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How to Write Dialogue #writingtips #amwriting

Dialogue is a hugely important part of writing fiction. It can move the action forward, reveal character, emotions and motivations, and can help show a reader a character’s back story. Good dialogue will draw your reader into the story. The good news? It’s not that difficult to achieve.

Listen

Writing excellent, realistic and informative dialogue begins with listening. Pay attention to how people actually speak to each other. Listen out for elements such as turn taking, pauses, figures of speech, contractions etc. This last one is really important. If you listen to people you will notice that hardly anyone says ‘would have’ or ‘did not’, for example. What they will say is ‘would’ve’ and ‘didn’t’. Make sure you use these contractions in your dialogue. Nothing sounds quite as unrealistic as someone saying:

‘I did not go for a walk. I could have but it was raining.’

What they will say is:

‘I didn’t go for a walk. I could’ve done, but it was raining.’

(OK, so that’s not exactly the most enthralling thing I’ve ever written, but you get the point.)

Say it

Whenever you write dialogue read it out loud. If you can, get someone to read it with you. It’s not until you actually hear the words spoken, that you can tell how natural it is, if it flows, if it works. Incidentally, I tend to read all of my own writing out loud. This really helps to pick out errors, repetitions and sentence structure issues (I do often get funny looks from the dogs).

Leave out the boring bits

While dialogue needs to be realistic, it can’t be exactly the same as real speech. If you listen to an actual conversation, you will notice lots of pauses, lots of sounds that aren’t actual words (ums and errs etc.) and lots of ‘fillers’ that are completely irrelevant. Your dialogue has a purpose, and while it should be ‘real’ it should also achieve something. Get rid of anything that doesn’t add to the story.

Beware dialogue tags

In a previous life I worked in a school. I spent a lot of time teaching children to avoid using the word’ ‘said’ in their writing. In fact, I have spent whole sessions putting together lists of alternative dialogue tags. Now I spend a lot of time editing these same tags out of manuscripts. The problem is that exciting, exotic dialogue tags only draw your reader’s attention away from what is actually being said. They detract from the story. And, if your writing is peppered with words like ‘exclaimed’, ‘bellowed’, ‘croaked’ etc., it looks like you’re trying too hard to come up with something different each time. Which you probably are. Stick to ‘said’ and ‘asked’ for the most part. Your reader shouldn’t have to be ‘told’ how your character is speaking, they should gather that from the words, the actions, the situation etc.

Break it up

While dialogue is exciting and adds variety, you don’t want line after line of dialogue. Break it up with some action. Actions can also work in place of dreaded dialogue tags. For example:

 ‘Did Ted drop off the package?’ asked Linda.

‘I don’t know,’ said Sophie.

‘For goodness sake,’ Linda sighed. ‘I asked you to remind him.’

can be transformed into:

 Linda burst into the office.

‘Did Ted drop off the package?’

‘I don’t know.’ Sophie glanced up from the screen, her lips pursed.

Linda flung her bag onto the desk.

‘For goodness sake! I asked you to remind him.’

It’s completely clear here who is talking. Also, there is a sense of where the action is taking place, an idea of what the characters are doing and how they’re feeling.

Avoid exposition

Be very careful to ensure that readers do not feel that dialogue is being used simply to let them (the reader) know certain facts. Let the reader ascertain things from what your character is saying. Trust your reader – don’t force feed them details.

Read

Anyone who is serious about writing needs to read. A lot. And reading someone else’s work can help a great deal when it comes to writing dialogue. When you come across dialogue that works really well, work out how the writer did that. And when dialogue doesn’t work, again, work out what went wrong. You’ll then know what to do and what not to do when it comes to your own work.

I am an experienced editor, and have worked on more than five hundred projects in a variety of genres including dystopian, romance, memoir, erotica, YA, fantasy, short stories, poetry and business. I am happy to edit in either UK or US English.

I have a first degree in English Language and Literature and a master’s degree in creative writing.

Read testimonials from clients.

Find out about my editing services.

Contact me.

How to Handle Feedback #writingtips #writinganovel #amwriting

One of the most difficult things to deal with when writing a novel is getting feedback, whether this is from a friend, a beta reader or an editor. Honestly – it can be completely terrifying. I know this from experience having written two books myself. The first experience I had of getting feedback on a piece of fiction was when I began studying for a Masters in Creative Writing. A huge part of the course was the workshop. We took it in turns to send a few chapters of our WIPs to everyone in the group and then a week or so later we would gather (online) to discuss that writing. The first time it was my turn I actually felt physically sick. I was terrified that the other students would hate my work, that they would destroy it. So, as an editor, I do completely understand how nerve-wracking it is to get that feedback. And sometimes it’s not only terrifying, it’s also confusing, especially when two or more of your readers or editors have completely different opinions about your work. So how do you deal with feedback?

Feedback from Beta Readers

So you’ve sent out your manuscript to five beta readers and you have five conflicting opinions about it. What should you do?

First, step back and coolly asses your betas. Whose opinion do you really trust? If one of them is your mum, then she’s probably not the one to go with.

Then go with your gut – you know if someone’s comments ring true, if something makes you think, ‘Oh yeah. That’s a good point.’ You need to be honest with yourself.

Look for common threads. If three of your betas hate the same thing, but one loves it, then it’s probably safe to go with the majority.

Feedback from Editors

Again, take a step back. Yes, that’s difficult; your work is so personal to you, so much a part of you. But feedback is vital to improve your craft. So put the process into perspective. Your editor is (hopefully) trying to help you. Their criticisms (if they’re any good) should be constructive. Trust me, when I give feedback on a manuscript, I’m not trying to hurt your feelings, or upset you or belittle you. But it would do you no good whatsoever if I wasn’t honest. I want to help you. So bear that in mind and try to be objective when you look at feedback.

Make sure you understand what your editor is trying to tell you. If you don’t understand their comments or you need some clarification, then ask. Personally, I feel that if a writer comes back to me about a point I’ve raised, then it’s my job to address their concerns. Just because I’ve finished the edit, it doesn’t mean I can no longer answer questions or provide feedback. A caveat though – don’t take advantage of your editor’s good nature; ask a question, accept the answer, but don’t expect a long-running dialogue. And don’t argue either – you’ve asked me for my professional opinion, I’ve given it and I’ve given my reasons for that opinion. It serves no purpose if you don’t agree for us to have back and forth emails about it.

Remember – you own the story. You don’t have to do what your editor says. It’s entirely up to you. But do remember that your editor is not your enemy. We don’t sit there trying to pick faults – we want to help you make your manuscript the best it can be. So if we say something you don’t agree with, take a deep breath, read the criticism again and really think about it. Does your editor have a point?

Happy writing!

I am an experienced editor, and have worked on more than five hundred projects in a variety of genres including dystopian, romance, memoir, erotica, YA, fantasy, short stories, poetry and business. I am happy to edit in either UK or US English. 

I have a first degree in English Language and Literature and a master’s degree in creative writing.

Read testimonials from clients.

Find out about my editing services.

Contact me.

BEATING WRITER’S BLOCK #writingtips #amwriting

Writer’s block – we’ve all heard of it, and lots of us have experienced it, whether it’s just that horrible half an hour of looking at a blank piece of paper or empty screen while our brains refuse to perform, or the more serious, crippling months or even years of inability to create that has afflicted some of the greatest writers. I know there have been times when I have tackled a huge pile of ironing, or walked the dog in the rain rather than face writing another chapter, or starting an article (or even a blog post), and the longer I’ve left it, the worse it has got.

Writer’s block can be caused by many things. For many, it often stems from a fear that their writing isn’t good enough, and that no one will want to read it anyway. Or perhaps you’re feeling guilty about devoting a day to working on your next novel rather than writing something you’re actually getting paid to produce. Then there are all the other little niggling responsibilities. But remember, writing is important because it’s important to you. So next time you’re faced with a blank page, rather than go for the usual avoidance tactics of cleaning the skirting boards or reading random articles online in the name of research, try one of these:

Write anything. Set a stopwatch for five minutes and make yourself write until the buzzer goes. It doesn’t matter what it is; just the physical action of writing something down can be enough to get your writing going again

Let yourself be terrible. Sometimes we can’t write because we feel our writing isn’t good enough. But when you are at the beginning of the writing process that doesn’t matter. Your first draft doesn’t have to be a prize-winner. Just write, whether or not it’s rubbish (chances are, some of it won’t be). You’ll be going back and re-drafting and editing over and over again. It doesn’t matter if what you write now actually is awful – it’s the finished manuscript that matters. As Margaret Attwood once said; ‘If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.’

Move on If you’re stuck in a scene or you can’t quite resolve something, move on to another scene. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t witting chronologically. You can write the ending first if you want to, or the middle, or a scene two thirds through. It doesn’t matter – no one’s watching! You can come back and fill in the gaps later. And writing a different scene might help ‘unblock’ whatever problem it was that you had previously.

Exercise your brain. There are literally hundreds of writing exercises and prompts available online. Use one to kick start your writing. Try Mslexia for lots of helpful writing advice and exercises. And there are plenty of prompts on the Writer’s Digest site.

Exercise your body. Walk the dog or go for a run. Sometimes being away from the house doing something physical can be enough to unblock your brain. Leave your phone behind and look and listen to what’s around you.

Plan your time. If you can, make sure you’re writing when you’re most creative and productive, whether it’s last thing at night or first thing in the morning. Try and keep an hour clear at those times to devote to your writing, even it if means getting up earlier or going to bed a bit later.

Set a target. Even if it’s only a couple of hundred words a day, or thirty minutes a day, make sure you write. Don’t worry how good or bad it is – just write for those minutes or write those many words. As Kingsley Amis once famously said: ‘The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of one’s pants to the seat of one’s chair.’

Give yourself a break. It may be that you’re trying to do too much, that you’re tired and stressed. It’s hard to be creative at times like these. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Take a week away from writing to catch up on all those other little nagging tasks that spring to mind when you’re trying to write. Guilt about spending time writing can cripple creativity, and its all very well telling yourself that writing is important too – we all have other things in our lives that can’t just be ignored. Get these done, and then you can sit down to write without worrying. And the time away may be enough to cure your writer’s block.

Happy writing!

I am an experienced editor, and have worked on more than five hundred projects in a variety of genres including dystopian, romance, memoir, erotica, YA, fantasy, short stories, poetry and business. I am happy to edit in either UK or US English. 

I have a first degree in English Language and Literature and a master’s degree in creative writing.

Read testimonials from clients.

Find out about my editing services.

Contact me.

EXPOSITION – THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE BORING #writingtips #amwriting

Despite the fact that I quite often highlight great tracts of text and write ‘EXPOSITION’ over them in bold, (actually I’m much more polite than that about it) exposition is, in fact, extremely important. Indeed, exposition is part of every narrative; without it your reader would have no idea what was going on, where anything was, or who the characters were. Used wisely, used well and given the appropriate mode in which to inform, then it does have a valid part to play in a narrative. You can probably have no better example than the bard himself. The opening scene of Shakespeare’s Othello tells us a lot about Iago and Roderigo, their relationship and their status. And all in a few lines of dialogue.

ACT I
SCENE I. Venice. A street.
Enter RODERIGO and IAGO

RODERIGO: 

Tush! never tell me; I take it much unkindly

That thou, Iago, who hast had my purse

As if the strings were thine, shouldst know of this.

IAGO:

‘Sblood, but you will not hear me:

If ever I did dream of such a matter, Abhor me.

Without wanting to make this a lesson in literature and language, the opening lines tell us that Roderigo is socially superior to Iago; he says, ‘Tush!’ in other words, ‘Shut up.’ He must be Iago’s superior to speak to him like this. So, with one word, the audience is put in the picture.

Shakespeare knew that ‘showing’ the audience information about his characters and the setting, through actions and speech was far more entertaining and engaging than simply ‘telling’ them that information. And ‘telling’ is the form of exposition that we have all been guilty of using (yes, all of us, without exception; if you don’t think you haven’t done it then you don’t know what it is). But we do need to let our reader in on things, so how do we go about it without ‘telling’?

Let’s take a simple example. Your protagonist, Bill, is tetchy because he didn’t get much sleep. First of all ask yourself the question ‘Does it matter? Does my reader need to know this?’ If the answer is yes, then you could say this:

Bill was tetchy that morning as he hadn’t had enough sleep.

Now that’s really boring. And if you do this all the time then it’s really, really, really boring. So how can you give your reader this information without ‘telling’ them?

Use dialogue, and use action. These two things can help enormously and will bring interest, movement and life to your writing:

‘For god’s sake, woman, why is this coffee cold?’

The mug followed its contents into the sink, the clatter drowning out the cheery tones of the radio DJ.

Emily lowered the newspaper.

‘You could always make it yourself. That would be a refreshing change. Anyway, why are you so grumpy?’

Bill sat down opposite his wife and placed his head in his hands.

‘Did you not hear it?’

‘Hear what?’

‘That bloody noise from next door. All night that same scraping and bumping. Then they started screaming at each other. I didn’t get a wink of sleep.’

I know this isn’t exactly Pulitzer Prize winning stuff, but I hope it’s a bit more interesting than the first example. After all, here we have a scene not just a sentence. And we have also learned quite a lot – Bill likes coffee, but he expects his wife to make it (is he a sexist pig perhaps? Is there conflict in the marriage? Resentment? An impending divorce?). We also know that there are some pretty strange people living next door, who are up to all sorts of things in the night. And of course, we also know that Bill is grumpy because he didn’t get much sleep.

Exposition through dialogue can be very effective then, but do be careful. You need your dialogue to be realistic. Don’t use it as a way of dumping information. And make sure your characters never tell each other things they already know. For example:

Bill adjusted his tie in the mirror. Emily smiled and straightened it, patting him on the shoulder.

‘Don’t look so nervous. You’ll be fine.’

‘I know, but I have to make this work. I really need this job. If I don’t get it I don’t know what I’ll do. The mortgage is due next week and we’re already three months behind. They’ll be looking to repossess if we don’t pay up.’

Emily nodded.

‘I know. Then there’s the money we owe your mum. It was nice of her to pay Tarquin’s school fees for the last two months, after all they were about to kick him out. But we can’t keep relying on her. Not now she’s got all those medical bills to pay. How awful that she should break her hip falling down the stairs on her birthday.’

Now I know this is an extreme example, but lots of writers do this. Bill doesn’t need to tell Emily how far behind their mortgage payments are – she knows. And Bill knows his mother paid Tarquin’s school fees, and everything else Emily tells him. If your reader needs to know this information, find different ways to show it – have a letter arrive from the bank just as Bill leaves for his interview, or have Emily visit her mother-in-law in hospital and be told that there is no more financial help.

And remember, as with most things in writing, and indeed in life unfortunately, less is more. Don’t bog down your narrative and bore your reader with unnecessary detail. Show them what they need to know and let them put the pieces together.

Happy writing!

I am an experienced editor, and have worked on more than five hundred projects in a variety of genres including dystopian, romance, memoir, erotica, YA, fantasy, short stories, poetry and business. I am happy to edit in either UK or US English. 

I have a first degree in English Language and Literature and a master’s degree in creative writing.

Read testimonials from clients.

Find out about my editing services.

Contact me.

Getting your writing off to a great start in 2022 #writingtips #amwriting

It’s been a tough couple of years, and goodness knows what 2022 will bring. COVID has shown us that we just don’t know what’s around the corner. But there’s something about January, despite what’s going on the world, that always feels full of hope. It’s like opening a fresh new notebook, full of blank pages just waiting to be filled. 

If you are planning on setting some writing goals in 2022, are beginning your first novel, or cracking on with your twentieth, thinking of self-publishing or are about to query agents, are a first-time author, or a seasoned pro, this is a great time to take the opportunity to brush up on your writing skills. Throughout January and February, I’ll be posting some writing and editing tips to help you on your writing journey.

From advice about the proper use of dialogue tags, to the problems with exposition, from commonly confused words, to managing transitions between scenes, the blog will be full of advice, quick tips and pointers to help get your writing on track.

Make 2022 the year your writing is the best it can be. 

And if you’re considering hiring an editor, do get in touch.

Do You Really Need an Editor? #writingtips #amwriting

The short answer is yes, you do.

If you’re reading this, the chances are you’re thinking of self-publishing. You’ve spent hours writing. You’re proud of your work, but nervous about how it will be received. You’ve spent time revising and polishing when you could have been doing other things. You’ve already paid out for a professionally designed book cover. You really need to start making some money on this project. So you don’t need the extra expense of an editor, do you? Well, yes, you probably do.

You’ve written your masterpiece. You’ve had family and friends read it; they’ve pointed out a few typos but have told you it’s wonderful and that you should publish. So that’s what you do next, right? Well, possibly, if your friends and family are completely impartial and will tell you the honest truth. And if you are completely sure that you’ve managed to catch every typo and grammatical error in your copy. And if you’re one hundred per cent sure that there’s nothing that can be improved, corrected and enhanced by a completely impartial, professional eye. By someone who edits as their job and whose reputation depends on how well they do that job.

You need an editor because, not only will you not see all the typos and grammatical errors but you will be too invested in your work to see it impartially. You know your characters and your plot inside out. You know the sequence of events and why and how things happen. And this is where the problem lies. You can’t ‘un-know’ all of that, so you can’t see the flaws in plot, in structure, in characterisation. You can’t read your book from beginning to end the way a reader will. And if there are flaws and inconsistencies, if there is more than the odd typo, then your readers, if you publish without having had a thorough edit, will be happy to point them out in reviews.

I understand how attached you are to your work. I know how horrible it is to send that work to someone else and have them criticise it, however constructively. However, I also know that this process is far less painful than sending your precious work out there, warts and all, to have those warts picked over by readers and reviewers.

So the question is not ‘can I afford to hire an editor?’ but ‘can I afford not to?’

If you’d like to discuss having your work edited, please do get in touch. You can use the contact form here, or email me at alisonewilliams@sky.com.

My Favourite Books of 2021 #BookReview

I’m very glad I didn’t set myself a target of an amount of books to read in 2021, because there’s no way I would have achieved it. I always think I’ll have more time to read than I actually do, but it’s been an odd year with lots of ups and downs (see my post here). In some ways it’s flown by and in others it seems like last Christmas was ages ago. On the plus side, the quality of the books I’ve read this year has been wonderful, with some absolute crackers – books that will stay with me for a very long time.

‘Miracle Creek’ by Angie Kim

In rural Virginia, Young and Pak Yoo run an experimental medical treatment device known as the Miracle Submarine – a pressurised oxygen chamber that patients enter for “dives”, used as an alternative therapy for conditions including autism and infertility. But when the Miracle Submarine mysteriously explodes, killing two people, a dramatic murder trial upends the Yoos’ small community.

Who or what caused the explosion? Was it the mother of one of the patients, who claimed to be sick that day but was smoking down by the creek? Or was it Young and Pak themselves, hoping to cash in on a big insurance payment and send their daughter to college? The ensuing trial uncovers unimaginable secrets from that night: trysts in the woods, mysterious notes, child-abuse charges, as well as tense rivalries and alliances among a group of people driven to extraordinary degrees of desperation and sacrifice.

Angie Kim’s Miracle Creek is a thoroughly contemporary take on the courtroom drama, drawing on the author’s own life as a Korean immigrant, former trial lawyer, and mother of a real-life “submarine” patient. Both a compelling page-turner and an excavation of identity and the desire for connection, Miracle Creek is a brilliant, empathetic debut from an exciting new voice.

This is such a good book – one of those rare novels that you can become completely immersed in, that you look forward to getting back to, a novel you want to finish because you’re desperate to know the truth, but also one you don’t want to end because you’re enjoying it so much.

A fabulous debut novel and an author I’ll definitely look out for in the future.

‘Your House Will Pay’ by Steph Cha

Grace Park and Shawn Mathews share a city, but seemingly little else. Coming from different generations and very different communities, their paths wouldn’t normally cross at all. As Grace battles confusion over her elder sister’s estrangement from their Korean-immigrant parents, Shawn tries to help his cousin Ray readjust to life on the outside after years spent in prison.

But something in their past links these two families. As the city around them threatens to spark into violence, echoing events from their past, the lives of Grace and Shawn are set to collide in ways which will change them all forever.

Beautifully written, and marked by its aching humanity as much as its growing sense of dread, Your House Will Pay is a powerful and moving family story, perfect for readers of Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere and Paul Beatty’s The Sellout.

One of the most interesting aspects of this novel for me was the way in which it explored how the past continually reaches into the future, and the way other people’s actions can have far‑reaching and sometimes tragic consequences for those who are blameless.

Timely, well-written, relevant, the sharp writing pulling no punches, this is a thought-provoking and important novel, that lays bare the injustices, the prejudices, the hate, discrimination, and the violence that many still endure every single day. 

‘A Long Petal of the Sea’ by Isabel Allende

September 3, 1939, the day of the Spanish exiles’ splendid arrival in Chile, the Second World War broke out in Europe.

Victor Dalmau is a young doctor when he is caught up in the Spanish Civil War, a tragedy that leaves his life – and the fate of his country – forever changed. Together with his sister-in-law, the pianist Roser, he is forced out of his beloved Barcelona and into exile. 

When opportunity to seek refuge arises, they board a ship chartered by the poet Pablo Neruda to Chile, the promised ‘long petal of sea and wine and snow’. There, they find themselves enmeshed in a rich web of characters who come together in love and tragedy over the course of four generations, destined to witness the battle between freedom and repression as it plays out across the world.

A masterful work of historical fiction that soars from the Spanish Civil War to the rise and fall of Pinochet, A Long Petal of the Sea is Isabel Allende at the height of her powers.

An absolutely beautiful book. Allende has a brilliant command of both the history and politics of the Spanish Civil War and of Chile and Venezuela, brought out through the compelling stories of a variety of interesting and authentic characters.

Their stories, the terrible things they endure, the happiness they find in life and in each other make this an outstanding read, and one of the best books I’ve read in ages.

‘The Stray Cats of Homs’ by Eva Nour

The story of a young man who will do anything to keep the dream of home alive, even in the face of unimaginable devastation.

‘A cat has seven souls in Arabic. In English cats have nine lives. You probably have both nine lives and seven souls, because otherwise I don’t know how you’ve made it this far.’

Sami’s childhood is much like any other – an innocent blend of family and school, of friends and relations and pets (including stray cats and dogs, and the turtle he keeps on the roof). 

But growing up in one of the largest cities in Syria, with his country at war with itself, means that nothing is really normal. And Sami’s hopes for a better future are ripped away when he is conscripted into the military and forced to train as a map maker. 

Sami may be shielded from the worst horrors of the war, but it will still be impossible to avoid his own nightmare… 

It’s really not easy to write a review that does this book justice. It’s so beautifully written, that at times it is a joy to read, but the subject matter is so utterly heart-breaking that it feels strange to say so.

If you’ve ever questioned the motives of those who put themselves in danger to escape places like Syria, or, from the security of your warm house, with food in your fridge, and your children safely at school, demanded to know why the young men don’t stay and fight, then I respectfully suggest that you read this book. In fact, it’s a book that everyone should read.

‘Starve Acre’ by Andrew Michael Hurley

The worst thing possible has happened. Richard and Juliette Willoughby’s son, Ewan, has died suddenly at the age of five. Starve Acre, their house by the moors, was to be full of life, but is now a haunted place.

Juliette, convinced Ewan still lives there in some form, seeks the help of the Beacons, a seemingly benevolent group of occultists. Richard, to try and keep the boy out of his mind, has turned his attention to the field opposite the house, where he patiently digs the barren dirt in search of a legendary oak tree.

Starve Acre is a devastating new novel by the author of the prize-winning bestseller The Loney. It is a novel about the way in which grief splits the world in two and how, in searching for hope, we can so easily unearth horror.

This is a slow moving novel but it keeps you gripped throughout, slowly and surely unveiling the darkness that lies beneath a very real tragedy. You can feel Richard and Juliette’s devastation at their loss, their confusion about what happened to their boy, and at what is happening now.

Fascinating, disturbing, weirdly beautiful. And such a gorgeous cover.

‘Lock Every Door’ by Riley Sager

You’ve been offered a luxury apartment, rent free. The catch: you may not live long enough to enjoy it…

No visitors. No nights spent away from the apartment. No disturbing the other residents. 
These are the only rules for Jules Larson’s new job as apartment sitter for an elusive resident of the Bartholomew, one of Manhattan’s most high-profile private buildings and home to the super rich and famous.

Recently heartbroken and practically homeless, Jules accepts the terms, ready to leave her past life behind.

Out of place among the extremely wealthy, Jules finds herself pulled toward other apartment sitter Ingrid. But Ingrid confides that the Bartholomew is not what it seems and the dark history hidden beneath its gleaming facade is starting to frighten her. Jules brushes it off as a harmless ghost story – but the next day, her new friend has vanished.

And then Jules discovers that Ingrid is not the first temporary resident to go missing…

Welcome to the Bartholomew…You may never leave.

Creepy, sinister, possibly verging more on horror rather than thriller, this was an absolute page-turner. The build-up keeps you guessing, tension growing, and little clues are left here and there, but I could not have guessed at all what was really going on, or who was behind it.

I love a good, scary book and this was so well-written, and lots of fun (if you like classic horror films like I do). A great read.

‘Girl, Woman, Other’ by Bernadine Evaristo

This is Britain as you’ve never read it.
This is Britain as it has never been told.

From Newcastle to Cornwall, from the birth of the twentieth century to the teens of the twenty-first, Girl, Woman, Other follows a cast of twelve characters on their personal journeys through this country and the last hundred years. They’re each looking for something – a shared past, an unexpected future, a place to call home, somewhere to fit in, a lover, a missed mother, a lost father, even just a touch of hope . . .

Unconventional, thought-provoking, pertinent, this is like a breath of fresh air. 

Without punctuation, the stories almost crash into one another, rolling like waves, giving the whole thing a rhythm that carries the narrative forward. 

Impressive, important and well-deserving of the Booker Prize, this is a novel I’ll remember for a long time.

‘How to Lose a Country’ by Ece Temelkuran

An urgent call to action from one of Europe’s most well-regarded political thinkers, and a field guide to spotting the insidious patterns and mechanisms of the populist wave sweeping the globe – before it’s too late.

‘It couldn’t happen here’

Ece Temelkuran heard reasonable people in Britain say it the night of the Brexit vote.

She heard reasonable people in America say it the night Trump’s election was soundtracked by chants of ‘Build that wall.’

She heard reasonable people in Turkey say it as Erdoğan rigged elections, rebuilt the economy around cronyism, and labelled his opposition as terrorists.

How to Lose a Country is an impassioned plea, a warning to the world that populism and nationalism don’t march fully-formed into government; they creep. Award winning author and journalist Ece Temelkuran identifies the early-warning signs of this phenomenon, sprouting up across the world, in order to define a global pattern, and arm the reader with the tools to root it out.

Proposing alternative, global answers to the pressing – and too often paralysing – political questions of our time, Temelkuran explores the insidious idea of ‘real people’, the infantilisation of language and debate, the way laughter can prove a false friend, and the dangers of underestimating one’s opponent. She weaves memoir, history and clear-sighted argument into an urgent and eloquent defence of democracy.

No longer can the reasonable comfort themselves with ‘it couldn’t happen here.’ It is happening. And soon it may be too late.

This is a really thought-provoking book – and one that perhaps everyone should read, in order to shake us out of the complacency that makes us believe the atrocities we watch on TV couldn’t happen here. They could, and they are.

Well-written, accessible, human – definitely recommended.

‘Love Lives Here’ by Amanda Jette Knox

All Amanda Jetté Knox ever wanted was to enjoy a stable life. She never knew her biological father, and while her mother and stepfather were loving parents, the situation was sometimes chaotic. At school, she was bullied mercilessly, and at the age of fourteen, she entered a counselling program for alcohol addiction and was successful. 

While still a teenager, she met the love of her life. They were wed at 20, and the first of three children followed shortly. Jetté Knox finally had the stability she craved–or so it seemed. Their middle child struggled with depression and avoided school. The author was unprepared when the child she knew as her son came out as transgender at the age of eleven. Shocked, but knowing how important it was to support her daughter, Jetté Knox became an ardent advocate for trans rights.

But the story wasn’t over. For many years, the author had coped with her spouse’s moodiness, but that chronic unhappiness was taking a toll on their marriage. A little over a year after their child came out, her partner also came out as transgender. Knowing better than most what would lie ahead, Jetté Knox searched for positive examples of marriages surviving transition. When she found no role models, she determined that her family would become one. 

The shift was challenging, but slowly the family members noticed that they were becoming happier and more united. Told with remarkable candour and humour, and full of insight into the challenges faced by trans people, Love Lives Here is a beautiful story of transition, frustration, support, acceptance, and, of course, love
.

Honest, brave, sometimes heart-breaking, ultimately uplifting. The author reveals a great deal about herself, her fears, her hopes, and is honest about mistakes she’s made. And it’s all told in a way that makes you feel as though you’re sitting down with her for a chat over coffee; the warmth and humour – and the love – comes through so clearly.

Sometimes, reading so much anti-trans nastiness on social media, it feels like we’re back in the eighties, protesting against Section 28 – the language feels horribly similar – and this book is a reminder that these are real people, who deserve to live their lives free from hate.

‘Dominicana’ by Angie Cruz

Fifteen-year-old Ana Canción never dreamed of moving to America, the way the girls she grew up with in the Dominican countryside did. But when Juan Ruiz proposes and promises to take her to New York City, she must say yes. It doesn’t matter that he is twice her age, that there is no love between them. Their marriage is an opportunity for her entire close-knit family to eventually immigrate. So on New Year’s Day, 1965, Ana leaves behind everything she knows and becomes Ana Ruiz, a wife confined to a cold six-floor walk-up in Washington Heights. Lonely and miserable, Ana hatches a reckless plan to escape. But at the bus terminal, she is stopped by César, Juan’s free-spirited younger brother, who convinces her to stay.

As the Dominican Republic slides into political turmoil, Juan returns to protect his family’s assets, leaving César to take care of Ana. Suddenly, Ana is free to take English lessons at a local church, lie on the beach at Coney Island, dance with César at the Audubon Ballroom, and imagine the possibility of a different kind of life in America. When Juan returns, Ana must decide once again between her heart and her duty to her family.

In bright, musical prose that reflects the energy of New York City, Dominicana is a vital portrait of the immigrant experience and the timeless coming-of-age story of a young woman finding her voice in the world.

What a wonderful book. Warm, heartfelt, honest and beautifully written, I just loved Ana and so wanted her to be happy. I felt all her frustrations, her dashed hopes, her spirit, and felt so invested in her story.

‘The Water Dancer’ by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Hiram Walker is a man with a secret, and a war to win. A war for the right to life, to family, to freedom.

Born into bondage on a Virginia plantation, he is also born gifted with a mysterious power that he won’t discover until he is almost a man, when he risks everything for a chance to escape. One fateful decision will carry him away from his makeshift plantation family and into the heart of the underground war on slavery… 

There are moments in this book that are terrifying, moments that are full of hope, of love, moments that are so frustrating and infuriating. And the magic, the supernatural, feels seamless, such a natural part of Hiram and such a natural part of the narrative.

The historic details add a further layer and there are stories within this story that are astounding to read. 

An absolutely brilliant novel.

‘Skint Estate’ by Cash Carraway

I’m a scrounger, a liar, a hypocrite, a stain on society with no basic morals – or so they say. After all, what else do you call a working-class single mum in temporary accommodation?

Skint Estate is the darkly funny debut memoir from Cash Carraway, a scream against austerity that rises full of rage in a landscape of sink estates, police cells, refuges and peepshows.
A voice that must be heard.

Cash Carraway tells it exactly like it is, with an intelligence and wit that makes reading this book bearable. Because without her skill as a writer, it would be unremittingly depressing. Which a life in poverty in the UK undoubtedly is.

It’s not just a blessing for the author that her writing and her talent has been recognised, it’s a blessing for the rest of us – her work is so important, and deserves to be shared. She’s a real talent, and I do hope she’ll write more of her experiences. 

Another year of fabulous books – and I have a huge TBR pile to welcome me into 2022! Happy reading and a very happy, healthy and safe New Year!

A Traditional Welsh Christmas #ChristmasTradition #Christmas #Wales

Beautiful Cenarth in the snow

This will be our third Christmas in Wales, and while COVID means that things aren’t quite how we expected them to be, one of the things we love about living in our small Welsh village is the real sense of community, especially at this time of year. Sadly, the beautiful candlelit Christmas Eve carol service in the local church, St LLawddog’s, has had to be cancelled again this year, but hopefully, in years to come, we’ll get to enjoy some of these fascinating traditional Welsh Christmas and New Year traditions.

Noson Gyflaith (Toffee Evening)

In some parts of north Wales, families would invite friends to their homes, in turn, to spend an evening eating, playing games, storytelling – and making toffee.

The ingredients were boiled, and when at the right temperature were poured onto a stone slate, or even the hearth stone. Then members of the gathering would cover their hands in butter and ‘pull’ the warm toffee, twisting it until it became golden yellow in colour. 

Plygain

Christmas for many in Wales meant getting up extremely early for the traditional plygain service at the parish church. Plygain was held variously between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. and many would stay up all night to await the service, filling their time with  decorating their house with holly and mistletoe, singing and dancing, or playing in the streets. There would then be a candle or torch lit procession to the church for the service.

Mari Lwyd

Mari Lwyd translates as the grey mare and is a Pagan tradition carried out in parts of Wales either around Christmas or in the New Year. 

The Mari Lwyd is a horse’s skull, decorated with ribbons and bells, carried around on a pole by a participant hidden in a cloak. Flanked by traditionally-dressed attendants, the Mari Lwyd then goes from house to house. At each house, they try to gain entrance by reciting a series of verses, to which the householder responds with their own verses in a bid to outwit the Mari Lwyd. Once the ‘battle’ is over, the party goes into the house to eat and drink – this brings good luck to the householder –  and then moves on to the next house.

The Nos Galan Road Races

In a rather healthier way to spend New Year’s Eve than drinking too much, up to 2000 runners gather in the afternoon in the Welsh Valley’s town of Mountain Ash to commemorate Guto Nyth Brân, who lived in the village of Llwyncelyn in the early 1700s. According to legend, he was such a fast runner that he could run to Pontypridd and back – a distance of seven miles – before his mother’s kettle had boiled.

This tradition was begun by local runner Bernard Baldwin in 1958. It starts with a church service at Llanwynno, where a wreath is laid on Brân’s grave, and a torch is lit. Races are then run in the town. These used to go on until midnight, when the New Year was welcomed in.

Calennig on New Year’s Day

“Dydd calan yw hi heddiw, Rwy’n dyfod ar eich traws I ‘mofyn am y geiniog, Neu grwst, a bara a chaws. O dewch i’r drws yn siriol Heb newid dim o’ch gwedd; Cyn daw dydd calan eto Bydd llawer yn y bedd.”

“Today is the start of the New Year, and I have come to you to ask for coins, or a crust, and bread and cheese. O come to the door cheerfully without changing your appearance; Before the next arrival of the new year many will be dead.”

This rather pessimistic New Year’s greeting is part of the traditional of calennig. Children, dressed in their best clothes, would visit relatives before midday, carrying skewered apples or oranges stuck with fruit and raisins. They would sing or recite rhymes in exchange for to gifts (cakes sweets, money, bread and cheese,  for example) for the New Year.

While Christmas may again not be what we expected, we are grateful that we are well, and safe and that we are able to spend the time together, with our two children. This year has been a difficult one for so many people, and the bad news sometimes feels relentless. So I hope you all have peaceful, safe, restful holidays with your loved ones, and that if you can’t be with family or friends, that you find a way to spend the season that brings you joy and contentment. 

WINTER SOLSTICE CELEBRATIONS #WINTERSOLSTICE #WINTER

There’s something about a cold day in December, the sky growing dark, the fire lit, candles glowing, a glass of red wine and a good book. Christmas is approaching and it’s already the shortest day. I’ve always been fascinated at the old traditions and history of the seasons and festivals, particularly those destroyed by conventional religion. And the Winter Solstice has something really magical about it.

The Winter Solstice is the shortest day of the year – the day that has the shortest periods of daylight. It’s always been a cause for celebration because it means that we’ve reached a turning point – that the days will slowly get longer and we’re on our way to spring (even if it doesn’t feel like it). Our ancestors always knew how to throw a celebration and the winter solstice was a great excuse. There are some fascinating traditions associated with the point of midwinter and many of them have been stolen to become part of Christmas. It’s wonderful that some traditions have been revived and some new ones are beginning.

Of course, COVID means that these celebrations will most likely not take place this year, unless on a smaller scale, but hopefully they will mark the end of a painful time for many and herald in the hope of new beginnings.

Burning the Clocks – Brighton, England

burning the clocks

A relatively new tradition, this began in 1993, but has its roots in the idea of lengthening days and shortening nights.

A procession of lanterns and costumes, all bearing a clock face, makes its way through the streets and down to the seafront. Here, the paper and willow lantern are burnt – the lantern makers make wishes, voice their hopes and fears, and pass them into the lanterns before they are placed into the fire.

Newgrange Gathering, Boyne Valley, Ireland

Newgrange is a 5200-year-old passage tomb built by stone age farmers. Above the entrance is an opening, On mornings around the winter solstice, a beam of light penetrates the opening and travels up the passage, illuminating it and the chamber. As the sun rises, the whole chamber lights up dramatically.

Stonehenge Gathering, Wiltshire, England

stonehenge-view-of-stone-circle-looking-south-west-along-axis-web

Druids and pagans gather at Stonehenge for both the summer and winter solstices. At the summer solstice, the sun rises behind the Heel Stone. At winter solstice, the sun would have set between the narrow gap of the uprights of the tallest trilithon, which is no longer standing. The sun was so important to our ancestors, providing warmth, allowing crops to grow. They must have had such fear and respect for the earth, the sun, the moon and the power of nature, something we sadly lack.

Montol Festival, Cornwall, England

montol2

The Montol Festival in Penzance is a revival of many of the traditional Cornish Midwinter customs. There is Guise dancing, (from ‘disguise’ – dancers hide their identity so they can get up to mischief!) the Cornish candle dance, and performances of Guiser plays.

Midwinter, while sometimes viewed as dark and depressing, can be a really magical time. So much of our history and heritage is in the traditions that pre-date religion. While there’s a lot of noise around the fears that Christmas is being overly secularised, it’s worth bearing in mind that winter has long been a time of festivals and traditions since long before Christmas. So here’s wishing you a happy, healthy Winter Solstice – and let’s look forward to the lengthening days ahead.

A Year of Goodbyes… and Hellos

It’s been a very odd year, one that has been full of ups and downs. For us it’s been year of hellos and goodbyes. 

CHARLIE LAST CHRISTMAS

The year didn’t get off to the best start. We adopted Charlie the galgo from the Spanish charity Galgos del Sol in November 2019. He’d been found on the streets, covered in fleas and ticks. When we got him, he was still a very scared boy, covered in scars, but he slowly became a great big soppy softie, full of love. Seeing him blossom into a happy, waggy‑tailed dog was absolutely wonderful.

CHARLIE WITH BELLE

But in January this year he became unwell. Unfortunately he had leishmania, a disease caused by a sandfly that he would have picked up back in Spain. The next two months were horrendous and for a time involved almost daily four hour round trips to the specialist vet – several times we were expecting the worst only for Charlie to rally. But he sadly died at the beginning of March. He was only four. 

We were all devastated, but because we’d seen what a home meant for Charlie, we approached Galgos del Sol again, at the beginning of April. It had taken a while to organise Charlie coming to the UK so we assumed it would take a while for a new adoption to go through, giving us a couple of months to get used to the idea of another dog (to join cocker spaniel Belle and Labrador cross Daisy). However, we were asked if we would take Annie, a galgo cross who had been rehomed a couple of years ago in the UK, and Ted, an eleven-year old Galgo who had come to the UK just before Charlie. Their owner was sadly ill and had to give them up. Of course we said yes –  so they both came home, just one week later.

They have settled in really well. When Annie was found as a stray in Spain she was pregnant, had her puppies at the rescue centre, and even adopted an orphan puppy. You can see a video of her rescue here. She’s a very special girl, bosses Ted, and acts like a mum, carrying shoes and slippers carefully to her bed, where she cuddles with them.

Ted was eight when he was taken to a kill station by his owner – his hunting days were over and he was no longer needed. Luckily the charity rescued him. How this dog ever managed to hunt I’ll never know. He’s a complete love bug, who likes nothing more than a cuddle and a bum scratch.

Our lovely Daisy, however, was showing signs of her age. She was another ‘impulse’ rescue – the runt of a litter, supposedly attacked by her mum, with a dodgy leg, and was going to be put down if she wasn’t rehomed in a matter of days. When she arrived she was obviously too young to have left her mum, but she went from strength to strength.

DAISY IN 2007

Goofy, food obsessed, completely loving, patient, with a penchant for drinking sea water and diving face first into muddy puddles, she defied all the odds to become a very old lady, who took to sitting in the garden barking quietly at the passing tourists.

We knew she was running out of time, but thought we’d have one more Christmas. Sadly it wasn’t to be, and she died on 18th November. Such a gorgeous girl, the house isn’t the same without her. 

Belle is now living part time in London with my daughter, so we have gone from four dogs to two, and are really looking forward to seeing Belle when she comes home for Christmas (and my daughter!). Family often say that we’re mad; they know we’re the ones that’ll take in any waifs and strays. But having so many dogs has really brought home to us what’s important and what matters. They can be messy and loud, and they walk mud into the house every five minutes. And sometimes it’s stressful – Ted ate a raisin the other day and I had to rush him to the vet so they could make him sick (raisins are highly toxic to dogs). I must admit as I stood outside the vets in the rain (it’s Wales!) holding a bowl under Ted’s head to catch his vomit, I did laugh (rather hollowly at the time) at where life has led me. But coming home to delighted dogs, always pleased to see you, watching them learn to trust and love you, is just wonderful. 

TED AND BELLE

If you are considering getting a dog, please do think about rehoming a dog from Galgos del Sol. I have been involved with animal welfare and animal rights campaigning since I was a teenager, and I have seen and heard of some horrific things. But the things that galgos endure in Spain are some of the worst I’ve ever heard of. From the Galgos del Sol website:

Galgos are widely used by hunters in the rural areas of Spain for both hunting and hare coursing with betting. They are considered disposable and when the short hunting season ends each year, tens of thousands are abandoned or brutally killed by their owners to whom they are no longer of use. 

Some GDS galgos are saved from perreras (killing stations) where their lives are due to be ended. The majority are abandoned or escapees living rough and scavenging to survive until caught by the GDS team who often face hostility from locals for rescuing a breed deemed worthless.

An abandoned galgo that has been living rough may have to be observed and coaxed with food for weeks and sometimes months before it will allow a human near. GDS has rescued galgos that have been thrown into wells, lain injured in fields, tossed into dumpsters, run scared in traffic, given birth on a roadside and left to die in abandoned breeding camps.

These dogs are wonderful – friendly, funny, loving, kind, gentle. They make wonderful companions and the love and trust they show to humans despite what we put them through is absolutely amazing. And if you can’t make the commitment of adopting then please consider sponsoring a galgo – details here.

Thank you.

Here’s to more muddy paws and muddy floors in 2022.