Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Two Days To Go!!!!

Oh my life! This is just such an exciting week. First up, the official release date for 'Summer Loving' is now only TWO days away (squeeeeee!) although it is already available in WH Smith Travel outlets (see the pic!)and I know (because I've ordered it, sad thing that I am!) that Amazon have begun shipping today. I know I'm the author, but it really is a book that I am very, very proud to have written and the feedback so far from the few people I know who have received advance copies has been more than generous - 'laugh out loud' and 'tear-jerking' amongst them. So whether you like to sniff into your Kleenex or have a giggle, this book has all bases covered. If you haven't already ordered a copy, click here to do so from Amazon.

Also, there is now under a week to go till the start of the Make for Macmillan Book Week. A pile of wonderful authors, including Katie Fforde, Freya North, Rowan Coleman, Adele Parks, Jenny Colgan, Lucie Hart and many more have all donated books which will be signed with the winning bidder's inscription of choice. This is an AMAZING opportunity to grab a book by your fave author or maybe buy an extra special present for a friend or relative and, as the saying goes, you can't get this in any shop! So, totally exclusive and with all proceeds (the authors are even paying the postage themselves) going to Macmillan, get your cheque books out and prepare to start bidding. It's going to be HUGE.

To see a list of the books available click here

For the site on which the auction will take place - starting NEXT MONDAY - click here

Friday, 13 May 2011

Women Aloud: Audiobook Collection of Short Stories

With just under two weeks to go until the official release of ‘Summer Loving’, here is some more awesome book news. I was thrilled to be asked to contribute a short story to an audiobook anthology which will be sold to raise funds for the Helena Kennedy Foundation. The Foundation provides support, mentoring and bursaries to enable disadvantaged students to continue their studies and therefore gain employment. It helps people who are economically and socially disadvantaged as well as those with learning disabilities like dyslexia.

I am personally a huge fan of Helena Kennedy’s – she was one of the women who inspired me to read for the Bar and she has, in my opinion, used her position to campaign hard for social justice in a number of fields.

The contributors to the book – as well as yours truly – are Trisha Ashley, Judy Astley, Elizabeth Chadwick, Rowan Coleman, Katie Fforde, Milly Johnson, Catherine King, Sophie King, Carole Matthews and Sue Moorcroft, and it will be available as a download or a CD from late September.

To pre-order your CD please e-mail: womenaloud@shortstoryweek.org.uk

It’s gonna be fabulous!

For more information on Women Aloud click here.

For more information on the Helena Kennedy Foundation click here.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

International Chick Lit Month

It is now just over three weeks to go until the official publication of 'Summer Loving' - squee! I'm feeling very excited and also just a teensy bit nervous as well (as I always do at this point!). 'Summer Loving' is the story of four girls who go on holiday to a Greek island, intending to have the most party-tastic two weeks of their lives...and let's just say it doesn't quite work out like that!
If you would like to pre-order a copy of 'Summer Loving' from Amazon (and I really hope you do!), click here.

Fittingly perhaps, May is also International Chick Lit Month. Hurrah! I am (as you might imagine) a huge fan of chick lit so a whole month celebrating the feisty heroines and witty writing that makes it (in my modest opinion) one of the freshest-feeling, most vibrant genres around, sounds like a fabulous idea. I was asked by Steph of Chick Lit Club to blog on the subject and my post - why chick lit has all the best heroines - can be read by clicking here.

Keep up to date with International Chick Lit Month throughout May 2011 via Chick Lit Club, Novelicious and Chick Lit Is Not Dead.

Happy reading!

Thursday, 28 April 2011

What's in a Name?

It's always interesting being called Spencer during any big royal event.
Of course, we're not actually related to the Spencers - or at least I don't think so. My father, bless him, is secretly still convinced that if we scour the old family tree hard enough, we will run into the Spencer-Churchills and he can enjoy being fourth cousin five times removed to Winston himself - the fact that our ancestors seem to come from rural Derbyshire and number furniture making and customs officers amongst their occupations does not appear to dim his expectation.

I first felt the weirdness of having a famous-name-by-proxy during the aftermath of Princess Diana's death. I was working in London at the time and the headlines in the national press and The Evening Standard seemed to permanently carry my name. Even though I knew I had nothing to do with the stories themselves, there was always a split-second delay whilst my brain worked this one out. And it wasn't just me - I was actually asked on a couple of occasions if I was 'a Spencer': I always said no (although I am, of course, literally, A Spencer), and, in one memorable instance, I came out of court to see two ushers look at me and one say 'well, she does have a family resemblance...'

In fact the nearest I ever got to Diana was almost running slap-bang into her, my arms full of files, at the solicitor's office where I worked and where she had instructed one of the partners to act for her. As I approached a set of double doors that led out onto the stairwell, they were flung open from the other side and a small entourage marched passed me, including the princess herself in a yellow suit. Thirty seconds later and she was gone; ships in the night and all that malarkey.

The name thing has now passed on to one of my brothers whose work colleagues have made the leap that he is, in fact, one of those Spencers. They made the assumption all by themselves but he is - happily - playing along with it and cryptically mentioning that he's busy this weekend because he has to go to a wedding.

However, unless my invitation turns up at the last minute, I shall - like the rest of the world - be watching the other Spencers and their chums rock up to the wedding of the year without me. Hope it goes well for Wills and Kate and, even more, I hope she enjoys being part of the family! We're not so bad once you get to know us.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Short and Sweet: Some Ideas About Short Stories

I don't normally 'do' short stories. Although, to be even fair, I did write an awful lot of them when I was at school - ah-em - more years ago than I care to remember; and, to be even fairer, I wasn't that bad at them either. However, with my writing time being so limited over the past few years, I have only been able to concentrate on the job in hand (ie my WIP). Short stories, like Twitter and, sadly, my blogging, are something I haven't had much time for. However, with both kids at school, I hope I can change that and, in the past few weeks, I've not only been writing but thinking about the short story in quite some detail. So I thought I might throw a few ideas out there in case anyone else is thinking of picking up their pen. And, even after (cough, cough, splutter - insert the number of years since you had to write one at school) I promise it is well worth your while - and not just because there are far more competitions out there for unpublished short story writers than novelists.

Point 1 The Short Story Is Not a Mini-novel

The raison d'etre of the short story is that it is short. Natch. In fact, shorties for publication these days seem to be around 1500 - 2500 words max. There is even the fashion these days for so-called 'flash fiction' which is 1000 words or less and, at its most reductivist, no more than 55. This is obviously very, very short.

However, because they are both written in continuous, narrative text, it is tempting to think of the short story as being the novel's little brother - but this is not the case. They are completely separate art forms and what works in one should not necessarily be sauce for the gander.

Or something.

In terms of screen space, 2500 words on my laptop works out as four and a half pages single-spaced. That is not a lot of time to introduce characters, arcs, plot, setting, ambiance and a twist in the tale. It's not even as long as an average chapter in one of my novels. In my humble opinion, therefore, if you do find yourself staring down the barrel of this sort of wordcount, you are probably better off abandoning the idea of a full 'story' and looking instead at conjuring up a narrative linked to one (at most two) events. There simply won't be room to do justice to anything else. One of my favourite short story writers is Saki, who can write a gripping, memorable and gobsmacking story in very few words simply by relying on the power of atmosphere, suggestion and a completely killer twist. (Try 'The Reticence of Lady Anne at http://www.readbookonline.net/readOnLine/766/)

When planning my most recent shortie, I made myself imagine a single narrative event and then attempted to write that event in such a way that the outcome was (hopefully) unpredictable till the end of the story. This does mean that as a writer you have to be careful when you select your core event that it has the potential of heading in more than one direction. An alternative is to work very hard to build the reader's expectation in one direction - and then throw in an unforeseen twist at the end a la Saki.

Point 2 You Will Need to Bring All your Writing Expertise to Bear Upon The Story, Even If It's Short

A short story is not necessarily an easy option. Personally, I think 100k novel is a darn sight more simple to write than at 2,500 short story, but maybe that's just me. Even though it is short, you will still need living, breathing characters; a sense of place; conflict; atmosphere; and a beginning, middle and end - and you won't have much room for any of them. However, remember that beginnings, middles and ends don't necessarily mean you have to write about a series of related events: they can relate to character development, revelations about the setting or situation, or even changes in the understanding or point of view of the main character - all you need are a logical progression of ideas, some conflict and an eventual conclusion. It also helps if you think through the arcs of all your characters - no matter how small the part they play. Arcs give drive and structure to your story and can quickly deliver a strong sense of character - when space is limited, two-for-one deals like this are the writer's friend. Grab with both hands!

You will also be using a proportionally greater amount of your word count on building atmosphere and situation than you would in a novel. Again, make those words work hard for you: build up your atmosphere but then also use that atmosphere to feed into your conflicts, characters and storyline.

Point 3 Try And Focus On a Single Idea, Theme or Image

This can be exceptionally powerful when space is short, particularly if you are using more than one event to form the structure of your plot. Themes and images will help to keep the story as a dynamic, coherent whole and you can use them as foils to throw other characters and events into sharp relief. One short story which has stayed with me since school is DH Lawrence's The Odour of Chrysanthemums (http://shortstoryclassics.50megs.com/lawrencechrysanthemums.html) where the flowers weave in an out of the story as they have done through the main character's life, linking together the past and the present. Although the story involves a number of themes and exchanges, the chrysanthemums link the narrative together flawlessly.

Focusing on 'one' idea may sound limiting but it is in fact highly flexible. One of the great advantages I believe the short story has over the novel is that movement in time and space is much easier in the short story - provided you always return to a central 'anchoring' point. You can examine a couple's past, look at hopes a character might have for the future, flit hither and yon in the mind of a first person narrator - all in a way that would feel clumsy and out of place in a novel; the only requirement is that you always return to that central idea. (And then, if you are Saki, twist it at the end and turn the whole story through 180 degrees and have everybody say how completely brilliant you are).

Finally, if like me you prefer the opening up of possibilities rather than the tying up of threads as an ending, remember that it is considered perfectly acceptable (and actually, quite intellectual) to leave the end enigmatically open. This is great for two reasons: firstly, it allows the reader to chose their own ending (readers like this!) and, secondly and cynically, it saves you valuable words that you could use elsewhere in your story.

So go on, get writing. It's only four pages.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Make for Macmillan

This is soooooo exciting! It's the end of March and that means...less than two months to go before the launch of Summer Loving, my new book and - even though I say it myself - a sizzler of a summer novel!

However, BEFORE that happens, the most brilliant book event is due to take place at the end of April and I am chuffed to be a part of it.

Clare and Shelley, the totally brilliant brains behind the 'Make for Macmillan' campaign, will be holding a week of live book auctions - the chance to buy books by your fave authors AND raise some cash for an extremely worthy cause. Watch out for more info here as we get closer, but as you can see from their Facebook page, the line up so far is beyond impressive. Do visit the Make for Macmillan pages to check it out - and bid on the gorgeous, gorgeous handmade items they are auctioning RIGHT NOW.

Go and check it now - click here and start thinking about which ones you are going to bid for!!!

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Funny, I can't read that...

I am dyslexic.
I didn't find out until my second year of an English degree, when one of my tutors told me that he had no idea how I'd managed to get a place at university, that I was going to fail my degree and, even if I didn't manage that, I would certainly fail his section of it. Luckily, they weren't all like him and, with the support of another member of staff, I was subsequently tested, diagnosed with dyslexia and given strategies for coping with my written work. (And, in case you were wondering, got a 2:1 over all and came out of my first tutor's exam with a borderline First.)
The problem is, it isn't an easy condition to live with. I do not suffer from the severest forms it can take, but am still constantly embarrassed by my spelling and grammatical mistakes, hate the amount of time it takes me to get to grips with complex pieces of written work, cringe at the difficulties I have in remembering people's names (yes, really: that too is a common dyslexic symptom), find it hard to read music because the notes seem to wobble and am forever mixing up my right and my left.
Having said that, though, I don't want the condition to limit what I can and can't do. People are often surprised, given my various career choices, that I have a specific learning disability (as it is known in the trade): English Degree, MA in Medieval Studies, law and now writing novels are not part of the expected CV of a dyslexic. None of them give any slack: I have to be as good as the competition despite the dyslexia - or I go under. No one is going to make excuses for me.
And I wouldn't want them to.
So this was me and how I saw my life - until last week, when I learned from the school that my eldest child could well be dyspraxic. Now, I had suspected dyslexia for a while: familiar symptoms were starting to rear their heads in his school work - messy hand-writing, words spelled as anagrams of themselves, words with letters missing, sentences with words missing, lack of organisation and co-ordination on the page - I could go on. However, as soon as I began to look at lists of dyspraxic symptoms - some of which overlap with dyslexia - I saw where the teacher was coming from.
My immediate reaction was relief - fantastic! The fact he struggles doing up a zip and has messy handwriting is explained away! Then there was sadness: my child is going to have to struggle like me. To achieve the same marks as his peers, he will have to work harder than them for no extra reward.
And then, after the reaction of a couple of friends, I got into thinking about labels and whether we are too quick to label our children as 'not quite right', and the effect this might have on them.
And my response was quite emphatic.
I think, in our society, we already label people. Every day. In every conceivable way. Other people are better off/worse off/cleverer/stupider/have better jobs/nicer cars/better educations/more holidays/larger houses/smaller houses than us. We are always defining others against our own achievements or failures; always trying to ascertain if their grass really is any greener. This is nowhere more pronounced as our education system which now constantly assesses and grades children; comparing child against child in a way that would have been unthinkable thirty years ago. Parents and kids (myself included) get sucked into the grading/testing cycle and worry about whether our child is really a 4b when they should perhaps be a 4a or even a 5c. There is so much middle class parental energy expended on this, they could run the National Grid off it.
So my child is already labeled by the education system. And, if he is dyslexic/dyspraxic, that school attainment label may be selling him short. My view is that at least if we know, we can do something about it, even if it is simply to roll up our sleeves and work harder to make up the shortfall.
Because I know from experience that without labels such as dyslexia, the child will be given other labels such as 'lazy' or 'a daydreamer' or 'needs to pay more attention' or even - as I was by my university tutor, 'stupid' and 'unintelligent' and 'a failure'. That way lies nothing apart from a vortex of increasing frustration, sadness and loss of self-esteem.
So fine,whilst we live in a label obsessed society, let's go forward with the positive labels too - and as far as I'm concerned, dyslexia and dyspraxia are positive. If my boy is dyspraxic, so be it - he is in some illustrious company and I won't let it hold him back for one moment. The news that Daniel Radcliffe aka Harry Potter was dyspraxic cheered my son up enormously. Frankly, if you can be that good at quidditch, nothing on earth is going to stop you succeeding in life.

For more information on dyslexia, click href="http://www.bdadyslexia.org.uk/">here

For more information on dyspraxia, click here

For a list of famous dyslexics, click here

Monday, 28 February 2011

Summer Loving

I noticed today that the fabulous Chicklit Club have given my new book, Summer Loving, a head's up - thank you guys! So I thought it was about time that I shared the cover and a few little tasters on my blog. Even though I have had some lovely covers in the past, I think this time the cover fairy has been especially good to me: I love it! The story is about four friends from uni who get together eight years after graduation for a holiday on a Greek island. Needless to say, the sun, sea and relaxation they had in mind doesn't quite materialise and my heroine, Beth, finds herself trying to hold things together - with comic as well as (almost)tragic consequences.

Watch this space as I'll be dropping a few little previews and exclusives as we get nearer to publication time!

Summer Loving is published by Arrow and will be out on 26th May. It is currently available to pre-order from all the usual outlets.

Hollywood Daze

The new book is now officially 'in' and I am waiting for the copy edits to come through. However, there is no rest for the wicked and I am already pondering the various plotlines and characters for my next novel. As a writing exercise - and to give my brain a bit of a break in between books - I spent ten days or so watching roms coms/chick flicks to see if I could pick up any writing tips. Yes I know, I know, I write novels, not screenplays, but I reckon it is always useful for any writer to try and see how the guys in other genres do things - and I think I learned a few valuable lessons.

Lesson One: Make sure your screenplay has a really strong central hook.
Basically, this means your story has an original, inventive and easily graspable idea at its centre. For example, The Wedding Date starring Deborah Messing works on the basic premise that a girl hires a male escort to accompany her to a wedding where her ex is the best man - and then falls in love with him. Simple, concise, compelling and with loads of comic potential. Or how about PS I Love You, where the heroine's husband dies, but she receives a series of letters from him helping her rebuild her life. Having a brilliant central concept makes sense from both an artistic and a marketing point of view: a strong starting point should automatically set up tonnes of conflict and suggest storylines which will help carry your plot through to the end PLUS (and don't under estimate this one!) it will make the story easy to pitch and sell. In Hollywood, you would be expected to come up with a 'log line' which sums up the story in one sentence. Also useful for novelists wanting to pitch to agents and publishers - give it a try!

Lesson Two: Give yourself a smart, funny, vulnerable but ultimately feisty heroine with whom your audience will identify and root for all the way through.
This is vital for both screenplays and novels. You wouldn't want to read a book where you couldn't stand the central character or thought she was a bit of a wimp. We read/go to movies to be entertained, but we also go to see a bit of ourselves reflected in the central character and you need to have one you and your audience can look up to. Sure, give your heroine flaws; of course she needs to have a vulnerable, human side to her - but ultimately give her the personality and intelligence she needs to triumph against all the odds and you'll have a winner on your hands.

Lesson Three: Make sure that your plot and character arcs are as strong as your initial idea.
There is nothing more disappointing than a book or movie which has a superb initial concept and then fails to deliver. The disappointment stays with you for ages (I still feel let down by Men in Black even now. Sigh) Sadly, Letters to Juliet affected me in a similar way. The idea of the wall in Verona where people still write letters to Shakespeare's most famous heroine - and receive an answer - was stunning. And I also liked the idea that the love story chosen for the plot involved an older woman (I'm all for mixing it up age-wise!) but the actual plot was so predictable and pedestrian that I felt cheated. Eleven out of ten for the initial idea and the first half an hour of the movie, three out of ten thereafter. Don't do this!!

Movies are a very useful tool for the novelist looking to hone their craft: a film must achieve everything a good novel needs to on the plot/character/structural front - but it has to do it in an hour and a half (which is why that strong central idea is essential). So go on - get out the DVDs and have an afternoon on the sofa. After all, it's all in the name of work!

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

There and Back Again

Hello again. You probably won't remember me, but I was the short one with the blonde hair who used to do a blog about writing...

Actually, the past few months have been a bit of an emotional (and work) roller-coaster. The good news (in fact the veryveryveryveryveryvery good news) is that in May I was given a contract by the lovely people at Arrow - only I couldn't tell anybody about it for a while (hell on earth for a blabbermouth like me). They wanted the finished book in by the end of January which meant an awful lot of graft - I think I took Christmas Day off, but that was about it. Then, in June, about four weeks after the contract was agreed, we had a shattering diagnosis for a close family member which resulted, five months later in the loss of that person. It was a pretty horrible time and, I'm afraid, one during which I split my time simply between the family and writing the book. Blogs and FaceBook fell rather by the wayside.

So I hope you forgive me.

However, on a happier note, the book is now in - watch this space for some exclusive previews - and work on the next one has already begun. The publication date for Summer Loving is scheduled for the 26th May this year and I am also planning my workshop at this year's Winchester Writers Conference on 'How to Write Like Jane Austen: surely every writer's New Year's Resolution!

In the meantime, stay well

Lots of love,

Allie x