Child Narrators

One of the delights of returning to the same house each summer is finding books which are old favourites. Looking for a book to read I found Jane Gardam’s A Long Way to Verona. Great! Because the novel is told by a child narrator and the next draft novel I have to consider and re-write has a child narrator.

I should say here is that I began this process while I was following the Unthank School of Writing on-line course How to Write a Novel. And what a kick start that was. So I am looking forward to returning to this task in the autumn.

The peace and quiet here has given me the chance to research other novels written in children’s voices. I ignored the books written for children. My novel is for an adult readership. I can’t ask Charles Dickens what his target readership was but we know he read his novels, weekly (maybe) in instalments, to a huge crowd of people, both young and old.

The internet is a wonderful thing. Here are my findings from searching for ‘first lines’, ‘first paragraphs’ or the title of the book. Here are the first paragraphs or quotes from the books which give me helpful examples of how to introduce a child narrator to my reader.

First the age-old classic, once on the school syllabus and which most of us hated reading.

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o’clock at night. It was remarked that the clock began to strike, and I began to cry, simultaneously.

This opening is only helpful in that this was not the way I want to write my opening.

Next a book which I read as a teenager, having a boyfriend who didn’t leave the house without a Penguin Modern Classic, with those iconic silver-grey covers, in his pocket.

Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me… Besides, I’m not going to tell you my whole goddam autobiography or anything… Where I want to start is the day I left Pencey Prep.

Not perfect (it’s clearly set in the USA) but lively and amusing. Better.

Now my almost, but not only, favourite.

A Long Way From Verona by Jane Gardam

I ought to tell you at the beginning that I am not quite normal, having had a violent experience at the age of nine.

Later: When I had been at Cleveland Spa (her new school) for simply ages and was twelve years old…..

I like her ‘voice’, her self-deprecation and the way she skips time, ‘simply ages’.

This last novel is also a favourite and a cheat. Merricat, the narrator of the story is, at 18, an adult. However, her mind-set is juvenile and immature but gloriously imaginative and wicked, clearly enabled by some kind of syndrome. This is a horror story which works because it is told and enacted by a girl who enchants us into loving her before we know the terrible truth about her.

We Have Always Lived in a Castle by Shirley Jackson

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.

This novel is essential reading for me before I start my re-write. Merricat is the character in literature which is closest to my child narrator. She has a fascination with wierd animals and she identifies with an ‘other world’. She isn’t bothered about cleanliness but prefers to be surrounded by peace and quiet. She’s a reader of history books and is self-taught about natural history. She is loyal to her sister.

In this quest for how to re-draft a novel with a new child narrator, I must acknowledge two sources of encouragement and help:          and

The Literary Hub for their essay on We Have Always Lived in a Castle at

More next week.




Holidays are odd, aren’t they? When I was a child we had an annual holiday of a week by the sea. To begin with we stayed with my maternal grandmother – making accommodation free – three of us sleeping in the same double bed, swimming in the grey waters of the English Channel, sitting on shingle to eat our ice creams. Shivering all the while. Later, after my brothers were born, we stayed in slightly tatty holiday flats so the only difference was that my mother could make corned-beef sandwiches for our picnic lunch. However, these holidays gave me the material for a novel set in the 1950s, on which I am now working.

Today my lap top offers me a screen saver photo of a desert island beach with a palm tree. Done that too. The beaches were smothered with rotting bananas. We don’t do beach holidays.

So here we are, after 3 days of traversing Europe, in our lovely shared house in Italy. This house was bought with an unusual arrangement – 6 couples pooled their money to buy the skeleton of a building, still with rooms on first floor, workshop and barns on the lower level. Outdoor stairway – see picture below. We restored it. The group system, not a time share, works. The Italians are completely confused by 6 owners and since it’s so expensive to change the ownership of a property, all house bills are still addressed to an owner who died twenty years ago.

I digress. On our holidays we work. My husband prunes, gardens, shops and cooks, as well as do any admin on the property, while I write. Friends stay, family stay, we visit neighbours. Who are also beginning to die. Oh yes, and another previous owner has her ashes buried in an olive tree on the patio.

This piece is becoming gloomy. I will write about the writing process when I have put some new words on the screen.



The Working Pattern

Within the writer’s life, there’s a different kind of taking a break.

My online course with the UnthankSchool has finished. I’ll miss it, the weekly challenges, reading the other students’ work, getting advice from them and my tutor.

I’m making progress on working with a professional editor on my memoir – only now, I’m told, it’s a bio-novel. I’m fine with that.

I cannot pick up the novel I was re-writing on the above course. It is the wrong time to be doing nothing but write. And to write a novel that is just what you have to do. Get your head down and do nothing else. Writing is not compatible with family life, or having holidays or seeing friends. Writing a novel requires uninterrupted months, preferably in a long, dark, wet winter. It is May. Suppose to be early summer. I have ahead of me plans to see my family and friends and to take holidays already booked and in the diary. All of which mean fragmented time. Snatched hours, or, if I’m lucky mornings, when I can  polish or submit work.

Luckily I have a collection of short stories waiting for attention. Most, but not all, of them have been submitted and rejected. So plenty of words to be re-written. One story has just been rejected but no matter. Now I look at it, it is out of date. It’s set in a village in the fifties. Can I bring it into today’s world, setting it in London? I try. It works. It’s faster paced and more interesting. My work on short stories over the next few months has begun.

Here are some of the organisations and events I aim to submit for:

The Fictive Dream – 500-2K words at any time.             Done 15/5/18

The Bridport Prize – no more than 5K words by 31 May.

The Fiction Desk – 1-7K words by 31 May

The Yeovil Literary Prize – various categories by 31 May

Bird’s Thumb – 1-3K words by 1 June

The VS Pritchett Prize – 2-4K words by 29 June.

(click on the name for a link)

Those are my challenges. Let’s see if I make them all.




Taking a Break

We all know taking a break is a ‘good thing’. We’ve been hearing about the benefits of a sabbatical in the news this week as the government considers sabbaticals for teachers. Apparently they refresh your attitude and energize you to put more into your day, in short, work miracles. I’ve never had a sabbatical, only paid holiday leave when I worked in a regular job.  Any holidays I took with husband and two children usually left me exhausted and longing for term to start.

I have been holidaying in Cornwall. As a 13 year-old girl, I discovered Daphne du Maurier whilst visiting Fowey. During that week, I took her novel Rebecca to the beach, on walks, to meal times, to bed. I fell in love with writing. (I had been in love with reading since my grandma taught me aged 3.)

This time I visited The Tate at St Ives, showing Virginia Woolf – An Exhibition Inspired by Her Writings.  The first painting I saw was The Blue Ship by Alfred Wallis (1855-1942), a harbour painted flat; then an old favourite, a self portrait by Gwen John (1876-1939) also her delicate painting of her room in her Paris flat. Also displayed were several paintings by Vanessa Bell.  I read letters from Virginia to Dora Carrington and Lytton Strachey, in either tiny handwriting or that battered typeface of an ancient manual typewriter so familiar to those who began their writing life before laptops.

A painting by Clare Attwood (1866-1962) attracted my attention because of the length of its description. ‘Vita Sackville-West in Ellen Terry’s 1895 costume for Portia in William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice for the Masque at Knole 3 July 1910.’ So many answers to so many questions if you knew the questions to ask. The visitor was told the painting illustrated ‘the challenges to conventions and gender normalities these women enacted.’

Totally up to date. Only today men are allowed to enact those challenges too.

I bought a thin Penguin paperback of selected stories of Virginia Woolf.  This edition has a detailed introduction and is illustrated with woodcuts by Vanessa Bell. The stories might not either startle you or astound you but her precise and detailed writing is a joy to read.




On line publishing

For years I avoided this. For years I’ve been trying to publish the traditional way. I’ve had some successes but small ones. Seven draft novels sit in the cupboard and I keep typing.

But, in the end, the internet is irresistable and I have been seduced once before.

This week, I have a short story, born out of my memoir, published by The Mechanics Review, a publishing venture connected with Birkbeck College of the University of London. It is a matter of contacts and making use of them to, at least, publish something, somewhere. And where better than with a university. Now I come to think of it, I was published by my MA university, the University of Chichester. That was a poem, and while I am proud of it and appreciate ChiUni including it in the anthology, I would never claim to be a poet or aspire to be one.

I am about to finish the How to Write a Novel Course by The Unthank School and to embark on the self-publishing journey with my memoir.

For now I can say I am proud and happy to be published by mironline at





You think you have finished…

My memoir is complete. I have written all want to write. I have told my story. I have lost count of how many drafts I’ve created. I’ve been writing various versions of this history for the last 16 years.

Lesson 1. The first draft won’t do. Most writers create, destroy, re-create. Writing takes a long time and much devotion.

A patient member of my family has checked and re-checked, at each new draft, for style, content, order of episodes, smoothness of reading, omissions, grammar and spelling. I’m by nature a minimalist writer so sometimes I have taken his suggestions on board, sometime not.

Lesson 2. You cannot complete your task alone. However, it is your manuscript. You have the power to say ‘No’.

When my story was in novel form, (and I thought it was finished) I submitted to agents. Nothing doing. As a memoir, I submitted to independent publishers. Nothing doing.

Lesson 3. Submitting and getting rejections is a learning process. You are forced to accept your work isn’t good enough, or not suitable for, the current market. You could give up, but I’m not writing this for quitters.

I have, at last, accepted there is no commercial market for my memoir. But I am still sure there are those ‘out there’ who would want to read it. I have decided to publish the book myself – one way or another.

Lesson 4. Be realistic and optimistic.

I certainly don’t want to waste my money on an amateur product so have found a professional editor, who knows my work, to copy-edit my manuscript. And a free-lance cover illustrator if I want to use one.

Lesson 5. Self-publishing is a big step. You need helping hands on board.

I have investigated partnership publishing (you pay a percentage, the publisher pays a percentage) and self-publishing (you find a self-publisher with a reputation for being reliable, you pay for whichever services you want to buy and that publisher fulfils your order).

I have made progress along this path. I’ve attended a self-publishing day offered by one company, obtained quotes for publication from more than one company, investigated marketing and distribution arrangements offered by more than one company and I have obtained draft contracts from more than one company. I have learnt they are not all on the same playing field.

I am almost ‘ready-to-go’. I have the six week fallow period, while the manuscript is copy-edited, to re-read and compare, think, add up the sums, research book shops I can approach for ‘Saturday tables’ to sell my book and talk to everyone I know who has experience of this big adventure.

Lesson 6. Publishing a book is a slow process. (I have rejected publishing only an e-book). Learn all you can about the services on offer. If you can, meet the teams involved. Most importantly, think, discuss, think again, discuss, think one more time and be sure you know what you are doing.

This is your book. It is precious.



Writing Towards an Achievement

This week I am to submit the work I have produced, on the Unthank School’s ‘How to Write a Novel’ course, for their appraisal.

With the 5000 word narration from the novel I have been working on with the tutor, I am asked to attach an evaluation of my writing. A synopsis is optional. Writing a synopsis is horrible. There is no other word for it, to reduce your slaved-over manuscript to a thousand words or maybe less. To write slick prose which will capture the eager eye of an agent or editor or, more likely these days, of the proprietor of an independent publisher. I have written one which will do, which I will, no doubt, alter before it goes anywhere else. A synopsis inevitably fails in its task, to sell your book on a single idea.

The evaluation, however, is a challenge, one to be taken seriously. After all, I have paid for this course, I have developed my writing as a result of this course and I need to satisfy myself the time and money spent was worthwhile.

If that sounds mingy, it is. It is mingy of me to reduce the enjoyment I have had from following the course, the challenge I have met in doing my best to complete every one of the four exercises set each week – hands up time, this last week, I have failed by one – and the enlightenment I have experienced in reading the lectures, learning from them and putting the principles into practice.

It’s not the first time I’d read about both the 3 and 5 Act structure for a novel. About the mind-boggling 36 dramatic situations some guy called George Polti constructed, about the 20 master plots developed by Ronald B Tobias and about Aristotle’s theory of drama. I have a copy, on my bookshelves, of Christopher Booker’s volume The Seven Basic Plots. But had I ever evaluated them, made notes about them, analysed them or applied them to my novel? I had not. But now I have.

I had not heard of Field’s character questionnaire but had fun filling it in, getting to know my characters. I have written a time-line for my novel, three possible opening chapters, the inciting incident for the climax of the novel and the final chapter. I have changed the choice of the narrator’s voice. I have made that much progress.

In response to one exercise, I wrote a piece called The Writer’s Walk which you can read in a blog on this site.

What I have not yet done is to assemble my 5000 words for the evaluation. There’s always tomorrow.

Never give up on something you can’t go a day without thinking about. Winston Churchill.

A Writer’s Day

As a reader of the Saturday Guardian, I do miss the former, now demised, Review Section. My five minutes with Tim Lott were a tonic as were the many other sections of this publication. I understand re mounting costs but seems sad that various aspects of life are becomming thinner. Especially in the world of writing.

It occurred to me a piece on my day as a writer would be a small offering which might  fill the gap. This week, when the person living with me is off skiing, I am able to totally please myself as to what I do. Writer’s heaven.

When I first wake, often before 6am but always before 7, I indulge in a quiet think about where I am in my writing life and what I should achieve that day. As today is a Sunday, I must submit my final exercise for my How To Write a Novel course with the UnthankSchool.

But, I’ve had it impressed upon me, that I must improve my ‘online’ presence (for a forthcoming project, more of that later). I switch on my laptop, click the Firefox icon, then the link to my email box. One from the skier, one from another family member, none to do with writing. Well, it is Sunday. The twitter link brings more hope. Several tweets from unknown fellow writers and readers wishing me a happy birthday for yesterday and one from The Sunday Times who say they are now following me on Twitter. Immediately, I reverse my decision not to buy that paper today. Send a writing- connected tweet. Finally, I check my Unthank link just in case someone on the course posted work after I’d closed down yesterday. Nothing. Check again later.

Make a cup of tea and return to bed to write first half of course exercise. An hour later, I click ‘Save’ and get up. I always write better in bed. My mother was correct. (See Page, ABOUT)

Out to buy my newspaper and then to eat breakfast, in silence, with my reading glasses on my nose and the paper spread all over the table. Food always slows my brain. I check the TV listings in case I want to record anything. This flat has not joined whichever century we are in with ‘watch on demand.’

Eventually do complete the exercise and give myself a pat on the back. Not because I think it is done and dusted but it’s great to have written a possible ending for the novel.

After that things either move more speedily or the day is in decline, whichever is your point of view. Coffee while I listen to Desert Island Discs, turning the pages of the paper and thinking, no, no no… Put all papers in the recycling bin. A second coffee and a session ‘tidying up’ the hard drive on my recording box brings me back to my study where I print an email from Matador, the self-publishing publisher, and make a good resolution to open a file on this after lunch.

The heating has turned itself off. I warm up with a large sherry and turn on oven. With food in or on oven, I open a bottle of red wine. Eat and drink. Later, back to the TV to watch old stuff before I delete, a task which requires a second glass. Small snooze.

Tea wakes me up, getting me back to study. Re-run the social media routine and, on Unthank site, find work to comment on. Suddenly, it’s five o’clock and time for Paul O’Grady on BBC2. Create file. Give it a pat. Regard all the papers on the floor of my writing room and decide they can wait. As can creating a ‘must submit a short story’ list. It’s Sunday. Always on a Sunday, at six o’clock, we have a sherry.

Reading this over, I can understand why the Guardian scrapped those entertaining articles on a writer’s day. I won’t delete this though because now I can add to my list of achievments for today with the item ‘Published a new blog on my website.’

It’s dark. Time to draw the curtain.



Writing a Walk

We are drawing to the end of Module Three of the How to Write a Novel course, on-line with theUnthankSchool.

I will talk more about this illuminating course later – giving away no free-bies. However, I want to show you what emerged from an exercise we were asked to do during a section of the course about settings. Obviously a vital ingredient of a novel. Stories must take place somewhere.  Remember, ‘Once upon a time, on the edge of a great dark forest, stood a cottage …’

I already had the two settings for my novel, the protagists’ home and her ‘other world’ more exciting, challenging and frightening than her normal surroundings. We have the choice not to do any of the exercises if we don’t care to, but why would I do that?

The exercise was to take a pencil and notebook outside and write stuff down. On this sunny day, I fancied a walk and, you’ll never believe this, I, the writer, had never written the real world before. Not ever. So I did. And this is what came out of my walk.

Branches draw untidy sketches across a smooth sky. The seats are patterned with raindrops, the wet grass shiny and empty, except for a crow, stalking and pecking. Few people straggle on the tarmac paths, all a darker shade of grey. Across the green, a motorbike roars its way to a house where pizza is on the lunch menu. On the near side, a tube train, released from its dark tunnel, rackets along. Only three more stations before it can rest up. A spreading puddle, turning the path into a bathing pool for pigeons, forces me to walk on ground slithery with mud and London clay.

A light breeze tickles my nose and I want to laugh, until a cyclist whizzes past, crash helmet on, prepared for a mishap even if I am not.

I cross to the other side at Fishers Lane. Fishing? Where? Or perhaps Fishmongers. When?

There’s sun on my face now but the breeze has become sharp wind. Past the once disused church, now a resurrected gospel-singers’ concert hall with a play-group hut in the garden. And here come the children, their tiny faces muffled with scarves, chattering and clinging onto a rope for safety, as innocent as Lewis Carroll’s oysters, being led across the sand by the Carpenter.

It is 1642. I am on the far side of the common, where the northern flank of the Royalist Army is facing up to troops led by Colonel John Humphrey, a parliamentarian. Canons boom, swords flash and smash. Instead of petrol fumes and the horns of irritated drivers, the air is darkened with smoke and tainted by soldiers’ oaths. But the battle is undecided as are so many of life’s conflicts.

On the way home, I walk under a tree with pink buds heralding spring and a blackbird trilling his good news.

I recommend breaking a morning’s writing with walking. And the exercise recommends the course. There’s a new one starting in May.




Leonora Carrington

Leonora Carrington, a surrealist painter, lived from 1917-2011.

Her paintings were her personal symbolism of metamorphosis, magic, the unconscious mind and dream imagery. She painted fantastical, hybrid creatures, half human, half animal, perhaps referring back to Greek myth. Her work refers to sexual identity but not as the established Surrealists did by stereotyping women as objects of male desire. Instead, she drew on her life and friendships to represent women of all ages, putting female images within male dominated environments and situations. Rings a contemporary bell?

Why am I, as a writer, interested in her?

Because reading about her, examining her life history, throws up questions which also concern writers.

Briefly, the destructive events in her life were:

Expulsion from 2 schools; The arrest of her lover Max Ernst by the Germans at the start of WWII; His abandonment of her after he escaped and fled to Spain; A nervous breakdown possibly culminating from her anxiety and delusions; Her ‘hospitalisation’ in an asylum where she received ‘convulsive therapy’ and a powerful anxiolytic drug later discredited.

On her release, she sought refuge in Mexico, recovered, wrote a novel and developed her painting. She married and had 2 sons. She died from complications arising from pneumonia.

 All of which makes us consider:

Is a solitary or a destructive life essential for creativity?

Can dreams feed into your work?

Is emotional deprivation essential?

Are you a rebellious and uncollaborative person?

Do you need the freedom to do what you want, write what you want, imagine the unimaginable, dream the impossble?

 Are you afraid of not fitting in?

As an art student, the surreal painters fascinated me. Salvador Dali hypnotised me. After a painful episode in my teenage years, I dreamt ghastly images which I transferred to paintings of a surrealist nature. They were hung in a Brixton Gallery.

I still read fairy stories. Grimm, Hans Anderson, The Red Fairy Book, The Green, The Blue etc. Carrington’s paintings would make perfect illustrations for those gruesome tales such as Bluebeard.

It has taken me years to be brave enough to allow my writing to following the magic realism path.

Did I need the freedom to write how I wanted to? Yes. Was I afraid of not fitting in? Yes.

Did I need permission to explore my deepest fears or desires? Seemed I did.

Watching a performance of Kafka’s Metamorphosis at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, I was entranced by this creature living on the ceiling. I believed.

I read Angela Carter but couldn’t ‘go there’ with her. A performance of Nights at the Circus, again at the Lyric Theatre, was pure magic. I was converted.

Did Leonora Carrington believe trauma was essential to the painter?

Since she didn’t explain her work, no one will ever know.

Is trauma essential to being a writer?

Once I’ve written my experiences on the page, I’m delivered.