Happy as Harry

After a few months of keeping things secret, I can finally announce my publishing deal. So…I am thrilled and very very excited to be able to talk about my new book: Happy as Harry, which Headline is publishing and which will be available in November.

This is a little book about happiness, written from my amazing dog Harry’s point of view. Assisted by his canine friends, Harry shares his tips on living a happy life. There are chapters on love, relationships, parenting, grief, work and having fun, with photos and illustrations of Harry, Dottie (my other fabulous dog), and lots of other gorgeous dogs we bump into on our walks.

I’ve only ever self-published a novel and so this traditional publishing process is all new to me and over the next few weeks I will try to share with you whatever I learn. To date, it has been a brilliant experience working with Headline. They are great at communicating and walking me through each step. What’s more, they all seem to love dogs, which is perfect.

Although I’ve been writing features for over 20 years, I’d never ever thought of writing a non-fiction book but I’m so very happy I gave it a whirl.



Thank you and goodbye

by Isabel Dennis-Muir

Two weeks ago, I woke to the sad news that one of my favourite authors had died.  She had dealt with her illness privately and with courage, which meant that many of her readers may have been as shocked as me at the news.  Helen Dunmore was just 64 when she died.  Much too young.

I first came across Helen’s novels about 10 years ago.  I think A Spell of Winter was my introduction to her beautifully crafted writing.  Since then I have read many more and marvelled at every one.  What’s more, on a visit to the London Book Fair in 2014, I was delighted to discover Helen being interviewed in the PEN Literary Salon, talking about her latest book.

Her writing is meticulously researched so that the reader is immersed in the setting and the period.  She quite literally takes you on a journey back in time and you feel as though you have met the characters and experienced the hardship and challenges they face.

For anyone who hasn’t yet explored Helen’s writing, I have provided a flavour of her work here, by taking a look at the last couple of novels I’ve read and given a taster of one I have on my reading pile still to look forward to.

The Siege – first published 2001

This is a harrowing tale, describing the siege of Leningrad in 1941.  The novel describes the bigger picture of how the second world war affected the lives of Russians, while focusing in on the desperate daily tragedies the German blockade inflicted on them.

Some of the images that Dunmore conjures up, of families being so hungry they boil shoe leather to make soup, stayed with me long after I turned the last page.

Dunmore writes:

‘Everyone now knows what it takes to keep life in a body.  You can be separated from your life so easily.  It might happen in the street, or in the bread queue, while you’re typing or while you’re sleeping.  You can die from a cold, an ear infection, or a miscarriage.  If you have a stomach ulcer it will open and bleed.  You can die so casually these days.’

The House of Orphans – first published 2006

The House of Orphans is set in Finland in 1902.  It tells the story of Eeva, an orphaned girl who is sent to a country orphanage when her father dies.  But Eeva has a strong will and steadily battles against the challenges that her impoverished life throws at her.

Eeva has never forgotten her children friend, Lauri, who is now caught up in the resistance movement.  Lauri is drawn into terrorism as he joins others to fight against the attempts of Russia to impose its rule on Helsinki.  But Eeva shows him that there is another way of living, that it’s possible to live with hope in your heart, rather than hatred.

Dunmore writes:

‘There would be no next, he knew that now.  Not for him.  Whatever it took to make a people’s martyr, he hadn’t got it.  They had shown him photographs of a row of dangling men.  But when he looked closer there were women as well.  They had their skirts tied at the ankles, for decency.

He would go away, with Eeva.  They did not have to stay here.  He had never thought he would really leave his country for ever, but then he’d never felt like this before.  It seemed to him that the sun had stopped shining on his life here.  He was living in an eclipse.  If he stayed, nothing lay ahead of him but weariness and risk and a long blunder through darkness towards a goal that he wasn’t even sure he wanted to reach.’

The Lie – first published in 2014

In The Lie Helen returns to the first world war, but this time the setting is Cornwall, where a young man remembers his experiences in the trenches.

I have yet to read this novel, but the Guardian says of this book:

The Lie is a fine example of Dunmore’s ability to perceive the long vistas of history in which the dead remain restless…It is a book in which ghosts, perhaps, remain imaginary: but they are none the less real for that.’

And the Times Literary Supplement says:

The Lie is a substantial work, and Dunmore is able to crystallize tragedy in a simple sentence.’

What is evident from all of Dunmore’s novels is that she is doing so much more than telling a story.  She is allowing us to see these periods of history through her eyes, eyes that are sharp and wise, and through her beautifully crafted prose.

She has received many plaudits, winning the Mckitterick Prize, the Orange Prize and the TS Eliot Prize, and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize for The Betrayal in 2010.  As well as 15 novels, Helen Dunmore has written many children’s books, young adult books and poetry.

Helen Dunmore was taken from us too soon, but she will continue to live on in her writing and in the minds of her readers.  I, for one, am grateful for that.


Familiar worlds

Words Deana Luchia

The saying, write about what you know, is quoted time and time again at budding writers, which is to say: focus on the craft of writing rather than doing research on things you know nothing about.

Not everyone, of course, agrees that you should write what you know. I’ve just read something on goodreads from Toni Morrison who’s quoted as saying: ‘I’m telling you, no one wants to read that, ‘cos you don’t know anything.’

I think there’s much to be said for writing what do know for your first novel, because often what you know is what’s compelling you to write in the first place. It needs to come out. It’s why lots of people’s first novels are about their childhoods or their first love or first friends.

But then, with a second novel, why not write about something unknown? I always think I should do this when I read something set in worlds far removed from mine, with characters doing jobs I had no idea existed, travelling to places I’ve never been, encountering situations I’ve never come across. Maybe I should write something different too, I think, as I’m reading. Wouldn’t it be more fun? More of a challenge? Continue reading

Pilates for Writers

By Deana Luchia

Like most activities, writing gets easier with practice, especially when that practice becomes a daily habit – the words flow more readily, ideas sizzle and pop into your head, the sentences seem to form themselves. The hard-earned tools required are right there, at your fingertips, not buried under several weeks or months of dusty procrastination. When I haven’t written for a while, I’m forcing sleepy connections in my brain to wake up and produce, create, be literary. ‘Come on!’ I bellow at myself, and I keep bellowing and cajoling until after a few frustrating days the cogs are turning smoothly (or smoothish-ly) again. Inevitably, once they are, I’m vowing to write every day. ‘EVERY DAY!’ I shout. (It’s quite a noisy process in my house, getting back into writing mode).

This push to hone your fiction writing and then keep your writing machinery rust free and finely tuned is quite difficult when you’re working at home, alone. No one’s inquiring as to why you haven’t made any progress on your novel, just as no one’s demanding better sentences or a more intriguing word order, questioning the plausibility of your characters, or suggesting that you tone down the overblown adjectives. No one…but you. Which is why I’m an advocate of writing classes, not just because they teach you about structure or story arcs or how to plot a 300 page novel (all important lessons) but because they give your creativity a good workout, a sort of Pilates for writers. And that works especially well when you have to be creative, on the spot, with other writers listening to your efforts. You’ll get a swift response as to whether your writing works or how it can be improved. This is priceless.

Continue reading

Slow Burn

by S.E Acton

I want to run ahead to this sunny place by the sea I’ve heard of, filled with days and days on end of dedicated research into myth and poetry and creative happenings, but this road I’m on is suddenly filled with potholes. In a dream I look down and notice that I’m not even wearing the right shoes, my feet are bare and cut up by stones. There are paths off to the left and right and I keep stumbling away from the straight road that would lead towards my writerly fulfilment.

Do you ever get this feeling?

Like you write steady with the little energy as you can sometimes muster thinking you’re ploughing on okay in a fashion, but it’s not enough to get anywhere because unless it’s everyday striving and more, it’s a diet that only stays on an equilibrium. Stasis. I’m looking up and nodding to myself, yes this road is long. A marathon. You can only keep going if you train harder, toughen up.

Well, I’ve been winging it for a while and attending training for my personal writing projects as and when suited me, but perhaps now it’s time for more vigor and intention. This is not a dress rehearsal for life, as they say.

More writing on the page, to practice what I teach…

Talking of teaching: on the plus side, I’ve started facilitating a series of monthly poetry workshops. I’ve never taught before or held a space, so it’s an interesting and challenging experience. I’m not following a set format, just my nose for what might stimulate and be useful to connect local poets like me to connect with nature and grow their poetry practice. So far it’s been a rich experience, trying to translate what I know about writing poetry into a structured a useful format. Looking critically at poets I love and unpacking the mastery to pass it on to help myself and others. It feels good, and I hope to grow my practice by helping others. Today we talked about the weather and internal and external weather patterns.

I wonder if positive action brings with it a pair of dream-trainers to get back on the road?


Sarah workshop

Discovering the Familiar in Uruguay

By Lu Anne Stewart

Ever since I returned from a 10-day vacation in Uruguay in March, I’ve been trying to crystallize in my mind why this country resonated so deeply with me as a writer.

Uruguay is like an old soul – quiet and reflective, mindful of its past, richly human. As I moved through its cities and countryside, I sensed that I was collecting experiences that were intensely authentic, ones that radiated universal truths about how people live their lives each day, and what is most important to them.

In the capital city of Montevideo, my photographer husband and I spent a leisurely afternoon at Café Brasilero, an atmospheric literary hangout dating from 1877 in the historic quarter. Inside, the high ceiling, dark wood wainscoting and languid Brazilian music created a snug and relaxing vibe.

I saw Richard suddenly reach for his camera the way he does when he’s spotted a potential shot.  I looked back over my shoulder in the direction he was pointing the camera, toward the entrance of the café. There sat a young couple at a table in the window, backlit by the bright sun, a beam illuminating the woman’s glass of amber beer. The reversed letters spelling out the café’s name on the window glass were perfectly centered over their heads in a crescent shape. They leaned toward one another, conversing intently.

It was a shot that looked instantly iconic, like a scene from a classic film. In that moment, I could imagine this couple as characters in a melancholy short story, perhaps lingering over drinks in their favorite café before one of them must depart for reasons mysterious.

One Saturday morning, we took a walk along the Rambla that winds along the city’s waterfront on the wide Rio de la Plata. In a large public park, we stopped to watch dozens of young children at soccer practice. We took a seat on the metal bleachers next to parents cheering on their progeny. It struck me that this exact scene could be replicated in any American town on a Saturday morning – indeed, in any city in this soccer-loving world. The encouraging shouts of the proud parents. The excitement and concentration on the faces of the kids as they moved up in line to take their turn to advance the ball and practice their footwork. In a world with so much turmoil and division, this felt like a shared moment that linked humanity anywhere and everywhere.

That same feeling hit me again and again as we made our way through Uruguay. In Colonia del Sacramento, a historic waterfront town of cobblestone streets and lush bougainvillea, we stopped by a small restaurant to check the menu. A mustachioed man sitting at a table on the sidewalk rose to introduce himself as the chef-owner. “Experimental!” he said, pointing to the menu board and encouraging us inside.

It was a tiny place, eclectically furnished, with a half-dozen tables. Every wall and table surface was covered with nostalgic artifacts, from faded family vacation snapshots to china plates and newspaper clippings. Jazz from the Billie Holiday era drifted dreamily through the place. The total effect was mesmerizing. I felt transported into a state where everything was more vivid and delightful than real life – from my crock of mussels baked in a garlic wine sauce (experimental!) to a spontaneous conversation with the restaurant’s only other patron, sitting at a table in the corner.

He was about 30 and a rare bird in Uruguay – a fellow American. We fell easily into a spirited discussion about the recent U.S. presidential election and quickly deduced that we were of the same political persuasion. He told us he lived in Washington, D.C., “in the District,” he said, and had been traveling since February. He’d spent a month in Brazil and was now sampling Uruguay before heading to Buenos Aires and then parts unknown.

From his professional look and passionate political views, I imagined that he might have been an Obama administration staffer, swept out of town in January in the change of regimes, and so distraught about the fate of the country that he just hit the road with no plan. His circumstances seemed ripe for a memoir or novel.

We ended our journey in Punta del Este, an intoxicatingly beautiful beach resort on the Atlantic. Again, deja-vu kicked in as I looked out at the ocean waves crashing up onto a rocky shore, looking for all the world like the coast of Rhode Island where I’d lived for 20 years. The same ocean, after all. Another shared treasure linking this American traveler to a new country I was quickly learning to love.

In many ways, Uruguay was unique, exotic and unexpected, with its sensual tango dancers, vibrant Carnaval costumes and history of cattle-wrangling gauchos. But it also felt intensely familiar to me, like trying on a new pair of shoes that feel like you’ve worn them for years.

One of the great joys of travel is exploring places that are totally different from your experience. But in Uruguay I also found joy in what unites us all as humans traveling on the same planet. As writers, we try so hard to capture universal, true-to-life experiences that will touch our readers and make them say, yes, I know exactly how that feels. From this small corner of South America, I brought back many souvenir moments that I hope will weave their way into my plots, characters and settings for years to come.


Cross Promotion

Cross Promotion

Or, even better, Viral Marketing

by Alexa Padgett

You’ve heard those terms before, I’d bet. Viral marketing, or even word-of-mouth. Back in my day in biz school, we liked guerilla marketing. Well, I didn’t, but that’s a different story. The fact is, ALL these terms come down to one thing: people liking your product (in this case, a book) well enough to tell other people about it of their own volition.

That caveat—the of their own volition—that’s key to successful viral marketing. Because someone else just became invested in your book. Invested enough to start evangelizing it. Or, as they say in the romance realm, pimping your book.

That’s when sales take off. Why? Because you were given the biggest gift a business—or writer—can get. Happy customers. Thrilled ones, even. Customers who have appointed themselves to your sales army, unpaid and for no other purpose than they love your book. Continue reading