Friday, 3 April 2015

The Last Treasure Hunt - follow the trail of clues!

Following on from author Jane Alexander's guest post on crafting fiction yesterday, here, as promised, is the next clue in her publisher Saraband's exciting treasure hunt to win a signed copy of The Last Treasure Hunt - and more!

Clue 7

There was something strange about this lady
Who’s usually the reverse of shady
Normally she points the way
And she’ll do so again, another day.


How the hunt works:

·       Each clue refers to a landmark or iconic location in a film. The landmark/location is the answer – when you figure it out, make a note of it!

·       (If you need a hand, check out the #treasurehunt hashtag on Twitter or Instagram for a hint to the landmark’s location…)

·       Clues will be revealed by some fantastic book bloggers from March 26th until April 21st. Keep checking back on Jane Alexander’s dedicated treasure hunt page ( or on the #treasurehunt hashtag for links and new clues.

·       When all the clues are revealed, the first letter of every answer will make an anagram. Solve the anagram and you have your final answer!

·       Email this answer and all the landmarks you figured out to by April 30th to be entered into the prize draw. Two entrants will win a signed copy of The Last Treasure Hunt – and if you’ve guessed the most landmarks and locations, you’ll win a goodie bag and something special from Jane personally! On top of that you’ll get bragging rights on Twitter and we’ll publicly dub you queen/king sleuth.

·       Good luck!

About The Last Treasure Hunt:
At the age of thirty, Campbell Johnstone is a failure. He's stuck behind the bar of a shabby pub, watching from the sidelines while everyone else makes a success of their lives. The most visible is Eve Sadler, a childhood friend and rising Hollywood star. When Campbell tries to rekindle their relationship, he longs for the glitter of her success to rub off on him, but a single shocking night - the novel's shattering twist delivered with a knockout punch - changes everything. Campbell is about to discover the bittersweet taste of fame, and in the process, struggle to save his soul and overcome his own self-delusion.
The Last Treasure Hunt explores our obsession with fame and celebrity with great intelligence and sly wit - it's a modern media morality tale with bite.

Praise for The Last Treasure Hunt:
'The Last Treasure Hunt quickly asserts itself as something unique ... a masterclass on what happens when empathy is absent. [Jane Alexander's] debut novel marks the arrival of an important new voice.' Gutter Magazine

Praise for Jane Alexander's short stories:
'A trumpet call of urgency and great promise.' The Scotsman

About Jane Alexander:
Jane Alexander's short stories and creative non-fiction have been widely published in a number of anthologies and literary magazines, including Mslexia, Litro and The Orphan Leaf Review. A winner of a major national story competition, and the recipient of a Scottish Arts Council New Writers bursary, Jane is also a lecturer in creative writing at the Open University.

The Last Treasure Hunt
Publication date 26 March 2015
Publisher Saraband
ISBN: 9781908643803

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Author guest-post: Jane Alexander on the craft of constructing compelling fiction

 I'm delighted to welcome as my guest this week novelist and short story writer Jane Alexander, who's based in Edinburgh and 
whose debut novel, The Last Treasure Hunt, a witty morality tale exploring our modern obsession with fame and celebrity, was published last week. Tomorrow I'll be posting a clue in the real life treasure hunt her publishers, Saraband, have organised - you can win a signed copy of The Last Treasure Hunt and possibly more!

Today, Jane highlights a crucial lesson she learned along the way about how to write compelling fiction:

 Here’s something I’m not meant to tell you: my first novel, The Last Treasure Hunt, isn’t really my first novel. It's my debut – but it's not the first book I wrote.
Though it’s rarely acknowledged, there’s nothing unusual in this: a 2010 survey found that the average number of novels an author writes before being published is between three and four. These ‘practice novels’ are sometimes published later on in an author’s career, but more commonly they're relegated to a dusty box-file or a forgotten Word document.
Such is the fate of my own practice novels.
With each of the two books I wrote prior to The Last Treasure Hunt, the fundamental flaw was the story: it just wasn’t strong enough. As a creative writing teacher, my experience suggests that most emerging writers fall into one of two categories. There are those who can craft beautiful sentences; and those who can tell compelling stories. A lucky few are equally able with sentences and stories – but most will find they have to work hard to develop their skills in their area of weakness.
I fell firmly into the first category, though it took me some time to realise this. When agents and publishers declined my submissions, they did so with compliments about the beautiful writing – but if the writing was so beautiful, what was I missing?
Though I’d completed a Masters in Creative Writing, in seminars and workshops we’d paid very little attention to the nuts and bolts of storytelling. This, I think, is a question of scale: it’s much easier to focus on studying and critiquing smaller texts – sentences and paragraphs, short stories and novel extracts – than to work through a reading list of scores of novels and deconstruct the elements of plot. Recently Hanif Kureishi went so far as to complain that most of his students can’t tell a story, and that storytelling is an unteachable skill. He’s dealing in hyperbole, of course. Storytelling may be a harder skill to teach than, say, writing convincing dialogue – but it’s far from unteachable. Dare I say that only a poor teacher would insist otherwise?
If you want to build up your storytelling muscles, though, you may have to look beyond a traditional creative writing course. Once I’d realised what was wrong with my practice novels, I turned to a screenwriting class for help. Here, I learned about three-act structure and plot points, reversals and value changes, active questions and narrative tension. I learned techniques that transformed my approach to planning and structuring a novel, and developed new methods of shaping scenes and chapters. 
In short, that class was a revelation. As with any newly acquired knowledge, the more I put theory into practice, the more fluent and effortless my practice became. Soon, crafting an absorbing story became one of my favourite parts of the novel-writing process – and when I pass what I’ve learned on to my students,  I can practically hear the cogs turning as they begin to think about their works-in-progress in ways they never have before. 
And the next novel I wrote – my third – turned out to be my ‘first’.

To find out more about Jane, her creative process and the novel, visit her website here. Come back to Literascribe on Friday to check out the latest clue in the online treasure hunt!

Reminder: my next Fictionfire Focus Workshop is on Short Stories, on 11th April - there are still places available. Find out more here Fictionfire by the Sea, my writers' workshop and retreat in St Ives, takes place from 17th-19th April. It's fully booked, but you can still add your name to the waiting list by emailing me at You can also join the Fictionfire mailing list on my website, to be kept informed about future workshops and retreats. 

In June, I'll be running a day course on Character Building and giving a lecture on the essentials of Self-editing at the Winchester Writers' Festival - visit

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Author guest-post: Sarah Bower on the joys of a writing retreat in France

Sarah Bower
As regular readers of this blog will know, last autumn I ran a workshop/retreat for writers in the stunning location of St Ives, Cornwall. This was such a success that I'm running another in April! My guest today is novelist and creative writing tutor Sarah Bower, who will be co-running a guided retreat with Mary-Jane Riley, in the gorgeous setting of the Manoir de la Vieille Douve in Haut Anjou, in late May. The Manoir has been beautifully renovated - do visit the site to see how idyllic it is! 

Here's what Sarah has to say about the value of a retreat for writers:

We are all familiar with the dictum that everyone has a book in them. While it tends to make professional writers suck their teeth and reach for the .9mm or the meat cleaver we keep handy for killing our darlings and anyone else who believes what we do is easy, there may be an element of truth in this belief. We are, after all, storytellers by nature. We have evolved to put things in order because, if we had never learned to distinguish the sabre-tooth tiger from the Neanderthal next door, bald, ungainly apes that we are, we would never have survived, let alone risen to the top of the terrestrial food chain. Storytelling and versifying are methods of ordering which have themselves evolved over time into many forms, from The Wasteland to scripts for Coronation Street.

Perhaps, therefore, what differentiates those of us who manage to realise and publish novels is not so much ability as the determination to see through what is an enormous project, taking months, if not years, to complete and fraught with as many irritations as joys. A large part of bringing a novel successfully to fruition is finding the time to write and the self-discipline to use one’s time constructively. It’s this understanding that lies behind crime-writer M.J. Riley’s and my decision to set up L’Ecrivain Writing Retreats. We have both experienced the challenge of writing novels while working at other jobs and raising families and learned to value uninterrupted writing time very highly.

Mary-Jane Riley
This is a significant part of what L’Ecrivain retreats offer. During the three days participants will spend at the Manoir de la Vieille Douve in Haut Anjou, they will enjoy three or four hours of uninterrupted writing time each day. A writing retreat is a great way to carve out and ring fence writing time because it takes you out of your everyday environment and isolates you from the distractions of work, family, social routines, the garden, the flatpack wardrobe you’ve been meaning to put together since Christmas, the weekly supermarket run and a thousand other obstacles that can knock your writing off-course. You quite literally retreat from the daily round into a space where you can focus on writing and thinking.

One of the reasons we are so easily distracted from writing is that it’s a lonely occupation as well as a difficult one, but if you join a retreat group of like-minded writers, you can practice your craft in a supportive environment, in which both retreat leaders and fellow participants understand and appreciate the need to balance solitude with a sense of common purpose. The guided element of the L’Ecrivain retreat will help you to use this precious time constructively and stay focused on your novel through a mix of group exercises and one to one tutorials. While the exercises are designed to address issues that most writers have in common, including technicalities such as voice, viewpoint or characterisation, or how to tighten up a sagging middle, how you use your tutorial time is entirely up to you. You might want to address specific issues to do with the content of your novel, or you could equally well use this time for personal coaching, to give you tools to take back into daily life that will enable you to keep writing despite the distractions.

Le Manoir de la Vieille Douve
Of course writing is a cerebral activity, but we mustn’t forget the body. After all, that’s where the brain resides. Charles and Chris Appleton, our hosts at Le Manoir, have many years’ experience of running hotels and restaurants and Charles is a professional chef of distinction. They have restored the house and grounds to a very high standard with the comfort and convenience of guests in mind, and the L’Ecrivain package includes full board, with Charles inviting us into his own farmhouse kitchen to share meals prepared from the finest of local ingredients. This was an important factor for M. J. Riley and I when planning the L’Ecrivain programme. We wanted the sense of community that derives from eating together, but, as the retreat runs for only three days, we were reluctant to go down the route of some other courses where meals are also prepared communally. Our time is too precious to let the focus drift away from writing. Even when you aren’t actually putting fingers to keyboard or pen to paper, we want you to be able to devote your time to thinking and reflection on your writing. Planning dinner is a bit too much like being at home!

We’re excited about our plans for L’Ecrivain because we’re convinced we have something to offer which we would both have appreciated when we were starting out. An opportunity to write in a supportive and sympathetic environment, somewhere distant in both a physical and metaphorical sense from the daily round and all its distractions. If you’re determined to finish your novel but not sure how to achieve your goal, we look forward to welcoming you.

You can find out more about L’Ecrivain Writing Retreats at or contact us direct at

Sarah Bower has taught creative writing at the University of East Anglia and the Open University and also mentors other writers. She holds an MA in creative writing from the University of East Anglia and is the author of three novels. Her short fiction has appeared in many publications, including The Yellow Room and Spiked. She is a regular contributor of articles on different aspects of the writing life to Words With Jam. Her fiction has been translated into nine languages. Sarah's latest novel is Erosion.

A BBC journalist and former talk show broadcaster, Mary-Jane Riley has taught creative writing at the University of East Anglia. She has also taught life-writing in prisons, care homes and universities. Her short stories have been published in a variety of magazines, including Women's Weekly and Bella. Her first novel is to be published later this year.

(My own Fictionfire by the Sea weekend in April is currently fully booked but you can join the waiting list by emailing or join the mailing list to be kept informed about this and other Fictionfire workshops and retreats at

Friday, 30 January 2015

Women Writers Boxing Clever Part 3: featuring Joni Rodgers, Kathleen Jones and Jane Davis

In this third part of my feature on seven brilliant writers who've chosen to collaborate in producing an exciting box-set of their works, Outside the Box: Women Writing Women, we'll hear from Joni Rodgers, Kathleen Jones and Jane Davis.

I heard New York Times bestselling author Joni Rodgers give a wonderfully rousing speech at the launch of the Alliance of Independent Authors back in 2012 - it was a real whoop whoop! tour de force right at the start of the self-publishing revolution. Here are the compelling reasons she had for writing her novel Crazy for Trying:

'Tulsa, my heroine, is a bookish, zaftig misfit, much like I was in my early 20s, and I drew on my experience as the lone female disc jockey at a rock station in western Montana. The themes of body image, forgiveness, making peace with one’s past were important to me, then and now. I also wanted to write about a healthy, loving union between two women (Tulsa’s mother and her partner) and how unfair it was—to them and to their daughter—that they weren’t allowed to marry. I was turned down by a number of agents because I refused to cut that storyline, and back then (in the mid-1990s) it was still a verboten topic for commercial fiction.
I started writing this book when I was living on a fire tower in the Northern California wilderness and finished it almost ten years later while I was undergoing chemotherapy for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (blood cancer). I had no immune system, which meant mandatory isolation. That gave me the space and quiet to write 16 hours a day simply because I loved placing words in rows. This purely creative purpose breathed joy and peace into what was otherwise a very dark time. My prognosis was poor; I was told I’d live five years if I was lucky, and my son and daughter were just five and seven years old. When I started seriously pursuing getting the book published, I was driven by the reality that this book might be the only way my children would ever really know me.

Crazy for Trying was originally published by a prestigious small press and was a finalist for the Barnes & Noble Discover Award, which launched my career and gave me a whole new life. This book, I truly believe, is the reason I’m still alive. Had I not found the purpose and peace I gained from writing it, I don’t think I would have made it. It gave me so much pleasure to revisit Tulsa and her crew. The book is a lot funnier than I remembered!'

The Centauress is a compelling tale of family conflict about a disputed inheritance, written by another best-selling author and Royal Literary Fund Fellow, Kathleen Jones. Not only am I loving the titles of the books in this collection, but I'm finding it absolutely fascinating to hear how these stories emerged! 

'The Centauress was inspired by a meeting with an extraordinary Italian sculptor who was officially female, but was very open about the fact that she was a hermaphrodite. She appeared to revel in her dual sexuality, although there was an underlying note of tragedy in the stories she told about her life. I began to wonder what it must be like to be born without any specific gender identity and what it might mean for relationships.  Almost by accident, I was present when she was being interviewed for her biography and there were a lot of discussions about the ethical questions her life story raised; how much the biographer should tell and how to protect the people she’d shared her life with.
When she died, her story wouldn’t let me go. Meeting her had changed my life – as she had changed many people’s lives, not always for the better. Fictional episodes started writing themselves in my head, often centred around one of her reminiscences.  I kept thinking ‘what if?’ and gradually the novel began to take shape. Fiction can often be closer to the emotional truth of something than factual biography.
The Centauress is set in Istria – a very beautiful part of Croatia that used to belong to Italy and has the turbulent historical background I needed for the novel. The family of my main character, Zenobia, has been torn apart by conflict. Living in Europe means living every day with echoes of a violent, recent past; sharing your village or street with people who may have betrayed your relatives, or be relatives of someone your family also betrayed. Just below my house in Italy, at the bottom of the olive grove, is a memorial to six young boys who were dragged from their houses and shot, only a year before I was born.
As a biographer myself, I’ve often felt uncomfortable ‘eavesdropping’ on the most intimate moments of someone’s life, so it’s not surprising that my narrator, Alex, became a biographer researching the life story of celebrity artist Zenobia de Branganza, who is the Centauress of the story. Alex has to struggle with the problems of her subject’s desire for honesty and the wishes of friends and family not to have their lives exposed. Alex has her own private tragedies, because the novel is also about surviving some of the worst things that can happen to you. It’s this knowledge that enables Zenobia to trust Alex with her most intimate revelations.  And the message she gives to Alex is that it is possible to heal and that you must always be ready to accept happiness and love when it comes your way.'

Finally, Jane Davis has chosen An Unchoreographed Life for the collection. Jane's debut won the Daily Mail First Novel Award and she has gone on to produce six novels - I've already read A Funeral for an Owl and was much struck by the way she observes relationships, deals with issues of class and background and writes brilliant dialogue. Here she describes how she came to write An Unchoreographed Life:

'I was gripped by a 2008 court case, when, in an interesting twist, it was ruled that a prostitute had been living off the immoral earnings of one of her clients. Salacious headlines focused on the prostitute’s replies when she was asked to justify her charge of £20,000 a week. But the case also challenged perceptions of who was likely to be a prostitute. The answer turned out to be that she might well be the ordinary middle-aged woman with the husband and two teenage children who lives next door.
Whilst I was writing the novel, it became especially relevant when change to the laws governing prostitution were proposed and became headline news.
I grew up within the footprint of Nelson’s paradise estate. The story of his mistress, Emma Hamilton, has always fascinated me. Born into extreme poverty and forced to resort to prostitution, she later became a muse for artists such as George Romney and Joshua Reynolds and a fashionista by bucking the tight-laced trends of the day. Cast aside by an aristocratic lover, she went on to marry his uncle. Completely self-educated, Emma continually reinvented herself, mixing in diplomatic circles and becoming confidante of both Marie Antoinette and the Queen of Naples.
But Emma’s story is unusual. I had a clear understanding that, had I been born in another age, the chances were that, living in London, I would have been either a domestic servant or a prostitute - but quite possibly, both. Prior to 1823, domestics under the age of sixteen didn’t receive a salary. They worked a sixteen-hour day in return for ‘bed and board’, a very generous description of what was actually on offer. And, in return, when they reached the age of sixteen, they were cast out onto the streets. 
During my research, I used the Internet extensively to source personal accounts, diaries, blogs and newspaper reports. How did sex-workers come to the attention of the police and social services? What were the main reasons they ended up in court? (The answer was generally tax evasion and financial crime, things I knew about from my day job.) How did sex workers see themselves? How did they view their clients? How did this perception change if they stopped? I also consulted The English Collective of Prostitutes, who very kindly allowed me to quote them in my fictional newspaper article.  
And then I began to imagine what life was like for the child of a prostitute. There was nowhere I could research that hidden subject. And it is always the thing that eludes you that becomes the story.'

So, seven dedicated, dynamic writers serving up seven amazing and diverse novels in one set for only GBP7.99! Only for 90 days, though, starting on February 20th - though you can pre-order now here. 'The authors of these books are at the forefront of [a] strong cohort of groundbreaking, boundary pushing women writing and self-publishing literary fiction. i cannot recommend this collection highly enough.' Dan Holloway, Guardian book pages columnist and publisher.

Visit the Outside the Box: Women Writing Women website here.
See Part 2 of this feature here and Part 1 here.

To pre-order Outside the Box: Women Writing Women: visit these links at  and Price £7.99. The set will be available for 90 days only from February 20th 2015.

For more information, visit

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Women Writers Boxing Clever Part 2: featuring Orna Ross, Carol Cooper, Roz Morris and Jessica Bell

On Monday, I introduced you to seven excellent novelists who've got together to issue a box-set of their works at an amazing price (£7.99/$9.99 for seven novels!) - the link to that post is here. In this and the next post I'll be asking each of the writers about the novel they chose to include in the selection, Outside the Box: Women Writing Women.

I'll start with Orna Ross. I met Orna back in 2012 at the London Book Fair, when she launched the Alliance of Independent Authors. ALLi has gone from strength to strength since then. The Bookseller has named Orna as one of the 100 most influential people in publishing and she is incredibly positive, supportive and inspiring. Her philosophy is summed up in the title of her handbooks and prospective courses: 'Go Creative - It's your Native State'. 
Somehow she finds time to write poetry and novels, while doing all she can to facilitate the creativity and success of others. She's including Blue Mercy in the collection, a complex tale of betrayal, revenge, suspense, murder mystery - and surprise. Here's what she has to say about it: 'Blue Mercy is a high-octane drama in the shape of a mother-and-daughter conflict swirling around a family murder mystery. A tyrannical old father is dead, a suspected mercy killing. The answers as to who might have killed him and why are deeply embedded in male-female relationships but also, crucially for this volume collection, in something core and primal in inter-female relationships too.'

Carol Cooper, whom I've also met at the London Book Fair - such a great place for networking! - and at the Independent Author Fair in Chorleywood last autumn, is a journalist and award-winning non-fiction author who's turned her hand to writing acclaimed contemporary fiction. Oh, and in her spare time, she's a doctor. Here's how she came to write her novel about a group of people searching for love, sex and everything in between: 'One Night at the Jacaranda is the first novel I’ve created that got as far as the hands of readers. There’ve been other efforts: a coming-of-age novel set in Cambridge, a children’s story about a stray dog, a novel about a teenager coping with disability, and the chronicle of a female surgeon in training. She never reached the top as she spent too much time horizontal (like the manuscript, still languishing in a drawer somewhere).
Now I see that I was trying to fit into particular places on bookshelves. By contrast, One Night at the Jacaranda, although it’s contemporary women’s fiction, doesn’t nestle quite as neatly into a genre.
The idea came to me out of the blue. I was on a flight to the USA, on my way to my father’s funeral. As I sat sipping a much-needed gin and tonic, the idea for a story about a group of single Londoners popped into my head. There’d be a struggling journalist, a lonely lawyer, a newly single mother of four daring to date again.
I covered paper napkins with scrawled notes which eventually developed into the novel. Finally I’d embarked on creating the kind of book I’d want to read for pleasure. I wasn’t thinking about marketing angles. I just wrote.
All the characters are made up. I don’t know where ex-con Dan came from, and I’m glad I never had an au pair as manipulative as Dorottya, but some of the influences are obvious. Although the stressed doctor in my story is male, he takes on many of the frustrations I face in my day job. Ditto the single mother, the freelance journalist, and the young man diagnosed with cancer are all people I relate to.
I like to pretend that the story has nothing to do with my father. For one thing, it would have been far too racy for him. He’d have choked on a Harrogate toffee by page four.
Yet things fall into place when a parent dies, so his influence is there. The deeper message of One Night at the Jacaranda is that the characters can’t find happiness with someone else until they confront who they themselves really are.
Over the years I’d authored and co-authored many non-fiction books. The leap to writing fiction required new skills. But it was refreshing to write what I wanted to write, without worrying about word counts or thinking of appropriate illustrations. My experience in journalism shows, I think, in my short scenes, cutting from one character to the next.
Medicine has a huge impact on my fiction. You can’t put your patients in a book, but doctoring teaches you to observe. It’s no surprise that many great writers have been doctors. While I can’t pretend to be in the same league as Somerset Maugham, Michael Crichton, AJ Cronin, Khaled Hosseini or Abraham Varghese, I’m grateful that my work brings me into contact with such a wide range of people and situations.'

I've also met Roz Morris at the London Book Fair and at various ALLi events. She's a vibrant and knowledgeable writer, ghost-writer and writing coach. I highly recommend her blog, The Undercover Soundtrack, where she features writers talking about how music has inspired their stories and writing process. Last year I read the novel she has chosen to include in the collection, My Memories of a Future Life - it's an original and poetic novel, written in a compelling voice and asking questions about creativity and purpose which I found fascinating. It features science fiction and music and sharp social observation, and it veers from comedy to pathos and back again. A really original piece of work. Here's what she has to say:

I was always fascinated by tales of regression to past lives. I thought, what if instead of going to the past, someone went to a future life? Who would do that? Why? What would they find? 

Another longtime interest was the world of the classical musician. Musical scores are exacting and dictatorial - you play a note for perhaps a sixth of a second and not only that, there are instructions for how to feel - expressivo, amoroso. It's as if you don't play a piece of classical music; you channel the spirit of the composer. 

I became fascinated by a character who routinely opened her entire soul to the most emotional communications of classical composers. And I thought, what if she couldn’t do it any more? And then, what if I threw her together with someone who could trap the part of her that responded so completely to music?'

Finally, Jessica Bell, another very active member of ALLi, is an Australian novelist, singer-songwriter, publishing editor of Vine Leaves Literary Journal - and a book cover designer to boot. (Where do these people find their energy?). Her latest novel is White Lady, an intense, suspenseful ride rife with mystery. She says: 'Some writers do have a distinct message they want to expose through their books before they begin writing. Those writers would be able to answer the question Why? pretty easily. I am not one of those authors. If there are messages in my books, they develop and grow organically, without my interference. But now that White Lady is complete and on bookshelves, I would say that message is the following: The power of unconditional love can be scarier than having a knife held to your throat.'

Orna, Joni, Jessica, Kathleen, Jane, Carol and Jessica
In my next blogpost, I'll be featuring Joni Rodgers, Kathleen Jones and Jane Davis.

For Part 1 of this feature, go here .

To pre-order Outside the Box: Women Writing Women: visit these links at  and Price £7.99/$9.99. The set will be available for 90 days only from February 20th 2015.

For more information, visit

Monday, 26 January 2015

Women Writers Boxing Clever

Seven great writers banding together:
 Orna Ross, Joni Rodgers, Roz Morris, Kathleen Jones,
Jane Davis, Carol Cooper and Jessica Bell
Regular readers will know that I've published both traditionally and independently - and that what's wonderful these days is that every writer can choose his or her path as they wish, depending on the needs of their current project. My experience of the world of self-publishing has been incredibly positive, chiefly because it's a world of shared experience and mutual support. I'm delighted that this week I'll be showcasing an incredible group of women writers who have got together to issue a boxed set of their works - these are writers who've produced disparate, sometimes challenging, always fascinating stories of a high literary standard. Their box-set will be available for 90 days only from February 20th and is open to pre-order now (links below), at a price that's 75% less than the cost of the individually-purchased books. In this post, I ask the participants why they took part in this exciting venture and why this particular mix of authors works so well. Later this week I'll be asking individual writers how they came to write the book they've included in Outside the Box: Women Writing Women.

The novelists are Orna Ross, Jessica Bell, Jane Davis, Joni Rodgers, Kathleen Jones, Roz Morris and Carol Cooper. Right, without more ado, here we go!

Why are you taking part in the Box Set?
Jessica Bell: The main reason I approached these fabulous ladies to collaborate in a box set is because I admire their work, and adore them as individuals, and I couldn’t imagine collaborating with a finer group of writers. Each author in this box set is at the very top of their game; each book representative of quality fiction that explores a diverse range of unlikely heroines. I must say, I’m a little bit of a fan girl, and I can’t believe I have the pleasure of taking part in this project. It really is a dream come true. 
Orna Ross: Jessica Bell is one of my favourite authors and one of my favourite people. And the idea behind the collective she wanted to gather -- independent-minded, unconventional authors offering page-turning fiction about independent-minded, unconventional women - was irresistible. I hope the success of this project will encourage other writers who believe in their own work to collaborate and experiment together. The calibre of this collective meant I never doubted we'd put together a great book; what I didn't anticipate is that we'd have such great fun doing it. Indie authors rock!
Roz Morris: For me, these writers are the real superstars of self-publishing. They're storytellers dedicated to their craft, who have proved their worth with awards, fellowships and, of course, commercial success. Each author here is in charge of her own artistic destiny, embracing the indie path as a statement of integrity, yet writing fiction that speaks to everybody. I'm utterly proud to be included.
Kathleen Jones: I’m loving the idea of being with a group of women writers whose work I like and respect. Also intrigued by the contrasts and resonances that are set up when you put seven very different books and authors together. You know your work is going to be read by readers who wouldn’t normally have bought it. There’s an edge to that - are they going to like it? Hate it? It’s very exciting.
Jane Davis: Quite aside from collaborating with a truly inspirational – and international - team of women writers, I’m really excited about the opportunity to showcase the diversity of writing that falls under the general fiction labels, ‘contemporary fiction’or ‘literary fiction’ for example. I am rather fond of Joanne Harris’ comment that she doesn’t like to insult her readers by assuming they only like to read one type of fiction. We will not be insulting any readers. Within this set of seven books, we offer the full spectrum from light (although never frothy) to darker, more haunting reads that delve into deeper psychological territory.
Joni Rodgers: Indie publishing is the new high ground for literary fiction. Maybe this is a US thing, but publishers here have gotten more and more gutless and lit fiction is getting very much of an ilk. Authors are pressured by agents and editors into tropes and style that sell -- and that's not a healthy state for the artists individually or the art form at large. Readers will find the true artistic risk takers and creative outliers in the indie world, where we captain our own fate - as artists must.
Carol Cooper: This is a small group of acclaimed indie authors whose work I hold in the highest regard. I love their varied ways of telling a story, and what each of them has to say about the lives of women. This set of books will be thought-provoking and hugely entertaining. I’m thrilled to be part of it.

Why this specific mix of authors?
Carol: It is important to like one another's books and respect one another's opinions and experience. And that is something that does not happen much in traditional publishing! What unites the writers is their desire to craft their fiction to be the best it can be. When Jessica approached me with her vision of who some of the central authors might be, it was a no-brainer: I wanted to be with them.

Joni: I actually met Roz, Orna and Jane’s books before I met them, which is probably the best possible way to make friends with another author. I read and loved Orna’s linked novels After the Rising and Before the Fall and learned about her life as a publishing industry mover/shaker when I was searching to see what else she’d written. She turned me on to Roz’s book My Memories of a Future Life, which I inhaled one weekend when I was down with the flu. When I learned Jane Davis’s An Unchoreographed Life would be in this collection, I’d already bought it for a traveling Kindle I share with my daughter. We load it with books we both want to read and discuss, and that haunting cover image—who could resist?

To pre-order Outside the Box: Women Writing Women: visit these links at  and Price £7.99/$9.99.

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Friday, 23 January 2015

Testament of Friendship and Loss

January: you spar with resolutions to turn your life around. You fall for the notion that at the turn of the year you can flick a switch and be remade. You can put things behind you and move on into a bright new future.

It’s important to feel that way. It’s important to assess where you are and take steps to redeem/reform/renew your life. Time is an arrow: its flight is to the future. Go with it.

Time is also a net, though. It traps and holds you, even while you poke your reaching hands out through its mesh. It’s a boomerang, rapping you on the temple, bouncing you back to your roots.

So, this is a very personal post, this January. For many years I’ve dreaded this time of year because of huge personal loss. Now, I have even more reason. A year ago (the day after, ironically, the other dark anniversary) my friend walked out of her life. Out of all our lives. We didn’t know that then – we only knew she’d gone missing. For nine weeks of hoping but dreading, that was all we knew for sure. Then she was found. Two weeks after that, we attended her funeral.

It’s hard to put into words what the past year has been like. No day has gone by without thinking of her, of her husband and son, of her sister and parents. No day has gone by without thinking of what she went through and of blaming myself for not seeing how bleak her inner space had become.

So, on this anniversary of her leaving us, I want to write about my friendship with her and what it meant to me.

There are junctures in your life when it really matters who you meet. University is one of these: it’s a crucible for forging deep and binding friendships. There are experiences shared there which are different from those of later life. You are searching for yourself, for who you are – and in that search you find yourself by ‘trying on’ friendships. Some fit only for a season, then the fashion passes. Some fit for a lifetime and never wear out.

I met Susan at Aberdeen University in the mid-1970s; we became close as we progressed through a demanding and exciting four year MA in English Language and Literature. I specialised in medieval literature, she specialised in linguistics. We were typical students – we’d drink and dance at the Students’ Union, where Susan would endeavour to save me from yet another inappropriate romantic obsession. We’d scoot out of the library after all of forty five minutes of work, to sit for hours in King’s Pavilion, drinking coffee and bemoaning our heavy work-load. I mean, three long essays in a term! Count them! Three!

In 1979 we sat for the last time in the exam room in Elphinstone Hall. That last exam was Old Norse. When we turned the paper over we looked up at each other and smiled, because it was a good paper. A couple of hours later we were sitting in a nearby pub where old men nursed their pints and young men argued about football. We two, fresh from the world of the sagas, shell-shocked, realising that had been our final Final paper.

We had the rest of our lives to look forward to. Unknown territory. Scary.

Life took us on separate paths. Susan studied librarianship at Aberystwyth, then settled in Dundee. I had a tough year in Aberdeen before moving to Oxford. I visited her in Dundee at the start of 1982, when the temperature went down to minus 25 and the air came into your lungs like a stiletto – we went to a local health centre for a sauna just to thaw out. In 1983 I attended her very lovely wedding and cried to listen to her father’s speech about her, full of love and pride.

She visited Oxford, of course, both before and after her marriage, and we met up in the Dordogne when she and her husband were holidaying near where we were. Later, Susan and I were pregnant at the same time. I could go on, listing the meetings which grew more sporadic as the years went by and our lives were full of the business of living.

On her last visit to Oxford we had a long giggly lunch at the Ashmolean, reminiscing about our past, as old friends do. We listened to the choir in Merton College singing for Advent and that entranced her. It was in the Ashmolean that I took the photo of her, full of joy, which was to gaze out at me so poignantly from Facebook timelines and news reports during the time she was missing.

I knew, of course, that the strains in her life were affecting her and that darkness hovered. Yet I underestimated the risk because after a phase of non-communication she’d come back into the light and be Susan still. Her pain, though, became a den into which she withdrew. None of us could accompany her there. None of us could take her by the hand and lead her out, like Eurydice returning from the underworld.

Now that she has been gone for a year, I want to say something that captures what she was. I don’t think I can. Four hundred people came to her funeral. That says something about her. She was – and here’s the irony – a joy. A joyous person. She was empathic, gossipy, acerbic, warm. We shared a love of books, it goes without saying. We shared those moments of finding your way in the world. She understood me and thought more of me than I deserved.

She had a quick wit and a sentimental streak. Her laugh was unrestrained and irresistible. She was devoted to her parents, to her man, to her boy. She never failed in her love and her protectiveness. She learned to fight against the unyielding system, fight for her husband when he could no longer fight for himself. She endured the strain, she found religious faith, she drew love to her everywhere she went, she spread ripples of worry and grief when she left all our lives.

She was beautiful and utterly feminine. Four hundred miles apart, we would often buy the same scarf, the same necklace. It was a joy to buy a gift for her and it breaks my heart that I never will again.

Last year, her loss wasn’t the last loss. My dear brother-in-law abruptly left this life too, and there is a different sort of devastation involved in that.

My responses to Susan’s death have been complex, riddled with guilt and bewilderment, for hers was a chosen departure. We can understand that choice but feel mangled by it, for we knew her value and the value of her life. All bereavement involves selfishness – ‘What about me?’ we cry. ‘How could you leave me?’

How, though, feeling as she did, could she stay?

Since her death, white feathers have floated onto my path, in through my window. I’m not airy-fairy in my beliefs, but still, I gather and keep them. Keep sending those feathers for me, dear friend. Keep forgiving me for not being aware enough. The black dog has growled at my door before. I should have known he was on your trail and hunting you down.