I've set up this blog so that all my friends, relations and colleagues in the world of writing can keep up to speed with what I'm doing - from now on, I'll never have to say sorry for not keeping in touch.

Or anyway, that's the plan.

So do please link up with me on Facebook and Twitter - https://www.facebook.com/margaret.james.5268 and https://twitter.com/majanovelist

You can find my novels as digital downloads on Apple iTunes, Kobo, Kindle and Nook, and most are available as print paperbacks, too.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Exeter Novel Prize - the Long List

Yes, it's a while since I've posted anything on this blog, so what have I been doing?

I've been reading - thousands and thousands and thousands of words, because of course all the entries were read from the first word to the last - for the Exeter Novel Prize 2015.  This will be awarded at a ceremony in Exeter in March 2016.  The ceremony is a public event to be held in the historic St Stephen's Church in the centre of Exeter on 12 March at 3 pm, and everyone is welcome!

Today, the long list is posted on the CreativeWritingMatters website, which you can find at http://www.creativewritingmatters.co.uk/.

So how did we (the members of the CreativeWritingMatters team, Cathie Hartigan, Sophie Duffy and I) choose the long list?

We read in a spirit of optimism. We hoped every entry would deliver a great story written in an engaging voice which was right for its genre or sub-genre. This isn't to say we were looking for genre fiction only - please don't think that! Literary, commercial, traditional, experimental - we were looking for excellent writing that invited us into the world of the story and made us want to stay there.  We wanted to be sad when we found we'd read a whole entry and couldn't read any more.

We looked for stories which seemed likely to keep their promises - which asked interesting questions and suggested their authors would offer readers satisfying resolutions.

There were quite a few entries which did these things very successfully but didn't make the final long list. Those below are the entries which also had that very special something.

We're relieved we don't have to choose the short list, which is London literary agent Broo Doherty's job!

Congratulations to the authors of the entries listed below.

We will be revealing the names of the authors when we announce the short list. All the reading and judging is done anonymously. So, if your own entry is there, please don't shout out yet!

A Mole of Sorts
A place at Tumaini
Cloud Cover
Down by the Riverside
Going Back
Holly and Ivy
Large is the Smallest We've Got
Orphaned Leaves
Prodigal Honey
Scotch on the Rocks
Strangers on a Bridge
The Chernobyl Privileges
The Fastest Girl in Red Hook
The Last Tiger
The Staircase on Calle Mayor
The Whole Truth

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Meeting Alex Dunn, whose debut YA novel has just been published

Hello Alex

It’s lovely to have you here on my blog today. Do help yourself to a slice of Christmas cake. I’ll just get the coffee on and then let’s talk about your lovely new novel for The Red Telephone Press: The Demon Magician.

Please tell us about the genesis of this novel – who or what inspired it?

AD: As you know, Margaret, I love to write, so when someone told me about NaNoWriMo - an annual internet-based creative writing project to complete a 50,000 word novel during month of November - I knew the only way I could do it was to write about something I knew well.  My parents, and my mother in particular, loved horror and she introduced me to that genre very early in life.  Some of my fondest memories are staying up late on Friday night to watch the Hammer Horror films, Mum reading Edgar Allen Poe to me, and listening to old radio plays (in particular The Man in Black). This, combined with some of my other passions: gothic music, fashion and a good-looking, charismatic demon with a wicked sense of humour, is how The Demon Magician came about. I simply wrote about what I loved, all mixed up with love, humour and lots of drama.

MJ: When and where is The Demon Magician set, and why?

AD: It’s set in present day, in a small town fictional town somewhere in the south of the UK. Ultimately, when writing horror, fantasy or science fiction, you have to ground the story in a reality your reader can relate to.  Hence a normal town, with normal shops and a girl-next-door heroine leading a normal life - that is, until she meets the Demon Magician…  

MJ: The book has a gorgeously spooky cover featuring cadaverous hands and a hooded creature with a single red eye. Did you play any part in its design? What does the cover say about the story?

AD: I did have a hand in the design so I’m glad you asked me this. I brainstormed several ideas with an online designer and ultimately agreed on the lone image of a dark magician because it was the most powerful visual that summed up the story. Jonathan is a magician gone bad.  He’s in servitude to Belphegor, one of the seven archdemons of Hell, and lives his life in the shadows.  The cover needed to show him because he is at centre stage of all the events. I especially loved the font that was used and I’m very proud of myself finding it using a font search tool.

MJ: Who is your ideal reader for this novel?

AD: It is being marketed as a YA Fantasy Horror and would appeal to anyone who loved The Demonata series, The Vampire’s Assistant by Darren Shan, Charmed, and my personal favourite Buffy the Vampire Slayer. That said, I’ve always read YA and thoroughly enjoyed it. Thanks to a recent marketing survey, I’ve discovered I’m not alone because an increasing number of adults are now enjoying YA, which is one of the fastest-growing literary genres.

MJ: You’ve written the novel in the first person. Do you feel the first person viewpoint is the most appealing and do you always use it? Or was it merely right for this story?

AD: First person was right for this story. If it wasn’t written in first person, you’d have no sympathy with Ella when she knowingly takes a gift from a demon, or be able to experience the conflict with her on such a personal level when she realises she has to stop Jonathan who used to be the love of her life.  You need to hear her inner voice at all times – it’s what drives the story forward and sucks you into the magic underworld of demons and black magic.

MJ: You live in Hong Kong. Does Hong Kong inspire your fiction? Or, when you write fiction, are you escaping from Hong Kong?

AD: You can’t help but be inspired by Hong Kong.  It is amazing, and I can’t believe how lucky I am to be living here. We have ultra modern buildings, luxury shopping malls and spas built on top of and squashed between markets, temples, local medicine shops, lovely little tea houses and more restaurants per square foot than anywhere else on this earth, I’m sure of it. There’s also amazing countryside, beaches and some beautiful little islands, which are like stepping back in time – we’ve even got our own Gold Coast! It is a hundred different places in a relatively small surface area, with every nationality all somehow living in harmony. However, it’s the Hong Kong people’s spiritual beliefs and rituals that tend to inspire my writing.  They are a very superstitious people – 8 is lucky, 4 very unlucky (we have no fourth floor on any building).  When things weren’t going so well for me at work, one of my friends put curly bamboo on my desk to help change my luck and there are rituals to honour the dead.  What I really love is their temples.  You go there to pray for good luck, and if the prediction is bad, you burn it in the fires and leave all your bad luck behind, and if it is good – you take it with you.  You can’t lose!

MJ: What is next for Alex Dunn, fiction-wise?

AD: I’ve several other YA fantasy novels almost completed, but the one I am racing to finish is another demon story.  This time it’s about a demon who opens a spa and makes people thinner, younger and prettier in return for their souls.  It’s a lot of fun and quite topical given the obsession we all seem to have with outward appearance.  I’m also able to draw on my own diet experiences that are extensive and not all of them successful. J

MJ: You’ve successfully published your first novel. What advice would you give a new writer just setting out on the journey you took?

AD: Be patient, because getting a book to print is a marathon not a sprint.  It takes time to edit, time to make revisions, time to see if marketing strategies work – it even takes a long time to do fun things like the cover. Patience is a mandatory requirement for all authors.

MJ: Do you feel everyone has the potential to become a storyteller?  Or are storytellers born rather than made?

AD: I believe we all have it in us to write a story, but not everyone can tell one.  I listen to a lot of audio stories when I work out, and love listening to the likes of Stephen Fry, Rik Mayall, or John Hurt.  They perform the story. They make it come alive, and it’s the next best thing to reading the pages yourself.

Five Quick Questions

Do you prefer:

Animals or people?

Err, that’s a tough one, but I’ve never met an animal I didn’t like so I’ll have to say them, although that doesn’t mean I don’t like most people I meet, too.

City or country? 

City – I like convenience and excitement.

Company or solitude?

Solitude, but only because it’s a luxury these days.

Exercise or the sedentary life?

Sedentary – I go to the gym but I don’t enjoy it.

Ship or plane?

I really don’t mind as long as it’s first class. J

Thank you, Alex – it’s been great to chat to you! Good luck with this novel and with many more to come!

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Madness and mystery in Naples and Devon - chatting to Cathie Hartigan about her debut novel Secret of the Song

Hello, Cathie - welcome to my blog on this rainy morning! 

I'm delighted you've agreed to chat to me about your debut novel Secret of the Song, a time slip story set in Renaissance Naples and 21st century Devon.

MJ: What was the original inspiration for this novel?

CH: A few years ago when I was in a small choir we were given a song to sing by Carlo Gesualdo, one of the main characters in my book. I’d never heard of him. The music was difficult and we all got very grumpy. Although the music was written back in the 16th century, it sounded very discordant, almost avant garde. The choirmaster then told us about Gesualdo’s notoriety. When I did some research into his life, I was hooked.

MJ: What particularly attracted you to writing a time slip story?

CH: It was at the same rehearsal that I first wondered whether madness could be somehow transmitted in music such that it affected the musicians who performed it. When I think of those ‘maddening’ tunes that seem to go round and round in the head for days on end, earworms they’re called, then it seems quite likely. I thought I would write a contemporary novel about a singer finding out about Gesualdo and then wondering if a piece of music could be cursed, but when I read the witness statement by young Silvia Albana, I was so taken by her plight, that I decided to interweave her story. She was the seamstress and confidant to Gesualdo’s wife, a princess who behaved so recklessly that she endangered both herself and poor Silvia.

MJ: How do you work – are you a planner and are you most definitely in charge, or do you let your characters guide you into their stories and do you take your cues from them?

CH: I have a plan but it isn’t very exact, although I do know what the big questions are that I’m trying to answer. Writing a few chapters in order to really immerse myself in the world helps me too, and I get to know the characters more thoroughly. That’s usually when I pause and tighten up the plan.

MJ: As a classical musician and singer yourself, do you feel you have a mission to encourage more people to take an interest in classical music and – if so – was this one of your motives for writing this novel?

CH: I certainly felt I had a mission when I trained to be a music teacher but that was quite a long time ago. Now I think the best way to encourage anyone to do or enjoy anything is to be passionate about it. I absolutely love singing the sort of music I have written about and if I can enthuse my readers to go and listen to (or better still, sing) any Italian or English songs written during Tudor times, it would be fantastic.

MJ: Who is your favourite character in Secret of the Song?

CH: That’s very difficult because I’m so fond of several, but I think it’s got to be Mollie. She’s the precocious ten year-old daughter of Lisa, my contemporary heroine. There’s considerable negotiation that goes on between mother and daughter. There’s one particular scene I’m fond of where Mollie has a secret and Lisa is trying to find out what it is, even though she’s always told Mollie that secrets shouldn’t be revealed.

MJ: Do you have any tips for people starting to write a first novel?

CH: Ask yourself what your novel is about and keep asking until you can answer with confidence when someone asks you. Try practising on already published novels.
Think about your plot in terms of scenes. Start each one with intrigue and end with sufficient jeopardy (not necessarily life-threatening) to make your reader want to turn over.

Five quick questions

Do you feel more at home in a town or in the countryside?

I’ve lived in both and while I’m now more at home in a city, I do miss having the breathtaking beauty of the Devon countryside on my doorstep.

If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?

I love Devon so it would have be here, and I’m not a great traveller, but a small pad in London and perhaps the Dordogne, and somewhere near Florence, and maybe by the Med…

Who are your favourite composers?

I keep coming back to Bach when I play the piano, but I have a very eclectic mix of music on my phone. All sorts from the Renaissance period, but I also have Mozart, Brahms, Puccini, and quite a few albums by Pat Methany, the jazz guitarist.

Do you feel any other writers particularly influence your work?

I think all my reading has influenced me, but I remember loving a book by Barbara Trapido and thinking, she can turn the emotion on a pin. She could do funny and serious equally quickly and yet it didn’t jar. Could I do that?

What’s next on the writing agenda for you?

I have notes and a few chapters for two novels. One is a historical novel in which I revisit Renaissance Italy and it features one of the Catholic plots against Elizabeth I, and the other is a contemporary story about a restoring an old property in the face of considerable opposition. I’m not sure which novel will come first in my affection yet.

Thank you, Cathie - it was good to talk.  Many congratulations on the publication of this lovely novel, and here's to great sales now and in the future! 


Friday, October 9, 2015

Sophie Duffy talks about her latest novel

Bright Stars is Sophie Duffy's new novel, out this month and already twinkling in the Amazon skies! I caught up with Sophie yesterday when we had a coffee in the Debenham's cafe overlooking Exeter Cathedral, and we had a lovely chat about Sophie's story. It features four friends who were at university together and whose later lives don't quite work out in the way they might have expected - or planned. 

MJ: I see this novel is partly set at Lancaster University.  So were you a student there yourself and is this story based on any of your own experiences?

SD: Yes, I studied English there from 1986 to 1989 and I borrowed heavily from the landscape there at that time, both geographical and political. But the story and characters are most definitely fiction. I later got an MA in Creative Writing which I studied for by distance learning. It was strange going back for summer school and revisiting old haunts. Lancaster University is going from strength to strength and I think it’s quite a unique place to study. As long as you don’t mind wind and rain.

MJ: Where did the character of Cameron come from – did he walk into your head and say write about me, is he based on anyone you know?

SD: I wrote the first draft of Bright Stars in the third person from four points of view - Bex's, Tommo's, Christie's and Cameron’s. I wanted to show how four completely different people can become friends when they are thrown together in a confined space. But something didn’t quite work. Someone asked me whose story it was and that made me realise it was indeed Cameron’s story. So I didn’t set out to write in a Scottish man’s voice but that’s how it ended up.

MJ: How did you get into the mindset of a man?

SD: Cameron’s not a testosterone-fuelled man. He’s a sensitive soul. Doesn’t like sport or beer. He’s a little quirky and different and that’s the kind of character I like writing about, so I just went with it.

MJ: What’s your favourite part of the creative writing process?

SD: The last quarter of writing a novel, when it all starts to come together and makes a whole. I love it when that happens but it is a slog getting there.

MJ: Who are your own favourite authors and have any of them influenced your own writing?

SD: I love the Thomas Hardy and George Eliot – their use of flawed, complex characters has definitely informed my writing. I also love writers who use a sense of humour to show the extraordinary in the ordinary – David Lodge, Kate Atkinson, Barbara Pym are my favourites.

MJ: You’re a very successful contemporary novelist. Do you have any ambitions to write historical fiction?

SD: I would love to write an historical novel. In fact, my current work-in-progress begins in the 1920s, so I am creeping backwards… I would also love to write a ghost story and am mulling over some ideas.

MJ: What are you working on now?

SD: I’m writing about the life of a female undertaker – a profession that has always fascinated me. Not that I am morbid or anything.

MJ: As a prize-winning author who is also involved in mentoring and judging the work of other creative writers, do you have any tips for people just setting out on their creative writing journeys?

  • Do a writing class or join a writing group.
  • Read lots of current books.
  • Just write. Anything and everything. You have to write a lot of rubbish until something good bubbles up. 

MJ: Thank you, Sophie - it was good to chat!

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

When the weather outside is frightful, Christmas is so delightful...

What? It's only August! It's still high summer!

Yes, that's absolutely the case. But Christmas is coming and the CreativeWritingMatters team - that's Sophie Duffy, Cathie Hartigan and I - have been busy putting together an anthology of short stories, quizzes and puzzles for the festive season that we hope will make you feel all warm and cosy, whatever the weather.

We've written a selection of stories about all the aspects of Christmas that mean most to us. It's the season of goodwill, but at Christmas time there is often some tension in even the most loving families. What about those who have no families? Or who have been let down or hurt at the time of year when everyone feels it's their duty to be positive and happy? What does Christmas mean to them? We would like to share our thoughts with our readers.

As for quizzes and puzzles - we've done our best to make these sometimes easy, sometimes challenging, sometimes difficult and sometimes almost impossible. We hope there's something for everyone there - and, if you just can't get the final answer to the final puzzle, all is revealed at the end of the book.


Saturday, August 15, 2015

Valerie Holmes and I celebrate the publication of her new novel

Hello Valerie!
It’s lovely to have you here on my blog today.  Do help yourself to a cupcake. Chocolate or vanilla? I’ll just get the coffee frother going and then let’s talk about your lovely new novel for Endeavour Press: To Love, Honour and Obey.

Oh, a chocolate cupcake would be lovely!
 Please tell us about the genesis of this new novel – who or what inspired it?
The title conjured up the image of a man who had all three qualities, but the last one caused him inner conflict as he desired to be free to choose his own path in life. Beth, by contrast, has love  and life in abundance, but has been forced to obey. So it was one idea feeding into and evolving another.  

Where is it set, and why?
I often set my stories against the very beautiful and dramatic scenery of moor, dale, sweeping bays and the dramatic headlands of North Yorkshire, where I grew up. Great places for action and adventure. The region has a strong history of smuggling in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, which I find fascinating.  
You’ve written lots of short novels that have been successfully published.  This is a longer book.  How different was the writing experience?
It made a change to be able to take the storyline further and spend more time developing my characters. After having had 36 novellas published in print, which I have been uploading as eBooks, it made quite an enjoyable change and challenge.
I know you love history.  What is it about the past that’s so appealing?  Tell us about some historical novelists who have inspired you?  Whose readers do you hope will love your own longer stories?
I like to develop adventure wrapped around a romance or involving a love story. I have been inspired by many authors across the genres: Bernard Cornwell, Conn iggulden, Georgette Heyer, Daphne du Maurier, Diana Gabaldon and of course Winston Graham's Poldark. 
 What is next for Valerie Holmes, fiction-wise?
I am currently working on another novel The Ebton Legacy, which will be set within the North Yorkshire region, and also the second mystery in the Nick Penn series to follow Dead to Sin, called Dead Man's Pain. I also have an entirely new project beginning in 2016 and more titles to prepare of my backlist, so I have a lot more work in progress.
I also have a number of short stories on www.alfiedog.com
As the author of over thirty novels that have been published in paperback, large print and as ebooks, what advice would you give a new writer just setting out on the journey?
Study the markets by all means, but write what you feel passionate about and enjoy the experience. Be determined, dedicated and keep learning as you develop your craft. Keep writing and don't give up if you really want to make it through. 
You teach creative writing.  Do you feel everyone has the potential to become a storyteller?  Or are storytellers born rather than made?
There are many skills a writer that can be taught. However, the imagination and passion have to come from the person. So I believe everyone has the potential to be able to write a story. 
Five Quick Questions
 Do you prefer:
 Cat or dog? Dog
 Town or countryside? Coast :)
 North or south? Ooh - I enjoy both for different reasons. I live in one and enjoy visiting the other.
Present day or the past? Oh, that is easy - definitely the present. I love reading about the past, but prefer to have the creature comforts, technology and freedom of the present day.
Company or solitude? Company - friends and family are very important to me.
Thank you, Valerie.  It’s been great to talk to someone as inspiring as you.  Good luck with the new novel!
Thanks so much, Margaret, for inviting me and for your  support.
Love the adventure!
New book release - buy To Love, Honour and Obey on Amazon!

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

RNA Conference 2015

The highlight of my year - or one of them, at least - is always the annual RNA Conference.

The Conference is held in various locations all over the UK. But this year it took place at Queen Mary, University of London, where I went to university myself 25 (ahem - well, I do make things up for a living) years ago. QM is to be found in the heart of London's East End and has always been an amazing place. While I was there as a student, I had a really good time. I got an education, too.

Conference organiser Jan Jones did a brilliant job once again and we're all hugely grateful to Jan. Who could ever take over from our lovely Jan and her sidekick, the indefatigable Roger Sanderson? Organising a conference for the RNA makes herding cats look like a breeze in a brewery. Yes, I love a good mixed metaphor!

It was great to see so many old friends again. These are people I've known most or even all my writing life, and with whom I keep in touch via private messaging and social media. But it's always wonderful to see them again, have a chat and a hug and (of course) a glass or two of wine. Hello again, Freda, Jane, Linda and Rhoda - looking good, ladies!

Some highlights of the Conference this year  - and this is the result of a quick poll I did at the Conference itself - were talks by various members of the RNA, particularly the sessions given by Julie Cohen, Rowan Coleman, Liz Harris, Sue Moorcroft and Pia Fenton. Below, Pia and Sue show us how to get inside our characters' heads and also inside some very gorgeous kimonos that Pia has collected over the years on her many visits to Japan.

It wasn't all work and chatting.  There was time for some leisurely walking and idling. I made some new feathered friends by the canal, which back in the day was full of coal barges and wasn't a pretty sight, but is now home to a wide variety of wildlife and a few houseboat people, too. Who would have imagined finding this almost rural tranquillity in the heart of London's old East End, which was bombed to bits during WW2 and was once home to some of the poorest, most disadvantaged slum dwellers in the UK?

The gala dinner on Saturday evening was wonderful. Perfect service, lovely food, a great atmosphere - who could ask for anything more? The last time I was in the Octagon Library I was revising for my finals, which was a far less jolly occasion. But it was time well spent. I got my degree.

What do writers need in order to be happy? One fabulous venue, to which we'll add a mix of industry gossip, general catching up and great food that we didn't have to cook ourselves.Then we'll all go home inspired and happy. My fellow Choc Lit authors and I were delighted to meet up for a group photograph and you'll see we scrub up really well. I think so, anyway!

See you all again next year!