Sunday, 20 September 2015

Ups and Downs

Writing can be full of ups and downs – which is no different from life itself, of course.

Just in the last couple of weeks, my YA novel was rejected by a publisher – although that could, perhaps, be counted as half a tick, as I had got as far as having the full manuscript read.
Then came the launch of ‘Secondary Character and other stories’, the WSSN anthology, which included my PENfro-winning story, ‘Ingrid, Audrey and Jean.’  This was definitely an ‘up’ moment, though there I was again, reading in illustrious company.  

Secondary Character Book Launch, WSSN
'Secondary Character' book launch, Swansea
(Photo courtesy of dp-multimedia ©)

However, I was lucky enough to have a few old friends to support me, and I think it went well – it was certainly an enjoyable night.  The book is available on Amazon, if anyone wants to buy it! 

A couple of days after that, I was emailed the results of a competition, with my entry nowhere to be seen.  Always a bit depressing, when you believe the story to have been a good one…
But following swiftly after that, came the results of the PENfro memoir competition, and I learnt that my work, ‘Revenant’, had been commended.   I was really thrilled by this, both on a ‘professional’ and a ‘personal’ level.  From the writing point of view, this was a form I had never tried before.  Indeed, I have never studied, or even read, memoir.  So it was a particularly satisfying result – all writers tell themselves short-listing is what counts! 

On a personal note, this was the first time I had written about having breast-cancer (I don’t intend to make a habit of it.)  It was difficult – in a way, I was using the competition to shape my thoughts… using writing to shape my thoughts.  Therapy, perhaps, but I still wanted to produce a good piece, and I think the commendation tells me that I did.

I’m including the whole memoir here – I’m not sure where else it could go, anyway.  It’s meant to be positive, so, family and friends, thank you, as always, and don’t be upset!  And thank you, also, Pembrokeshire.

Pembrokeshire Coast
(Photo courtesy of dp-multimedia ©)


Coming here…  I was going to chase ghosts.  To run after tattered wraiths of memory, and make them live again.
Coming here… was bound by a dream-catcher.  A web flung far, to trap ‘finding a home’, ‘building a garden’, ‘connecting with nature’ all together, and making them real.
It was about living in a place where land met sea, and saints met stones, in provocative confusion. A landscape of contrasts, dramatic enough to shake awake any idling spirit.  All washed in an Atlantic light, that was said to inspire the work of artists.  Writers, too?  Maybe.  Perhaps.
Instead, there was darkness. Fear, needles, blood, pain.  Black.  Black, again.  The spun dream become the worst of nightmares, holding me fast.

On the day we arrived, it started to rain.  Not unusual for the far west of Wales.  But it carried on raining for thirty days and thirty nights, a span of biblical proportions.
And then it began to snow.  The first snow in a decade, we were told by our new neighbours – and that was strange.
Still, it didn’t matter.  Spring was coming;  soon, there would be everything we’d hoped for.  The walks along the coast path, sharing its unique wildlife; the beginning of the garden, a novel finally finished.  That ‘home’.
And then came the dark.  ‘Black’, the word they use for depression.  ‘The black dog’.  But for me, ‘black’ is the time around my diagnosis of breast cancer, and the treatment that followed.  All woven together with coming here…

‘Here’ was Pembrokeshire. The ghosts I looked for varied in substance and form.  My great-grandparents haunted a lonely valley to the north of the county – or perhaps the next, or even another, its location shape-shifted across boundaries by men in distant council offices.  And the church where my great-grandfather preached had long been demolished, the manse turned into a farm, abandoning them entirely to a place that did not exist.  Yet, from ‘somewhere’, my grandmother walked ten miles to school in Llandysul – so she said – and rode her horse, and flirted with the curates, who visited that lost vicarage. 
There was another vicarage to the south, where a hundred-year old woman, dressed in deepest black, sat, unseeing, unmoving, in a pose stolen from a Victorian daguerreotype. She was the mother-in-law of my god-mother, descended from the ancient princes of Wales.  The house was a haphazard of rooms – a scene from a fairy-tale, to the eyes of a child.  And this was the revenant I craved most of all – my childhood self, as if, found, it would conjure the magic of the past into the promise of the future.
For Pembrokeshire was about ‘holidays’ – those interludes from the long passage of days, that stay locked in memory, and thus, most likely to keep that innocent wonder safe.
So I searched for an eight, nine, ten-year old girl, walking along the beach at Newport, and on to the cliffs beyond, where she would sit, gazing at the sea.  In St. David’s, alone with her father – a rare treat.  In Tenby, she almost drowned, though no-one else will acknowledge it.  At Ceibwr, she frowned at the wrinkled cliffs. In Nevern, someone said there was a tree that bled, and she believed it.

And then, with the coming of illness, none of this mattered.  ‘Here’ became no more than a bed, in a room still full of unpacked boxes. Family and old friends wrapped me in comfort and love.  But the new friends I had hoped to make were reduced to an ever-changing circle of women, with tubes in their arms, and fear in their eyes. Writing was forgotten – reading was hard enough.  And the exotic wildlife spawned by the ocean was diminished into the most common garden kind.
Mostly, I saw crows.  Or rooks, to be more precise.  Lying there, recovering from the latest dose of chemotherapy, they were the only things I could see, as they nested in my neighbour’s trees.  I came to love them – my only animal companions.  And I learnt something about crows.  When Pandora’s box was opened, and all the evils of the world let loose, only the crow remained, clinging to its edge.  And so the bird became a symbol for hope.  Of what might be.  With luck.

The early summer slipped through my fingers, always out of reach, but as Autumn approached, I was able to get out more.  The cliffs were difficult, steep slopes defeating me. But there were plenty of flatter areas – the beaches, Newport estuary, Cwm-yr-Eglwys to Pwllgwaelod.  Solva harbour.
As I walked, I gave my hair to the birds of Pembrokeshire.  Golden filaments, stroked out and left in the bushes for them to collect.  Looking back, I see it was the wrong time, the nesting season finished.  Still, it gave me comfort then.
I picked up white pebbles from the beaches, and slipped them in my pocket, to scatter about home and garden. Quartz, to counter negativity.  For health.
And I decided to keep a wildlife diary.  My ‘proper’ diary was full of appointments, treatments, scans.   I wanted something else.  I wanted to reclaim Pembrokeshire.

August 22nd.  Newport. Spotted a gold crest, smaller than a wren.  An egret flew over the estuary.
September 12th  - seals, at Strumble Head! A mother suckling her baby, the youngest I have ever seen!  Pure joy!

And then,
18th September, Porthgain.  Walked up to the beacon for the first time since...

Porthgain Beacon, Pembrokeshire
Porthgain Beacon
(Photo courtesy of dp-multimedia ©)

Onward, upward, became one of my many mantras.  I carried on.  And on.

It’s five years ago, now. 
Sometimes, I still see ghosts.  Perhaps some of them are real.  There must be some in that room, who didn’t make it through.  But others are dimly recognised shades, their hair grown back, their faces filled out, their eyes determined.  ‘Do I know you?’ I think of saying.  ‘Were you..?’  But I let it go, and move on.  Just as I’m going to do, when I finish writing this.
I’ve been officially discharged.  I walk the cliff path all the time, even the highest points.  I’ve seen dolphins, porpoises, dozens more seals, puffins, guillemots.  I’ve finished that novel – and another, and made friends through the writing of them.  The garden this summer is the best it’s ever been. Pembrokeshire is the best it’s ever been.
Being here … that’s all there is.  Just that.

Pembrokeshire Wildlife, Puffin, Egret, Seal, Dolphin
Pembrokeshire Wildlife
(Photo courtesy of dp-multimedia ©)

Sunday, 23 August 2015

My Story in Print!

A great moment - to be reading my PENfro-winning story "Ingrid, Audrey and Jean" from a book!

Welsh Short Story Network
(photo courtesy of dp-multimedia ©)
I couldn't wait for the launch, so ordered a copy of "Secondary Character and other Stories" from Amazon.

Welsh Short Story Network
(photo courtesy of dp-multimedia ©)

It's really exciting to see and hold it "in the flesh", and I am so pleased with it.  Many thanks to Opening Chapter (the Publisher), Barrie Llewelyn (Editor), Jo Mazelis for the cover, and all the other Welsh Short Story Network contributors, of course!

Welsh Short Story Network
(photo courtesy of dp-multimedia ©)

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Reading Aloud

Reading my work in public for the first time in such illustrious company as Tyler Keevil, Carly Holmes,  and Maggie Harris was probably not the best of ideas.  

(photo courtesy of dp-multimedia ©)

But the ‘Cellar Bards’ in Cardigan is a welcoming and supportive group, and I was lucky enough to have some friends and friendly faces also contributing that evening.  

(photo courtesy of dp-multimedia ©)
(Anne Marie's Blog)                   (Jackie's Blog)

So… well, I did it, and really, it wasn’t so bad at all.

(photo courtesy of dp-multimedia ©)

The Bards meet every month, but Friday was the celebration of their third birthday, so Tyler was invited as their special guest.  He was a great choice, as his reading was so entertaining, drawing the audience into his story, holding our attention, making us want to know what happened.   He himself believes this is partly due to having an excellent drama-teacher in school, which shows, perhaps, the element of acting necessary to reading as performance.   Fortunately, I bought his book, so I know what was in the bag…

And for anyone who might want to know what happened in the rest of my story, it’s soon to be included in an anthology called ‘Secondary Character’, published by Opening Chapter.  (More details to follow!)

(photo courtesy of K. Drinkwater)

Thanks to everybody at the Cellar Bards, particularly Tyler  - and Carly, for being such a great compère, with a good word to say about every participant.  And also to Tyler’s parents, who were just so nice!

Saturday, 6 June 2015

A feeling of place

Layla’s walking up the hill again, up to the top of the Mountains that ‘flaunt themselves in patchwork, fashioned by flora and weather.  Green, brown, purple with the heather.  Red with the dying sun, white in the heat of the day.  Only when the rain clouds slink over the Bluff do they turn dark as blankets.  But still they call them black.’

This is an extract from one of my stories, currently featured in the online edition of ‘The Lonely Crowd’ magazine (  It’s great seeing it up there, and I’m particularly pleased because it’s set in one of my favourite places – the Black Mountains, the hills in the eastern part of mid-Wales, sheltering the small town of Talgarth, where we used to live.  I always felt that both the mountains and the town suffered from lying in the shadow of more famous neighbours – the Brecon Beacons; and Hay-on-Wye, the town of books, kings and emperors, and the greatest literature festival in the world.  Talgarth was always being declared - by estate-agents, anyway  - ‘up and coming’, and it’s well on the way now, with its highly-regarded mill/café venture (as seen on TV!), and fashionable residents, such as Owen Sheers and the guitarist from ‘Blur’.   But I loved it even back then, when it was in struggling small-town mode (closing facilities, boarded-up houses)– and I especially loved the mountains that rose above it.

Perhaps that’s why they feature so much in my writing. The main character of half my dual-narrative novel lives in a secluded house in the middle of them.  My collection of what I call ‘folk’ tales is set in various locations in and around them.  And now there’s ‘Queen’ – or as it was originally titled ‘Queen of the Black Mountains’.

In it, Layla turns out to be a figment of the narrator’s imagination – just as both these characters, and their ‘stories’ are figments of mine.  But the hill Layla climbs is real enough, leading from Talgarth, past the gates of what used to be the psychiatric hospital, and on, up to the heights.  And there are plenty of other images, still perfectly clear in my mind, insinuating their way onto the page. The Mace was the focal point of the Square, with a crowd of gossiping old women a permanent fixture  outside.  The Balloon Man wandered about, and Nike cap girl. And I remember looking out of our bedroom window soon after we moved and seeing the purple mountains, and thinking ‘they’re not black, at all’.  I’ve used this image here, and repeated it in several stories, just as I’ve done with the freedom ‘Layla’ feels up on the mountain tops – something I myself always experienced, the kind of emotion that only ‘being there’ might reveal.

Writing about the topic of setting in ‘The Guardian’ recently, David Nicholls talked about whether ‘being’ in a location was necessary for a writer, in these days of virtual mapping on Google.  His own preference is for first-hand experience, but he quotes many examples of fine novels, with perfectly-drawn, evocative settings, where it is well-documented that the author never visited.

For me, place, whether in fiction or real life, is to do with those emotional reactions, - connections, one might say - which have the ability to colour our perception of our surroundings and so influence our response to them.

I never really liked Northamptonshire, or Buckinghamshire, where we also lived, although I appreciated their ‘green and pleasant’ countryside, and their chocolate-box villages.  But I loved North Wiltshire, and, in particular, its ‘mythical/mystical’ elements – Avebury Stone circle and all the other megaliths strewn about the area;  Silbury Hill; the barrows; the white horses; the crop-circles (it never seemed to matter whether they were man-made or not - walking into one of them, the woman in front turned to me, with an ecstatic look on her face, saying ‘Can you feel the vibration!?  Can you feel it!?’  Well, I couldn’t, but I still shared her wonder).  Avebury is the setting of my Young Adult novel – a key aspect of which is how the three teen characters view this mysterious environment. And I hope my own ‘connection’ will be conveyed to my teenage readers, and allow them to share in its magic.

Avebury stones wiltshire megalithic
Avebury Stones (photo courtesy of dp-multimedia ©)

As a writer, setting is a way of keeping the place with me, long after we’ve departed, as it has been with those Black Mountains, left even longer ago.

I haven’t set anything in Pembrokeshire yet, but I’m sure I will – that empathy for the landscape certainly exists here.  How could it not, when I am surrounded by its spectacular, ever-changing coastline, amazing wild-life, and its own sprinkling of magical stones?  I’ve got a few ideas, idling in the back of my mind, waiting to come to the fore.  Waiting for the right moment.  But not waiting for us to go from here, this time.  Home – another sense of place altogether.  And perhaps the best one of all.

Pembrokeshire Coast ramsey sound st. justinians
Pembrokeshire Coast (photo courtesy of dp-multimedia ©)

Saturday, 25 April 2015

A Pause for Thought

Buddha statue

A pause.

The Golden Egg book map is finished (in some form or other…).
The sun is shining.
Spring is rushing by, and the brambles, nettles, and creeping buttercup won’t hold themselves back, just because I want to write.


Three days of work in the garden.  Three days of hard, physical labour, away from the computer, books, words.

Except, of course, it doesn’t work like that.

To begin with, I’m writing this blog in my head.  Such a long time since I posted last - that book map!  So I’m putting down a few thoughts, just to let any friends and family, who bother to check this out now and then, know that I’m still here, writing!

But it’s not only that…

Stories have a habit of behaving like a small child, and claiming your attention, no matter what you’re trying to do.  You may have decided that you are going to abandon them – for a few hours, days, weeks, even.  But they see things differently.

So here I am, on my hands and knees, for all the squirrels, birds and Buddhas to see; trowel in hand, weeding amongst the bluebells.  And all the time, my head is with a little girl in Avebury.  Sometimes, she’s right up in the front of my mind, whilst I work out what she’s saying, to whom, when.  At others, she’s just there, idling at the back, carrying on her own life, doing what she likes to do. It would be easy for me to say that these thoughts have been triggered by the tiny bird, ferreting around in front of me.  The girl (my YA novel’s heroine) is called Wren, after that bird.
But now there’s a young woman with a mother who says she’s God  - the subject of a short story I’m working on.
And the man with the axe, from a story I’m editing, keeps on reminding me not to forget him – there’s still work to be done.

Perhaps it’s just me.
Perhaps I need to practise my mindfulness, and learn to feel the earth beneath my hands (and knees).
Or perhaps it’s the way a story owns you, even though you thought it was the other way around.

Whatever it is, it’s not such a bad thing – to find yourself lost amid the wonder of these imagined lives and worlds, when what you seem to be doing is straining your back, whilst pulling up goose-grass in a Pembrokeshire back-garden.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

E-Book Experience - an example to us all

Yesterday, I had my first experience of uploading a novel onto Amazon's Kindle Store.

Uploading to Kindle Store
Uploading to Kindle (photos courtesy of dp-multimedia ©)

Well … not really.
The technical aspects were left to my husband, who knows the difference between a JPEG and HTML.
And it wasn’t my book.   It was ‘Single or Double’, a debut chic-lit story by a friend of mine, Julia Horton-Powdrill.   (see

single or double, e-book, julia horton-powdrill
Single or Double?

 Together with Sheila, another writer friend, I’ve been with Julia since the moment she decided she was going to publish her work-in-progress as an e-book.   This is a route I personally don’t want to follow, preferring to continue to aim for the ‘traditional’ print approach – though, as with so many things, it’s better never to say never.  Still, accompanying Julia has given me an interesting insight into the process.  What has surprised me is the amount of work involved.  It’s commonly said that it doesn’t take long at all, but that’s just the final up-loading bit. Getting to that point takes a lot of effort and determination.  Obviously, there’s the essential ‘first write your book’, but once that’s done, much of the role of the publisher has to be taken on by the author – editing, proof-reading, cover design etc. 
In this case, Julia would be the first to admit she’s been given plenty of help by a number of friends, and if you’ve already clicked onto that website, you’ll understand why we were all so happy to do so. 
All the proceeds of ‘Single or Double’ are going to ‘Prostrate Cancer UK’ – a charity close to Julia’s heart, following the death of her husband, Brian, from the disease last year.

We all write in different circumstances, or ‘environments’.  These include our physical surroundings, our mental or emotional states, our personalities, even.
From the physical point of view, we all may covet that ‘room of one’s own’, but few of us are lucky enough to get it.  I’m at one end of our bedroom, with a dressing-table as my desk – not ideal, apparently, especially since I’m not a good sleeper, and a bedroom is supposed to be devoted to just that – bed.  Julia, in happier times, likes nothing better than to write on a train journey – also not ideal, since she lives in a town miles from any railway.  Another friend manages on her lap, while family life goes on around her, rather like Jane Austen.
How much harder it is to write in the space governed by our emotions and what is going on in our lives!  We have all heard of those past writers in their garrets, suffering from TB, madness, and extreme poverty, yet producing works of genius.  How do they do that!?  For myself, I need my head to be in a good place if I’m to write anything at all.  If there are any problems around me, I’m lucky to be able to read, let alone put down some words on paper.
Julia has produced this book in extreme circumstances.  Her original hope and intention was for Brian to live to see it published, but that was not to be.  Instead, she took her story from first draft to this moment before, during, and just after Brian’s death.   She likens it to her equivalent of running a marathon, and the work involved has surely been as long and hard.  Some may call it distraction, therapy, displacement, but it has still been a remarkable endeavour.
And for this, she deserves our admiration and should be seen as an inspiration for us all – including myself.  Just as with the physical landscape, we must manage as best we can.  So no more excuses in 2015 – I  (we) must just get on with it, and write, write, write!  And who knows where it will lead?

Uploading to Kindle Store, celebration
Celebrating the achievement (photo courtesy of dp-multimedia ©)