters team, the Exeter Novel Prize 2014 shortlisted authors, our families, friends and members of the general public all assembled in the historic Stephen's Church in central Exeter to find out who had won the 2014 award.

It was an exciting day for all of us. Last year, the Exeter Novel Prize attracted over 300 entries from all over the world, so to end up in the final six is a brilliant achievement, and we didn't envy London literary agent Broo Doherty, whose task was to choose a winner from those final six entries.

Broo was impressed by all the entries and spoke about the strengths displayed in each one. But there could be only one winner, and this turned out to be Clare Harvey, whose WW2 saga about three women who join the ATS to do their bit for king and country is a great read. The novel, originally entitled Cage the Minute but now retitled The Gunner Girl, won the £500 first prize and a trophy. It will be published by Simon and Schuster in October 2015.

Here's a photograph of Broo, Clare and the 2013 winner Su Bristow, whose now-completed novel Sealskin will be taken to the London Book Fair next month.

Left to right - Su, Clare and Broo

The other five finalists are Bert Tyler-Moore, Helena Fairfax, Derryl Flynn, April Hardy and Beverly Stark, left to right in the photograph below, who each collected a runner-up prize of £50 and an engraved glass paperweight.

You will soon be able to read an in-depth report on the day, together with Broo's assessments of all six novels, on the CreativeWritingMatters website at http://www.creativewritingmatters.co.uk/

Congratulations to all the six shortlisted authors. You are all stars and we wish you every success in your writing. We're sure we'll be hearing a lot about you in the future!

The 2015 competition will soon be open. Details will be on the CreativeWritingMatters website, together with lots of information about all the other things we do, so it's worth checking regularly. 

Monday, March 9, 2015

Anyone for Short Stories?

So - what have I been doing since I last updated this blog?

I've been very busy! My writing colleague Cathie Hartigan and I were much encouraged by the success of our first writing guide, The Creative Writing Student's Handbook, and last autumn we decided to follow it up with another writer's guide - this time to the bewildering short story market both internationally and here in the UK.

We're sometimes asked if we feel there is a need for yet more how-to books on the art of writing fiction. We don't write how-to books. We write guides for writers - guides that we hope will enable our readers to learn by showing these readers the way, not by making their journeys for them.  We hope to save them time, but we also hope that what we say will encourage them to research topics for themselves and to discover what kind(s) of fiction they really want to write.

This new guide to writing short stories is based on what we've learned by writing all kinds of short stories ourselves and also by organising and judging many short story competitions.  What do entrants get wrong? What do they get right? What sorts of stories win what sorts of competitions?  We suggest ways in which writers can give themselves the best chances in competitions of all kinds.

How can writers break into the lucrative world of magazine fiction? We don't try to second-guess what editors are going to like on any given day. We summarise and deconstruct the fiction that's currently being published in the magazines, explaining what kinds of stories are likely to appeal to editors and what kinds most definitely won't.

We also discuss 1,000 worders, flash and micro fiction. How short could the shortest short story be? What about three words?

As educators, this is what we try to do: to educate, to bring out what is already there in our students and readers, and to guide them towards publishing success. We can't give our students and readers a magic formula for success. We can't write their stories for them. But we don't need to do this because we can show them how to learn to write great stories for themselves.

Please click on the book cover on your right to take you to the relevant Amazon page, and also check out www.creativewritingmatters.co.uk for all the many and various writerly things we do.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Who will win?

The day for announcing the winner of the second Exeter Novel Prize is getting close!  We at CreativeWritingMatters chose the longlist back at the end of December 2014. It was a long and fascinating process but, as we settled on our final top twenty, we decided we were very happy with a great mix of novels and styles of writing. All the longlisted entries are openings of stories that are excellent in their own way.

But we were still more than happy to hand over the longlist to our judge, the London literary agent Broo Doherty, who has now selected the shortlist and who will announce the overall winner at a ceremony in Exeter on 28th March. This ceremony will take place in the historic St Stephen's church in central Exeter, and readers, writers and members of the general public are all invited. So, if you're in the city on that day at 2 pm, please come along.

The six finalists are all winners and will all take home a trophy and a cash prize.  We hope their writing careers will go from strength to strength and that being finalists in the Exeter Novel Prize will encourage them to believe they can be successful in their chosen fields. 

The Exeter Novel Prize competition for 2015 is not yet open, but we at CreativeWritingMatters are already making plans and will be accepting entries soon.

If you're not a novelist but you still fancy making your mark on an international competition, why not consider writing something for the Exeter Story Prize? Stories up to 10,000 words in length are eligible. So, long or short, the choice is yours! There are lots of prizes to be won! http://www.creativewritingmatters.co.uk/

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Happy New Year - could it be Story Time?

I hope all my friends and followers reading this blog had a great Christmas and also that 2015 will be good to every single one of you.  May magic often happen and may all your wishes be granted!

What are your literary plans for 2015? At CreativeWritingMatters we are very excited about all the new projects we have in the pipeline. Today, the long list for the Exeter Novel Prize is published on our website and next up is the Exeter Story Prize, which closes on 30 April 2015. The first prize is £500 and there are prizes for the runners-up, too.

When we set up the Exeter Story Prize, we wanted to give those of you who find writing round about 3,000 words somewhat restrictive a break. Okay, your story concept wouldn't work as a novel, but it's too complex to explore in a mere 3,000 or so words.  We're offering you up to 10,000 words.

This is not to say the winner will need to have written a 10,000 word story. This is definitely not the case. Your entry should be as long as it needs to be. We'll be looking for a great story that engages us - that makes us care about the characters and about what happens to them.  We'll be hoping to read stories that offer us satisfying resolutions, too. We don't insist on happy endings. Some stories are never going to end happily.  But, if you can offer us a satisfying ending, we can guarantee we'll love your story.

Who are we? The CreativeWritingMatters team of Sophie Duffy, Cathie Hartigan and me.

We're very excited to have the bestselling novelist Trisha Ashley on board, too. Trisha will be awarding a special prize to the best humorous entry to the competition.  So, if you can do funny, here's your chance to shine and sparkle and impress a Sunday Times Top Ten megaselling novelist, too. Trisha will be coming to the awards ceremony in Exeter in October and she's looking forward to meeting entrants, organisers, friends, fans, readers and everyone else involved.

So - maybe get thinking about that story and entering it for what promises to be a great competition?

Happy New Year, happy writing and thank you for reading this. There's lots more information on the CreativeWritingMatters website at www.creativewritingmatters.co.uk .