The night before Christmas……

I’m writing this on Christmas Eve.

I’ve spent part of the day with 33 young children and their parents and carers, acting out the age-old stories of Christmas, singing well-loved songs and carols, closing our eyes and communicating with God. You don’t have to believe all the stories word for word. But the message behind those stories is for all of us. It’s for little Imogen who loved it when we sang Happy Birthday to Jesus. It’s for Jasmine and Joe whose sister went to hospital this morning. It’s for Ernie, who made an incredibly neat and careful nativity scene in the creative session at the end, as well as for the very small boy who filled the stable with a hotchpotch of stick-on figures. The truth behind Christmas is for all of us, especially for those who can’t really believe it’s for them.


Frog: (Merrily)

Christmas in the pond was never like this.

Ten things you need to know about …

Swanwick Writers’ Summer School

Hayes Conference Centre, Swanwick, Derbyshire

10th–16th August 2013


1 Swanwick, as it’s affectionately known, is a writing holiday in beautiful surroundings. Some people have been going back for years and years.

2 The rooms are clean and comfortable, and the food is delicious. (All dietary needs catered for.)

3 You never feel lost or lonely, because everyone is friendly. There’s a reception for first timers, so right from the start you feel you’re among friends.

4 You meet people who want to talk about writing, reading, and the creative process, as well as simply enjoy each other’s company.

5 There are courses for all kinds of creative writing, also for the nuts and bolts of writing, for example, editing your manuscript, promoting your work, blogging, tweeting, and more.

6 Beginners and published writers are welcomed. Everyone learns, everyone shares expertise.

7 You choose your courses at Swanwick on a day to day basis. There’s such a freedom in doing this, and there’s always room for you. Some are one hour sessions, others an in-depth study spread over several days.

9 You can take as much time out as you like. When you start to feel brain overload, find a quiet spot to write or read, or simply relax.

8 There are lots of extras, which this year included an open mic session, a retro disco, a writers’ quiz, the book room, and of course the bar, which is always buzzing with conversation.

10 The after dinner speakers are talented and entertaining, and have a lot of expertise to share in a lively interesting way.

Next year’s Swanwick Writers’ Summer School is from 9th -15th August.

Find out more at



How to live a thousand lives


“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.” (George RR Martin, in the mouth of his character Jojen Reed)

Long ago, in the days when most people in Britain lived hard, simple lives, and worked the land, there was a season called Lammas. I don’t suppose it began exactly on 1st August, because two summers are never the same. Lammas was/is the season of harvests – first the corn, and then the picking from the hedges and orchards – blackberries, apples, pears, nuts.

There was a druidic festival held at this time – Lughnasadh, It was held in honour of the great god Lug, who is commemorated in the Roman name in the Roman name for Carlisle, Luguvalium, meaning the fortress of Lug.

In Shirley Toulson’s book The Celtic Year, I read about the twelfth century Archbishop of Brecon, Giraldus Cambrensis, who described “a strangely mutated version of this festival”. Apparently the lads and lasses gathered from miles around, and danced in a wild and over-excited circle round the churchyard on 1st August, the feast day of the local saint, Almedha, singing wildly. That was the Celtic bit. The Christian part came when the gathering had to mime all the unlawful (in the eyes of the church) things they’d done on feast days, for example ploughing with oxen on a Sunday, tanning hides at Pentecost, spinning flax or weaving on Good Friday.

Was this a case of two cultures merging without anyone noticing very much?

In 1990, Brian Friel wrote a play called Dancing at Lughnasa. It’s set in 1936, in the home in County Donegal, Ireland, of five sisters and one seven year old boy. They welcome home their only brother, Jack, who has spent the past 25 years working in a leper colony in a remote Ugandan village. This is one of the most moving stage plays I’ve ever seen, mostly because Jack has become so much part of life in Africa, he has absorbed the culture and the spirituality of the people among whom he worked, and now he is more or less an outcast in his own native community.

This morning I opened the September issue of Writing Magazine, and read about Karen Armstrong has been awarded the inaugural British Academy Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize for Transcultural Understanding. An amazing prize for an amazing woman. But what is amazing too, is that every reader can share in understanding other cultures and religions.

As George RR Martin says, courtesy of Jojen Reed , “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.”



FROG: (precariously)

What do you mean, precariously? I’m investigating the lives of tree frogs.




Oscar Wilde often makes me smile. “I never travel without my diary,” he wrote. “One should always have something sensational to read in the train.”

April 23rd was World Book Night, which celebrates books and spreads the joy and love of reading. For the third year in a row I was fortunate enough to be picked as one of the book givers. I had to apply to give away a boxful of books, and there was a list from which to choose. I wanted to pick a novel I had read and enjoyed, and I wanted something that most people would like, something that would interest those who seldom pick up a book, as well as those who already love reading. I chose Rose Tremain’s The Road Home, and so far feedback has been positive.

What makes a book something you have difficulty putting down? The writer’s style is important, yes, but more than anything the plot has to be gripping, doesn’t it?

Here are my pointers for a successful book:

  • A brilliant opening.
  • Pace
  • A satisfying ending, whether it’s beautiful, stunning, unexpected or poignant.

There’s nothing quite like a book that delivers all three of these. Now all I’ve got to do is apply this advice to the novel I’m working on.



 FROG: (indignantly)

What do you mean – lost the plot? I’m doing research for  my next story.

Choosing a title


Not bad for the title of a short story?  Sounds a bit legalistic maybe? Something about a murder, perhaps?

Actually it’s the name of the current file I’m working on. The Deddington Trial  simply means “Here’s a draft for a story I’m planning to enter into the Deddington Writing Competition.”  The only thing that smacks of a trial, is finding a title.

I’ve read the story aloud, slowly, three times, and the only things that jumped out at me were typos and bits that didn’t sound quite right. I’ve drunk two cups of tea, eaten an Easter egg (small, well, smallish) and thought very hard.

Finally I’ve remembered. In 2008, I won a copy of How to write and sell short stories by expert Della Galton. Surely she has a chapter on titles. Oh good, she has.

I skim through and then find what I’m looking for. “Are there any short cuts in finding a good title?”  Here we go. Della’s gems:

“Echo the theme in your title.

Use well known phrases. Borrow well known titles from songs or films.

Use titles that play on words.

Use alliteration.

Use words that wouldn’t normally go together.

Proverbs, or part of proverbs, make good titles.”         P1110351

Brilliant. This shouldn’t take too long now. I think I’m ready to face The Deddington Trial again.

Read Della’s blog at


FROG: (lolling about nonchalently)

Lord of the Frogs – just about the perfect title.

Unhappy endings

“When you write happy endings you are not taken seriously as a writer.” 

This quotation is attributed to writer Carol Shields in a book called More Women’s Wicked Wit, a compilation of sayings put together by Michelle Lovric in 2003.

This month, one of the books I’m reading is Janice Galloway’s Collected Stories. A tribute on the front cover reads, ‘She gets beneath the surface of life and exposes the bones… Writing has rarely been so visceral.’ The Times Literary Supplement describes her as one of Scotland’s ‘most gifted and original writers.’

The stories I’ve read so far have been vivid and powerful, with a strong and distinctive voice. Some of the characters have crept off the page and followed me around for days, and no, I haven’t found any happy endings yet. Her story Fearless concludes with the words,  ‘The outrage is still strong and I kick like a mule.’ I am discovering slowly what this amazing writer has to say; trying to understand what makes her so…… angry.

Janice Galloway’s stories are extremely well crafted. I want to write as well as she does, but I do like endings that have a sense of hope about them, even if they’re not wildly, or even moderately, happy. Surely a writer can do this, and be taken seriously as well.

FROG: (checking the frogspawn) P1110339

I’m hoping for a happy ending here.