Mists and Mellow Fruitfulness

Autumn is already turning into a fruitful time for me.

2015-10-02 17.13.07Autumn is my favourite time of year. I love the turn of the season, the explosion of colours and smells; I love that transitional blend of chill mornings and still warm, sunny afternoons. I love to see banks of blackberries ripening in the park. I love it when #Strictly starts up again on the telly.

One month into a(nother) healthy eating/exercise campaign and already a notable few pounds less lumbersome, a simple commitment to an early morning walk (weather permitting – I’m not yet a friend of Parkas and Pakamacs) has begun to embed itself into my routine, sending oxygen to all the parts that need waking up as the day begins.

In the park this morning
In the park on Sunday morning

So it is that for the last few weeks I’ve been feeling increasingly fruitful where I have for months been feeling, well, a bit… stale.

2015-09-10 21.24.42My fruitful phase got off to a good start in early September when I retreated with the folks of Circle of Missé in France, spending six intensive days working on the structure for Novel Number Two. It took me a little over 4 days to nail it – that’s what happens when you push everything else aside and make the story your priority. Wayne and Aaron at Circle of Missé know just how to create the perfect environment for writerly focus. In a sublime setting, and with the opportunity to socialise with other writers and enjoy amazing meals every evening, it’s somehow easier to dedicate yourself to the writing – or the thinking and planning of the writing – throughout the day.

I came home with a roadmap and some very positive feedback on my ideas. Now I’m back on my horse, and back to that bare-minimum 500-words-a-week commitment – the one that should see me in perpetual motion (ideally a great deal faster than 500 words a week) through my first draft.

2015-10-04 14.13.45

On Saturday night, autumn brought yet more writerly stimulus – courtesy of my local library service, who have organised a month long festival of literature, arts and music in my borough, called Culture Bite. That’s already amazing, when so many other library services are in decline. Even more amazing, no less than three exceptional new authors came to talk about their debut psychological novels. Clare Mackintosh, with her Sunday Times/Richard & Judy triumph, I Let You Go, which begins with a tragic accident; Rebecca Whitney with The Liar’s Chair, a dark tale of a toxic marriage; and Renee Knight with Disclaimer, about a woman who finds her own darkest secret within the pages of of a novel. These are the kind of books I love to read, and the kind of books I aspire to write. All three writers were so generous of their time, their enthusiasm and – when they learned I had written and self-published my first – their warm encouragement and support. Thank you – all of you – for a fabulous evening, and for sharing your insights and experiences so openly.

Did you realise, you’re living my dream?

Epistolary Novels – Letters Enjoy These

fountain-pen-447575_1280Having just dumped a prize-winning literary novel I’d been meaning to read for years out of sheer boredom (no, I’m not going to tell you which one it was), I downloaded Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday from Audible. I was immediately caught up in the flow of communications – emails, notes and diary entries – that sculpt this touching story. Despite its lukewarm reviews, I’d enjoyed the film of the book, which starred Euan McGregor and Emily Blunt. The audiobook, with a different narrator for each character, put a smile on my face within the first couple of minutes. I can’t tell you more, I’m afraid, as it’s only had 20 minutes of my time so far.

But it made me think of the other epistolary novels I’ve enjoyed over the years.

I can’t speak for them all but the ones I’ve read are not, by and large, towering literary achievements. Mostly they’re played for humour or gentle sentimentality. But reading isn’t just about literary or intellectual genius, is it? It’s about entertainment and feel-good. It’s about curling up on the sofa or spreading out on a beach towel, and being lifted out of your life and deposited somewhere else for a few hours. Everyone loves to receive a letter; we all jump to the ‘ping’ of a newly arrived email; and as for encountering someone’s secret diary – well, it would be irresistible, wouldn’t it? I think that’s partly why epistolary novels are such fun.

Strictly speaking – and the clue is in the word – epistolary novels tell their story through written communications, letters, notes and more recently, emails. But many lists also include books based around diary entries.  So here, I offer you a glimpse of five of my favourites across both categories, in case you feel like packing them in your holiday suitcases.

  1. 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

Strictly speaking, not a novel, but a memoir, as the story is true and the characters are real. In 1949 in search of obscure classics and other books she has been unable to find in New York, the author contacts a second-hand bookshop in London. The book chronicles the correspondence between the author and the bookshop’s manager over decades as their friendship blossoms. You probably know that already, but if haven’t come across 84 Charing Cross Road in either its literary, film, or stage play version before, you’re missing a gem.

  1. Daddy Long Legs by Jean Webster

I first read Daddy Long Legs as a child and re-read it last year in just a couple of hours. Brought up in an orphanage, Jerusha ‘Judy’ Abbot is fortunate to gain an anonymous benefactor who pays for her education. The condition attached is that she write regularly to the benefactor, whose identity she does not know, and whom she has seen only through his distorted shadow – hence the nickname she gives him. The letters unfold into the story of how an independent girl begins to question what she has previously accepted and challenge the status quo, as she blossoms into a young woman. It’s a one-sitting book for an adult, but a gentle and touching read nonetheless.

  1. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

A heart-warming story, dark in places, telling of the inventive and eccentric inhabitants of Guernsey during World War II, when the Channel Islands became the only part of the British Isles to fall under German occupation. The letters to and from the various members of the eponymous society tell of quirky characters, friendship, resilience and triumph of the human spirit. Whimsical, but never trite; pretty much perfect, this one.

  1. e: A Novel by Matt Beaumont

The strapline brands it ‘the novel of liars, lunch and lost knickers’ and that about sums it up. Not letters this time, but emails, and definitely told for laughs. This is a wickedly funny book, awash with backstabbing and bitchiness but above all, wit.  Expertly plotted, it’s set amongst the corporate climbers and back-stabbers of a London advertising agency. You’ll probably devour it in one sitting, but it’ll leave you with a smile on your face – especially if you work in marketing.

  1. The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ by Sue Townsend

Yes, and all the Adrian Mole adventures that followed too. Adrian Mole, stuffier and more pretentious than the average child, diligently records his thoughts and experiences as he progresses through self-conscious adolescence. The seven books which follow chart Adrian’s progress through life. They’ve been around for a while, but are pure gold nonetheless. Every Brit will know of these, but if you’re reading this elsewhere, I urge you to make the acquaintance of Adrian Mole.

There are others… Bridget Jones’ Diary of course; perhaps also We Need to Talk About Kevin, The Screwtape Letters, The Perks of Being a Wallflower – all gems in their genres. The Martian is a newer one which has made its way on to my ‘to read’ list. Goodreads provides an excellent list of epistolary novels too.  But if you have a particular favourite, will you share it with us?

Ten Terrific Things about This Morning #HappyFriday

sun-332141_1280 (3)There is pleasure and gratitude in the smallest of things…

  1. Of course… the solar eclipse – moving and elemental, even though in London it all went on above blanket cloud cover. It got a bit gloomy, then it brightened up again, but we all got very excited anyway
  2. It’s healthcheck time – despite the tonne of extra padding clinging to my midriff, all the important numbers still showed up on the right side of ‘normal’ – Phew!
  3. Depositing a cheque refunding my old car tax – getting money back from the Government always feels great
  4. A treat to self – a Costa Coffee Flat White and a toastie in a comfy chair by the window, with a new book…
  5. And the new book is… Floodline, by Kathryn Heyman
  6. No queue at the Post Office. Not even one person. How often do you get in and out of a post office in under 5 minutes?
  7. Buying flowers for my mother from my friend and favourite florist Jules at Flowerworks Uxbridge
  8. Discovering a yummy-scrumptious new snack: M&S Salt & Pepper Kale Crisps coated in cashew butter – but oh… oh… oh… at £2 a pop, the price isn’t right! Now, if I can only figure out how to make these myself
  9. Getting back to the car with 3 minutes to spare before my time ran out – one of life’s little triumphs
  10. Royalties!!! From Amazon CreateSpace – received with joy, and a great big thank-you to all the wonderful people who bought a paperback copy of Singled Out during February.

What… you mean you haven’t bought your copy of Singled Out yet? What are you waiting for?

Here’s where you can find it 😉

A big thank-you to Chris The Story Reading Ape’s Blog

Every time my blog goes bonkers, it’s because Chris Graham over at The Story Reading Ape’s Blog, has re-blogged one of my posts. I thought it was time I said thank you.

I’d been at it all daytsra-white-bg on Sunday, essentially trying to write a blog post but in reality, procrastinating like mad. Eventually the post emerged, a quirky list of… yes… what I’d been doing instead of writing a blog post. I uploaded said musings, shut down my PC and came down to the kitchen to make my tea.

As I messed around with ingredients – salmon baked in a tinfoil parcel, watercress sauce, broccoli and rice, since you ask – I could hear in the next room, my iPad dinging merrily away as my WordPress App announced a succession of readers liking or commenting on my blog. That’s nice, I thought. I have to say, it was above averagely active – a veritable melody of dings – especially for a Sunday evening. And especially for, if I’m honest, an inconsequential, albeit mildly amusing post.

Salmon baked, watercress sauce warmed through (I know, I should have made it from scratch), broccoli blobbed with butter (don’t say it… don’t), I repaired to the lounge to take a snoop at who was liking my Peevish Procrastination Post.

What greeted me was unexpected, but wholly delightful.

It turns out that round about the same moment that I’d uploaded my list of procrastinations, the lovely Chris Graham over at Chris The Story Reading Ape’s Blog had re-blogged a post of mine from a couple of weeks ago – Ten Top Tips to Instantly Improve Your Writing. The surge in hits and that concerto of dings was all down to the readers which Chris had so very kindly pointed in my direction.

If you haven’t come across Chris The Story Reading Ape’s Blog before, I recommend you take a look. It is a veritable cornucopia of writerly musings, humour, advice and great material about books, authors, the world at large and reading in general. Chris scours the blogosphere seeking out posts he thinks his rapidly expanding readership will enjoy, and he’s a great supporter of indie authors.

When he picks a post of yours, stand by for a busy few hours! I like to respond to every comment on my blog and that’s not usually a particularly demanding commitment. But when you get a re-blog from Chris The Story Reading Ape’s Blog, things go a bit crazy – in a good way. I had fun, responding to comments from new readers, and it was wonderful to see new subscribers sign on too. I had to cut the sound on my iPad and go dark for an hour for Poldark (as any warm-blooded woman would, you understand, don’t you?) – but I was back later and again this morning, to enjoy the blogging conversation with more visitors from Chris The Story Reading Ape’s Blog.

Apart from the two occasions when I’ve been fortunate enough to be Freshly Pressed courtesy of the team at WordPress (another post on editing, strangely enough, and one on Marmite and sex – oh, just check it out, you know you want to), The Story Reading Ape’s blog has been responsible for the biggest surges in hits and subscribers to A Writer’s Notepad, since I began blogging.

So, this post is the least I can do, in offering a big thank-you to Chris, and an urging that you check out The Story Reading Ape’s most diverse and engaging Blog for yourself.

#Shelfies for World Book Day

Where Dylan Hearn at Suffolk Scribblings leads, others follow…

In honour of World Book Day, I present… a series of #shelfies which will probably tell you far too much.  I’ve posted fiction #shelfies before, so here’s a glimpse at the non-fiction in my bookcase.  I may live to regret this…

(1) The ‘How To’ Shelf: Here’s a nice, easy one to start with.  It’s the shelf that every writer has, right? How to write, how to write better, how not to write, how to find an agent, how to get published, how to stimulate your creativity, how to develop a writing habit, how to write like Stephen King, and so, so, so on.

2015-03-05 17.16.56(2) Food, not-so Glorious Food: Were you expecting recipe books?  Nope. This is my food paranoia shelf. It’s a combination of aversion therapy and the expression of a hope, that, one day, I might do more than read about dieting.

2015-03-05 17.16.32(3) Why, oh Why: This is my psycho-paranoia / please love me shelf. In my defence, this used to occupy three shelves, now, just the one, most of which I keep for posterity and to remind me that despite everything, I’m a warm and wonderful woman, alright? Alright?  ‘Nuff said.

2015-03-05 17.17.14(4) The rest… is fiction: I’m a writer, but I’m a reader too. See any you recognise from your own shelves?

2015-03-05 17.17.59Do you have a World Book Day #shelfie to share?  If you do, feel free to do a pingback here, or check out Dylan Hearn’s post, and the source of the original WBD #shelfie: Suzie81 Speaks, where I can see we have Bryson, Hornby and Haddon in common.

Read any good books lately?

book-520626_1280I’m a writer, but I’m a reader too…

Even though I try and keep up with what’s going on in the world of fiction, good books still pass me by. A friend will say, ‘Have you read such-and-such?’ and I’ll not have heard of it. It’s not surprising, given how many books there are, but I still find myself a bit miffed that I don’t appear to have a handle on ALL the books.

That said, I thought I’d take the opportunity of a weekend blog post to introduce you to a few novels which I’ve thoroughly enjoyed over the years. They’re all mainstream and they all got a Goodreads 5-star rating from me. But I’m pretty sure, however well-read you are, there will be one or two in this short list, which you haven’t come across before.

Here, in no particular order, are 10 of my 5-star recommended reads:

Monster Love by Carol Topolski – An extraordinarily powerful novel about a couple in love and the horrific secret they keep. Carol Topolski draws her psychologically damaged characters brilliantly. But be warned, this is not one for the faint-hearted.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer – a delightful and heart-warming story told through a series of letters, about the inventive and eccentric inhabitants of Guernsey during World War II, when the Channel Islands became the only part of the British Isles to fall under German occupation.

A History of the World in 10½ Chapters by Julian Barnes – I’m not a fan of short stories in general, but I loved this series of interrelated tales, which I first read many years ago. Julian Barnes is a master storyteller. Some argue the connectedness of the stories makes it a novel. Whatever it is, it’s a clever and engaging read.

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada – a bleak, sprawling tale of ordinary but strangely courageous lives. Set in 1940 in a fearful Berlin dominated by the Nazis. Sounds great, right? Oh, but it is. It has echoes of 1984 in the quiet revolution begun by one man. But you need to give it time to unfold.

Acts of Violence by Ryan David Jahn – an utterly gripping account of one night, one murder and all the people who could and should have helped to save a life, but – for all their various justifications and preoccupations – did nothing.

Engleby by Sebastian Faulks – A classic unreliable narrator and a dark tale which begins with a disappearance. In the unsettling, damaged and socially marginalised Engleby, the author creates a vivid and discomforting voice.

E by Matt Beaumont – Another epistolary novel, but this time it’s e-mails, and it’s told for laughs. A wickedly funny book set amongst the corporate climbers and back-stabbers of a London advertising agency. Read it in one sitting, but it’ll leave you with a smile on your face.

The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy – an old-school big lump of a book, the sort you pick up at the airport. But I loved this slowly unfolding story of a good and decent man and his family’s horrific past. The film of the book, starring Nick Nolte and Barbra Streisand, is good. But the book goes much further, taking the reader deeper into the South Carolina low country the darkest peril.

London Fields by Martin Amis – I think this is Amis’s best book, written before he got oh, so clever with words you’ve never heard of. It’s visceral, brutal and funny all at once, and you can’t help but keep on reading. Amis’s most compelling characters are vile and depraved, but great on the page.

Perfect by Rachel Joyce – I loved this touching and poignant tale; two parallel stories, one of a boyhood friendship and the other of a damaged man dealing with mental illness. Books don’t often make me cry, but this one did. The title doesn’t particularly connect with the story, but the book is… Perfect.

So there you are. If you’re stuck for a good read this weekend, take a look at one or two of those.

By the way, you can find me on Goodreads here, where I’m always thrilled to connect with fellow readers.

Singled Out – A ‘Look Inside’

Singled Out was released yesterday on Amazon on Kindle e-book and in paperback. In case you haven’t made it to your local neighbourhood Amazon store yet, I thought you might like a taster, here on the blog.

Here’s the back-cover promotional:

SINGLED OUT by JULIE LAWFORD

“EVERYONE BRINGS BAGGAGE ON A SINGLES HOLIDAY”

singledout_kindle_656x1000pxBrenda Bouverie has come on a singles holiday to Turkey to escape. Intent on indulgence, she’s looking for sun, sea and … distraction from a past she would give anything to change.

But on this singles holiday no one is quite who they seem. First impressions are unreliable and when the sun goes down, danger lies in wait. As someone targets the unwary group of strangers, one guest is alone in sensing the threat.

But who would get involved, when getting involved only ever leads to trouble?

And here are the first couple of pages:

SATURDAY

1

HE STANDS OVER her, fastening his jeans. Then he scans 360-degrees, checking for any disturbance – evidence of his presence. Like so many hotel rooms these days, it’s a paean to minimalist urban chic; all feature walls and faux walnut veneer. You could be anywhere from New York to Bangkok.

He notices an indentation on the bed between her parted thighs – where his knees have depressed the waffle throw. He tugs first one side then the other, smoothing and flattening.

It was a bonus, finding a lone female in the hotel bar a few hours earlier; an American, an advertising executive en route home to Boston. She was pencil-thin, pale flesh sucking her bones like a famine victim. But she was classy – expensive tailoring, silk shirt – quality underneath too. It was always gratifying to uncover La Perla or Agent Provocateur, Rigby & Peller on the older ones. Like an extra reward for having chosen well.

Nobody saw them beneath the amber glowing downlights, tucked into a corner booth, backs to the room as he summoned round after round before settling the tab in cash. Nobody noticed when he slid her key card into his pocket and guided her to the lifts, moments before she couldn’t stand up any more; so finely judged these days, assured and precise.

Good job he’d pocketed a little of what he needed before he left home, just in case. He tells himself if it hadn’t been put to use he’d have flushed it before the flight. Truth is, once it was there burning a hole in his groin, he’d have found someone – anyone.

The first time on the spur-of-the-moment, he’d taken a photograph; a souvenir. It set a pattern, one he won’t break – can’t break. He points his camera at the woman and clicks off a couple of shots before drawing her legs together. A tight smile laces his features as he rearranges her clothes, rolling her on to her side; the recovery position, they call it. But she looks like she’s sleeping and she won’t remember a thing when she wakes. She’ll probably miss her flight but by then he’ll be long gone.

The bedside clock glows 02:00. He pulls the door shut behind him and slips down the back stairs and out of a side exit, collar high, head down against the CCTV. Moments later, jacket slung over one shoulder, he strides through the front entrance; a nod to the night porter, a few words about how hard it is to sleep in hotels and in minutes he’s back in his own room with time to rest before his wake-up call.

* * * * * *

You can read on a little via Amazon’s Kindle ‘Look Inside’ feature. If you’re intrigued to continue after that, guess what, the whole story – every single word – is available at the click of a buy button on your choice of Kindle or old-fashioned paper.

If you click, I hope very much that you enjoy the read and I’d love it if you would come back and let me know what you thought.

Singled Out is available to purchase on these and all other regional Amazon sites: