Sally Jenkins

Lockdown Week One – The Positive Side

It’s just over a week since Boris Johnson put Britain in lockdown.

We all have our own worries and concerns at the moment: health, finances, job security, separation from loved ones, coping with isolation – the list goes on and on. To get through this period we need to focus on the positive things that are emerging from the current situation:

  • An increase in neighbourliness. Many people are looking out for vulnerable neighbours and offering to shop for them. Our street has a What’s App group and the chat last night was how we might organise an outdoor tea party with each of us standing the required social distance apart on our driveways.
  • An upturn in people exercising. Many people seem to have taken the single daily exercise outing as mandatory. I’ve never seen so many people walking the streets before (and most make an effort to keep as socially distant as possible). Hopefully, this will become a habit and improve the health of the nation generally.
  • The opportunity to learn new skills. In the last week I’ve taken part in three Zoom conferences but I’d never heard of this video conferencing facility until the lockdown started. I’ve also filmed myself, via the laptop, for the first time. This was for the speaker bookings’ website Mirthy who are trying to find a way of continuing to to take speakers to older people during the lockdown. Other people are learning online courses, there are a selection of short, free courses from the Open University.
  • Family able to spend more time together. This may be a blessing or a curse depending on the age of the children! With the daily commute gone and school cancelled, there is now the time to spend on bike rides, reading stories, arts and crafts etc. Many youngsters may remember this as a golden time of having their parents’ full attention.
  • Time to play. We’ve resurrected a very old Swingball and my mum tells me she’s got out an old boules set.

    Swingball in the Garden

    Swingball in the Garden

  • Time to stand and stare.

However, we have to remember that none of the above apply to our wonderful key workers across the caring professions, manning supermarkets, delivering goods and keeping our streets safe and clear of rubbish. They are working as normal or even longer hours. Thank you.

Finally, I signed up online to become one of the thousands of NHS volunteers that the government was asking for. Unfortunately I got an email back telling me it had not been possible to verify my identification. So, I may not be who I appear …

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Reading: Solitary or Social?

Reading is a solitary pastime. We sit alone, in silence, our mind in another world and ‘do not disturb’ exuding from our concentrated expression. Reading is a hobby not easily shared with others.

Wrong!

Reading is becoming an increasingly sociable activity. Books connect people, both online, in the virtual world and in real, face-to-face society. Don’t miss out by reading in a bubble, try some of the following:

  • Join a traditional book group. Most groups read one book a month and meet to discuss their opinions (depending on the group there may be coffee, wine or cake …) I’ve mentioned before that I run a book group at my local library and the library or bookshop is a good place to start if you’re looking for a group. Alternatively, start your own. A friend of mine formed a group with her neighbours and they take it in turns to host the meeting.
  • Join a Shared Reading group. I’ve written before about these groups connected to The Reader charity. There is no ‘homework’ reading. It is all aloud during the (usually weekly) meeting.

    Book Fest Sutton Coldfield Library

    Bookfest Sutton Coldfield Library

  • A couple of weeks ago I was a volunteer at Bookfest in my local library. It was a festival of children’s books with lots of author events and activities. I was one of three people on the front desk answering questions and directing people to events. It was fun to be with like-minded book lovers making an event happen that would be too expensive to stage without volunteers.
  • Search out a Facebook group that discusses books. A few to get you going:
    Imogen Clark’s Book Café – Imogen is a best-selling author
    The Book Club – a large and busy group with occasional ‘real-life’ meet ups
    Romantic Fiction Book Club – run by the Romantic Novelists’ Association
    If you can recommend any others, please add them in the comments at the bottom of this post.
  • Review your favourite books online. This could be on Amazon, Good Reads or NetGalley (where you can request advance e-book copies of new novels to review). Or start your own book blog and get social in the virtual world, interacting with readers and writers.
  • Start a book exchange at work, church or wherever groups of people meet. See if you can encourage non-readers to try a novel. What greater gift can you give someone than the love of books?

Reading and the love of books can be as solitary or as social as you choose. Whichever way you do it – happy reading!

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Writing a Novella: My Experience by Cath Barton

It’s a privilege to introduce you to Cath Barton, a prize-winning writer of novellas. Cath has agreed to share her experience of novella writing and I hope it will encourage anyone looking for a publisher for a novella length work. Over to Cath:

Cath Barton

Credit: Toril Brancher

I never wanted to write a novel. As a writer I found pleasure – and some small success – in writing short stories and flash fiction. I would have happily carried on along this path, but at the first meeting of a local writing group in 2015 one of my fellow writers unexpectedly threw down this challenge – Who’s going to write a novella this year? I saw my hand going up! The truth is I relish a challenge, and a target too, so I looked for a novella competition and aimed for that.

My starting point for my novella The Plankton Collector was a flash I had written as an exercise about a boy whose brother had died. The boy was at his bedroom window, watching his mother visiting the brother’s grave in the churchyard just below their garden. That gave me the centre of my story – a family’s grief – and a location – a house in the middle of England. To that I added the mysterious character of the Plankton Collector, who visits each member of the family in different guises and helps them. I saw a clip on TV about the Victorians collecting plankton, those tiny shells which have housed the creatures who are the base of all life. Quite how my story evolved I can’t tell you –  not because I don’t want to but because it’s as mysterious to me as the Plankton Collector himself!

When I’d completed the story I sent it off to the competition – and got nowhere. I looked around for other opportunities and found very few. Disheartened, I put the story aside. Nearly two years later I heard about another novella prize. It was in Wales, where I live, so, without any great optimism, I decided to give it a try. To my great surprise and delight I won! The prize was an advance on publication, which was wonderful. But the best thing about that win was the affirmation and the impetus it gave me to continue writing.The Plankton Collector

I had experimented before I won that competition with writing a novella-in-flash – a collection of short pieces which can all stand alone but together form a whole. I didn’t really know how to do that and, unsurprisingly, my effort didn’t get anywhere. But when I saw another publisher looking for novellas last year I sent her the first few thousand words. She was keen to see more and that has led to me completing and signing a contract for publication of my novella In the Sweep of the Bay.

Will there be a third novella? Possibly. And now I have given myself a new challenge, yes, you’ve guessed it – to write a novel!

 

Cath Barton is an English writer who lives in Wales. She won the New Welsh Writing AmeriCymru Prize for the Novella 2017 for The Plankton Collector, which is published by New Welsh Review under their Rarebyte imprint.

Her second novella, In the Sweep of the Bay, will be published by Louise Walters Books in September 2020.

Read more about Cath’s writing on her website here and follow her on Twitter @CathBarton1

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Diary of a Lollipop Lady by Hazel Wheeler

I rarely read memoir or autobiography but the title ‘Diary of a Lollipop Lady‘ jumped out from the library shelf. The subtitle is, ‘Memories of a Crossing Patrol in the 1960s’ and it is exactly what it says on the tin.Diary of a Lollipop Lady by Hazel Wheeler

Hazel Wheeler spent 1966 as a lollipop lady in Yorkshire. She has two young daughters, her husband is working all hours and the debt collectors are after them. Back then it was unusual for mothers to do paid work but being a lollipop lady fits with school hours and the family needs the money. Hazel kept a diary during her twelve months in the job, noting down stories about her regular ‘customers’, the extremes of weather and the interesting things she witnesses.

What I liked most about this book were the odd comments Hazel dropped in about her ambitions to write for a living. Like many of us, she was an avid writer of letters to magazines. She records how she went into Smiths to leaf through the latest issues and see if anything of hers had been published. When it was, she celebrated the one guinea payment or the tea caddy from Peoples’ Friend (I think that prize is still going!). Her children are encouraged to enter writing competitions – with success. The book ends on a positive note, with an acceptance for Hazel from the BBC in January 1967 for a feature to be used on the ‘Home this Afternoon’ programme. Her fee is 10 guineas – more than three times what she earns in a week on the crossing.

After finishing the book I Googled ‘Hazel Wheeler’ and was sad to discover she’d died in 2009, not long after the book came out. Her obituary charts her diary-keeping and her publication history. Other volumes of her diaries provided material for ‘Living on Tick‘ and ‘Huddersfield at War‘.

I’m sure Hazel would be pleased to know that her books are still being read after her death – something for us all to aim for.

 

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A Consultation With Cornerstones

Just before Christmas, Cornerstones Literary Consultants ran a Twitter competition to win one of several half-hour consultations with Helen Corner-Bryant. I was a lucky winner and this morning Helen phoned me for a brainstorming session. Helen had no prior knowledge of me or my novel but she was quick to take on board my story concept and where I am in my writing journey.

The good news was that characters (like mine) aged around 50 are popular at the moment.Cornerstones Literary Consultants

The not so good news was:

  • It sounded to Helen like there was passivity on the side of my main characters so I might like to gee them up a bit and make them more active.
  • My working title isn’t brilliant – it’s likely to get lost in a morass of other books . This is a small problem that can be sorted out later.
  • The structure of the novel might need attention to make sure that it fits the standard three act structure that publishers like. We talked about rising tension peaks and the low point in the novel, where the main character is worse off than she was at the beginning of the book. On the plus side structure-wise – I do have an obvious inciting incident.

Moving forward, my plan is to re-write the book’s synopsis against the three act structure so that I can see what fits and if anything is missing.

The thirty-minute consultation went by in a flash. There was no sales pitch about Cornerstones’ services but, having spoken to Helen, I’d have confidence using them should I ever decide to go down that route. A half hour well spent!

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Which is Easier: Short Stories or Novels?

For a long time, I avoided embarking on a novel because I was frightened of failure. Afraid of not completing the novel. Afraid of creating something that was complete rubbish. Afraid of not getting the finished manuscript published. But most of all, afraid of wasting months or years of my life on something that no one else would ever read.
So, I stuck to short stories and articles. There was still the risk of time wasted on writing stuff that would be rejected. But these were much smaller blocks of time and the odds were, that with enough pieces ‘out there’, some pieces would be accepted by magazines for publication. Some were. And some weren’t.

The pull of wanting a novel with my name on the cover grew. I buried my fear and started trying. As expected, it was difficult. My first attempts didn’t get past chapter three or four. But, with persistence, I completed a novel. It went on to win a competition and was published through Amazon. And gave me the confidence to try writing another. The Book Guild thought this next one had commercial potential and that too was published. The third novel got me an agent but not a publisher. Just before Christmas I finished the second draft of novel number four. This novel is now ‘resting’ before I read it again with fresh eyes to spot what does and doesn’t work in the storyline.

I promised myself a treat during this resting period – some short story writing! I was looking forward to this because I’ve always loved the buzz of achievement on completing a story and sending it out into the big wide world. In novel writing that buzz is rare.
This treat is turning into wasted time. With short story writing there’s no continuity between writing sessions. New characters and situations have to be constantly created – and that’s hard work. It’s far easier to slip back into the familiar world of a part-finished novel and bash out a few more pages. My productivity has plummeted and I’m looking forward to returning to editing the novel.

Which is easier – short story or novel writing? Or is the grass always greener?

Books by Sally Jenkins

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Park Run First Timer

I took part in my first Park Run this morning – 5 km (3 miles) over varied, undulating terrain in Sutton Park. Sutton Coldfield Park Run

Park Runs are held all over the country at 9 am on Saturday mornings. They are free and anyone can take part. All standards of fitness are welcome and at Sutton Park there was a sign ‘Walking Group Meet Here’ – so there was no need to even run. The events are organised and marshalled by volunteers and there is a friendly atmosphere geared towards encouraging everyone to get outside and move more. The only preparation needed before joining a run is online registration. This is a one-off process which generates a unique barcode for each runner. This barcode must be printed, taken to the event and scanned once you’ve crossed the finish line in order to get a time for your run.

At Sutton Park there was a briefing just before the start for first-time runners. The course was described and I had second thoughts when ‘Hill of Doom’, ‘trip hazards’ and a ‘single file wooden bridge with a slat missing’ were mentioned. My aim became to get to the end without falling over.

With my eyes on the ground I successfully negotiated the hazards. The ‘Hill of Doom’ was short and very steep, so I have to admit to walking here. Everything became easier once the course hit tarmac and I became a lot more confident. It was downhill to the finish and to that lovely feeling of having accomplished something.

Park Run results hit the website later the same day. My time was 34:45 and my results emails says, “You finished in 272nd place and were the 78th female out of a field of 398 parkrunners and you came 5th in your age category”. I don’t know how many were in my age category but 5th will do me!

The similarity between writing and running has been pointed out many times before and my Park Run brought it home to me again. Writing and running are both hard work and we don’t always enjoy the actual process – but the ‘high’ produced by having run or having written can’t be beaten!

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The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell

When I was young one of my ambitions was to own a secondhand bookshop. It was an ambition that was never fulfilled but I do still love to wander around shelves full of pre-loved books.

Shaun Bythell owns Scotland’s biggest secondhand bookshop and for a year he kept a diary of life in that shop. The diary was published in book form, The Diary of a Bookseller, a couple of years ago and it makes interesting reading for anyone who’s ever wondered what goes on behind the mountains of paperbacks and collectables.The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell

There are comments on the customers (especially those who spend hours reading by the bookshop fire and then don’t buy anything), the staff (who have a tendency to the eccentric), the people who are selling their lifelong book collections and the way online ordering works in the secondhand industry. Sunny summer days are busy but in winter the takings are meagre.

Two particularly interesting points from the book are worth highlighting. Why not join the shop’s Random Book Club? For £59 a year you will be sent a surprise book every month. Might make a great present for someone who loves to try different genres?

And, if like me, you’ve ever wanted to run your own secondhand bookshop, here is the holiday for you:

Stay in the apartment above another secondhand bookshop, The Open Book, and you get to manage the bookshop (with help from volunteers) during your stay. But you need to plan ahead – the holiday is very popular and booked a couple of years into the future. Get on the waiting list via the Open Book Facebook page or book the apartment via AirBnb.

 

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On a Writing Retreat

I’ve been on a writing retreat!

Unfortunately it wasn’t a week in a glamorous, sunny location but two nights in a Premier Inn on an industrial estate near Warwick. It was an experiment with a writer friend to see if 48 hours away from domestic distractions would enhance our productivity and propel us into the heart of our plots.Writing Retreat

We worked in two and a half hour chunks before meeting up for tea and homemade cake or a 30 minute walk round the block or breakfast or dinner. This method kept us well fed and there was always a break to look forward to. I found that after two hours my concentration was waning and I was ready for some company and chat (and cake!)

Did it work?

My companion was doing NaNoWriMo. On arrival she was behind on her daily word count, when we left she was ahead, as well as having done some character sketches.

I was trying to pull together a very wobbly first draft. Prolonged writing time on the retreat enabled me to see the plot as a whole and get some editing done. In our breaks we did a lot of writing talk and my writer friend gave me a new idea to increase the tension within my story. I spent time working out how to weave this into my existing chapters.

Yes, the retreat worked and was worthwhile. But we both agreed that we couldn’t maintain that level of work/concentration beyond a weekend. So a whole week writing in the sun would probably be wasted on me (if it’s sunny I’d rather be in the pool or sightseeing!) but another weekend on an industrial estate is something I’d consider …

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A Public Speaking Black Friday Offer

It’s often said that public speaking is people’s number one fear. Many of us would rather adopt a tarantula, stroke a python, walk a tightrope across the Grand Canyon or be enclosed in the tiniest of spaces than speak in front of an audience. I know, I’ve been there.

But it doesn’t have to be like that. The fear of public speaking, or glossophobia, can be managed. The nerves will never completely go, but that’s a good thing. A little bit of anxiety ensures proper preparation beforehand and a dose of adrenaline improves the performance. Public Speaking for Absolute Beginners

Writers who can face an audience (even if they are quavering inside!) are at a big advantage. Think of the growing number of literary festivals that take place throughout the year, up and down the country, showcasing authors and their books. Think of the opportunities offered by libraries for local authors to make themselves known to local readers. Think of the critique possibilities available at writing groups, classes and residential courses to those brave enough to read their work aloud.

Writers are often stereo-typed as introverted loners, hunched alone over a laptop. We can do a lot of networking and promotion online via Twitter, Facebook and all the other social media, but nothing beats getting out into the real world, meeting real people and sharing our work.

2019 is drawing to a close. Start preparing now to make 2020 the year you crack glossophobia and take your writing and author talk to the audience it deserves.

To help you on your way Public Speaking for Absolute Beginners on Kindle is reduced to 99p for the next seven days, until 4th December. For less than half the price of a coffee you can learn how to:

  • Construct an interesting talk
  • Manage nerves
  • Build audience rapport
  • Manage speaking engagements
  • … and much more

If you prefer a ‘real’ book, the paperback of Public Speaking for Absolute Beginners is only £5.49.

Whichever version you prefer, I’d love to know how you get on!

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