Sowing seeds and planting trees

Here’s a tip if you are writing, but not sure what to write about.

It’s not a new idea. I certainly didn’t invent it. I have heard it be given various labels. And it is remarkable how often it works.

If you face a writing challenge; if you are a bit stuck, then simply do what writers are supposed to do: write. You might be amazed by the results.

Some people call it “free writing”. 

Just start writing - anything. It doesn’t really matter. Just get something down on paper or on the screen. Let your mind roam, free. Don’t edit. Don’t correct. Just see what emerges. See what happens.

When I used to make the daily commute between Dorset and London on the train, I would often make it my morning challenge to write that day’s blog post before reaching Waterloo, usually beginning with no idea whatsoever what I was going to be writing.

Today, I decided to make a start on a piece I want to write for something later in the year.

I have been struggling with how to take it forward. Nothing was developing as a story that I liked and that would fit the brief. 

“I will give it an hour,” I thought. All I had was an opening line that had popped into my head: “And this is me and him at...”  

So I began with that, and added a bit, and a bit more, and a bit more... and an hour or so later I had more 1500 words written, and the outline of a story I am happy with and can work on.

So it works. It is also how I wrote this post.

There are other things I could have been doing, of course.

I probably should have been out and about trying to find more stockists for the book (to join our most recent addition, The Posh Partridge cafe, in Dorchester); or trying to stir up more publicity (to add to the nice little article in the Ashley Cross News, and the long awaited article in the Daily Echo, promised for this week); or chasing up on various people who haven’t replied to emails; or even planting the weeping willow that sitting in a pot in the garden. 

But I didn’t.  Today, I sowed a seed. Tomorrow I’ll plant a tree. 

(Surely that could be printed on a poster).

PS…

A great afternoon at the fundraising event for Blandford Literary Festival at Marcia’s Farm yesterday afternoon. Some random readings, Indian head massages and a great atmosphere in the bar. There really are some cool people in this world.

Sales: 77

Bookshops: 67

Other: 126

Doing stuff, and not

The good news is, we are booked in for at least two festivals - Sturminster Newton Literary Festival and Shaftesbury Fringe -  in the coming few months, and organising another couple of events to promote our book, Dorset Shorts.

We believe that taking part in events like these will present our best opportunity of boosting sales, outside of bookshop and online activity. I hope we are right.

I took a drive to visit the Shaftesbury venues (Gold Hill Museum and Coffee#1) just over a week ago, and met with local author Elizabeth Woodgate.  

The venues look excellent, and we are very excited about it. The challenge now is to make our two Bite-Size Stories events really go well.

We will have a good chance to try out our model when we take part in the Sturminster Newton Literary Festival on June 15, and hopefully put on an another Bite Size at the Little Red Roaster coffee house in Poole.

The not so good news is that everything seems to take an age, and while feeling positive about what is being achieved, I beat myself up daily about all the stuff I am not doing while doing other stuff.

I know we could do with more outlets for the book... and that I could do with writing this blog more often... and that I haven’t tweeted in an age (and I have just reading an article about how being up-to-speed on social media is an absolute must for the small publisher)... and that... Oh well. 

I also need to chase up the library services in the two Dorset councils. I left review copies with them but heard nothing back, which has surprised me. Also, a promised feature in the Bournemouth Echo still hasn’t appeared. I don’t know why.

The book is now up for sale on Amazon, and KB Willson - another of our authors - has set us up on Goodreads, if anyone cares to comment. Getting good reviews on these things can be a real boost to sales.

It is also very satisfying that we have received so many positive comments on all aspects of our “little gem”, from the quality of the stories to the design.

Sales: 74

Bookshops: 62

Other: 125

Memories of Lee Child, maybe

I have a memory, perhaps a false memory, that 25 years ago, while running my own little short story magazine, Nutshell, that I once rejected a submission by someone called Lee Child.

That is the Lee Child, author of the Jack Reacher novels, and, today, one of the most commercially successful writers in the world.

Now, I could be wrong. It was a long time ago. But, like the campanologists who practise in the church across the road every Wednesday night, his name rings some very loud bells.

It is a very distinctive name, and an entirely plausible scenario. Lee Child is the pen name of Jim Grant. Mr Grant was born in Coventry and moved to Birmingham. Nutshell was a Birmingham-based little magazine until I took it on and moved it to Coventry.

I told this story at the launch night to demonstrate that having a story rejected, as many people were in the run of to choosing the final selection for Dorset Shorts, should not be taken too badly by those who failed to make it.

All writers, I assume, face such rejection at some point.

If memory serves me well, with Mr Child (if it was Mr Child), it was not the writing I did not like, it was just the genre - just not my kind of thing.

I like to think that whatever I said in that rejection note that it contributed in some way to his future success; but my thinking may be wishful.

One of the joys of Dorset Shorts is that it includes such a variety of stories that there should be something in there to suit all tastes - murder to mermaids; horror to humour.

Serendipity, the Lyme Regis bookshop has placed an order; and KB Willson, author of Father’s Day, has delivered some copies to the bookshop in Swanage.  More orders have arrived online.

Sales: 55

Bookshops: 34

Other: 105


Radio times

Launch day. Awake far too early:  Eating the leftovers and drinking wine too late last night? Sub-consciously worrying about over-sleeping? Re-running my talk at the launch night, remembering those bits I had forgotten to include, rephrasing parts I could have said better? Too late now. 

The only thing I really know is that 3am is not the best time to wake after getting to bed after midnight.

At least I am on time to pick up David Herring from Corfe Mullen and get us to Dorchester for our planned interview with Steve Harris on BBC Radio Dorset.

Steve was kind enough to interview us when we launched the Dorset Writers’ Prize competition to attract stories for the book. It is good to be back and see it in his hands.

David speaks very well about his writing life, and his story - Linda

Confirming our interview slot on the phone yesterday, the producer had asked what Linda was about. I told him:  “sexual obsession”. The producer re-plied:  “I’ll just say obsession.”  

David is very measured in his own description, giving mind to the fact that most of the breakfast show listeners would have their minds on a different sort of oats.Steve Harris, reading his notes, says to me: “It says here that you are the visionary behind the project.”  Visionary? Me? I never knew.  Comments like these in a radio interview can knock you off track, but altogether it goes well.

Back home later a friend says “you are probably the only visionary in the village.”  

I must get some business cards printed, and maybe a plaque for the door. (I hope people don’t think that I described myself as that).

Upstairs, on my laptop, is request for a review copy from a local magazine editor, a couple of sales orders from Jo’s family, and - excitingly - our first order for the book from a distributor - Bertrams.

I realise I don’t even have a proper invoice template in place to send with the book. The one we thought we might adopt uses the $ prefix, and I can’t change it to £.  I design another quickly and send it off.

It is also time to send off all those copies due to writers who submitted stories for the competition but didn’t, for one reason or another, make it to the final cut.

Direct & online etc: 32

With book shops: 28

Amazon: 0

Other: 100


And the good news is...

We have now received some early copies of our debut book as a small press publisher - Dorset Shorts: Winning Entries From The Dorset Writers‘ Prize.

Dorset Shorts Cover and Spine.jpg

Seventeen writers from all parts of the county are having their work published in this collection. We are very proud of that achievement, and of the fact that it looks great.

Only a few copies have arrived with us so far because our printers having been facing problems with glue seeping through onto the cover. Hopefully, that will be resolved (on their third attempt) sometime this week.


We have not settled on our launch date as yet (we are hoping we may be able to link it into another event), but we will announce it soon.


In the meantime we plan a pre-launch get-together with our authors on March 30. We are looking forward to that.  Strange to think, but we have only met one of them so far.


On another piece of good news, for me at least, I feel I have finally settled on where to focus with this blog.  It has been bugging me for months. Now, after receiving those first, pristine copies of Dorset Shorts, and feeling that we can now actually call ourselves small publishers, has made it more concrete.

While drafting a short talk, I wrote that I wanted to chat about: short stories, long tails, small press publishing, little-read writers and how we spun a book out of coffee beans, perseverance, a whim and a prayer.

At last.

No Clowning Theodora

I was talking to someone today (again!) about coincidence.

Amazing how often it comes up.

Coincidence?  I said. I’ll tell you about coincidence:

I am on the train, right? It’s late. I’m thinking about clowns, I mean writing down notes about them and everything.

And I am thinking: this is perfect for the main character in this thing I am writing, right?

I need her to be happiest when hidden behind a mask. Disguised.

Then I step off the train. And it’s nearly midnight, remember And who should step off from the next carriage?Only two people dressed as clowns, that’s all. You wouldn’t credit it. Red noses, yellow and red check scarves, polka dot hats, big flappy shows and everything, right?

But that’s not all. No.

I develop this character further, in this thing I am writing, you know? I know, I told you all that before. And I make her a clown, see; who visits children in hospital. To make them smile

(I need her to be able to move about the hospital, But not like a nurse, or a doctor or anything. Something more casual, but still with a ‘mask’ And popular)

Anyway, that’s not relevant. Craig, the dramaturg, is a bit doubtful. But I keep going with it anyway. Then I go on a train again. This is weeks after. And it is a different train from last time.

And I sit down in the last carriage. And I look up. And I see this advert. Never seen it before. I’m stunned.

Its for this charity that (I’m telling you… no kidding) provides clowns to visit sick children in hospital. And make them smile!

You wouldn’t credit it, would you?

It made me smile.

And this charity  is called the Theodora Trust. First time I have heard of it. Must look it up, I think. Perfect job.

Theodora, eh? That’s not a name you hear often, is it?

So, then, I turn up for this dinner Loads of others are there, well 23; Lebanese Place

The others are all writing stuff as well, like me. Not writers yet. Just writing. Stuff. And this young woman sits down opposite. From Bulgaria, she is. Seems nice. (Nods and shakes her head in all the right places).

And, anyway, she introduces herself. And says her name is…No, I’m not kidding… Theodora! Bloody Theodora. Pronounced without the H. Call me Teddy, it’s easier, she says, seeing the look on my face.

No, I just wanted to check the spelling, I say.

T-h-e-o-d-o-r-a.

You couldn’t make it up. Well, you could. But I haven’t.

I don’t think I have ever met anyone called Theodora before.

No, she wasn’t dressed as a clown. That would have been odd.

An heroic life

So many stories. While visiting our book printers in Cornwall on Friday, I was struck (not for the first time) just how many books are being published every week, on so many various subjects and in so many styles.

Jo and I were sitting in the sales director’s office looking at the various titles piled on top of the filing cabinets by the wall. It was then I noticed a large pile of hardbacks carrying the distinctive covers of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series of adventure stories for children.

It reminded me… Back in 198, I either wrote or, more likely, edited an obituary about a recently deceased Syrian-born physician (Roger Altounyan) on whom one of the characters in the stories (young Roger Walker) was based.

The fictional Roger Walker was involved in many engaging and beautifully-written adventures around the Lake District and Norfolk Broads.

But beyond that, the real Roger Altounyan lead a life that was, if anything, even more amazing.

As well as becoming exceedingly accomplished bomber pilot and trainer of other pilots during World War II, Roger went on to discover a treatment for asthma and to invent the Spinhaler inhaling device (inspired by the vibration of the propellers in the aircraft he flew).

What I found remarkable about his story is that Roger Altounyan self-induced more than 600, often frighteningly severe, asthma attacks on himself in order to self-test his asthma treatment.

There were dozens of stories printed between the covers of the books piled up in the sales director’s office, but there could not have been many that were more heroic or inspiring than the one that wasn’t there at all.




The Satyricon

It is good to see the country united at last.  We seem, at least and at last, to be agreed that the whole Brexit debate appears to have resulted in a complete bugger’s muddle.  I tell myself I shouldn’t slow down and look at all the chaos, but I can’t help myself. It is a quite enthralling, unfolding, real-life drama, with a train rushing towards a cliff edge and the passengers and crew arguing about what to do.

In contrast, here at home we have been facing our own quiet dilemma.  Our 11 years old dog, Jack, was found to have cancer during a recent, separate operation.  We haven’t been able to decide on the best course of action: Leave it be, let him enjoy his life (which he seems to do), or agree to another operation (which he would hate)?  Would the cure be worse than the illness? No one can tell us.

It has been such a difficult debate that, in desperation recently, I turned to a book to help provide an answer.  Should we do it? I asked. I then read an opened-at-random page to see which of two words would be first to appear - yes or no? The final word on the first page said: “No.”  

I am thinking of suggesting it to Mrs May as an alternative to a People’s Vote. 

For book club this month, we are all reading The Satyricon, by Petronius (translated by P.G. Walsh). All very grand. It is not my (or our) usual fare - but, then, that is why the book club exists: to introduce us to writing and writers we might not otherwise read.  

This can present some difficulties in that we are often exposed to writing we do not enjoy as much as that offered by our favourite authors. I can find myself reading something (usually a novel) for book club while staring longingly at another book I have waiting, invitingly, on the shelf. 

On the other hand, I have certainly been introduced to, and enjoyed the company of many writers I might not otherwise have chosen to read, from Isabel Allende to Haruki Murakami.

I have yet to decide about The Satyricon. It is reputed to be the first novel ever written. At the moment it seems to me to be something of a cross between Fanny Hill and I Claudius - but much more shocking in it’s depiction of sex, rape, greed and lewdness in an extremely sleazy, ancient Rome: the great and the good fiddling while their city burned. Which reminds me of something.


It's hotting up

I won't bore you with just how cold it is here in my little office, but it is hotting up on the competition front.

I am just waiting for a little more feedback on a few entries and we will be able to finalise and communicate which entries have made the shortlist.  

We are aware that means good news for some, and not for others, but veryone should receive an email within the next day or so.

It may have seemed something of a long process to some, but we want to do it thoroughly and we do rely on volunteers to help us.  They have done a wonderful job.

Their selected entries will now go forward for further consideration by a small panel, and we will decide on the final stories for our anthology of Dorset shorts within the next few weeks.

Thank you again to everyone who has entered. We have been offered up a great range or styles, topics and ideas - and we feel ever more confident that it will result in a book to be proud of.

Shortlist coming soon

Hello folks.  Sorry it has been a while since we posted, especially as I know a few of those who entered stories are anxious to know how we are progressing.

Well, we are still busy reading through all the entries we received from across the county, and the good news is that we are right on schedule to have our short list ready - as promised - by the end of February.

We have allowed plenty of time for this task as we want to ensure that every entry is read  and assessed by at least two of our readers independently before reaching a  decision on whether to put a story forward for the next stage.

Our greatest concern was that would not attract enough material good enough for publication. Thankfully that is not the case.  We have a good number of stories that stand out for publication, and many where the readers have some divergence of opinion - which will be the subject of some debate.

Once upon a while ago, when I used to publish a short story magazine, the decision to place a submission of the “Yes” “No” or “Maybe” stack could be pretty much instant - often based on an impression made within the first few sentences.

However, for the Dorset Writers’ Award, every submission is being read once, twice, three times - sometimes more, such is the care our readers taking and the responsibility they feel for giving every tale a fair chance of being included in the final mix.

We will be in contact soon with everyone again to soon with the latest information.

Can we capture the literary spirit of the county?

The Local Books section of bookshops across the county are full of the nostalgic and photographic evidence of people’s love for the county - but there is little evidence of the current literary passions inspired by the county in which we live - its towns, as well as heaths and shores.  

Read More