Category Archives: Blog

Washing the car with my son

He skipped to the jetwash down the road; I drove the musty Focus, opening the windows for air.

We slid anachronistic coins into the machine, and took turns wrestling with the lance. The bonnet was spattered with colour, a Pollock of bird crap and tree sap.

He sprayed me, laughed at my wet feet; I was glad of relief from the heat reflecting off the car’s black husk.

He learned: wash up, rinse down. I felt like Mr Miyagi. Next we vacuumed up sweet wrappers, stones, leaves.

‘Look,’ he said, showing me his open palm; from the footwell, a seashell.

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Write yourself well?

Creativity for wellness seems to be a hot topic right now. In 2018 the APPGAHW (the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing – catchy huh?) published the results of their three-year study. Just the other day, it was reported that the Great British Creativity Test – commissioned by BBC Arts in partnership with UCL – has explored for the first time how creative activities can help us manage our mood and boost wellbeing. Everywhere we look, there seem to be newsflashes telling us what many of us feel we’ve known for ever: engaging with the arts is good for us.


The idea of creative writing as a form of therapy, of writing as catharsis, is not new to me. As a precocious, pretentious teenager, I liked to christen new notebooks with the following quote from 16thcentury French writer and philosopher Michel de Montaigne:

‘Writing does not cause misery; it is born of misery.’

(I know; I was insufferable). The stereotype of the tortured artist conjures images of laudanum-addled poets as well as depressed artists and angst-ridden musicians. There’s a commonly-held belief that any kind of creative expression, though perhaps writing in particular, is driven by some sort of need to exorcise one’s demons.


When I trained a few years ago as a psychotherapeutic counsellor, I came to recognise that creative writing, which I’d practised since childhood, and to a lesser extent journaling, were important tools for my own self-care. I became increasingly curious about ‘joining up’ my two chief areas of interest: writing and therapy, but for something more positive than exorcism and expurgation. I wondered whether I could help others use writing as a tool to protect and maintain, perhaps even improve, mental and emotional wellness.


In 2017 I started to explore how this might look in a workshop setting, and ran a few trial sessions in a local wellbeing centre. I had recently started facilitating women’s writing groups for So:write (, and as the trust within those groups was building, I noticed some of the sessions were starting to feel a little like therapy, as voices were found and stories shared.


Since 2018 I have been running Writing for Wellness programmes at Farnham Maltings, and in early 2020 I will be launching Writing for Wellbeing in Southampton Central Library under the generous umbrella of Artful Scribe with support from the Arts Council. A lot of people coming along for the first time, or contemplating joining the course, might wonder how a ‘writing for wellness’ workshop will look and feel. The Great British Creativity Test research shows there are 3 main ways we use creativity as a coping mechanism:

  1. A distraction tool – using creativity to avoid stress.
  2. A contemplation tool – using creativity to give us the mind space to reassess problems in our lives and make plans.
  3. A means of self-development to face challenges by building up self-esteem and confidence.


Funnily enough I think the workshops hit these three marks. Exercises roughly fall into three categories:

  1. Writing for joy / playfulness (distraction) – remember as a kid playing ‘Consequences’, that game where you wrote a line and folded the paper over and passed it to a friend? We do things like that.
  2. Writing linked to particular emotional ‘themes’ eg relationship difficulties; grief and loss. This might include journaling or letter writing (contemplation).
  3. Writing for its own sake. We look at different types of writing, perhaps less well-known forms of poetry or fiction, discuss them and have a go ourselves. We share words with each other; we pick random prompts from a hat and see where they take us; we write without concern for grammar or spelling or punctuation for a set period of time with no other purpose than to feel the scratch of pen on paper.

Of course sometimes a bigger ‘purpose’ is discovered and we might create a longer piece, or consider working towards performance or publication. Whether that occurs or not, these exercises deliver on self-development.


No-one is forced to read their words aloud, although they are encouraged and supported to do so if they wish. Exercises are generally short and, I hope, inclusive and accessible. Writing for wellness is about first of all giving yourself permission; and next, being heard and not judged.

The feedback from participants in these classes to date has included benefits such as: “more willing to be open and share” / “gained confidence in my own voice” / “more confident in my abilities to be creative”.


From my own perspective, I was compelled to start these groups to try to help others, but of course they help me, too. The following 3 facts are completely personal and true:

  1. Writing is one of the things, if not the thing, I most enjoy doing. (OK often the joy comes from having written, but sure, sometimes the process is fun)
  2. Writing is the thing that makes me feel most like me.

And yet:

  1. Writing is the activity I most often put off, relegate to the bottom of the priority list.


So for me, part of the value of a Writing for Wellness class is the feeling at the end that goes a bit like this: YES. I just spent 2 hours doing something that is all about self-expression, that (mostly!) brings me joy, and that makes me feel better about myself and the world. And it’s a virtuous circle because the more I write, the more I want to write, and am reminded of all the benefits it brings.


One thing on which I still agree with my old pal Montaigne: writing does not cause misery. In fact writing well, and writing for wellness, can do just the opposite.


Useful links:

Writing for Wellness


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Having babies can seriously damage your relationship

There are certain things the ‘baby books’ don’t tell you. For instance, that you might not fall instantly in love with your child; that your body will almost certainly never return to its pre-childbirth state; and that having babies can seriously damage your relationship.


I’m a slow writer. Not so much with the actual writing, which when it finally comes, comes pretty fast, but with the germination of ideas. The first idea for Hush Little Baby, a story about the impact on a family when their injured baby is removed from them, came in 2010.

It was the first year of my own son’s life, and two things happened that set the pulse of a story beating: I read a feature, in a Sunday supplement, entitled ‘What it feels like to be accused of hurting your baby’; and I attended infant and toddler First Aid training. In among the standard anxiety-inducing advice about choking, burns, etc., someone asked about broken bones. The nurse replied: ‘Babies and young children hardly ever have fractures. Their bones are too soft.’ He went on to say, heartbreakingly, that any time he read of an abuse case in which a young child’s bones had been broken, it upset him because he knew real force must have been applied. We all shuddered and I gave my sleeping son a few extra kisses that night.


By the end of that first year, by the time he was ten months old in fact, I had other breaks on my mind. My son’s father and I had separated. Our seven-year relationship (clichéd itch, anyone?) and three-year marriage were over. Our still-tiny son was no longer the member of a family unit; he was the subject of ‘shared access’.


What led us to that point? Our relationship had been far from perfect, at worst stormy, at best ill-matched, but what caused it to splinter when it did?

When our baby was born (before, in fact), I read all the books. I know they say babies don’t come with an instruction manual, but that’s what I do, what I’ve always done when I’m stuck: I find solace, guidance, in the written word. We had The Baby Whisperer, What to Expect…, The Contented Little Baby, a veritable library stacked up at the back of the bed, but none of them really offered answers. And I needed answers.

I needed answers to why I felt so broken. Why I adored my new son but failed utterly to understand him or read his cues. Why I couldn’t seem to feed him; why he wouldn’t sleep; why he cried, it seemed, all the time. Why I cried quite a bit too, for that matter. Why none of it seemed to ‘come naturally’.

I have friends who endured post-natal depression. I don’t believe I had PND but I was in shock, I might even go so far as to say I was traumatised. It’s my belief now that a lot of new mothers go through this, but they don’t talk about it to anyone. Worst of all, they don’t talk about it to their partners.


We both changed in that first year of parenthood. I became Not-Me. And it was Me my husband had fallen in love with. To be frank, the main things that had drawn us together at the start were sex, and going out getting drunk. There aren’t much of either in the first year after childbirth. That might sound glib, but it’s true. And we stopped communicating, except in games of one-upmanship (let’s play “who’s the most tired?”) or resentment-fueled arguments driven by a total lack of understanding of what the other was going through. We looked only at each other’s behaviour, without pausing to wonder what might be behind it. I thought he was selfish and immature and couldn’t handle the new responsibility and the fact that someone was more important than him now. I never considered that he might be anxious too, might feel threatened or inadequate when I seemed to be coping, or frightened when I didn’t. We slipped into the classic, sad cycle: I didn’t want to have sex because I wasn’t getting any tenderness or affection; he didn’t feel like giving me affection because I wasn’t ‘giving’ him sex.


I eventually found and ordered a book (of course!) about the impact of having a baby on your marriage. There aren’t many books of this type, I suppose because it feels a bit like blaming the baby for your problems, which is grossly unfair, obviously. It’s not the baby’s fault; it’s the fault of the two people you have become, who have failed to grow together at this crucial stage and have instead grown apart.

Unfortunately, by the time my latest manual arrived, my husband had already moved out. And in all too short a time, he was in love with someone else.


The greatest pain of that time, and the only part of the pain that endures several years on, was the fact of being separated from my son. In among my gratitude that his dad, unlike some divorcing parents, wanted to be involved to the extent that he demanded 50/50 access (and, to his credit, became a better parent post-separation), was a deep, yearning sense of loss.  In the throes of the divorce I remember saying angrily, ‘However unhappy we were, the difference between you and me is there is nothingyou could have done in our marriage that would have made me choose to cut my time with him in half.’


I didn’t write at all during that period. Friends thought I would, that it would be cathartic. But I’d stumbled from Baby Fog to Divorce Fog and there was no clear space for my writing brain. In time, though, the idea of a family breaking, a hurt child at their centre, solidified and became a cast of characters, and a story I had to tell.

That story became Hush Little Baby. It’s not ‘about’ what happened to us, but it is honest. A lot of the feelings in it are real. Thankfully our son was never hurt, or taken from us; but I did feel the pain of the empty cot. Even now, on the nights he’s with his dad, and I know he’s happy and safe, I stand and look at his made-up bed and feel sad, and miss him.


It sounds funny, but my divorce is among the things I’m most proud of in my life. Not in itself, because it’s obviously not what anyone hopes for when they get married, but in the way we handled it and, in the end, put our son at the centre. The way we continue to share access, communicate, and don’t badmouth each other or use him to score points. Out of an awful situation, the best possible result for our son emerged. He has two loving families now and we both put his needs ahead of our own. As it turns out, in the end, that part did come naturally.

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A Brief History of Us


When he was asked what existed before the big bang, Stephen Hawking explained that as space and time are curved, somewhat like the earth, you might just as well go to the South Pole and look for a point further south. At the end of the earth, there is no more south. South is meaningless, there. In the same way, it is meaningless to ask what was there before time began.

Some of us struggle to wrap our heads around this just as we can’t conceive of a world without us in it. Before you existed, you simply were not.

My son asks me was he always in my tummy. I start to say no, then hesitate, and tell him yes, in a way, you were. I was born with my thousands of eggs and one of them, one day, would become you. (It will be a much later conversation when he asks ‘How?’ and ‘What did Daddy have to do with it?’)

The answer pleases him – you were always in me – and it pleases me, too. I imagine my ovaries crammed with constellations from which magic would one day explode, in the shape of a boy with worlds in his eyes and so many questions on his tongue.

I also read somewhere recently that when you have a baby, part of their DNA stays in you.

So in a way, I tell my son, you were always in me, and you always will be. Before your time began, and after mine ends, when I will send our sparks into the sky.

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Why running a half marathon is a bit like writing a novel

When running (or in my case, shuffling) longer distances, your mind goes to funny places. I recently completed a half marathon and I found myself reflecting, not for the first time, on the similarities between running and writing.

(You could probably argue that writing a novel is more like a marathon than a half, but since I’m never likely to attempt 26.2 miles, bear with me.)


There are loads of obvious similarities. It’s exciting at the beginning and at the end, but in the middle there’s just a long, grueling, slog. Sometimes you feel like stopping but you keep going because you’re afraid if you don’t you’ll seize up. There is ALWAYS someone better and faster than you.


In case you’re wondering where you are in your own metaphorical race, I’ve created the following handy checklist of symptoms:


Mile 1 (page 1)


Woo-hoo! We’re off! How exciting! With the challenge of the blank page, the open road, ahead of me, I feel strong, I feel talented, the world is my…oh hang on –


Miles 2-3 (first 10,000 words)


Wait, this is hard. It isn’t supposed to get this hard this early. Oh shit. I can’t do this. There’s ages to go. Everything hurts. I am useless.


Halfway through (30-40,000 words)


Oh, the crowds are thinning. I suppose it’s getting a bit boring cheerleading, or asking me how the book is going. My response to both at this point is little more than a wave and a weak smile.


Mile 8 (50,000 words or so)


I need jelly babies, and I need them now.


Mile 10 (60,000 words)


Surely this is far enough. I could just stop here, couldn’t I? I mean it wouldn’t technically be a half marathon, or a novel, but it’s a bloody long way towards it and I really ought to get some credit. I have literally no idea how I am going to get to the finish line.


Mile 13.1 (The. End.)


Thank God that’s over / I’m a hero / I am NEVER doing that again / that was amazing, and so much easier than I thought. Really, what was all the fuss about?


Good luck everyone – keep running / writing!

PS Next for me: the Great South Run. I’ve decided 10 miles is my favourite distance. It’s still a challenge but 13 miles is the wrong side of crazy. I always knew I was a novella writer deep down.



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How to enter a writing competition



Please note I haven’t titled this blog ‘How to win a writing competition’. Because, let’s get this out there at the start, the truth is (whisper it) I don’t know. Even though I won one of them, a few years ago, which turned out to be A Very Good Thing, I can’t tell you exactly how it was done.*


What I do know, and can share, is how to enter a writing competition – with style. How I believe you can give yourself and your work the best possible chance of shining. How I think framing your attitude helps. And, probably, a few heavy hints on how not to win.

Shall we get going?


For the last few years I’ve had the joy of being involved in reading for the Bath Novel Award, in the early rounds, up to shortlist stage. In the last two competitions, I’ve correctly identified the eventual winner from the very first 5000 words – now this is partly luck (I don’t read every entry, so I was fortunate they happened into my inbox) but maybe some judgment too. So I’ve been thinking about what it is that made those particular entries shine – and what other aspiring entrants could learn.


Stand out for the right reasons #1 – AKA follow the flipping rules.

I know this might seem boring, but seriously. It’s the same with entering a competition as submitting to an agent – if they ask for 5000 words, send 5000 words (or a little under, obviously – find a natural break). If they ask for 12 point Times New Roman, then…how much effort is it, really, to use the right formatting? If you don’t bother following the rules, it doesn’t make you look wacky or interesting, it makes you look like you don’t care, or you don’t think that you need to care, whereas the other hundreds (even thousands) of entrants do.

Of course, sometimes we all make mistakes – and not all competitions will automatically disqualify you for these, but some will.


Stand out for the right reasons #2 – check, double check, and triple check spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Again I’m aware I’m coming off like the fun police here, and it’s true some readers will forgive you a few errors in the SPAG department if the story and the characters are strong, but…personally, I find if there are too many it’s really distracting. And when the standard is very high, even if you have a killer idea, your consistent typos and missing commas could send your entry into the ‘no thanks’ pile. Ideally get someone else to check your work over for you – it’s easy to become blind to our own mistakes.


Remember the power of the hook – a compelling opening scene is all-important. Get straight into the action and pose a question – quickly. To do this you must know what your characters want. Kurt Vonnegut said every character must want something, even if it is just a glass of water. You need to establish what they want early – and ideally put something in their way. Conflict is the lifeblood of fiction. But being a bit thirsty isn’t much of a hook, is it? Unless, maybe, your character is lost in a desert, miles from anywhere, in a dystopian world where water has become more valuable than gold. Maybe they have water, or the means to create it, and someone is pursuing them to get to it. OK, it’s probably obvious I’m not a science-fiction writer, but you get the idea. The hook is the question(s) your reader will be asking themselves as they turn the pages: it’s how, what, why, or when? The hook is the thing that could only happen in your world, to your character. And if it doesn’t show up in the first 5000 words, you probably need to do some trimming of those opening pages.

It might seem a bit like you’re playing to the audience by being deliberately ‘hooky’, but there are two things to consider: one, if your manuscript is longlisted, the rest of it absolutely must deliver on the extract’s promise. Two, writing for a contest is no different to writing for a reader – there’s a lot of competition out there and readers can be fickle and impatient. If you don’t grab them from the opening pages, they’re not likely to pick up your book in the shop, or if they do get it home, they’re not going to keep reading it and then tell everybody they know ‘You have to read this book’. Which is what we want as authors, right? (Pretty sure this is not just me…)


Pay attention to voice – I’ve read lots of terrific entries to the Bath Novel Award. When I look back over the notes I made on my ‘yes’ votes, my most common comments had to do with voice. Voice is, in my opinion, the quality that makes good writing great. It’s what makes a book sing from the page. It’s also unfortunately the hardest quality to define (I could probably write a whole blog post on this topic alone…and still not have a definitive answer). It’s the quality that makes your writing yours. It manifests in confident, consistent writing; a narrator, be it first or third person, that I want to spend time with (note, I don’t have to like them – I just have to find them interesting); a world or a way of looking at the world that is somehow unique, even startling. Good voice can be funny, it can be reflective, it can be angry or wry. Voice is tone. It’s style, choice of language, rhythm. Told you it was hard to pin down, didn’t I? If I had to put it into a word though, I would say simply this: good voice sounds real.


A word on the ‘dreaded’ synopsis – I think ‘dreaded’ must be the epithet most commonly applied to ‘synopsis’. Yes, we all hate doing them. Yes, it’s one of the bizarre ironies of writing life that it’s harder to summarise your book in 500 words than it was to write the whole damn 80,000 words of it. So here’s my advice: don’t get overly hung up on it it, because it’s not that important. If your writing is absolutely stellar, it seems unlikely (though I can’t swear to it, obviously) you’ll be rejected on the basis of a weak synopsis. Personally I read the extract first and then go to the synopsis to see if you can carry the story, if your novel seems to be paced well and have good character arcs, and so on. Which brings me to the second piece of advice, which is: spoilers, please! The synopsis must tell us how things turn out. Don’t try to tantalise us…we need to see that you know where you’re going (and how you’ll get there).

To be honest, I know an extract is really special when I don’t want to read the synopsis because I don’t want to know how it turns out.


Attitude is all – you might argue that the odds of winning a competition that receives hundreds or even thousands of entries are not great, so why bother entering? Well, my answer is twofold: you still might win (someone usually does), and if you don’t, just being a part of the process could be huge. You’ll likely make links with a supportive community even if only via Twitter; you could get useful feedback from the judges; and putting your work ‘out there’ can be a powerful step. Even if you have a great book, there’s luck and personal taste involved, too, but you are best to make friends with those now if you hope to be published in the future.

Frame your attitude, manage your expectations, and dive in.


One last thought. There are loads of qualities that make a competition entry stand out. But the thing the recent Bath winners have in common is that they stayed with me when I wasn’t reading. Why not consider getting a trusted, honest friend or colleague to read your entry…then ask them about it a week later? If they’re still thinking about it…if they can still tell you what they liked about it…you might be onto a very good thing.

Happy writing, happy submitting, and good luck!



*I did once appear on a panel called ‘How to win a novel award’. But it was a group effort; I wasn’t claiming to have all the answers. The other panel members in particular have some interesting and useful things to say, though – check them out here:



The Bath Novel Award 2018 is now open for entries, closing date 30th April. Other writing competitions are, of course, available. You can find useful lists in the back of good writing magazines, and all over the interweb, like here:


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Good and Not Good things about living alone*

(*caveat: I know I’m not always alone, because my son is here half the time and he’s pretty close to perfection, human being-wise, but he’s 7 and therefore I can’t watch Broadchurch with him)




  • Falling asleep in front of the TV without anyone poking you and saying every 30 seconds ‘Wake up, you’re missing it’ and ‘Why don’t you go to bed?’
  • Leaving the washing up until morning sometimes because NO-ONE WILL KNOW
  • Cooking your famous ‘pasta with pesto and anchovies’ AGAIN, just because you fancy it, without anyone looking at you strangely
  • Watching Friends re-runs, Gogglebox, anything at all on TV in fact, without shame or argument
  • No men’s socks ever found on dining room table or other inappropriate places
  • Spending entire day writing (translation: 5+ hours of alternate staring out of window and walking aimlessly around house, plus 45 minutes of frantic scribbling / typing in manner of one possessed) without having to entertain anyone else or indeed explain your bizarre behaviour
  • All choices regarding décor, pets, hoarding or disposal of possessions, being yours and yours alone in manner of mini-dictatorship
  • Having the entire, king size bed to yourself


Not good:


  • Cooking AND washing up, every night. In fact every household task being your responsibility alone, especially…
  • Putting the bins out. Yes, it only takes approx. 45 seconds once a week, but I resent it so much I would consider living with Hannibal Lecter if he promised to do this one job for me
  • Having no-one to watch Broadchurch with and so having to dramatically gasp and air your theories to an empty room
  • Getting ill and still having to deal with life admin, for example on one memorable occasion, simultaneous chest infection (me) and nits (boy). Combed them out in the bath, exhausted, then cried and went to bed. Would have been nice to have someone to bring me a Lemsip, at least
  • Sometimes really shit things happen, like someone dies, and although you have lovely friends who you know would drop everything to receive a ranty, tearful phone call or come over and hug you, you feel very, very alone
  • Having the entire, king size bed to yourself



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