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.

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 .

Monday, November 24, 2014

Party time!

It's November and that means just one thing (okay, one thing of many, let's keep it real) to members of the RNA - it's party time.

The RNA is famous for its parties and this year's was a great one. These parties share some elements of a traditional school reunion - we catch up with people we might not have seen for years, we share successes, we commiserate with those who haven't had such a great year, we chatter and gossip and network, and we generally have a good time. I always come away from an RNA party feeling energised and optimistic.

As a member of the successful Devon-based team CreativeWritingMatters there was a lot of networking to do. CreativeWritingMatters currently runs competitions for both novelists and writers of short stories, we organise workshops and we write books. Yes, following the success of The Creative Writing Student's Handbook, we're branching out into publishing and have more titles in the pipeline. So check out our website from time to time and see what is new?

We're delighted and honoured to have the bestselling novelist Trisha Ashley involved in our short story competition  - The Exeter Story Prize - next year. All the details of the competition are on our website at www.creativewritingmatters.co.uk and we can promise the inaugural awards ceremony in October 2015 will be quite a party, with plenty of events to interest writers in all genres.

But long before October we'll be hosting an event during which the second Exeter Novel Prize will be awarded. This will be in the spring and will also be a party. We hope writers from Devon and beyond will join us and enjoy the day. Last year's event was a big success so we're determined to repeat it!

Here's a photograph taken by Liz Harris of the CreativeWritingMatters team with the literary agent Broo Doherty, who will be judging the Exeter Novel Prize. Left to right, Margaret, Broo, Sophie and Cathie. We'll look forward to meeting you in Devon in the spring!

But in the meantime - happy reading and writing!

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Today, it's from Russia and the West Country with love...

My special guest on this sunny autumn afternoon is Elizabeth Ducie, whose first novel Gorgito’s Ice Rink was published in October 2014.

Welcome, Elizabeth – sit down and have a coffee and a ginger biscuit!

The first thing I noticed about Gorgito’s Ice Rink was its lovely cover. I know you had some input there, so could you tell me how you came up with the concept for the cover? What does it say about the book?

Yes, it is beautiful, isn’t it? In many ways, I see Gorgito as Russia’s answer to Zorba the Greek and the original concept was to have a sketch of the man himself, with the skater and the buildings in the background. Unfortunately, while the artist captured the character well, it looked more like a children’s book than an adult’s novel. So I turned to Berni Stevens for help. I searched her website for examples of a suitable style and came up with the silhouette format. We started out with Gorgito on there as well, but decided having him in the title was sufficient and ended up with the final version, with which I am delighted.

When you started writing Gorgito’s Ice Rink, did you have a master plan or did you start the story and see where it would take you?

Gosh, it’s seven years since I started, so it’s hard to remember. I certainly didn’t have a master plan right from the beginning. I think I wrote it in three main chunks and then integrated them. By 2010, I had the first five chapters written and knew what the end would be. So I had A and Z, but no real idea of how I would get from one to the other. At Exeter University (where I studied for an MA in Creative Writing), I learned to write film treatments (a scene by scene outline) and this helped me map out the main storyline. However, I came up with Gorgito’s back story quite late in the day; and the third strand, Emma’s story, right at the end.

You’ve travelled and worked all around the world. I can tell from reading your book that you have a special affection for Russia and its people. What is so compelling about Russia and the Russians?

I worked in Russia from 1993 onwards, so just after the fall of the Soviet Union. So I had the privilege of watching that huge, fascinating country move from one major political and economic system to a different one. It was interesting to watch changes occur, not at the macro, but at the micro level; changes in facilities in hotels, levels of service in shops and so on. The Russian public face is quite a stern one; someone once told me you didn’t smile in public as you never knew who you were standing next to. However the private face is friendly, generous and fun-loving. I’ve had some wonderful times and made some great friends in the past 20 years.

You’re involved in organising an annual literary festival in your home county of Devon. Please could you tell us something about it?

In 2011, Chudleigh Writers’ Circle ran the first Chudleigh Literary Festival. It was just one day, with writers’ workshops in the morning, guest speakers, including the wonderful Ann Widdecombe, and an open mic session in the afternoon. In 2014, our fourth annual festival encompassed a one-day workshop for history writing; a day of general workshops for writers; a ‘meet the authors’ supper; a choir performing Charles Causley’s poems; guest speaker Tony Hawkes; a day of poetry workshops for the children in the Primary School; and an associated poetry competition. We are nowhere near as big as Dartington or Budleigh Salterton - and I don’t think we would want to be, as our focus remains a festival for Chudleigh, rather than a festival in Chudleigh - but we’re still growing and have some exciting plans for 2015.

How do you organise a typical writing day? Or isn’t there such a thing for you?

I try to write every day, although it doesn’t always work out that way - and I write nothing at all in July and December. I am very much a lark, rather than an owl, so if I’ve got anything I must finish, I will attack that first. I generally write in the mornings and leave the afternoons for marketing and non-writerly activities. I’ve also started writing more by hand, when I’m away from home - and find that sometimes flows better than words on the screen. I am lucky enough to have an office across the garden which has been converted for me to write in - but I’m just as likely to be found writing at the dining table, especially if it’s raining.

What are you writing now?

I’m using November and NaNoWriMo to write the first draft of my second novel. I’ve learned a lot in the past seven years and I hope that this one will be out by this time next year, rather than in 2021. This one’s also based on my travels and centres on counterfeit drugs in Africa.

How would you like your fiction-writing career to develop?

I hope to publish a growing portfolio of works, both novels and collections of short stories. But my first writing experience was in non-fiction and I expect that to continue in parallel, especially my books of business skills for writers.

Five quick questions:

  1. The best evening – in or out? 
            Definitely in, but surrounded by friends, all eating drinking, laughing and chatting together. (Mind you, if it’s at a friend’s house, so we don’t have to  wash-up afterwards, that’s even better. Not sure if that qualifies as in or out).

  1. Favourite non-writing activity or hobby? 
            Apart from the aforesaid evenings with friends, I love discovering new restaurants. Michael and I rarely take overseas holidays these days (we did too  much travelling on business over the years and anyway, when you are doing a  job you love in a part of the world you love, what is there to go on holiday  from?) but we enjoy searching out fine dining establishments and treating ourselves to the odd overnight stay. When we were in Kent, and just a short distance from London, we were spoiled for choice, but now we’ve moved to the south west, we are gradually eating our way around the country house hotels of the region.
  1. Most precious possession? 
            I want to say my husband, Michael, but he might object to being classed as a possession. So I think it would have to be my data stick which contains all my writing and travels everywhere with me.

  1. Most evocative piece of music? 
            Can I be greedy and have two please? Firstly Meditation from Thais by Massenet; I saw this performed by two beautiful dancers in the theatre in  Chelyabinsk years ago and have never forgotten the sight. And secondly Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, which I’ve seen performed many times in UK,  but most memorably in St Petersburg at 2pm in the afternoon, during their City Day celebrations, with red white and blue fireworks against a deep blue sky in brilliant sunshine.

  1. So, if you ruled the world, you would – what? 
            My youngest sister frequently says “When I’m Emperor of the World I will...”    and always ends the sentence with an eminently sensible solution to one of today’s problems. So I would hand over Executive Power to her and go back to writing. (But I would suggest that she made voting in elections compulsory.  Women fought so hard to get the vote, we shouldn’t waste it. And I would ban party politics, so everyone in public office had to go with the the wishes of  their constituents, rather than the views of the whips.) 

Thank you, Elizabeth, it’s been great to talk to you!

Elizabeth is on Facebook and Twitter –

You can buy Elizabeth’s novel here –



Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Spookery and mystery and romantic suspense from Kirsty Ferry

Today, my special guest is Kirsty Ferry, whose intriguingly-titled novel Some Veil Did Fall is published this autumn by award-winning independent Choc Lit.

Welcome, Kirsty – come in, sit down and have a coffee and a cupcake? I bought chocolate, strawberry and vanilla today. Yes, like the ice cream and just as delicious.
Well thank you. Yes. I’ll have a chocolate one please. Oh, and a strawberry one. And go on, a vanilla one as well. It would be rude not to when you’ve gone to so much trouble, Margaret.

Your novel looks delicious, too – such a gorgeous shade of pink! Did you have any input when it came to designing the cover? What does it tell us about the novel?
I had no input at all – but I trust Berni Stevens implicitly. She does the majority of covers for Choc Lit and she’s also done two for my self-published ventures. It was a case of, go on, there’s the story, make it fabulous. And she has. The idea is that, because this is part one of a series, if I’m lucky enough to have the others accepted, the colours will be just as vibrant on those -  only we will have say a green one and then a blue one. I think it tells the reader that we’ve got a bright, shiny romantic story with a historical side to it.

We’ve never met face to face, so will you 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 am the family maverick. My family love to read but I’m the only one who writes. I’ve loved writing since I was a child but once my son was born in 2001 I had a break of several years. I took an Open University course when he was about six or seven which kick-started me into it again and I had soon placed most of the stories I’d written for the course into magazines and suchlike, then had a competition win which boosted my confidence no end. Some Veil Did Fall is actually an expansion of a short story I wrote for the course. I did 1,500 words about a girl who visits a stately home, seems to recognise the place somehow and eventually sees a portrait that looks like herself. I never tried to place that one anywhere as I knew I wanted to expand it, because the character had more to say to me. I’ve done non-fiction articles as well, but I love fiction as I feel you are truly creating something and can have your characters say and do stuff you’d never be brave enough to do in real life! Romantic fiction just “happened” with Veil. I’d never written a romance (well, apart from one disastrous thing that I hated) and much preferred ghost stories, paranormals and timeslips. Then I suddenly realised I could add some romance into the story. It just rounded the book off very nicely and gave it that extra element.

Some Veil Did Fall is the first novel in the Rossetti series of romantic mysteries. Please could you tell us a little about this first volume and give us a few hints about how you intend to develop the series? What can we expect in Volume 2?
Some Veil Did Fall is based on the premise of reincarnation and soulmates, which is in turn the concept of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s poem Sudden Light, the poem from which I filched the title of the book. The more I researched Rossetti and indeed the Pre Raphaelites, the more I developed an interest in them and I could see how I could do a linked series of books based on Rossetti poems. Becky and Jon weren’t content with the one book – they wanted to be in the next one too. And Lissy, Jon’s sister, shouted the loudest. So in book two, which is entitled The Other Ophelia, we have a new couple, Cori and Simon, who are introduced through Lissy’s volunteer work at the Tate Gallery and a mystery surrounding the famous Millais/Lizzie Siddal picture of Ophelia, a Victorian diary and a crazed nineteenth-century laudanum addict by the name of Daisy. That book is set three years after Veil, and then the third book, Sea Spell, is set yet another three years into the future. Sea Spell is based on the Rossetti poem of the same name and involves Lissy, her gorgeous Italian ex-boyfriend and a ruined house by the coast which harbours another secret – this time with reference to the Pre Raphaelite photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron. So we have poetry, paintings and photographs in the series. The characters are still shouting a little bit, and I have to say a couple of them have popped up unintentionally in my current work in progress – which was meant to be a stand alone!

Becky and Jonathon are the hero and heroine of Some Veil Did Fall. How did they develop as characters – did they appear in your mind as if by magic and say write about us? Or are they based on people you know in real life? Or…
They are completely fictional. Becky Version 1 was there first, as she appeared in the original short story, and then one day, Becky Version 2 was walking along the street and boom: there was Jon, carrying his cup of coffee and not paying very much attention to his surroundings. They developed as I wrote. Any writer will tell you that once they start keeping you awake at night you’re doing something right – and those two definitely did that to me. I had to have a notebook by the bed which was filled with nocturnal scribbling about the next step in the plot or the next twist to come. But they still kept at it after the book was done – which is why they became linked in the series.

Planner, vague outliner or planning phobic – when it comes to working out the storyline in a novel, who are you? I’m a planner, but I know some novelists refuse to plan!
I wing it. Totally and utterly. I have an idea of the start and an inkling of the ending, but it’s anybody’s guess what happens in the middle, and I do find that it’s quite an adventure. I love getting that lightbulb moment when you go ‘aha!’ and find yourself with a nifty twist you hadn’t even considered. I’d probably be more productive if I planned, but it’s not in my nature!

When you get that movie deal, who will play Becky and Jonathon?
Ohhhhh! Tough one. Alexandra Daddario who played Annabeth Chase in the Percy Jackson movies is a possibility for Becky and for Jon, perhaps Jamie Dornan. He’s got the right look, but after Fifty Shades he might find my book a bit tame!

Five quick questions:

  1. What your best time of day for writing?
If I’m in on my own, it’s after lunch until tea time, interspersed with lots of coffee trips to the kitchen and back. If the family is around, it’s bedtime. Not a chance otherwise!

  1. Who are your favourite romantic hero and heroine?
You see, I love Heathcliff and Cathy, but when you get down to it, despite the passion, Wuthering Heights was never actually a romance! But they had that spark and I’m still going to choose them, just to be rebellious.

  1. If you could interview any real historical figure, who would it be and why?
Emily Bronte. I would want to see what her inspiration was for Wuthering Heights and how she would feel if she knew that people still thought her book incredible after all these years. It’s actually a really complex book so I would like to discuss how she managed to pull that off when she led such an apparently sheltered life!

  1. Do you have any special non-writing ambitions?
Not really. I’ve just completed an Honours Degree in Literature and achieved a First, so that was a big ambition, but I think I just want my family and friends happy and healthy to be honest.

  1. Do you believe in ghosts?
Oh yes. My books are full of them and I love anything to do with them. I think I even had one in my last house, and my cousin definitely has one in hers!

Thank you, Kirsty it’s been great to talk to you!

And to you. Thank you for having me. Are you eating that last cupcake? Because I’ll take it off your hands if you want...