Category Archives: Writing

Write, write, write

At a recent travel exhibition, I went to an inspiring session on how to pitch your writing ideas to editors.

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Lynne Hughes (founder and publisher of Wanderlust travel magazine), Phoebe Smith (Wanderlust’s editor) and Debbie Chapman (commissioning travel editor for Summersdale Publishers) shared some invaluable thoughts on best practice for pitching article and book ideas….and some cautionary tales on how definitely not to pitch.

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You may be the best writer out there, but unless you can get your ideas and writing noticed by those with The Publishing Power, you’ll never see your work in print. Well, not in respected print and digital publications anyway.

Regardless of what you’re trying to create and pitch yourself, they all said: just write, write, write. The more you practise, the better your writing will become. Hopefully. And read, read, read. Absorb as much as you can from published writers. Fingers crossed some of that purple prose will rub off….

I haven’t published much on this humble blog recently. But neither have I been totally unproductive. I’ve been busy creating content for a collaboration with photographer and film-maker friend Mark Melling: welcome to Great Escapations.

Our first project is to tell the story of the intriguing area and charming people of Zagori, high in the Pindos mountains of north-west Greece, almost hugging the Albanian border. We hope our films, images and words will give you a strong sense of life in this historical community of 46 stone-built and slate-roofed villages.

Image result for typical house in zagoria

We’re almost ready to unleash Great Escapations on the outside world. Let the pitching begin…..

 

Radio drama

Can there be a better medium than radio for some punchy drama?

I love some of the plays broadcast on Radio 4, and have been completely hooked on Forty Weeks, broadcast this week in 5 episodes of 15 minutes, at the back end of Woman’s Hour.

A romantic comedy about love, infidelity and accidental pregnancy, it was beautifully written by Katherine Jakeways.

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It may have been about yet another tangled love triangle, but it was written and acted with such humour, compassion and lightness of touch that it couldn’t fail to captivate.

And  hearing the story unfold on radio allows the listener to engage the imagination in a far different way to television, stage or silver screen.

Sam loves Rose. Sam’s Dad dies. Rose is working away from home. Sam shags Bayley. In a car park. Bayley becomes pregnant. Rose and Bayley become friends.

So far, so pretty predictable. But as each episode unfolds during the baby’s gestation period – lentil, lime, melon, cabbage, baby – the relationships of the protagonists take some unexpected and entertaining turns.

A listening joy from start to finish. It almost made me want to have a baby. Or write a play for radio.

Blogging along

I set this humble blog up a couple of years ago, initially as a playground for my writing efforts.

Roil forward to this momentous day – with The Donald confirmed as the next occupant of the White House…and where am I?

Well, I suppose I’ve been sidetracked a little. My recent focus has been on travelling…and travel writing. I’ve been lucky enough to be sent on several exciting trips – to Greece, Andalucia and Costa Rica – and I was also shocked to win one of the Daily Telegraph’s Just Back weekly competitions.

This blog has been left behind a little, like a jilted girlfriend. But I do still try to write reviews of  books read, movies watched, meals eaten and theatre productions enjoyed.

Today though, it deserves a little TLC. So I’m spending the day on a Blogging: Next Steps course with Claire Dee, at the Guildford Institute.

Watch this space to see the fruits of my labours, and Claire’s expert insight….

 

 

How not to write a novel

I stumbled on an interesting and entertaining TV programme last night. Giles Coren, the Times’ famously vitriolic restaurant critic, was talking about his own novel Winkler.

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(image courtesy of the Independent)

On Sky Arts, it was one in a series of programmes exploring artistic failure.

Winkler certainly flopped. Published in 2005, it sold all of 771 copies. I bet Coren’s publishers loved that, after paying him a £30,000 advance.

Giles was so scarred by his literary disaster that he hasn’t attempted to write another novel. But to his credit, he wasn’t afraid to try and understand why it failed so spectacularly. He even met his nemesis, critic Stephen Bayley, who said the book had a certain lavatorial awfulness.

Geoffrey Archer told him how he rewrites his own novels 18 times before sending to his publisher. Giles thought he might have amended his Winkler manuscript twice, so convinced was he of its immediate literary perfection.

Rose Tremain, David Mitchell and Hanif Kureishi all gave him deep insights into their own successful writing processes.

 

He visibly squirmed when reading the first 5,000 words aloud to the renowned creative writing class at the University of East Anglia. Their feedback was thoughtful…and destructive.

He sat in the back room of a bookshop, eavesdropping on the opinions of a ladies’ book group discussing Winkler. He met them. Everyone laughed. Their feedback was thoughtful…and negative.

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Howard Jacobson told Giles that failure is the ingredient you need to have. And there’s the rub. Giles, already a successful journalist with a public persona, didn’t have to subject his first novel to a publisher’s slush pile review, and inevitable rejection.

 

So he failed publicly, rather than privately. He knew the writing was flashy. He wrote a lot about arses. He wrote for himself, rather than for the reader. But it was published.

I still don’t particularly like Giles, but I admire him for analysing the reasons he failed so spectacularly with Winkler. And if he risks writing another novel, it will be interesting to see if he writes it for himself, or for the reader.

By the way, you can read on Amazon what Winkler is all about. And some very critical reader reviews.

From Corfu to Zagoria – meeting Roy Hounsell

I started dipping into the book over dinner at the enchanting Thoukididis Guest House in Kapesovo, one of the 46 villages of the remote, mountainous area of Zagoria in north-west Greece, close to the Albanian border.

I had started my trip in Corfu. So had the author.

I was seduced by Zagoria. So was the author.

I was hooked by his story. He by the village of Koukouli.

Roy Hounsell had run out of advertising ideas. Disillusioned, he and his wife Effie had left England for Corfu in 1980, with no plan and in search of adventure.  Several years later, having fallen into a swimming pool business, they thought Corfu was being over-developed.

By chance, they visited Zagoria on the mainland, and were immediately attracted by its remoteness, traditions and serenity. After many challenges finding and buying a property to restore, they moved to the village of Koukouli in 1991.

The engaging, sometimes wryly cynical, always acutely observed story – The Papas and the Englishman – ends with Roy and Effie about to rent out a couple of rooms in their extended home, but firmly embedded in village life and accepted into the friendly community.

As chance would have it, my own journey – 25 years later – would take me to their village. On a July morning as sizzling as a Greek souvlaki skewer, I left Kapesovo and walked way down through forested hillsides, to the ancient stone bridge of Kokkori just below Kipi, and onwards to Koukouli.

At a traditional taverna under the welcoming shade of a vast plane tree, I guzzled an icily cold bottle of water and asked the owner if he had heard of Roy Hounsell.

I’ll show you the house if you like, once you’ve finished your drink.”

“You mean he still lives here?”

“Yes. But his wife Effie….she is kaput. Two years ago.”

Refreshed – and intrigued – I followed him through the traditional stone alleyways of a Zagorian village, terraced and climbing the natural contours of the Ottoman settlement. He pulled on the rope dangling down in front of some elegant, solid wooden gates, releasing the rustic lock mechanism and allowing us into the spacious hidden courtyard.

Roy“, he called.

A woman appeared. “Go up“, she said.

The bar owner nodded in the direction of some stone steps leading to the right hand one of two similar, handsome, traditional Zagorian houses.

I looked tentatively into the doorway and there, to my left, down a few steps in a slightly sunken room, was Roy Hounsell, author of The Papas and the Englishman.

Come in, come in“, he said, as though welcoming an old friend.

He was propped up in bed, cigarette in hand, whisky bottle on the cluttered bedside table, wearing pyjamas and a slightly louche look. Rather like Peter O’Toole after a night out with Oliver Reed.

I tried to shake his hand. He offered me the other one, awkwardly. “Had a stroke. About 4 years ago.”

The woman – his housekeeper, I think – appeared. “What would you like? Coffee? Tea? Whisky?

“A Greek coffee would be lovely. Thank you.”

A few minutes later, she brought a small tray laden with coffee as strong as the EU position on Greek debt, a glass of iced water and 2 slices of homemade cake, as I chatted to Roy.

For close to an hour, this charming and entertaining man regaled me with stories about his life, the book, his contacts, his health and his love of the village he and Effie had made home.

He answered a stranger’s direct – and often personal – questions unflinchingly.

Do you get back to England?

Not any more. What’s the point? Nothing there for me.”

He gave me his publisher’s contact details so that I could get a copy of the book and read it properly.

He gave me his own phone number so that I could contact him again.

But most of all, he gave me a warm glow. Roy is obviously no longer in the best of health, is without his beloved Effie and unable to drive, but even now – propped up in bed, coughing and uncomfortable – he exuded a lust for life and for language.

Have you read Bill Bryson? Funny writer.”

I thanked Roy for his spontaneous hospitality, wished him luck and headed back to the taverna, under the shade of a vast plane tree.

The Papas and the Englishman

 

City Lit Travel Writing Workshop

I’m indebted to my missus Gill and to my Mum & Dad for their generosity and thoughtfulness. They kindly paid for me to do the 3 day Travel Writing workshop at City Lit last week, for my birthday prezzie.

The inimitable Susan Grossman led a class of 11 eager students, sharing with us a wealth of knowledge and experience:

How to write evocative travel copy, work with the travel industry, get on press trips and sell your work. Theory plus observation and interview skills out and about in Covent Garden. For bloggers and journalists. 

We were set loose in Neal’s Yard, in the heart of Covent Garden, one hot Thursday afternoon in July. The brief was to write a short piece, within one of a few loose frameworks, but essentially to demonstrate what we had – hopefully – learned.

Here is my own humble offering. With a couple of small, but astute, tweaks from Susan:

A little slice of Italy in Neal’s Yard

We take the classic Italian pizza, but use very original ingredients for our toppings“, says the manager of Homeslice. Javier may be Spanish, but his piccolo restaurant in London’s Neal’s Yard is otherwise very much a small slice of Italy.

With a cosmopolitan twist.

Calabrian peppers are married with chervil and Lincolnshire poacher. Or try aubergine, cauliflower cheese, spinach and harissa. How about goat shoulder, savoy cabbage and sumac yoghurt? All cooked in a wood-fired oven with an Italian accent, using mozzarella flown in twice a week from Naples, and eaten as a 20″ whole or by the slice.

Va bene for any Italian in London missing those home comforts.

Neal’s Yard, on the fringes of Covent Garden – between Shorts Gardens and Monmouth Street – and on the way to Holborn, is worth tracking down. Named after the 17th century developer, Thomas Neale, it’s crammed with Victorian warehouses, now eating places, posh hairdressers, therapy rooms and a pungent cheese emporium. Some are painted brightly, others still retain the original industrial brick facades.

Together, they create the atmosphere of a more intimate and colourful Piazza dell’Anfiteatro in Lucca.

Buonissimo!

Across the courtyard, in the recently opened Casanova & daughtersmanager Pablo Castelli from Rome explained that all their produce – tuna bresaola, anchovies, capers, cheeses, passata and sun-dried tomatoes – is sourced from small family estates on the west coast of Sicily. And their unique range of olive oils, barrelled like vintage wines, is the culmination of a careful and passionate process of olive growing and selection.

Authentic? It wouldn’t be a surprise if Inspector Montalbano showed up, asking if you knew the dead peccorino cheese-maker.

So if you’re in London but yearning for Italian passion on a plate, hunt out historic Neal’s Yard and feel right at home.

L’appetito vien mangiando, as the Inspector might say. The appetite comes from eating.

 

Sun sets on New Day

I wrote in March about Trinity Mirror’s surprise launch of a new daily printed newspaper – New Day.

I found it uninspiring, but the worst crime I thought – for a print medium – was the proliferation of typographic or grammatical errors. In its first week. Was it a suicide message?

Its target audience was supposed to be readers who no longer bought a newspaper. Well, guess what…..they’re not buying New Day.

It’s just been confirmed that the last edition will be published on Friday, just 2 months after a fanfare launch. The hope had been to sell 200,000 copies a day, the reality was closer to 40,000.

So New Day will soon be Old News.

The digital revolution continues.

 

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Four things I didn’t know about Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the revered poet of Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan fame:

  1. He had a serious opium addiction for most of his adult life
  2. He travelled throughout the Mediterranean in the early years of the 19th century, mainly to Sicily and Malta, ostensibly for health reasons….but his opium addiction only became more intense
  3. He lived at Nether Stowey in Somerset in 1797-98
  4. The Coleridge Way is a long-distance footpath, covering 51 miles from Nether Stowey to Lynmouth, on the Devon coast

We’ve just got back from a couple of days in Somerset, for the very happy occasion of seeing Mike & Kirsty Dear get married. The wedding was at the Holford Combe Hotel in Holford, but we stayed at the rather splendid The Old House in nearby Nether Stowey.

Gill sorted out the booking and we ended up staying in The Coleridge Suite. STC’s friend and patron Thomas Poole owned the house, and let the poet stay here before he moved into a nearby cottage with his family. The Book Room was where STC, and occasionally his fellow Lakeland poet William Wordsworth and other literary luminaries of the time, would talk and work.

What a pleasure to stay in such a historic and poetic space, and to find out more about STC from the articles and books lying around. The well-thumbed biographies by Richard Holmes – Early Visions (1772-1804) and Darker Reflections (1804-1834) – were particularly informative.

And the day after the wedding, we walked a 3-mile stretch of The Coleridge Way, into the Quantocks ‘twixt Nether Stowey and Holford, on paths oft trod by poetic legends and good friends Coleridge & Wordsworth.

Another thing to add to the Just Retiring list….complete the rest of The Coleridge Way, and find out more about this intriguing character.

 

It’s a New Day

I used to enjoy the enforced downtime commuting from Godalming to London. For more than 20 years, I devoured a newspaper during the 45 minute trip on South West Trains.

I could have dozed. Or listened to music. Or just thought. But reading printed news was a good way to absorb the daily machinations of life.

Going home it was the Evening Standard. In the morning the Daily Telegraph was my fix, bought more for its excellent business, sports and features sections – and the cunningly cryptic crossword – than its political views, which are slightly right of Attila the Hun.

More recently, I migrated to the i, an inspired cut-down version of The Independent, responding to the shorter attention-span of readers in the digital age. I could read the i almost from cover to cover – and dash off the crossword – in exactly 45 minutes. And it’s been so successful that that the i has just been sold for £25m.

But of course all print media – whether newspapers, magazines or books – continue to succumb to the digital revolution. If I caught my old 06:44 from Godalming now, I dare say the rustling of the Times and Torygraph pages has been almost completely replaced by the soft swiping of commuters’ well-manicured fingers across iPad & Kindle screens.

So it’s a bit of a surprise that the Mirror Group has just launched its own mini-paper, aping the i and called the New Day. Its USP? It will report with an upbeat, optimistic approach and will be politically neutral.

I headed up to London yesterday – much later in the day than all those commuting years – and Daisy’s Cafe had sold all their copies of the i. What the hell, I thought, let’s try the New Day and see if it perks me up.

At 25p for the 2-week trial period – doubling to 50p thereafter – its 40 pages were disappointing. I’m trying hard to be objective and not too sniffy, but frankly it’s just a bit, well, flimsy. Shallow. Lightweight. And I didn’t feel particularly uplifted after I’d read it.

The explicit feel-good attempts are a 5 Smiles piece, and comedian Justin Moorhouse wittily describing the scary reality of bringing up kids.

The New Day is soft on hard news, but I was grabbed – on International Womens’ Day – by an insightful interview with Gloria Steinem, the iconic 81 year-old feminist. And also by a stunning double-page aerial photo of thousands of hungry war-torn South Sudanese patiently queueing for food in searing heat – the bigger picture.

I enjoyed the duelling opinioneers page on is it time to ban bawling brats from our planes? “In a heartbeat” according to a travel writer, “what nonsense” believes the Deputy Editor.

But coverage of sports, business, foreign news, food and other newspaper staples is as thin as Donald Trump’s hair.

And what was really disappointing were the typos. I expected more from professional journalists, and a brand new paper trying to make an impression. I spotted several cock-ups without really trying:

  • in a nice article on a 40 year-old Mum reluctantly back on the dating scene, she says: “I found the courage up to slip on some sequins and celebrate. At the end of the night I had a epiphany….”
  • in a what-ism sidebar article on the crisis hitting launderettes: “the big fear is that government plans to introduce new permitted development rights would allow launderettes be changed into shops….”
  • and in the opinioneers piece on bawling brats flying, Deputy Editor Dawn Alford quotes Jean Paul Satre. I could have sworn he was Monsieur Sartre...

Alison Phillips is the Editor. In her welcome to Tuesday editorial, she extols the virtues of New Day’s astrologer, Jan Jacques, and her daily Your Stars column. “It’s been one of the biggest hits so far. Turn to page 28 for a different – and very funny – approach to looking into your future.”

So I did.

For Taureans “today may feel unfairly challenged. Whether it’s the canteen running out of cock-a-leekie, or your Sky Box failing to record Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, you WILL persevere. Steer clear of men playing nose flutes.”

If I were still commuting, I probably WOULDN’T persevere with the New Day.

Just Write

This humble website has been evolving for a few months now, since I hung up my abacus and started messing around with words.

Throughout a long career massaging numbers, my real passion was always really the written word. Like an unfaithful husband with a long-standing mistress, stashed away in a seedy flat at the end of the Victoria line.

I’ve shamelessly been using justretiring.com as a training ground, pumping out functional articles like an over-zealous squaddie spraying bullets from his first semi-automatic.

I’ve even had some stuff published, and I got very excited last week when I was invited to talk about my Hidden Paris articles on Silver Travel Advisor’s radio show.

But now it’s time to Get Serious. Fictionally speaking.

I’ve been stung into action by inspirational words from four published authors, performing on Saturday at a Guardian Masterclass on How to research and write your novel.

Alex Preston expertly curated the event, and talked about idea generation, researching and editing your novel. I read and enjoyed Alex’s first novel This Bleeding City when it was published in 2010, a parable for our recent post credit crunch times. Since then, Alex has written The Revelations and his latest book,  In Love and War, meticulously researched in bellissimo Florence.

Mirza Waheed spoke of the personal and the political.  Brought up in Kashmir, Mirza’s published novels The Collaborator and The Book of Gold Leaves use that place’s troubled history as their backdrop. The Guardian’s offices near Kings Cross were a somewhat less dangerous environment, but in no way diminished Mirza’s message to an attentive audience of would-be writers.

Amy Sackville’s subject was writing place and character, which she has clearly done so evocatively in published novels The Still Point and Orkney.  A place – or space – can be used as a starting point for a novel, as much as character or plot. It can be used to impose constraint on the narrative, as much as unfolding an unending horizon.

Kerry Hudson talked of writing from life. It sounds as though a large chunk of her own life was transferred vividly to the pages of her debut novel Tony Hogan bought me an ice-cream float before he stole my Ma.  Kerry estimated 85% of Tony Hogan was plucked from her own childhood, with a mere 30% in her follow-up novel Thirst. Leave just a little of yourself a secret, Kerry!

Huge thanks to all of you, and to the Guardian. I may not be able to translate a passion for words into the creative spark of fiction, but you have at least given me the inspiration to try.