Author Archives: Margaret

About Margaret


Writing – a solitary occupation that brings people together?

Whilst on holiday last week I read I’m the King of the Castle by Susan Hill. This is her grimly compelling novel about the relationship between two small boys; one a bully, the other his victim.

In a postscript she summarised the origins of the story. She had rented a remote cottage where she could work uninterrupted on finishing another novel. Her tranquil surroundings inspired her – the beautiful surrounding countryside including a nearby wood, the unusually hot weather, and two small boys who she often spotted when out on her daily walks. These boys seemed like great friends, unlike the two in her novel. But they provided the germ of an idea for a new story. By the end of her sojourn, she had written the opening chapters of I’m the King of the Castle, and outlined the rest of the plot in her notebook.

Although the book is about children, she wrote it with adult readers in mind and, what she thought, were adult themes exploring evil, isolation, and a lack of love. However it has often been a set book for school exams and seems to resonate, to an alarming extent in her view, with the fears and pro-occupations of teenagers. It was written before the era of social media, but the account of bullying by one child leading to another taking their own life, is thoroughly modern.

She admits that it is a ‘dark’ book, even though it emerged as an idea in a beautiful place, and many people have written to her to tell them how much they dislike it. My copy, picked up in a charity sale, looked unread, a friend warned me that I would not like it, and I did find it an uncomfortable read. But other people have been gripped and have told her: ‘That’s what it was like for me. [Your story] made me realise I haven’t been alone.’

This, she feels, is one of the reasons why she and others write novels: to make some people realise that they are not, after all, on their own. Or, as the seventeenth century poet, John Donne, put it – albeit in a different context, ‘No man is an island.’

Links to my books and social media



Super writing tips.

These aren’t my super tips. They are from Joe Norman, whose book – The Super Tutor: The Best Education Money Can Buy in Seven Short Chapters, is published this week.Luckily for us, two chapters are devoted to writing and here are some of the tips he comes up with.

In the chapter on how to hone your writing style he recommends splitting your allotted time into three parts. First try staring out of the window a lot without really thinking about exactly what you want to say, followed by examining your thoughts – perhaps making a few rough notes, but not actual sentences.

Next, when you get round to the actual writing, try writing as you speak – find you voice, in other words. Though, if you don’t like your own voice, you can always aim at being a cleverer, wittier, version of yourself. As Cary Grant once said, ‘I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be until I finally became that person. Or he became me.’ Writing by hand can force you to think harder and to cut out waffle and padding words like ‘very’ and ‘really.’ Use ‘said’ in preference to any other word relating to speech, and avoid exclamation marks.

Having spent the second third of your time writing, you should spend the last third checking it, at least to start with. As Hemingway said, ‘The first draft is always shit.’

In his chapter on how to write fiction, Norman says there are only three kinds of sentence: action, dialogue, description. ‘You don’t have to use them in equal amounts, but if you don’t know what to write you could simply put the letters A,D,D down the left hand side of a blank page of paper, then write a sentence (or paragraph) of action, followed by dialogue, followed by description.’

And repeat.

And repeat.

He quotes Aristotle who says there are only three acts to a story: beginning, middle, and end.


as David Mamet puts it:

Act one – stick your hero up a tree.

Act two – Throw rocks at her.

Act three – Get her down again.

Norman recommends eavesdropping on people in public places to get a grasp of authentic dialogue.

His tips are aimed at exam taking school students and their parents, and may strike the aspiring adult writer as a bit simplistic. But he is a highly paid ‘super tutor,’ so his methods must work for a lot of people. If you are stuck with writer’s block, or struggling to move your story along quite as you want to, one or other of his ideas may work for you. Personally, I’m going to try the staring out of the window suggestion.

Links to my books and social media

HerStory (2) – talking books, writers and readers.

Saturday 30th March. Picture for yourself nearly 20 women and two men, aged from about 15 to 70, in an airless, windowless, side-room in Coventry city’s main library. Outside is is a beautiful spring day. Inside we are talking about HerStory – why women write and do they get a fair deal?

The poet, Emilie Lauren Jones compered, and I was on the panel with two poets, Sarah Leavelsey, and Malka Al-Haddad who is originally from Iraq. It was all part of the Positive Images Festival 2019, in Coventry – the nominated City of Culture for 2021. There was plenty of audience participation.

First of all we discussed whether women get the recognition they deserve. Why it is that awards seem to go to books where the protagonist is male, even if the author is female. Is it because female readers will read about male or female characters, but male readers prefer a male protagonist? Why does the gender bias also seem to apply in regard to the author’s sex? For example, the Bronte sisters had to write under men’s names in the nineteenth century just to get published. But more recently, J.K. Rowling chose to conceal her sex when publishing the Harry Potter books (and her more recent books for adults). On the other hand, many men writing romances (for Mills and Boon, for example) will adopt a female pen name. We could all agree that, for many reasons, women writers have not always had the recognition they deserve – though the last Man Booker prize went to Anna Burns for Milkman, which, despite the title, had a female protagonist.

Later we discussed how we decided what to write about. For Malka this was very much her experiences as a refugee, asylum seeker, and campaigner for human rights. Sarah and I drew on more prosaic experiences, listening to those around us and mixing real experience with imagination. For us, getting the voices to sound authentic was important and could influence whether we wrote in the first, third, or even second person. For Malka, the message was the important inspiration for her poetry, which perhaps made her writing more personal. For all of us, making the people in our novels or poems believable, especially our female characters, was very important, and that means drawing on personal experiences – though in my case at least, the experiences get shared around various characters as I am not comfortable writing anything too easily identifiable with me or those around me.

Finally, we talked about our habits as readers, and I find I am not the only one who likes reading in the bath. (Warning – don’t try this with a Kindle). All of us on the panel, and the audience, agreed that reading, as well as being a joy in itself, was important preparation for a writer. A sentiment which led nicely into the time allotted to selling our books.

You may not have been there but, if you are interested to find out more about the panelists and their work, here are the links to our websites or other social media:

Sarah Leavesley

Malka Al-Haddad:

And my links: Links to my books and social media

HerStory – why women write.

On Saturday 30th March I am participating in HerStory, a free literary event aimed primarily at women writers and readers. It is part of the build up to Coventry being the City of Culture in 2021. It is hosted by the poet, Emilie Lauren Jones, and will be taking place in the Central library in Coventry from 1pm to 3.30pm. And did I mention that it’s FREE!

We will be talking among other things, about how can you tell if the writer is male or female? And does it matter? Is there a ‘recognition gap’ between the ranking of male and female writers? Is there one for male or female characters?

On a more personal level we will talk about why we write; how we choose what to write about; and how important are female characters in the story / poem / play?

And, because writers need readers (see my last post) what sort of stuff do we like reading? And where do we like to read?

Of course, there’s plenty more going on, including readings and a Q&A session. But you’ll have to be there to get the full flavour. That, and read my next blog where I will report on how it all went.

Links to my books and social media

Readers wanted!

In a blog a week or so ago I wrote about how publishers and literary agents need writers or they would be out of work. If only it felt, as a writer, that we had the upper hand, rather than struggling to keep that pleading tone out of our cover letters!

It can feel like a struggle when looking in the other direction too: writers need readers. But how do we get people to buy our books whilst not sounding too desperate in our ‘buy my book please!’ tweets and Facebook posts? After all, why should someone read our books? Indeed, why does anyone read books at all, when there are so many other interesting things to do? Reading, is such a solitary activity, why would someone want to look like a loner, only one small consonant away from being a loser?

Not so, according to C.S. Lewis, who wrote “We read to know we are not alone.” And, after a moment’s thought, you can see what he was getting at. People read for enjoyment, or to obtain facts. They read to understand how people tick. They read to distract themselves from the stresses of their demanding job, or the give the brain a work out after a day of mind-numbing routine. Some doctors (but not enough) prescribe books to help patients deal with pain, or chronic illness, or depression. William Sieghart’s book, The Poetry Pharmacy, has a poem for every type of illness. A re-reading of Persuasion, or I Capture the Castle, works wonders for me.

The Queen is an avid book worm, a fact Alan Bennett’s book, The Uncommon Reader, makes gentle fun of. By contrast, Donald Trump is rumoured to pride himself on never reading a book. Not sure what that says about our respective nations!

Many quite famous and / or busy people have taken up the 52 book challenge – that is, to read one book a week throughout the year. Some of the big names in social media, like Evan Spiegal, a co-founder of Snapchat, limit their own family’s screen time in favour of reading. Other tech entrepreneurs seem to prefer amassing libraries to art work.

Mark Haddon, the author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night, sums it up. “The ability and opportunity to read widely – to stand in the shoes of the different and the dead, to travel to other times and into other cultures – is an important part of being human.
Which leads me to my book links. Please buy, oh go on!

Viking Talk

The Vikings were an energetic and ruthless bunch of pagans, who travelled from Norway (Norge) in the late eighth to late eleventh centuries to raid the North of England, amongst other places, and indulge in a spot of rape and pillage, before sailing back home with their loot, or deciding to settle in the balmier English climate.

There have been attempts during the last few decades to portray the Vikings as misunderstood, peaceable, immigrants, who liked nothing better than sharing their art and poetry and settling down with a local girl. But in reality they had a well-deserved reputation for savagery, and were more than just the ‘long-haired tourists who occasionally roughed up the locals,’ as one academic described dismissively the arguments of the pro-peace lobby.

That said, transcriptions of Viking poetry show a complex array of stylistic conventions, and many words used regularly these days are Viking (Norse) in origin. That includes the word viking – Norse for pirate / sea traveller; and the name of the settlement that became their main town – York, which the Vikings originally called Jorvik (pronounced Your-Vick). Other places whose names end in –thorpe (e.g. Mapplethorpe), or –by (Derby), were originally Viking settlements, and at least two days of the week are named after Norse gods (Thor’s day and Tiw’s day). We talk about Yule-tide as synonymous with Christmas, but it is a Norse word, referring to a pagan feast, Jol, celebrated around the winter solstice.

Given their savage reputation, it is not surprising that some of the words that have endured have a rough or violent meaning: slaughter, from slatra – butchery; and ransack – to search a house, none too gently.

Other words are of a more domestic nature, such as husband (hus (house) and bandi (occupier), and wife (vif – veiled one. This suggests the wife was very much the second citizen, though in fact the Viking wife had more independence than most of her European counterparts, including equal rights to divorce and a favourable financial settlement.)

Window comes from vindauga (wind-eye), loft / aloft from lopt (sky), and happy from happ (good fortune). And weighing scales come from skal, drinking bowl, also a drinking toast.

So the Vikings, whilst being a pretty destructive bunch, were not all bad? I’ll drink to that. Skal!

Links to my books and social media

Pitching your work

I recently attended an excellent workshop on how to pitch your masterpiece – sorry, manuscript – to a potential agent or publisher. The workshop concentrated on doing face to face pitches, but much of the advice applies to the pitch you would want to make in a cover letter. I will just refer to an agent here, but the same goes for pitching to a publisher who accepts unsolicited submissions

First and foremost, of course, you need to actually have a completed manuscript. No good having most of it still in your head if an agent gets back to you and says they want to read the whole lot next week!

Assuming you’re good to go, the pitch needs to answer the agent’s unspoken question – Why would I want to take on this book? You need to research which agencies – and which agent within that agency – deals with books like yours.

As a rough estimate, a pitch should take about two minutes to deliver. At three words per second, and allowing for a few pauses to take a breath, that comes to about 350 words.

When you get going, don’t be apologetic. Remember, agents depend on writers for their living; you just might be their next best seller. You are also selling yourself as a dependable addition to their literary empire.

A verbal pitch is a performance, but don’t overdo the dramatics – just because you’ve written a hilarious book about Brussel sprouts, doesn’t mean you have to go dressed as one.

Have a ‘headline’ opening comment. It doesn’t all depend on the first thirty seconds, but you do want to pique their interest, so get what’s special about your book in early, e.g. does it deal with something really topical – like knife crime, or climate change? Introduce the main character early on.

Expand on your headline with more details, e.g. a brief resume of the plot, the catalysts that change things, and the other key characters. If you have relevant knowledge, e’g it’s set in the Amish community and you are Amish, mention it. Name your genre, the word count and the likely readership. (Maybe also a famous author whose work yours could be compared to – especially if this author is with this agency.)

Don’t get side tracked into every twist and turn of the plot or name check every character – remember you’ve only got two minutes!

Don’t leave cliff hangers – the agent wants to know what they’re buying in full. The teaser ‘what happens next?’ as a final statement, is for your back cover blurb, not your pitch.

Don’t just dry up at the end. A closing sentence could be something like ‘… from what I’ve read about your agency, I feel my book would be a good fit and I’d love to be able to work with you in the future. Thank you.’

It’s OK to pitch to more than one agent at a time. It’s a competitive world out there, so not every pitch is going to result in an immediate acceptance.

Links to my books and social media