Catching up with Margaret James!

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Welcome back, Margaret! I was amazed when I realised that you were my first guest in 2013!

I was amazed, too! My goodness, doesn’t time fly? Perhaps this is because writing a novel is such a long process and sometimes another year goes by without us really noticing? It’s very good to be back. I see that since we were last in contact you’ve had several of your books published by Endeavour Press.  Many congratulations!

Thank you! I love the cover of your new novel ‘Girl in Red Velvet’, which is book 6 in the Charton Minster Series. What inspired you to create this series?

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The inspiration for the Charton Minster stories was driving past a country house in Dorset at least a decade ago. I wondered who lived there and later that evening my imagination started to run riot, conjuring up a whole family and their descendents. The first novel in the series is The Silver Locket, which is Rose Courtenay’s story. The subsequent five novels are about Rose’s children and grandchildren and even her great grandchildren.

Who is the ‘Girl’ in Red Velvet?

The girl in Girl in Red Velvet is Rose Courtenay’s granddaughter Lily Denham, who goes to university in the 1960s and meets two men who become her friends, the three of them have some great fun together, but then Lily finds she is falling in love with both of them. She makes a choice which looks as if it will turn out to be a very bad choice indeed. Or will it? What do all three of these people want and how will they get it? I hope I’ve given them plenty of challenges but that I’ve also given all their stories satisfying endings.

Do you remember the 60s with fondness?

I do because I was young and at university myself and having a lovely time living away from home. It’s quite difficult for younger people alive today to realise what a huge place the world was then. I went from living in a small rural community where I never met anyone who wasn’t British and white to living in a big city where I met and made friends with people from all over the world.

What is next for Creative Writing Matters?

We’re expanding our range of writing-related services all the time. We run two major international competitions (The Exeter Novel Prize and the Exeter Story Prize which incorporates the Trisha Ashley Award for a humorous story) and we offer mentoring and various shorter courses and smaller competitions, too. We’ve found that offering feedback on competition entries has proved very popular so next year we will be doing more in that respect by offering feedback on some of our short story competitions as well as on entries for the Exeter Novel Prize.

What is next for Margaret?

It’s reading the entries for this year’s Exeter Story Prize, which closed on 30 April. We’re constantly astonished and impressed by the range and quality of entries, so although this is a pleasurable task it’s always quite demanding, too.

I wish you every success with all your amazing ventures. Reader’s can follow Margaret on: Facebook Twitter    or you can visit  Margaret’s blog

An Interview with Margaret James and Cathie Hartigan

I am delighted to welcome two successful writers and tutors of creative writing to my blog this month, Margaret James and Cathie Hartigan.

Margaret has been a shining light to me and many unpublished authors as she was the New Writers’ Scheme Organiser for the Romantic Novelists’ Association when I first became published. Cathie is a prolific writer, lecturer and founder of CreativeWritingMatters.

Welcome!

Hello, Valerie –thank you for inviting us to chat with you! It’s lovely to be here.

You are both successful writers so my first question must be where did your own writing journeys begin?

Margaret: I started writing short stories while my children were still babies and eventually I began selling them to women’s magazines.

Cathie: I was a hobby writer until about ten years ago, but after a foundation course with the Open College of Arts, I began having success in short story competitions. Since then I have taken my hobby much more seriously.

CreativeWritingMatters is the inspirational name of the business you founded along with Sophie Duffy. I love the logo. Could you tell us about CreativeWritingMatters and how it came into being?

Cathie: CreativeWritingMatters came into being when I left teaching in mainstream education. The flexibility of being freelance meant we could offer workshops and short courses on all aspects of writing. The competitions came later following the success of a flash competition that we ran for our students.

The name came about because of a conversation I had, during which I became rather too vehement about the importance of creative writing. ‘Creative writing matters,’ I heard myself shriek. Our logo features Sophie’s cat, Henry, the star of her story in our Cat Walks ebook. He’s perky and forward-looking, just like the three of us!

You have jointly written an excellent handbook and a workbook on aspects of creative writing so obviously have a great working relationship, but how do you set about working on a non-fiction joint project as opposed to your independent fiction?

Margaret: I first met Cathie when she joined my local writing group, Exeter Writers. I loved her short stories and she was kind enough to say she liked my own writing, too. We collaborated on producing an anthology of members’ work and found we got on very well. We both teach creative writing (Cathie teaches face-to-face while I teach online) and, after we’d finished editing and producing the anthology, we decided to write a guidebook for our students.

When we wrote The Creative Writing Student’s Handbook, we wrote alternate chapters and then we swapped files and edited these chapters. It all seemed to work well! But when we wrote The Short Story Writer’s Workbook, Cathie wrote the whole of the first draft and then I did a heavy edit, making the second draft twice as long as the first. This approach worked very well, too. We find our non-fiction writing styles are very similar. A few months down the line, we often can’t remember who wrote what.

Will there be more in this series?

We enjoy working together so we intend to produce a handbook for novelists and we have other projects in the pipeline, too. We hope to produce some more anthologies featuring either our own work or that of other people.

You are both very experienced tutors so I would like to ask:-

Margaret, what three tips would you give to an aspiring unpublished novel writer?

  1. Plan your story and know roughly how you want it to end. But don’t be too rigid in your planning. Be prepared for the story to change and grow while you write.
  2. Your reader should want to spend time with your characters. So don’t write about people you don’t actually like or don’t find very interesting yourself. Your characters ought to be your friends.
  3. A novel is a big project. So whenever you get tired or disenchanted – which you almost certainly will – take some time out to reflect and to think about how and where you want this story to go.

Cathie, what three tips would you give to an aspiring unpublished writer of short stories?

  1. Use vivid and specific details that tell a lot, rather than generalisations. If a character puts up an umbrella, we don’t need to be told it’s raining.
  2. How much time you have to set up your story depends on the number of words that have been stipulated by the competition or magazine. Your story needs to develop and reach its resolution without a sudden rush at the end. Once finished, check the balance of set up, development and resolution, then be prepared to cut ruthlessly at the beginning.
  3. Use dialogue and gesture to reveal character rather than word-hungry narrative.

The Exeter Novel Prize is going from strength to strength, what inspired this, and how do you see it evolving?

Margaret: The Exeter Novel Prize came into being because it filled a gap in the world of novel-writing competitions. It’s open to previously published and also self-published novelists. There is more information here: http://www.creativewritingmatters.co.uk/2015-exeter-novel-prize.html

Will there be a CreativeWritingMatters short story competition in 2016? If so, what advice would you give to entrants?

CreativeWritingMatters runs lots of competitions for both short and longer fiction, so here is some general advice.

  • Read the rules.
  • Abide by the rules.
  • Start your story as something interesting happens.
  • Round off your story with a satisfying ending.
Read Making the Grade by Cathie Hartigan
Read Cathie Hartigan’s story, Making the Grade!

What is next for Cathie and Margaret, jointly or independently?

Margaret: I’m about to start the second draft of a novel and to plan a new non-fiction project that has nothing to do with writing.

Cathie: My debut novel, Secret of the Song will be out later this year and there will also be another collection of stories by the three of us at CreativeWritingMatters. Right now, the characters in my next novel are twitching for me to get on with it.

Thank you for taking the time to share your experience and advice with my readers.

Thank you for inviting us! It’s been great to talk to you.

The inspirations for Magic Sometimes Happens

I am delighted to welcome Margaret James back to my blog as she tells us about her enchanting new book Magic Sometimes Happens!

Thank you for inviting me to be a guest on your blog, Valerie. It’s great to be here! Today, I’m going to tell you about the inspirations – music, poetry and places – for my latest novel, Magic Sometimes Happens.

The story is about second chances for both my hero and my heroine. My hero Patrick Riley is married, is the father of two small children and doesn’t expect his wife to leave him for a man she says makes her fly. My heroine Rosie Denham is running away from a bad mistake and needs to learn to forgive herself.

The story starts when Rosie visits Minnesota in the fall, a season which is probably the most beautiful time of year in one of America’s most beautiful states. The whole place seems to turn red and gold almost overnight as the trees change colour. But fall is a very short season. Minnesota’s long, harsh winter will soon be on its way, and the whole place will be frozen solid for almost six months until spring makes a brief appearance before the next sweltering summer comes around.

So yes, Minnesota has an extreme climate. But it’s place that is full of extremes. The Twin Cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul are divided by the Mississippi River, which winds between limestone bluffs and through various locks and channels to join the Missouri before flowing on to the Gulf of Mexico. There are quiet, very beautiful stretches of river very close to the urban hearts of Minneapolis and Saint Paul. But some parts of the Twin Cities are very built up. Minneapolis is home to the Mall of America, the biggest shopping centre in the western world. But there are also hundreds of parks, lakes and playgrounds dotted between the buildings, and – in spite of the dozens of high-rise buildings and skyscrapers in downtown Minneapolis – the whole place has a countrified feel to it.

Most American schoolchildren are probably familiar with Henry Longfellow’s narrative poem, The Song of Hiawatha. It’s the story of a Native American warrior and his bride Minnehaha and it’s set in Minnesota. When you visit the Twin Cities, you can’t help but be aware of the influence of Longfellow on place names. You’ll come across Minnehaha Park, Hiawatha Avenue, the Hiawatha Clinic and many more. My fashion PR consultant heroine Rosie is a British girl who has never heard of Longfellow, but American-born Patrick knows long stretches of the poem by heart.

As for music – although Patrick is a professor of IT and very science-oriented, he is in love with music, especially American classical music by the likes of George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Samuel Barber – Pat listens to them all. But his absolute favourite is Gershwin who wrote, among many other compositions, Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris. So, when Rosie takes him to Paris, Patrick can’t help but be enchanted and magic is surely bound to happen!

Maybe have a listen and see if you’re enchanted, too?

More from Margaret

Why not have a peek at her blog, or chat with her on Facebook and Twitter?

An Interview with Sue Moorcroft

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Sue Moorcroft is an amazingly versatile writer and tutor who has taken time out of her busy schedule to share her world with us. 

Welcome to my blog, Sue!

Thanks for inviting me.

Do you have a very set and organised working week or, with your busy and diverse writing commitments, do you work to ever evolving priority lists?

Both, I suppose. I have deadlines to meet for novels, serials and my monthly columns for Writers’ Forum, and also sometimes for other work including promo. To fulfill those deadlines I have a fairly long working day, often devoted to working with students in the morning and writing in the afternoon. In that way, I keep fresh for both. I punctuate most days with a class such as yoga, Zumba, FitStep or piano. These seem to see to my physical and mental health as I do most of those classes with friends.

Sometimes I have a teaching commitment that takes precedence or I go somewhere for research purposes. I enjoy spots on local radio, too. Variety is the spice of my life.

When did you first make your first breakthrough as a published author?

I sold my first short story, to The People’s Friend, in 1996. It was April 1st and I just hoped it wasn’t someone’s idea of an April’s Fool joke… I stopped counting at 130 short stories so that first one was quite important. The short stories led to serials but it wasn’t until 2004 that I sold a novel.

How important a role has the RNA played in your writing journey to date?

Very. It helped me to make the transition from short fiction to long. I was actually at a party thrown by a short story agency that placed some of my work when somebody told me about the RNA’s New Writers’ Scheme. Then I saw that Marina Oliver was appearing at a library about 20 miles from my home so I went along to that and asked her about the RNA, as she was then (and for many years) a committee member. I applied the next day.

Margaret James was the NWS co-ordinator then and she took a personal interest, including introducing me to someone who became my agent for the next seven years. I left that agent for personal reasons that affected my career in 2009 but have just signed with another, Juliet Pickering at Blake Friedmann.

The RNA members also gave me a ‘can do’ attitude. I’d be at a conference chatting to someone in the lunch queue and realise that they were the author of dozens of novels. But they just seemed ordinary aside from that … It made me realise that it’s hard work, education and talent that makes a writer, rather than some mystical power endowed to people other than myself. And, of course, the RNA gave me a massive number of writing friends.

What can a reader expect from a Sue Moorcroft novel?

A dauntless heroine and an irresistible hero to create sizzle, a contemporary setting, an entertaining read but meaningful subjects explored. Readers say that I make them fall in love with the hero, which is only fair because I fall in love with them all, too!

What have been the 3 stand out highlights of your writing career to date?

When I got ‘the call’ from my agent that began, ‘I have an offer for you.’

When I won Best Romantic Read Award for Is this Love? at the Festival of Romance.

And when a customer at a bookshop signing saw my display, picked up All That Mullarkey and asked, ‘Her! Do you write anything like her? This is what I’m reading at the moment and I love it.’ I squeaked, ‘I am her!’ It turned out that the lady was very ill and had been in hospital a lot. She was reading in the afternoons while she rested and any book that ‘grabbed’ her had become a lifesaver. She bought all of my books apart from Want to Know a Secret? because it had a hospital in it. I felt privileged to have made her illness a little easier to live through.

Sue M Wedding ProposalPlease tell us about your new book The Wedding Proposal and the inspiration behind it?

It’s set in Malta, which is a place I love as I lived there as a child. Because I like to read them I wanted to write a reunion book and that turned out to mean a lot of extra plotting. It was getting the balance right. The reason Lucas and Elle parted four years earlier had to be plausible yet they had to get over it in order to come together when they met again. Lots of backstory plotting required! One of the flats I lived in as a child overlooked a marina so I set the book there, ie I put Lucas and Elle together on a small boat for the summer. I thought it would make it hard for them to avoid one another. (I was right.)

Elle and Lucas have both mellowed while they’ve been apart. Lucas has made his hobby, scuba, into his job, by qualifying as a divemaster. Elle has been made redundant from her whizzy corporate life in IT and in a complete change of direction has begun to volunteer in a drop-in centre for young people. Lucas’s little brother Charlie is loveable but crazy so I brought him on stage to have an accident with far-reaching consequences. Elle still has secrets and Lucas still doesn’t like secrets, so that ignites the plot nicely.

What is next for Sue a) as an author and b) with your upcoming writing events/courses?

I’m writing two things. One is a three-part serial for My Weekly, scheduled to be published over Christmas and New Year. The other is a novel called The Twelve Dates of Christmas which is about dates and Christmas but also revenge porn, hats and ovarian cancer. I know the plot and I’m about one-third of the way through the writing. I’m not sure how I’ve ended up writing about Christmas twice as I actually love summer!

I’ll be at the Festival of Romantic Fiction in Leighton Buzzard on the 13th of September, at the book fair 10am-3pm and the Traditional Afternoon Tea at The Green House 4-5.30pm. I will be at the Romance Readers Awards at Leighton Buzzard Theatre in the evening because I’ve just heard that The Wedding Proposal has been shortlisted for the Best Romantic Read Award!

Next year I’ll be running a week-long writers’ holiday for fabulous Arte Umbria 22-29 July (already filling up) and hopefully one for equally fabby Chez Castillon but I don’t have the dates yet.

Thank you so much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to share some of your writing experiences with my readers.

And thank you for having me.

Sue Moorcroft writes romantic novels of dauntless heroines and irresistible heroes. Is this Love? was nominated for the Readers’ Best Romantic Read Award. Love & Freedom won the Best Romantic Read Award 2011 and Dream a Little Dream was nominated for a RoNA in 2013. Sue received three nominations at the Festival of Romance 2012, and is a Katie Fforde Bursary Award winner. She’s a past vice chair of the RNA and editor of its two anthologies.

Sue also writes short stories, serials, articles, writing ‘how to’ and is a competition judge and creative writing tutor.

Sue’s latest book The Wedding Proposal is available as an ebook from 4 August 2014 and as a paperback from 8 September.

 TWP_RGBpackshotMore from Sue:

Website: www.suemoorcroft.com

Blog: http://suemoorcroft.wordpress.com/

Facebook: sue.moorcroft.3 and https://www.facebook.com/SueMoorcroftAuthor

Twitter: @suemoorcroft

Happy, Healthy and Successful 2014!

2014 is already over a week old. New Year resolutions have been made. If starting a creative writing project is one you are considering. Enjoy your writing, whilst experimenting until you find your own voice within your chosen genre.

To get you started here are some top-tips given by a selection of my author guests of 2013.

Margaret James: Stick at it and believe you have something interesting to say. There will be times when the going gets hard and you’ll need to be able to convince yourself that it’s worth going on. Make friends with other writers face to face and online, via Twitter, Facebook and their blogs. Read other people’s novels because then you will absorb good practice and realise there are many different ways in which you can tell a story.

Freda Lightfoot: I put my heart and soul into my stories, which is absolutely essential. You must lose your inhibitions and be entirely sincere, but yes, it does take hard work and dedication. I’d say it demands the three p’s, which stand for practise, persistence, and passion for your craft.

Trisha Ashley: There’s too much temptation now to rush out your first novel yourself as an e-book, so if you take that route I’d advise you to have your novel independently edited, and consider the constructive criticism you receive very carefully.  You want your novel to be perfect and whole, not some poor, half-formed creature, and with a first novel you aren’t going to spot what’s wrong with it yourself.

Jean Fullerton: If it took me three years to become a nurse, another two to qualify as a district nurse and a further three to become a lecturer, why on earth would I think I could learn the craft of writing overnight?  Very few first books are of a publishable standard. Mine wasn’t. Learn your craft and persevere!

Gwen Kirkwood also stresses the need to persevere: Try to write a little every day, even if it is only a couple of sentences. Keep a notepad handy. Consider the strengths and weaknesses of your characters, or improve your plot, while you are travelling, ironing, peeling the vegetables. Thinking time is important too. Listen to the advice of agents and editors, not friends. If you do self-publish pay a reputable copy-editor to check your work first.

Whilst Gwen advocates writing a little every day, Christina Jones, points out it is not essential: Don’t feel you have to write every day. Write the way that suits you. Some people write 10,000 words a day, others write 500. Some (like me) know that if the words aren’t there then it’s best to forget writing until they are and go and scrub the kitchen floor or go for a walk or chat with friends or read or watch telly, whatever – be yourself and do what’s right for you. Just don’t feel pressurised to be like everyone else.

Linda Mitchelmore, the author of many short-stories and now novelist advises: The same premise of ‘person, problem and plot’, with a ‘beginning, middle and an end’, is the same for short stories and novels. The only difference is the time it takes to tell the story. Whilst Valerie-Anne Baglietto reminds us: You can never please everyone, so above all please yourself and write something you feel passionately about. It will show if you don’t.

More advice is offered within the interviews.

If you love creating fictional worlds, have a strong desire to commit them to paper and share them with others, then enjoy the whole process and good luck!

An interview with Margaret James

Marge2Welcome!

You have written many historical and contemporary romantic novels as well as being a prolific journalist and inspiring writing tutor. Could you take us back to the beginning of your career and tell us when your desire to be a novelist began?

Thank you for inviting me to be the first guest author on your blog, Valerie. I’m delighted to be here. Ooh, back to the beginning of my career – that’s a long time ago, almost thirty years. I had two very small children. My husband worked away from home a lot so I wanted to find something to do at home which would earn some money, too.

I decided I would write some short stories for women’s magazines, because that had to be easy, right? No, of course it wasn’t easy. As I soon came to realise, writing any sort of fiction isn’t easy. But, after trying for several months and failing to sell anything, I finally had my first acceptance and this encouraged me to keep going.

Okay, I thought, could I write novel, too? At that time, family sagas were hugely popular so I thought I would try writing one myself. Again, it wasn’t easy, but I was determined to finish my novel and also sell it to a publisher. Rejection after rejection came along, but I carried on sending my novel to agents and publishers because – as many of my friends and family members know – I’m not the sort of person who gives up!  Finally an agent took me on and sold my novel A Touch of Earth to Futura.

I think I was determined to become a novelist because although I could see it would be a challenging career it would also be possible – with a bit of luck – to get somewhere.

What originally drew you to writing romance?

I’ve always been fascinated by how human relationships work – what makes us like one person and dislike someone else, what happens when we fall in love and out of love again, how families work and why family relationships break down. So I think I was always going to be a romantic and relationship novelist.

Your latest novel is a romantic comedy. What inspired the change in direction?

My next novel The Wedding Diary is set in the present day and is mostly about people I haven’t written about before, but it also mentions characters and settings from my most recent historical trilogy – The Silver Locket, The Golden Chain and The Penny Bangle.

What key advice/tips would you give aspiring writers?

If you’ve decided you’re going to be a writer, stick at it and believe you have something interesting to say. There will be times when the going gets hard and you’ll need to be able to convince yourself that it’s worth going on.

Make friends with other writers face to face and online, via Twitter, Facebook and their blogs – most writers these days have blogs and will be delighted if you follow them. Think about joining a local or national writing group in which you can meet people who understand the joys and frustrations of being a writer. Then you’ll never feel isolated and alone.

Read other people’s novels because then you will absorb good practice and realise there are many different ways in which you can tell a story.

What’s next for Margaret James?

I would like to write another novel set in the present day. I also have a Victorian murder mystery simmering on my back burner, but there is a lot of research to do for that one and I don’t know if it will ever come to the boil!

Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. I shall look forward to reading The Wedding Diary.

More by Margaret:

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