This year I am one of the Mentors for the WriteMentor Summer Programme. This is the first time I have been involved in WriteMentor, but I know several people who have benefitted from their mentoring partnerships, and I would love to help another writer to improve their craft and get the best out of their writing. If you’re thinking about applying to be a mentee, here is some more information about me, my taste in fiction and what you can expect from me as an editor and mentor.
I’m currently writing MG fantasy fiction and I am represented by Julia Churchill at AM Heath. I have a BA Creative Writing and I was the Managing Editor of a literary website for four years, which involved a lot of reading and editing submissions. I have also been involved at an editorial level in several anthologies of short fiction. I am part of a children’s writing group through SCBWI, in which we regularly critique each other’s work. I review books for Netgalley, Armadillo Magazine, and my personal blog, and I read 258 books last year—which gives me a good idea where your book might fit in the context of the publishing market. I am also a primary school librarian, which means I have first-hand experience of what children like to read.
However skilful a writer you are, it is impossible to see your own blind spots—another pair of eyes is an invaluable tool in your writing process. As an editor, I will give you my honest opinion on the big picture, the foundation blocks of your story—characters, setting, plot, style—as well as the finer details. Though we all have our own individual writing style and narrative voice, as an editor I will look for the gaps and the bumps—the bits that stand out and don’t flow with the rest.
I love to read fantasy and sci-fi. Some of my favourite authors include Becky Chambers, Holly Black, Cassandra Clare, Leigh Bardugo, Sarah J. Maas, Laini Taylor, VE Schwab, Katherine Arden and Samantha Shannon. (I have read the Hunger Games trilogy and Lord of the Rings at least five times each.)
When it comes to children’s fiction, I particularly love Frances Hardinge, Jonathan Stroud, Dominique Valente, Vashti Hardy, Rick Riordan, Jessica Townsend and Sophie Anderson. The best children’s book I’ve read lately is The Shark Caller by Zillah Bethell.
I’d love to hear from you if you think I might be able to help with your WIP. Full details of the WriteMentor Summer Programme are available on the WriteMentor website and applications are open 15 – 16 April 2021.
Yes, I know everyone’s going on about wild swimming at the moment. I’ve always liked the idea of being a wild swimmer—but I wasn’t one really. I was an ‘outdoor swimmer’ in Hampton Pool, an ‘open water swimmer’ at Shepperton Lake, an occasional paddleboard dipper—but I wasn’t a wild swimmer.
I should’ve been—a long time ago. I live a five-minute walk away from the Thames. I’ve swum from Hampton Court to Kingston in the river twice, in organised open water swimming events. But outside of these strictly controlled conditions, I have been waiting for someone to give me permission to get into the river. It took lockdown and the closure of swimming pools for me to finally make the leap.
I began swimming twice weekly at Shepperton Lake at the beginning of June, as soon as it reopened after lockdown, but the river was calling to me. I’d been a lurker in the Surrey Outdoor Swimmers Facebook group for a year, but I’d never actually joined them for a swim. But then Rebekah, my swim buddy (who had always been extremely reluctant to swim in the river), began swimming in the river on Tuesday mornings with the SOS crew and invited me along. My first swim was on a cloudy day at Sunbury. Rebekah’s friend Sue had organised it, and we were joined by Judith and Diana. I had all the gear: goggles, hat, tow float, swim booties, and I was excited. The water was cold at first, but I didn’t feel cold while we swam. It was a relaxed, sociable meander upriver, and then back down again. It was free from chlorine, lane-rage, timekeeping and entrance fees. I was hooked.
The Downside of Wild Swimming:
I have discovered something called duck mites (alternatively called ‘swimmer’s itch’ which sounds like a venereal disease). This is an allergic reaction which causes itchy welts on your arms and legs, like mosquito bites. You are more likely to get these from swimming through weeds, like the thick tangle of waterweeds we swam though in the River Wey for a beautiful view of the ruined Newark Priory. It was an (itchy) sacrifice I was willing to make.
And yes, there are things in the river. There is a lot of plastic litter—particularly after a sunny day when people have been picnicking on the shore. On a swim from Teddington to Twickenham we encountered a children’s solid-plastic sandpit in the shape of a turtle floating in the middle of the river. There are also grumpy fishermen, flotillas of SUPs, drunken Go Boat pilots, and sometimes there are aggressive swans with cygnets who will hiss at you in warning and then give chase. There are also fish in the river. The intrepid women I’ve swum with (no names mentioned) are not immune to the occasional acrobatic ‘what just touched my leg’ leap—which is always highly entertaining to everyone else.
I did not swim the Hampton Court to Kingston race the notorious year when everyone got sick, but many people’s first question is whether the river is clean enough to swim in. Fifty years ago, the Thames was declared biologically dead, but it is now apparently the ‘cleanest river in the world that flows through a major city’. But it still doesn’t have the ‘bathing status’ protection that many rivers in Europe have been given. Swimming in the Thames is a calculated risk. With heavy rain, contaminants can wash into the river and sewage is occasionally released—although it seems unbelievable that Thames Water is allowed to do this. There are campaigners working to prevent this—or at least to force the water companies to provide information about when and where this is happening. I try not to swallow the river water, of course, but when you’re swimming the water does go in your mouth. I have been swimming in the river all summer and I haven’t been ill. Fingers crossed.
The Upside of Wild Swimming:
The positive effects of wild swimming on mental health have been widely documented. In the early days of lockdown, many people felt anxious and claustrophobic. The outside world was out of bounds—or at least any part of the outside world that required a car journey to get to. But when I gave myself permission to get in the river, new vistas opened up. I began to feel guilty that I was feeling so positive and cheerful during a global pandemic.
And I have never felt so confident wandering around in a swimming costume. The online wild swimming community is a powerful advocate for body positivity. It is all about celebrating and enjoying the outdoors, rather than worrying about what we look like while we’re doing it. It’s brilliant to see the way that swimming costume advertising and sizing have changed over the last few years to incorporate different body types.
Wild swimming is also an extremely sociable activity—the Surrey Outdoor Swimmers are a friendly, inclusive bunch who embraced me with open (socially distanced) arms. I’ve been part of a regular swimming group who have become friends, but I have also turned up to swims organised by people I’ve never met before and been welcomed and included—our common passion giving a group of strangers something to talk about while we swim.
I finally felt like a true Wild Swimmer on the day I organised my own swim. It was a night swim from Canbury Gardens to the Hawker Centre—with an exit point known only to me. Fortunately, I did manage to find it in the dark. As we all walked back along the Thames path in our robes and headtorches, I know we must have looked like members of some strange cult. But then again, that’s probably what we are.
But within the wild swimming community exists an even more niche subculture—tail-swimming. AKA mermaids and mermen. Yes, really. Did you know that you can buy a mermaid tail on Amazon—a monofin with a tail covering that you can actually swim in? My inner ten-year-old freaked out and immediately put it on my birthday wishlist. As a joke. Sort of. Of course, then my sister actually bought me the mermaid tail for my birthday, and I participated in my first mermaid pod swim in the Thames near Hampton Court, in front of a disbelieving crowd of onlookers. It was deeply embarrassing but also kind of awesome. As the world begins to look increasingly dystopian—a little whimsy makes life a lot more enjoyable.
The next challenge is whether I will continue to swim in the river into the chilly winter months with the hardest of hardcore SOS-ers, to experience that cold-water buzz I’ve heard so much about. We’ll see.
I have always been a prolific reader, but I started writing fiction nine years ago. We had just moved to the UK, I had two small children and, inspired by the literary atmosphere of London, I enrolled in a BA Creative Writing at Birkbeck.
They say everyone has a book in them, but not everyone has what it takes to make a career out of writing. You need thick skin to cope with a lot of rejection, the confidence to pursue your own creative vision and the humility to accept guidance in shaping your writing. And, like any other career, it takes time to establish yourself. A lot of time.
People often ask me when my book’s getting published and I shrug and try to explain that publication is an extremely long, slow process. It’s easy to feel that I haven’t achieved much in nine years, I call myself a ‘writer’, but until I have a proper book deal, I don’t feel that I can call myself an ‘author’.
But this week I received my copies of Dragons of the Prime, an anthology of children’s dinosaur poetry edited by Richard O’Brien and published by The Emma Press. And I realised, even though I don’t have that elusive book deal just yet, I do have nine physical books on my bookshelf that I have contributed to or edited, and numerous other online publications. Nine books in nine years is not bad, really.
I started writing my first novel in January 2014 for the final dissertation of my BA Creative Writing at Birkbeck. As you might expect, it was a thinly-disguised autobiographical coming-of-age story set in the twilight years of apartheid South Africa and saturated with eighties nostalgia. (There had been another unfinished novel before that—a story told from the POV of four narrators living in a dystopian society that forced you to…wait for it…change your name every three years. There was a complicated excel spreadsheet just for me to remember which character was which. But the less said about that the better.) The first three chapters of this novel got me a first for my degree, so I thought it would be worth finishing. So, I finished it. By the time I had finished it, however, I’d thoroughly lost interest and was dying to start writing something else. But since I had finished it I thought it would be a waste if I didn’t at least try and get it published.
So in April 2016 I started sending the finished novel out to agents. I didn’t want to be one of these people who gave up too easily and I hoped that if I found someone who really liked my book then they would be able to talk me into liking it again. I sent it out to about thirty agents over the next six months. I got four requests for the full manuscript, but nothing further ever came of it.
I had several other novel ideas while I waited for the flood of agent offers—there was one about a cult, one about mermaids, one about eugenics. (Coming up with book concepts has never been my problem, persevering with the actual writing bit is the difficult bit.)
On 16 June 2016 I wrote in my journal:
Brother and sister live in a lighthouse. Alone.
And Ash and Ellyn walked into my head, fully formed, in a way the friends-and-family-members-with-their-names-changed never did in my first novel. I started to think about why Ash and Ellyn were in the lighthouse alone, where were their parents, what was going on the rest of the world? I let their world marinade in my mind until it began to take shape.
I knew that this time I needed a solid plot, I didn’t want my characters just hanging around chatting—they needed to actually do something. I used a kind of pick n’ mix blend of novel planning tools from several online resources.
I made sure that I had a foundation based on the first four pillars of C.S. Lakin’s 12 Key Pillars of Novel Construction. (Still don’t know what the other pillars are, I’m sure they’re good, but these four seemed a good place to start.)
I based the plot on a simplified version of Aristotle’s Three-Act Structure (‘three disasters plus an ending’) that I found in this article on The Snowflake Method.
In January 2017, when I knew roughly where it was all going, I started writing. And I tried to have fun doing it. I wrote about things that I thought were interesting. Lighthouses! Secret Passageways! Sentient Robots! Fibonacci Spirals! I wrote a piece of music with two different codes embedded into it. I wrote a fairy tale with a secret coded message in it. I drew sketches of symbols and hand signals.
I thought about researching current advances in robotic technology. I considered reading all the classic robot sci-fi. I decided instead that I would just make it up. My sentient robots aren’t supposed to be a realistic reflection of technology, I told myself, they’re a metaphor for the other – strangers, immigrants, aliens. They could be whatever I wanted them to be. But, as a nod to the genre, I included Asimov’s Laws of Robotics. And I named some of my robots after my favourite sci-fi authors.
At Easter I took my kids to the Isle of Wight to visit the Needles and the lighthouse that I’d used as a basis for my setting. You can’t actually visit the lighthouse itself, but we took a boat out to look at it from the sea and climbed up to the old battery on top of the cliffs to look at it from above. I wrote Ash and Ellyn’s names on a pebble and left it on the beach. It seemed an authorly thing to do. I set another part of the book in a National Trust-owned castle I’d visited with the kids the previous summer.
When I was in a writing phase I tried to write at least 1000 words a day, I would do this for a week or so and then stop and not write anything for weeks. When I was stuck I skipped the descriptions, the actions, the punctuation, and just wrote freeform dialogue until I was back with the characters in the heart of the scene. And then I would go back and fill in all the other details.
Mid-September I decided, at the last minute, to enter the Mslexia Novel Competition. I wasn’t going to enter. Philippa Gregory was the main judge—I wasn’t convinced that dystopian YA fiction about robots would be at the top of her to-read list. The previous winners all seemed to have submitted highbrow literary fiction. And technically my book wasn’t finished. I was about halfway through. But I figured it would take them ages to judge the first stage anyway, so I sent it off. A few weeks later I got an email saying that I had been longlisted and needed to post a hardcopy of the final manuscript in the next two weeks.
What followed was a marathon writing spree. It was half-term holidays, of course, so the kids were at home. But it’s amazing what a deadline and some momentum will do. I wrote 30,000 words in two weeks and finished the book with a day or two to spare for editing. I printed it, posted it off and received confirmation that it had arrived bang on deadline day. In December I heard, to my surprise, that I’d been shortlisted. January took longer than January has ever taken in the history of the world. Then, on Wednesday the 23rd of January I was writing my CV (and reflecting that writing a novel is easy compared with writing a CV) when I received a phone call from the Editor of Mslexia, Debbie Taylor, telling me I had won the Mslexia Novel Competition.
We leave Kingston at 11:30am on Saturday the 24th of June to drive down to Devon for the Bantham Swoosh, a 6km swim down the River Avon estuary, culminating in a final ‘swoosh’ up to Bantham Beach as river becomes sea. Rebekah and I have done several swimming events together, including the Dart 10k in 2015, but this is our first swim together this year.
There is already a queue for the parking at Bantham Beach when we arrive at 4:30pm. We have a walk down to the beach to see the finish. It’s a grey day, but at least it’s not raining. Despite the weather, the prospect from Bantham Beach is spectacular: the rugged hills of Bigbury on the opposite bank, Burgh Island and its iconic art deco hotel where Agatha Christie wrote two of her novels, and of course the estuary itself—a deep blue stretch of choppy water, surging and foaming on the shore.
We walk over the headland for the view downriver, the final stretch of the swim where the estuary widens, the boats are moored and the river edge is lined with boathouses. The walking route is marked out with flags, bunting and cheerful retro signage.
Back in the parking lot we change into our costumes, take an obligatory unflattering selfie in our wetsuits and swimming hats, and make our way to the swimmers’ pen. We have our briefing and then pile on to the buses—a surreal sight: a procession of retro-style ‘Tally Ho’ buses, full of adults sitting in pairs in wetsuits. It is an image in keeping with the friendly and charmingly-whimsical ethos of the Outdoor Swimming Society, which prizes the joy of swimming above any physical fitness challenge. Rebekah and I agree to stay together and take it easy and enjoy it. It’s a swim, not a race, after all.
We drive to the start at Aveton Gifford and unload.
“Does anyone want a banana?” A marshal waves a single, solitary banana in the air. Why is it all alone, what’s wrong with it? We wonder.
“The start is over there,” another marshal waves us in the direction of the water.
It’s about 7pm when we crack each other’s glow sticks, not a euphemism, and wade down a boat ramp into the river. The water is cold but not heart-stoppingly cold. Just finger-chillingly, toe-numbingly cold. We politely breaststroke across the river with some ooh and aahs to signal that it’s a bit nippy. I gently lower my face in the water and then hurriedly retract it as I swim into a large snarl of seaweed. I do the seaweed-clearing breaststroke for a few strokes, but then since it doesn’t look like it’s going to get better, I put my head down and start doing a seaweed-clearing front crawl instead. The scratchy fronds drape over my head and frame my goggles like a witch’s wig. I do a little duck dive to try and dislodge the river flora. The water is extremely salty.
It’s busy but not excessively so, there are just over 400 swimmers registered for the dusk swim, much fewer than the 1600 swimmers who swam the Dart 10k the day we did in 2015. It’s relatively easy for us to swim together. I keep an eye on Rebekah, she has less natural insulation than I do and she battles with the cold. Today she looks extremely pale, although I am looking at her through my blue-tinted goggles so that might have something to do with it.
I’m feeling good. I was worried that I haven’t been able to get to the pool for the last three weeks, but it seems the hours I put in before that crawling up and down at Hampton Pool, while not doing much for my cold-water acclimatisation, has accustomed my shoulders to the long haul (and given me a lovely bottom tan.) I fall into an easy rhythm and I am also breathing bilaterally without having to think about it too much.
In the briefing we were told we would be able to see the bottom of the estuary while we were swimming. This seems unlikely at the beginning, it is murky and full of seaweed. But at some point I look down and I can see the sandy riverbed below me.
“I can see the bottom.” I tell Rebekah.
“Where?” She asks.
“Down there,” I point. I try to work out how far down it is, as though this would help her to find it. The cold water has clearly gone to both of our brains at this point.
From about halfway I can feel the wetsuit chafing the back of my neck. I have slathered it in Body Glide, which has served me well in several other long-haul open water swims. (It has also caused a teenaged shop assistant to snort at me when I asked for it in Sports Direct—helpful tip: order it online.) But it’s not doing the trick today. I wonder if the salt water is dissolving the Body Glide faster than fresh water. Because it’s salty I realise how much water I habitually swallow when I swim. The inside of my mouth has puckered up like a bashful snail retreating into its shell.
I zone out a bit and I start thinking about a character in my novel—a robot who likes to swim. To start with she would have to be well-sealed. I think about the mechanics of a robot swimming. It would depend on what materials she was made of. Plastic or rubber would float but a solid metal robot would sink like a stone doing the front crawl. She would have to develop a specialised swimming stroke. I imagine my robot curled in a ball on her back, like the hull of a boat, flapping her feet extremely fast like some sort of motorised engine. Or perhaps sculling on her back like an upended turtle. I enjoy the thought of my upside-down turtle-sculling robot.
By this stage, the water is a lot clearer and we can see the bottom easily—no confusion about where it is. It’s also quite shallow, as evidenced by lots of swimmers standing up in the water.
“Why is everyone standing up?” We ask each other. Rebekah and I stand up too, just to see what the attraction is.
“Ooh it’s all slimy,” Rebekah says, lying down again.
“It’s great, isn’t it?” says a man standing near us, grinning manically.
“Are you walking?” Rebekah asks me.
I realise that I have started walking downriver. She has a point, this is supposed to be a swim. I lie down again and carry on swimming.
At this point I spot a crab scuttling over the sand I was quite recently walking on. I see a crab burrowing in a billow of sand, and then another one. My toes shiver and curl up on themselves.
“Crabs!” I tell Rebekah, “lots of crabs,” just to warn her in case she feels like having a walk too.
She dips her head down, “Large crabs!” she confirms.
There will be no more walking for us.
Then we start to see boats and the river opens. We must be nearly at the end. I start looking for the pink boathouse that signals the start of the swoosh, but I can’t remember which side of the river it’s supposed to be on. We swim through the middle of the boats and I narrowly avoid several buoys.
When we get past the boats the current picks up and suddenly we’re getting pulled along. I put my face in the water and do a few strokes. It’s like when you walk on the travellator at the airport.
“I feel like Michael Phelps!” I tell Rebekah.
“But does Michael Phelps feel like he’s swimming fast, or does it just feel normal to him?” asks Rebekah, helpfully. She has clearly acclimatised to the cold water by now.
We finally spot the pink boathouse and prepare ourselves to be swooshed. I try to lie on my back with my feet in front of me like an otter, as the woman at registration told us to, but the waves are quite big and it’s tricky to float over waves feet-first. I resort to bobbing upright like a cork instead, turning to look at Rebekah and the other swimmers enjoying this moment as we’re swept along. There are big smiles all around and couple of whoops. Too soon we see the beach and the cheerful volunteers waving us in. Reluctantly, I swim for the shore. It’s still light, not even nine o’clock yet. We’ve been in the water just over ninety minutes.
The marshals and spectators welcome us up the beach, over the line and usher us towards the steps up the hill. At the top of the steps we’re handed something really useful—a beautiful dark blue ‘Swoosh’ towel. (I like a medal but there’s a limit to how many days after a sporting event a 36-year-old woman can wear her medal before people start to give her the side-eye.) A towel is a fantastic medal-substitute and it keeps us warm as we walk over the dunes and back to the Bantham Beach parking lot. The sandy pathway is lit by twinkling strings of bulbs, a magical gauntlet, and ends with the Swoosh sign and hot chocolate.
We retrieve our bags and go straight for the pasties and pints. There are no tables or chairs left so we collapse on the grass, our wetsuits peeled to our waists and set about answering that age-old question—can a pasty ever taste better than it does after a 6km swim in cold, salty water? The answer is no, of course.
At home I observe that my neck has chafed in a pleasingly symmetrical manner, which proves I was swimming straight and consistently doing bilateral breathing. Result.
These poems were originally published in Forty-Five Square: Poetry (Birkbeck – June 2014).
We took a grande taxi from Casa to the white city—
four hours through scrubby hillscape, past goats
and cryptic signposts to the enclosing walls.
A trail of trucks obstructed the square each bearing
the legend Kingdom of Heaven in stark Helvetica,
we unloaded our bags in this other realm.
The medina was manned by gesturing djellabas,
corridors cast with kilims and ceramics, endless cats—
the odour of urine haggling with earthy cumin.
We, exposed westerners, fought our way through
the masses, armed with defensive palms and bad French,
seeking high-ground—a place to uncover our heads.
The riad was court-yarded, mosaicked, set with birds,
and bougainvillea, for us to wear cerise, draw and drink
mint tea poured from an improbable height.
I walked the ramparts, trod the citadel and was moved,
stirred by the steadfast hulk of history and—below the walls,
surging and rolling—the same endless sea.
I bought a pair of babouches in tooled maroon and wore them
to seem less of a tourist, but back home the stench was too much—
I disposed of them and framed the photos instead.
Portrait of a Moroccan Traveller
I am the type of person who travels to Marrakech—
the Rose of the Desert—with artists and those who
discern the rhythm of her dance through history.
I am the type of person who visits art galleries,
not just postcard stands, who photographs the
effect of stippled light in the souks.
I am the type of person who can spell Marrakech,
I have actually read Hideous Kinky and I don’t
misquote Casablanca, like everyone does.
I am the type of person who sits at a table on the square
at night, charmed by a dazzling bouquet of lights diffused
in the steam rising from a thousand dishes, holding court
in Place Jemaa El-Fna in the sickle-shadow of Koutoubia,
consuming a lamb tagine with relish, though it tastes like goat.
I am the type of person who turns to smile
as a stranger photographs me.
(In this place, I am the type of person
who looks like they could be someone famous.)
There it was—looming
like a molten taper over the financial district.
Grasping for the sky, green and scaffolded—
The façade wept.
I entered—crept under concrete boughs
then—was swept along on a tide of undulating walls
beneath mushroomed columns.
I climbed, inspired—the railings writhed,
staircases grew wild,
strange fruits bloomed in purples and corals,
cacti sprouted from pinnacles.
The windows—infused with saturated hues—
chorused in seraphic harmony.
Their glory reflected on my face—
I was revived,
but they just stood.
Petrified figures with panelled faces,
carved and cast,
the dead watching over the living.
Christ stretched out a squared-off hand and turned
a blunted face to the city.
A Babel tower,
never quite achieving heaven.
What’s in a Name?
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet?
Some assume a nom de plume will alter ego
as magic potions or phone booths are wont to.
It’s an adhesive tag, clinging to your lapel
a prehensile digit, hooked by the crook of a little finger–
my name has a grip on me, whoever me might be.
I was given a biblical rope with which to hang myself:
a snare or noose that will forever be confused with
Rachel—at least my middle name is plain.
What is the merit of middle name? A second-choice
or passed down from ancient aunt to create new mutiny
to be wielded in parental wrath, or in school—ridiculed.
Used to be I’d give away my name in marriage—addition
is the contemporary way. It’ll be a squeeze though to fit
next generation’s quadruple-barrels on any register.
Shudder at the nomencratic cruelty of parents who
cradle their newly sprung and brand some awful appellation
into just born skin [think of Jenna Taylor, Peter Files].
Did Romney’s parents consider—one day a nation might
wonder if his given name was Mittens, did the Pitts
think what a spoonerism would do to little Shiloh?
In the moment of responsibility, think of the poor cat
you labelled Marmite and whether it does matter that
the name you’re set on means bucket in Afrikaans.
In documentation for my own named child, I penned
her initials: E.A.R. and, as they wheeled her off to insert
grommets into her glue ears, I laughed inappropriately.
At the end—for those of us so little accomplished
as not to warrant a Wikipedia page—all that’s left
is a name, cut in stone, to tell who we were.
It’s my sister’s fault that I hadn’t read War & Peace before. As teenagers we enjoyed a fervent rivalry that resulted in us claiming completely opposite tastes in most things, in particular, the family bookshelves were divided between us. I got Austen and the Brontes, while she got Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. It was the new BBC series that finally prompted me to read the book. (My ‘read the book before you watch the series’ policy trumps even sisterly enmity.)
I started reading on the day before the first episode was broadcast, managed to keep ahead of the action over the next month, and finally finished reading the week before the final episode. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, but old habits die hard, and I couldn’t resist comparing it to my teenaged favourite. And so, in lieu of a review, here is a Jane Austen version of War & Peace:
(Warning: Contains plot spoilers.)
War and Peace Interpreted for a Jane Austen Fan
In St Petersburg, Mr Collins says awkward things about Napoleon at Lady Dalrymple’s soiree and makes everyone uncomfortable.
Mr Collins’ best friend is Mr Darcy. Mr Darcy is married to Louisa Musgrove. She has a moustache that everyone finds charming. Mr Darcy does not care for it.
Sir Walter Elliot is looking for good marriages for his children, Henry and Mary Crawford. It goes without saying that Henry Crawford and Mary Crawford have an incestuous sibling relationship.
In Moscow, Mr and Mrs Weston love their children but worry about their finances. They have four children, only the middle two are important: Frank Churchill and the beautiful but flighty Marianne Dashwood. There is also a cousin, Anne Elliot, but she is poor and doesn’t matter. Frank Churchill is devotedly in love with her when he’s around and he remembers to be.
Mr Darcy goes home to his grumpy dad, General Tilney; his sister, the pious Fanny Price; her companion, Mrs Clay; and his wife, Louisa Musgrove. He decides to go to war because he will get to wear a feathery hat and what’s the worst that could happen? He could die but he hates his life and wife anyway. Mr Darcy leaves.
Henry Crawford proposes to Fanny Price because she is very rich. While she is considering it she catches Henry Crawford making out with Mrs Clay. She turns down the proposal.
Noticing that the troops have lost morale and are retreating, Mr Darcy picks up a flag and nobly leads them into battle.
MR DARCY IS DEAD!
After the battle Napoleon inspects Mr Darcy’s magnificent noble corpse. BUT the noble corpse is still breathing.
MR DARCY IS NOT DEAD!
Frank Churchill brings his friend, Colonel Brandon, home on leave with him. Colonel Brandon performs a spirited Mazurka, loses his head and proposes to Marianne Dashwood. Marianne Dashwood turns him down because she’s only 13. Frank Churchill falls in love with his cousin, Anne Elliot, again, but tells her that she shouldn’t wait for him as it is likely he will forget about her when he goes away. But Anne Elliot vows to stay true to him alone.
Lady Catherine de Bourgh dies, cuts her sickly daughter out of her will, and leaves her great fortune and title to her favourite illegitimate son—Mr Collins.
Now Mr Collins is rich and titled Mary Crawford decides to marry him. She flirts with him a lot and he seems to like her but he doesn’t actually propose. So she just announces their engagement at a party and everyone goes along with it.
The dashing and dastardly Mr Wickham has an affair with Mary Crawford. Everybody knows about it. Eventually Mr Collins works it out and challenges Mr Wickham to a duel. Mr Collins, despite not even knowing how to fire a pistol, manages to shoot Mr Wickham. Sadly, Mr Wickham does not die of his injuries.
Mr Collins hates his wife and goes to live in another city. He has doubts about his atheism and becomes a Freemason.
Mr Darcy returns home at the exact moment his wife Louise Musgrove, dies in childbirth. He feels bad because he hated her, a sentiment that was not worthy of his noble character.
Mr Darcy meets Marianne Dashwood and is charmed by her. He had believed that, at age 31, he was too old for love, but now a whole new bright vista opens up before him. Perhaps he will even take his shirt off—there may be scything and some lake-swimming.
His grumpy dad, General Tilney does not approve, and tells Mr Darcy to take a year to think about it. Mr Darcy agrees and proposes a secret, year-long engagement to Marianne Dashwood. Marianne is desperately in love with Mr Darcy and agrees.
Marianne Dashwood forgets the noble Mr Darcy and is seduced by Henry Crawford at the opera. Not knowing that Henry Crawford is already married she agrees to elope with him. Anne Elliot intervenes and ruins everything. Marianne Dashwood has a tantrum and renders herself dangerously ill. Mr Collins visits her as she is nursed back to health.
Mr Darcy will never forgive Marianne Dashwood and vows to kill Henry Crawford.
The Westons and their children are completely broke so they go to their country estate to ride on sleighs and hunt wolves. Frank Churchill falls desperately in love with his cousin, Anne Elliot, again, and pledges to definitely marry her one of these days, if he remembers to.
Some more war.
General Tilney dies of terminal grumpiness. Frank Churchill rescues Fanny Price from her revolting peasants. She is very grateful and looks at him with shimmering tears in her giant luminous eyes. Even thought she’s not very pretty, Frank Churchill falls in love with Fanny Price’s grateful giant, luminous eyes.
Mrs Weston hopes that Frank Churchill will marry Fanny Price, because she is very rich and it will save the family fortunes.
Mr Darcy declines all promotions and honoured positions in the war—the only noble way is to fight with his regiment on the front line. A bomb falls on his regiment but Mr Darcy is too noble to shelter from the bomb that may well be his noble fate. Mr Darcy is blown up by the fateful bomb.
MR DARCY IS DEAD!
Mr Darcy is not dead, he is wounded.
In the hospital he is lying next to Henry Crawford. Henry Crawford has had his leg amputated in unsanitary conditions so it seem likely that he will die. He deserves it for what he did to Marianne Dashwood. Bastard.
The Westons escape from Moscow, inadvertently taking the wounded Mr Darcy with them. Marianne Dashwood nurses Mr Darcy and he forgives her for being seduced at the opera.
Napoleon marches into Moscow ready to graciously pardon the lives of Russian inhabitants in return for their allegiance. All important Russians inhabitants have already left. Napoleon is pissed off.
Mr Collins decides to assassinate Napoleon. He does not succeed or even get anywhere close. Mr Collins becomes a prisoner of war but the privations render him lean, manly and philosophically optimistic. His wife, Mary Crawford, dies in St Petersburg while attempting to choose which one of her lovers she will leave her husband for.
Mr Darcy is too noble for this world.
MR DARCY IS DEAD!
He’s properly dead this time. Marianne Dashwood is devastated.
Mr Collins returns from being a prisoner of war all lean, manly and philosophically optimistic. He is still eccentric but his newly-found benevolent love for all mankind and his thrilling war stories make him the focal point of every soiree. Marianne Dashwood falls in love with him and they get married.
Mr Weston dies and the family are now properly and completely broke. Frank Churchill is a bit embarrassed about it but eventually marries the pious Fanny Price with her luminous eyes, and the family fortunes are saved. Anne Elliot continues to love him longest, when all hope is gone.
They all live happily ever after. Except for Anne Elliot who has to live in the same house as Frank Churchill and his rich wife. And except for Mr Darcy, who is dead.
Literary Salmon, comprising Bernie Deehan, Françoise Harvey and Jane Roberts, is a collaborative group of writers who met at the Word Factory, and it is quite easy to imagine how ‘literary salon’ became ‘literary salmon’ after a few glasses of wine. The inspiration for the name of their first collection of short stories, The Casual Electrocution of Strangers, came from a tweet by Val McDermid, and each of the editors subsequently invited three other writers to submit a story with this same title. When Fran (who I also met at the Word Factory) contacted me and asked if I would be interested in contributing a story with this very specific and evocative title, I jumped at the opportunity.
There is one particular school teacher I can think of who inspired my writing. I was about fifteen at the time and her name was Miss Jacoby, I can still picture her now. Apart for earning my undying adoration by being kind about my awful, angsty poetry, I particularly recall her giving us a creative writing assignment with very specific parameters:
Write a story that begins with ‘Do you like macaroni?’ and ends with ‘You fool’.
It was ridiculously specific but somehow these unlikely lines inspired me and I wrote a piece of rambling memoir about my childhood that somehow convincingly utilised this beginning and ending. She loved it and gave me full marks. It was not a perfect story but somehow the fulfilment of her very specific brief elevated it to something beyond the sum of its parts and her enthusiasm led me to imagine that perhaps, just maybe, I might make a writer one day.
Since then I’ve believed that a very specific brief is a help not a hindrance. But was The Casual Electrocution of Strangers too specific?
My first idea was inspired by an article written by Philip Meyer titled If Hitler Asked You to Electrocute a Stranger, Would You? Probably. It was about a study conducted by Stanley Milgram at Yale in the 1960s during which test subjects were brought in and instructed to literally electrocute strangers with a series of shocks of increasing intensity—a test of obedience vs. personal responsibility. The study was intended to prove that Germans are intrinsically more obedient which is why they followed Hitler and helped him to implement the Holocaust. But instead the study proved the opposite—that every single one of us have the potential to commit horrific acts when required to by an authority figure. It suggested that most people are far too willing to abdicate personal responsibility and let someone else do the thinking—a terrifying realisation but a great inspiration for a short story.
But then I thought this was probably too obvious a solution, surely someone else would write this story. Annoyingly, of course, no one else did. But I decided that my ‘electrocution’ would need to be metaphorical rather than literal.
Since moving to London in 2010 I’ve been obsessed with trains and the Underground—the arteries of the city—and many of my short stories involve train journeys. It seemed a perfect setting for an encounter between strangers, so I imagined a moment when a bit of strategic eavesdropping might create a scenario in which a perfect stranger could intervene in the life of another with electrifying results. I needed a hero who was unremarkable and so Alexei was born—a character who is so irredeemably bland that his only distinguishing factor is his name, inspired by his mother’s love of Russian fiction. After his first electrifying experience Alexei attempts to recreate the scenario with increasingly disastrous consequences. And of course the literary references are a clue to the outcome of the story.
In the process of putting the collection together we got to read each other’s work in progress and make editing suggestions for three other stories—it’s always so helpful to get this kind of input. Leading up to the publication date the Literary Salmon team did an amazing job of gathering some wonderful feedback about the collection and creating buzz on social media. I particularly love the retro steampunk-inspired book cover design they commissioned by Harry Milburn AKA Prints Harry and the logo by Kate Townsend.
And after all that, it was wonderful to read the final finished product. I particularly enjoyed Françoise Harvey’s ominous birds (being a Daphne Du Maurier fan) and Laura Windley’s sinister village tale—reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’. But every story had something interesting to offer and there was such a fascinatingly wide variety of responses to this very specific title—definitive proof that tight parameters are not always restrictive. Quite frequently they are liberating and give the writer a clearly delineated imaginative space within which to frolic.
I don’t write a lot of poetry but since it’s National Poetry Day today and the theme is ‘remember’, here is a poem that I wrote a few years ago that has sentimental if not literary value.
The brief was to write an ekphrastic poem (a poem inspired by a work of art) so I wrote about Salvador Dali’s ‘The Persistence of Memory’, which was my favourite painting when I was a teenager, and about my Grandad who died when I was sixteen.
The Persistence of Memory
Do you remember when we went to Anglesea?
Do you remember the cliffs,
daunting, fractured, fissured,
and the sea—gnashing grey below?
The water was so cold it took your breath
and your toes away, the sand was coarse
and crunchy, how our fingers smelled fishy
but the sandwiches still tasted good,
they were your favourite—
Do you remember Heather?
Do you remember when
Heather fell over,
the blood and how she cried,
and the clocks melted?
On the way we’d passed that place
with the unpronounceable name,
Grandma taught us to say it
the extra letters rolling
in the roofs of our mouths.
Can you still say it?
Do you remember
how they always liked to
stop off at the Little Chef?
Until one day, at the Little Chef,
his heart stopped.
And all the clocks melted.
Our final module for the BA Creative Writing was a publishing project and our task – to create three new literary journals (44 Square: Fiction, 45 Square Poetry and 46 Square: Creative Non-Fiction) with work submitted from all four years of the Birkbeck BA Creative Writing Programme.
I was Editor of 44 Square Fiction and, as group projects go, it was a surprisingly pleasant experience. We generally agreed on most things, from selection of pieces to the front cover design, so our meetings were relatively stress-free. We were fortunate to have a number of illustrators in the group so we were able to supplement the writing with some lovely line drawings.
The most difficult part, I thought, was the final proofreading and copyediting. It seemed that no matter how many times I read a piece I would find (or worse, miss) errors and typos. I’ve always thought I had quite a good eye for typos but it was a much more painstaking job than I was prepared for. My favourite part of the process was the production of the print journal. We were only required to produce an eBook, but our editorial team decided to produce a limited number of print editions and I particularly enjoyed this. It was very satisfying to have a physical souvenier of all of our hard work to keep at the end of the process, and to present to our contributors and teachers.
The final publications were launched on the 4th of June at Stratford Circus. I was fortunate to have had my submissions selected for 45 Square and 46 Square and I was also asked to read an excerpt from my creative non-fiction piece, ‘The Birthday Cake’. The publicity team did a wonderful job of organising the launch and it was an enjoyable evening.
You can download pdf versions of the three journals for free from the following links: