Where do ideas for novels come from?

My novel is finished, for now at least. So, what next? Another novel, of course. But what kind of novel? And about what? While I’ve been thinking about this (and trying not to think about it) the whole question of where ideas for novels come from has been intriguing me.

According to Colm Tóibín, ‘the first sentence of the book comes to you unbidden, unexpectedly, as rhythm and rarely changes.’ After that, comes ‘the work.’

Ian McEwan’s ideas, ‘pop out of nowhere really.’ He tries to make himself available to inspiration by maintaining a state of ‘useful passivity.’

Rose Tremain similarly advises writers to ‘follow the Yogi Masters’ philosophy of Alert Passivity – staying quietly tuned to how everything unfolds day by day and where the truth of things resides.’  

Elena Ferrante says, ‘One never knows where a story comes from; it’s the product of a variety of suggestions that, together with others that you are not aware of and never will be, excite your mind (from the Los Angeles Times 2018).

Anna Burns knew what she was going to write after ‘Milkman’ because, she says, the book ‘gave itself to me, like almost all of it, and then it kind of said, “Back later.”’ (New York Times 2019).

Bernardine Evaristo talks of ‘an ever-growing morass of ideas’ which she has to ‘write down as notes, knowing I will return to explore them further.’ (the stories we tell, Arvon Oct 2019)

It appears, then, that writers, at least at the literary end of fiction, often struggle to define exactly how ideas come to them. They seem to form in a nebulous way, through an infusion of conscious and subconscious thought, experience and memory, with some trigger in the present. It’s a strange alchemy.

Right now, events across the world have taken over and, to me at least, waiting for random inspiration to descend seems largely inadequate and irrelevant. I hope that, whatever I write in the future, these events will have some impact on the novel to come, for those ideas that pop out of nowhere, also pop out of the world around us.

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My failed career

I recently applied for a Saturday job at a local branch of a well known bookshop. Obviously, I love bookshops and when I saw the ad in the window I was drawn to the idea of some extra cash and a job that involved handling and talking about books.

I took in my CV and was invited for an interview that afforded me an exciting peek behind the scenes. I was led through a code-locked door, up a twisty staircase to a draughty attic office with flaky paintwork, a paper strewn desk and weathered sofa. All as delectable as I’d imagined.

The interview started with the basics. Did I read a lot of books? Duh. Which books did I think would make it into the top ten sales charts at Christmas? I reeled off a couple of top selling authors and my interviewer nodded her agreement, whilst pointing out that celebrity memoirs and cook books would outsell everything else. She also complained that one of the authors I’d mentioned had been very lazy lately and taken well over a year to produce his latest novel. I quashed the urge to ask if she’d ever tried writing a novel herself.

As the interview progressed, I started to struggle with some of the questions. Having devoted much of the last twenty-two years to raising my children, I couldn’t think of an example of when I’d provided good customer service. Nor could I cite any evidence that I was able to use my initiative.

Was I flexible? Yes. Could I put in extra hours around Christmas? Yes. Travel to different stores? Yes. Did I want to build a career as a bookseller and become a shop manager one day? Um…

It came as no surprise when I didn’t get the job. Nor would I argue with the manager’s decision. I do read a lot, but I know very little about selling books and, on reflection, I’m not sure that I want to know.

Going through that forbidden door I gained entry into an engine room of the book trade. Working at a bookshop you get to see what sells and what doesn’t, which books are promoted and how the marketing machinery makes, or breaks, careers. Useful information, you’d think, for an aspiring writer. Or is it? When I’m sitting at my screen for months on end, is it helpful to know what’s happening at the coal face of the industry? Or is it healthier to remain a regular punter labouring in the background to produce the best book I can?

Of course, lots of writers do work in bookshops without coming to any harm. It makes a kind of sense. But, apart from missing out on the staff discount, I’ve decided I’m more than happy for someone else to take that place behind the counter whilst I browse the shelves and give the memoirs and cookbooks a miss.

This wasn’t the place, but rather a nice example of an indie bookshop.

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What is Good Writing?

When I was studying for my MA in Creative Writing, a few years ago now, the characters in my fledgling novel weren’t allowed to nod. Nor were they allowed to sigh, smile or frown. My tutor banned these and many other stock reactions that spring so readily to the writer’s mind.

Have you ever noticed how frequently characters in novels nod? But how often do you actually see anyone nodding in real life? Seriously, nobody does!

These actions are the tools in the lazy writer’s toolbox. They’re what saves a writer from having to think up a more original, accurate and telling way of getting their characters to react. It’s often said that the difference between literary fiction and genre fiction, apart from the former being more character driven, is down to the quality of the writing. But what does quality mean? It doesn’t have to mean poetic or obtuse or experimental (although it can be). To my mind, quality means the triumph of invention and originality over laziness.

That’s not to say a writer must never use a stock phrase. In all things there has to be balance. Sometimes a simple nod will suffice and to run around in circles trying to avoid it will become distracting. A novel doesn’t have to be an exact replica of real life. In fact, it really oughtn’t to be. If you were to extract dialogue from real life, with all its hesitations and repetitions, it would be hell to read. But, the best writing resists falling back upon lazy, generic phrases that neither capture real life, nor inform us of what makes a character unique.

Literary writing is often the opposite of what you’re taught in English Language classes at school. At school, for example, you’re told to avoid writing he or she ‘said.’ You’re supposed to write she exclaimed, she gasped, she yelled. But a skilful writer will convey how a character says something simply by the words that they speak. There is no need for any description of how the words were delivered at all.

Similes earn you a lot of marks in your creative essay at school. In quality fiction, not so much. The problem with similes is that they are very difficult to do well. Too often they sound clunky and contrived and fail to add anything to the original idea. They tend to either simply repeat the idea using different words, or they’re so elaborate they bear no relation to the thing that’s being likened to at all.

Clichés are another obvious obstacle to good writing. The problem is what was once an original image or metaphor quickly becomes a cliché through over exposure. I’ve noticed, for example, that in a lot of contemporary novels the word pebble keeps appearing. My heart was a pebble. His love was a pebble…  All writers are thieves to some degree, but we need to be careful not to steal what everyone else is stealing.

It may sound as if I’m a literary writer who produces nothing but the most exquisite prose. I’m not. At the moment I’m trying to write a thriller. Thrillers, like every other kind of writing, are hard to master. I read quite a lot of thrillers to see what does and doesn’t work. It is, of course, much, much easier to criticise others than to do a good job yourself. However, I have discovered one particular recurrent mechanism that I do find hugely annoying. It is this: the big reveal that is hinted at all the way through the book but withheld until the end for no other reason than to tease the reader.  Ugh, I hate that. It’s so annoying. By the time the reveal arrives, nine times out of ten, I’ve already guessed it. And if I haven’t guessed it, I’m so sick of it being dangled in front of my nose, I don’t even care what it is any more.

In order to make my novel the best it can be, therefore, I am trying to avoid nods, similes, pebbles, and gratuitously withheld reveals.

Of course, many readers will be completely okay with these things, if they even notice they exist. I was talking to a police detective recently who said he couldn’t stand watching any kind of police procedural on TV. When I asked why, he said it was because they were so untrue to life. In what way, I asked. In that they get the crime solved and sewn up in no time at all, he said. To me that simply doesn’t matter. In fact, this makes them much more entertaining than if they adhered to reality.  But each to their own. Writing, like reading, is a highly subjective matter. You need only adhere to what matters to you.



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New Year’s Thoughts

I haven’t blogged in a long time, mostly because I haven’t had any significant writing news. That’s not to say I haven’t been writing. I am now busy editing my second novel. I think that’s going ok, but what do I know?

As always, I’ve enjoyed reading lots of great books. No day ever goes by for me without literature. It is my most dependable companion. Literature allows me to step into other people’s lives and have my own reflected back at me. It provides escapism, but it also reminds me of what’s important and how ephemeral it all is.

Platitudes abound at this time of year but mostly they’re not very helpful. I get really tired of hearing phrases like, ‘seize the day,’ and ‘you only live once,’ and ‘make the most of every moment.’ What does all that mean? It’s impossible to live life to the full all the time and it’s not helpful to be made to feel like a failure if you don’t. There should be plenty of latitude to be morose and bored and lost.

For me, a more useful maxim is ‘don’t sweat the small stuff.’ Of course, it’s impossible to adhere to this too. We all sweat the small stuff. This is the danger of human interaction: obsessing about stuff that doesn’t actually matter. Relationships can turn on such trivial and insignificant concerns. Two people can have very different interpretations of the same thing. We all have our own reality. This is one of the driving forces of conflict in fiction. So easy to recognise in others, not so easy to call to attention in ourselves.

Another common theme in fiction is the transience of life. ‘This too shall pass’ is a saying I’ve never really understood. To me, it’s always sounded like an inane, bland and somewhat negative take on life. It seems to say, nothing matters because you’re all going to die. But I’ve come to realise that it’s a more compassionate message than that. No matter how bad things are, they won’t stay that way. The same is true for good things – you can’t sustain them forever so don’t pin all your hopes and happiness onto a transient state. You cannot control life, but that doesn’t mean it has to control you.

Fiction often deals in make-believe, fantasy and heightened reality. But it can also encompass the ordinary, the quiet and the every day. While social media is obsessed with proving how exciting and extraordinary our lives are, when the chips are down, I’ve often longed for those normal, uneventful days when I can go about life without fuss or pain. I wouldn’t want it all the time, but sometimes I love waking up and thinking, today is an ordinary day.

Literature for me acts as a counterpoint to all the noise and the hype. Sometimes when someone tells me they’re upset, frustrated, depressed, or anxious, I feel like saying, why don’t you read a book? I don’t say it, because it sounds far too trite. Reading a book won’t solve your problems or reveal the meaning of life. But, if it’s a book worth reading, it will be an enriching experience. Rather than seize the day, or live life to the full, ‘read a book’ makes the most sense to me.

This post is dedicated to Alan Doyle, who set up and managed this website for me as a friend for free and who sadly passed away this month.

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Keeping it Real

I’ve had a period of rest from writing recently. My next novel is finished and while I wait to see if the powers that be consider it to have legs, I’ve been giving my writing brain a break.

The best bit about taking a break has been the opportunity to immerse myself in even more reading than usual. As a reader, I always tend to have my critical brain switched on. But, when I’m not actively writing and when a book is really good, I can pretty much give myself over to the delight of being swept away to another world. Good fiction, as well as being entertaining and transporting, usually has something pertinent to say about life. Not in an obvious how-to-fix-it way, but in the more subtle evocation of the ebb and flow of human existence. At a time of general uncertainty in my own life, I find this deeply consoling. Fictional characters whose lives are unpredictable, with shades of light and dark, reflect back my own. The over-arching message of all the best fiction is, you are not alone.

I’ve been enjoying other leisure pursuits: a holiday in Italy, exhibitions and concerts back home, trips to the cinema, learning favourite poems by heart and rekindling my old love of photography. I’m an amateur, hobbyist photographer and delight in creating photographs free from the exacting standards I attach to my writing. I don’t worry too much about whether it’s clichéd, or technically inept. I simply post my efforts on Instagram and, if I’m lucky, receive a couple of likes before the image is consigned to obscurity.

Flicking through other accounts on Instagram, I am struck by how blissfully happy, productive, popular, remunerated and aesthetically nourished we all are. That’s what it looks like anyway. Do people post about failure, disappointment, relationships that go wrong, careers that flounder, ill health, boredom and spots? Not much. It’s all about lifestyle and success. Meanwhile, so many adults, young adults and children that I know are sinking beneath clouds of ever decreasing self-esteem. Lack of self worth and lonely despair in the light of others’ brilliant existences, seem to be a scourge of modern life exacerbated by social media.

For the sake of offering an antidote to all this, I’m going to tell you now that my previous novel has failed to secure a publisher. I’m not afraid or ashamed to admit it. Having blogged about writing a novel and sending it off, I’ve put its progress, or lack of, out there. So, yes, my novel has done the rounds of publishers and drawn a blank. The stumbling block seems to be the main character – she isn’t likeable enough. I like her (though I admit I wouldn’t invite her to tea), but that, of course, is no use.

Rejection is part and parcel of the writing life. We all know of successful authors who have been rejected countless times. We all know there’s a large element of subjectivity involved and an even larger element of luck. But none of that really matters. I’m not revealing this in order to garner support and encouragement, or commiseration and consternation. It’s okay for my book to fail. I’m not happy about it, but failure is okay. It’s part of a realistic engagement, not just with the writing life, but with life.

I want to succeed in what I do, but I’m also enjoying this current let up from trying to succeed. As I said at the start, I’m enjoying reading. You might think the last thing I’d want to do is read other novels that have been more successful and are undoubtedly better, than mine, but that is exactly what I do want to do. Because writing for me isn’t about pure ego. It’s about being fully engaged in what I love: books.

I know that whenever I’m looking to find company, comfort or catharsis, to be entertained and distracted, to be uplifted, to be moved, challenged, amused and stunned, one place I don’t turn to is social media. I turn to fiction, or to literature, or any art form. That’s where life is at, in all its vagaries and guises. I recommend it to everyone.


A picture to reflect my mood. Find me on Instagram at @cscruttwell




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Thinking of Running the Marathon?

Watching the London Marathon today, I suspect I’m not alone in finding it so inspiring and uplifting I’ve thought to myself, hey, why don’t I have a go?

Yes, I’ll put my name down for the London Marathon next year. Okay, so I’ve never run anywhere in my life, but look at those bozos at the back of the pack. I must be in better shape than some of them were when they started. A quick google search brings up a number of conflicting articles on why you should and shouldn’t undertake such an endeavour. From the comfort of my armchair, even the most discouraging of them makes it sound irresistibly romantic. The loneliness of the long distance runner. Put yourself to the ultimate test of physical and emotional endurance. Sacrifice all to achieve your goal. Pit yourself against the odds.

But then, a thought occurs to me. I don’t need to run a marathon. I’m already running one. Cue cheesy comparison between running a marathon and writing a novel. 

This isn’t the first time I’ve made the rather obvious connection between sport and writing. It’s the same, I guess, for any undertaking that requires commitment over a long period, stamina, self-belief, belligerence and a small degree of madness.

Paula Radcliffe, commentating on TV, offers her advice on survival. ‘You need to stay in the moment and just focus on putting one foot in front of the other. Try not to think about how much further you’ve got to go. Look out for encouraging landmarks along the way. There was one particular red phone box along the embankment that always spurred me on.’

God, do I need the novelist’s equivalent of that red phone box right now? It might look like I’m doing okay from the outside – I’m two-thirds through the second draft of my novel – but I’ve hit a wall.

The first draft is hard enough. That little spark of an idea you thought would make a wonderful novel keeps you going for a while. Then, you start to face problems. Doubt sets in. You plough on, ignoring the inconsistencies and gaping holes in the plotline and the long, boring bits. You think, leave it for now, I’ll fix that in the second draft.

You get to the end of the first draft. A moment of cautious euphoria. It’s an achievement, but you know there’s still a lot of work to do. You take a breath, decide what changes need to be made and dive in. The second draft starts off very well. Those opening chapters fly off the page with the benefit of knowing who your characters are and where they’re going. Gradually, however, as you progress through the novel, things start to fall apart all over again. You tie up the loose ends in the first draft, only for more to appear. As problems accumulate, you start to think, leave it, I’ll fix that in the third draft. Then, you’re two thirds of the way through, struggling up that punishing incline towards the story’s climax and you pause for air. You forget to stay in the moment. You make the fatal mistake of glancing back at an earlier chapter and you realise how unfinished it still is and how much further you have to go. Suddenly it all seems like a complete waste of time.

How decidedly unromantic it feels now. How ridiculous and vain and selfish. You think of all the other, useful things you could have been doing. All the worthwhile challenges you could have taken on that might actually have been achievable. All the shortfalls in your life that could have been fixed, if you weren’t so intent on writing that damn novel.

Do I sound defeatist? Well, that’s honestly how I feel right now. How do I get past this point of despair? In the end, it’s the most banal of motivations that keeps me going: the finish line. I’ve started, therefore I’ll finish. There comes a point of no return, when you’ve invested so much time and effort that it simply seems more wasteful to give up than to carry on.

I’m like one of those marathon runners who’s wobbling all over the road now, legs buckled beneath me. It’s not dignified and it’s not pretty. But I have no real option other than to stagger on. Maybe, just maybe, I tell myself, there’s a red phone box waiting around the corner.

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Hygge for Writers

The past year has been the same as every other year: a mixture of good and bad. At one point I made the mistake of thinking, and even more dangerously, saying out loud, that my life was running smoothly with everything going well. I don’t believe in tempting fate, but I did regret those words when the next challenge came and hit me in the face, as inevitably it would.

In terms of writing, I have secured an agent but, as yet, no publisher. I am half way through the second draft of my next novel and, if I wasn’t frightened of tempting fate again, I’d say it was going pretty well.

As always, reading books has seen me through. If I can’t find solace in literature, then I know I’m in a bad way. That and painting my nails. I only paint my nails when I’m miserable so if you see me with coloured nails, be gentle with me.

One of the books I enjoyed reading this year was The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell. It takes a look at the Danish way of life from the viewpoint of a journalist who tries it out first hand and examines why it is that Danish people prove to be so unanimously happy. Nowadays, you can’t open a magazine or enter a bookshop or buy a candle without coming across advice on how to get Hygge. Here, then, are my own top five personal remedies for combating life’s stresses and strains.

  1. Light a fire.
  1. Paint your nails.
  1. Buy something nice.
  1. Read a book.
  1. Write a novel.

Wait a minute. Isn’t writing a novel painstakingly difficult? Yes, exactly, it is. You will tie yourself in knots writing a novel. You will find yourself wrestling with problems so obscure, so arbitrary and so utterly pointless you are guaranteed to be taken far away from the rest of your life. Your novel is your constant companion – it goes everywhere with you. It clings to you and demands attention and it will occasionally reward your care with glorious, sudden insights at the least expected moments, such as when you’re squeezing onto a crowded train or stirring the gravy. It’s not hygge but it’s something better. It’s torture. I highly recommend it.

Happy Christmas everyone.

My beloved hygge writing corner

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Writer versus Reader

In a recent discussion with a group of friends about a novel we’d all read – a contemporary thriller which they loved and I didn’t – I was told I was approaching it too much as a writer, instead of as a reader. I employed too critical an eye, analysing plot, character, motivation, style. I just wasn’t giving myself over to the story.

This was most definitely true. I couldn’t relinquish my inner author, because the book was, in my opinion, too seriously flawed. The writing got in the way of my enjoyment. Was I wrong? Maybe, for not only did all my friends enjoy the book, but I also happened to read a tweet by an editor (not the book’s editor) whose comment after finishing it was, wow!

It sounds very arrogant of me to criticise and I’m not saying my writing is any better. I try very hard to make it better, but it’s not for me to judge whether or not I succeed.

One thing though: I don’t always read books with my inner author engaged. It is possible for me to become an out and out reader. The book I’m reading right now has absolutely got me by the throat. I have abdicated all my critical awareness in the pursuit of pure enjoyment. From time to time, as I read on, I tell myself I really should stop and try to work out why it’s so damn good.

Last night, two thirds of the way through, I suddenly clocked that it was written in the present tense. Nothing too astonishing in that, except that it’s the kind of thing that, were it poorly executed, I would have noticed long before. And now that I did notice, I didn’t care. I don’t want to analyse it. When I get to the end, then, I’ll have a think about what exactly makes this book work.

I suppose that’s the effect most writers hope to achieve. You want your reader to be carried along, oblivious to method. The more critical the reader, the more gratifying it is if you can induce them to surrender their judgmental eye and immerse themselves in the experience.

Given that reading is such a personal, subjective activity, who decides if a book is good or bad? Is it just a question of taste, or is there an objective measure? I think the answer is, it’s a bit of both. Some books really are badly written. But some readers are more demanding than others. Within the realms of average to brilliant writing, there’s a lot of room for differences of opinion based on personal taste. This is a good thing, because it means there’s a lot of scope out there for all sorts of books to find an audience. Not to mention, the opportunities for some good, heated discussions.

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Sit at a Typewriter and Bleed

A couple of people have mentioned to me that they haven’t noticed me blogging of late. So, what have I been up to? Apart from hiding from the sun, of course. Well, I’ve been writing. Nothing new in that. But, what is kind of new, is that I have been trying to enjoy writing.

When I went on my Icelandic Retreat earlier in the year and the faculty of illustrious authors was lined up for a final question and answer session, someone from the audience asked about the process of writing. One of the authors grabbed hold of the microphone and proceeded to tell us how much she absolutely loved it. She was at her desk first thing in the morning, tap tapping away on her keyboard before her husband left for work. She would spend all day having such fun with her marvellously entertaining characters and, when her husband returned home in the evening, she’d still be at her desk, having lost all track of time and completely forgotten to feed herself, without having budged an inch. 

While others in the room smiled and nodded in recognition of this sweet scenario, my heart sank. My god, I thought, is this what writing is like for these people? When I sit down to write, I am overcome within the first ten minutes by a desperate longing to unload the dishwasher. Plus, there’s no way I’d ever forget to feed myself, as I need to pour a gallon of tea and a packet of chocolate digestives down my throat just to make it from the first sentence to the next.

At the Q&A session, the microphone was passed to the next author in line who took it reluctantly, hesitated for a moment, then said, ‘I hate writing.’ Everyone laughed. Ha ha. No please, I thought, don’t let that be a joke. He went on to quote another writer (I can’t remember who) who apparently once said something like, ‘I love having written.’ Yes. Yes. Yes.

Writing is only enjoyable once it’s over. Or, on the infrequent occasions when it’s going really well. The first writer who grabbed that microphone must, I suppose, be blessed with a ready backlog of of ideas, scenes and characters just waiting to spill out onto the page and they must spill out in an instantly coherent, imaginative and engaging way. Writing really isn’t like that for me.

Recently, I read Ruby Wax’s ‘A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled,’ in which she reminds us how much time we spend planning for an idyllic future which, when it arrives, we often forget to enjoy. For example, think about how much time we spend preparing for a holiday – choosing where to go, working and saving for it, getting our money exchanged, arranging dog sitters etc. And yet, how often do we find ourselves on that holiday thinking ahead to the next holiday, perhaps, or to when we get back home, or simply forgetting to cherish the moment in hand?

So, I’ve been trying to remember to enjoy writing, because that, supposedly, is what I want to do.

Mindfulness apparently takes a lot of practice. People go on mindfulness retreats in order to practice it. Well, recently, I went on another retreat to practice writing, to the lovely converted clocktower at Arvon’s Shropshire centre, The Hurst. Here, I had a self-contained flat with a desk, a shared kitchen with ready prepared home-cooked meals to pop in the microwave and all the provisions I needed. Peace and quiet, beautiful surroundings and a dishwasher that someone else unloaded before I ever got to it.

Once you have resigned yourself to the fact that there is no other task to perform, no excuse for distraction, you find you can stay at your desk for a remarkably long time and you can produce a remarkable amount of work. You can even enjoy the process, because you know that you will have written a considerable amount, not by the end of the week, or month, or year, but by the end of the day. I swore when I went home I would keep this up. I would keep enjoying it. But I failed. I couldn’t manage it any more than I can manage to go from one moment to the next thinking how wonderful life is.

Most of the time, when I’m writing I’m looking over my shoulder at what I’ve just written and I’m thinking it’s crap. Or, I simply can’t get the next words out the way I see them in my mind. That’s what makes it hard work, most of the time. That’s the reality.

And whilst it’s true that I did produce more material on my retreat, after I returned home and the idyllic veil had fallen away, I read over what I’d written and I saw that it was no better in terms of quality than what I usually write. There was as much editorial work to be done on it as ever.

I guess I should give myself a break and stop berating myself for not finding the writing process a font of unadulterated joy. It is a process towards an end. I am working towards the goal of having written. I am working towards finishing another novel. There will be times when I enjoy it, but more often it will be a struggle. Just like life itself. It may not always be joyful, but hopefully I can look back on it with some pride and satisfaction.

The title of this post, by the way, is taken from a quote from Hemingway who said, ‘ There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.’



One thing I can enjoy without fail, however, is walking my dogs in the Autumnal morning sunshine

One thing I can enjoy without fail, however, is walking my dogs in the Autumnal morning sunshine

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Guest Blog About Never Giving Up

I’ve written a guest blog for the Writers and Artists website about why writers sometimes give up too soon in their quest for an agent. You can read it here.


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