the writer is a lonely hunter

writing by Gail Aldwin and other Dorset writers

Two in a row

I’m delighted to share the news that my debut novel The String Games has been shortlisted in another literary competition. This one is very close to my heart. As a resident of Dorchester I’m proud to be one of the final three in a competition founded by the Dorchester Literary Festival and sponsored by Hall & Woodhouse.

The aim of the competition is to continue Dorset’s literary tradition by investing in its homegrown talent. A judging panel, including professional writers and a leading literary agent compile the shortlist so this is a real chance to gain wider recognition for my debut novel. The awards ceremony, hosted by a leading writer will be held on 5 October 2020 (Covid-19 permitting).

I attended the previous two ceremonies, the inaugural competition was in 2018 and hosted by Kate Adie when Philip Browne won with his remarkable non-fiction book The Unfortunate Captain Peirce and the Wreck of the Halsewell about a shipwreck off the Dorset coast in 1786.

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Philip Browne receives his prize from Kate Adie.

Last year, my good friend Maria Donovan was on the shortlist and came runner-up with her moving story about loss and grief from a young boy’s perspective in The Chicken Soup Murderwhile Emma Timpany took the prize with Travelling in the Dark.

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Shortlistees from 2019 with Emma on the left, Maria on the right and centre is Minette Walters

I look forward to meeting the other shortlisted writers but the in meantime, I celebrate all those who were on the longlist:

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Although my name is on the cover of The String Games, there are many Dorset people who helped this novel reach its audience. Thank you to all those readers and writers who gave feedback and others who supported with proof reading and editing. Without you, my story may never have found a home with Victorina Press or gained recognition in writing competitions such as this.

 

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Posh frocks, presentations and prizes

Traditionally held at Stationers’ Hall, the eleventh annual awards ceremony for The People’s Book Prize was instead organised via Zoom thanks to Covid19. Finalists from the three categories were there, authors of fiction, non-fiction and children’s literature, plus all the publishers. The evening was hosted by founder Tatiana Wilson and director Tony Humphreys. At one point I found myself virtually rubbing shoulders with prize patron, Frederick Forsyth.

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We wore our finest clothes to make the occasion special. While I drank a cup of tea, others sipped wine. Like all finalists in the fiction category, I was able to say a few words about my novel and then the winner was announced. Author of The Weighing of the Heart gained the the sparkling trophy and I was very pleased to celebrate Paul Tudor Owen‘s success. I’ve been following Paul on Twitter for some time and feel I know him from the podcasts and interviews he’s offered since his novel was launched in March 2019. The Weighing of the Heart is a contemporary novel set in New York where the English protagonist Nick Braeburn becomes fascinated by his landlady’s Egyptian art and a young artist who lives nearby. Paul was very gracious in his acceptance speech and highlighted the importance of small presses in bringing to market stories that are overlooked by the big five publishers.

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Who can you spot in this photo of fiction finalists and others?

Becoming a finalist in The People’s Book Prize has been a wonderful experience. It’s raised the profile of my coming-of-age novel The String Gamesprovided a platform for my publisher Victorina Press and has given me the chance to connect with lots of wonderful authors. And there are many of you reading this post who I have to thank for helping me reach the finals. Without your votes, I would never have come this far. So, let me take this opportunity to thank you very much for your support.

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Milking an idea

I posted information last week about Covid19 writing opportunities and since then I’ve had two Coronavirus stories accepted for publication. Out of the Box is about cutlery trapped in a canteen during lockdown and it was shortlisted in the Staying Home competition run by Hammond House Publishing. You can read the story here.

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Once I get an idea for a story, I figure it’s worth milking, so I wrote another Covid19 lockdown story this time related to the experience of a wedding ring confined to a jewellery box. This was published by Pandemic Magazine and you can read the story here. There’s a great illustration to accompany my story, so it’s worth popping over for a look.

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Pandemic writing opportunities

Coronavirus has inspired even more people to write fiction. This is a good  thing because stuck at home or venturing out, anyone can take a leap into the world of their imagination. I have long argued that as humans we all need a creative outlet, be it gardening or cooking or painting. Writing is one of the most accessible forms of creativity because the resources required are no more than a piece of paper and a pen. And, with only the hand moving across the page, it’s not physically demanding either (although some of us do complain about writer’s bottom!)

In Dorset, our local history centre started a project in early April requesting people keep diaries of their experiences during the pandemic. The aim is to ensure that future generations can look back on the present day’s experience and understand the impact of Coronavirus across the county.  I look forward to reading the Corona Diaries when they are published.

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Limitations and opportunities during the pandemic

Last month I received the news that the Mani Lit Fest 2020 is cancelled. I had been excited about travelling to Greece in October to deliver a couple of workshops and some readings. Although the decision is totally understandable, it did come as a disappointment. But not any more. I understand the festival will be running in 2021 so that’s definitely something to look forward to.

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Church in Chori where Bruce Chatwin’s ashes are buried

The Mani is a beautiful part of Greece and you can read about an earlier visit to writer Carol McGrath‘s house near the delightful seaside town of Stoupa here. Living through a pandemic has many limiting factors and prospects for overseas travel or indeed any sort of travel takes considerable planning. It seems that Coronvirus has the capacity to clip wings but it opens other opportunities. I’ve loved having more regular Zoom calls with friends in Australia, for example.

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When e-volunteering and writing collide

As a former VSO international volunteer at Bidibidi Refugee Settlement in Uganda, I am  pleased to be able to continue work with colleagues remotely. I was repatriated from my post as a psychosocial and child protection adviser due to Covid19 in March 2020. Now I’m in contact with team in Yumbe to develop ways to support young children and families through the pandemic.

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In Uganda, the lockdown continues much as experienced elsewhere: social distancing, wearing of masks, essential shopping only etc. Yet in a country where there have been only 870 cases (as of 30 June) and no deaths, one might think that restrictions would be easing. But such is the concern to avoid spread of the virus, there remains no proposals to reopen schools, no allowing of motorcycle taxis (bodas) to carry passengers and no opening of shopping centres. Indeed there is no indication of when lockdown may end. 
This has considerable implications for families who are forced into poverty due to loss of earning. And as for children, without schools this not only means a lack of education but can mean hunger where children rely on school feeding programmes.

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Writing prize longlist announced

Imagine my delight when I received an email saying The String Games has been longlisted in the Dorchester Literary Festival Local Writing Prize. This is fabulous news as it means my novel is recognised in my home county of Dorset. An announcement on Facebook gives details of the five other longlistees. It’s such fun to find myself in the great company of three writers I know and respect. They are Helen Baggott, author of Posted in the Past, Cathie Hartigan author of Notes from the Lost (Cathie was also shortlisted in 2018 competition with her debut novel) and Brent Shore author of Blessed are the Meek. The two other authors are A K Biggins author of Losing Jane and Vivienne Endecott  author of Exploring Englishness.

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What is it with me?

Just when I gain the skills and confidence to be good at something, I decide to move on and try something new. I can see this pattern in my writing. First I was all enthusiastic about flash fiction, then writing a novel. Poetry got shoe-horned between the two and now I’m into children’s literature. Others like to consolidate their learning and deepen their understanding but I’m more interested in starting the next new project. What is it with me?

 

I came to reflect on the meandering journey of my writing career when I shared with a friend my new passion for cycling. It started with a bad knee. When I came back from Uganda into lockdown UK, I decided to use the full one hour per day of time we were allowed to exercise. Hence my runs lengthen from 6km to 8km and I was out every single day. I knew from half marathon training that running each day is not recommended but I became so focused on running further and faster that I ignored my better judgement until my knee buggered. Then even walking was painful and after a week of elevating my leg and applying frozen peas, my knee was better. So, as lockdown continued and my need to get out every day grew, I took up cycling. I was amazed that my lady shopper bike that had never been used since arriving in Dorset in 2007 still had tyres fit to cycle on.

When I started to become fit in 2017, I so enjoyed swimming. Loved going back to the sport I enjoyed as a child and even re-taught myself how to swim front crawl and regularly completed forty lengths of the pool. The only trouble with swimming is the drag of getting to the pool only to end up wet and cold. So, running was an improvement on that. I could start my exercise on leaving the front door and running in any weather certainly warms you up. Now my passion is cycling. This is good to do in the time of Coronavirus because you have to grip the handlebar and there’s no chance of touching anything untoward while out and about.

So with this background in changing exercise routines, should I think about doing a triathlon? Certainly not. It’s one obsession at a time for me. And so for my writing. It’s all about children’s literature at the moment. This week finds me busy making contact with book bloggers who specialise in children’s picture books and I’ve also attended several sessions at an online children’s literature festival. So with the publication of Pan de mo nium scheduled for December, what is my next project going to be? I’ll let you in on a secret, it’s got something to do with podcasts.

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Waterloo Festival 2020

The Waterloo Festival has been running for ten years and it’s a great celebration of community and creativity. St John’s Church is behind this venture and works with partners in the area to generate a variety of creative happenings during the festival month of June. I’ve entered the annual writing competition for three years in a row and I’ve been fortunate to be amongst the winners each time. In previous years there has been an opportunity to share our stories in the church and I love taking the opportunity for a trip to London. I have a particular fondness for Waterloo. Coming into the station by train, I catch sight of the London Eye, the Palace of Westminster and Big Ben between high rise buildings.

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Photo taken from the sky for Pixabay NOT the train!

During my London life, I worked for a charity with offices is situated in The Cut. After work I often met friends or went to one of the shows at the Old Vic or the Young Vic which are both nearby theatres.  Indeed the National Theatre is only around the corner and walking along the South Bank of the Thames is one of my favourite things to do. A scene for my novel The String Games is set there:

Where the path narrows, Imogen lingers watching the Thames. Waves of slate and mottled brown weave together like twine. It’s low tide and the river has shrunk, making a beach. Imogen leans against the railing and a glimpse of winter sun is a reward for leaving the office at lunchtime. A woman is standing by the water’s edge and in the shallows there is a boy in wellington boots …

This year the Waterloo Festival has gone online. At the launch of the ebook anthology  ‘Transforming Communities’, I met lots of fellow writers via Zoom. There was a chance for chat and some winners read their stories. Here we all are, spruced up for an online party.

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Thanks to Euchar Gravina director of the Waterloo Festival 2020 for hosting the event and Gill James for organising the competition.

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sneak preview: pan de mo nium

I’ve been working on a children’s picture book for a very long time indeed. The idea for pan de mo nium came when I was teaching a module of writing for children to undergraduates at the University of South Wales in 2015. We were looking at some features of anthropomorphism, where animals have human characteristics, and I shared examples where this technique was used to explore danger vicariously and therefore safely. Students joined the discussion before going slightly off task and started chatting about cute red pandas.

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Red pandas are found in the mountains of Nepal, northern Myanmar and central China. These animals spend most of their lives in trees.

I spent a long time wondering what the relationship would be like between a giant panda and a red panda living in central China. I started thinking about what it would be like to be part of the same family but look totally different. (Although in fact red pandas are not related to giant pandas). Could these thoughts be explored through anthropomorphism? Would it be possible for a cute and cuddly character to experience tensions around not fitting in?  I began to wonder if the issue of identity could be explored through children’s fiction by creating a purple panda.

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In Pan de mo nium Peta lives in a department store where her purple colour offers camouflage. She gets up to all sorts of mischief but when she’s spotted, the shop assistant puts an end to her tricks.  What can Peta do to become a cheeky panda once again?

Here’s a sneak preview of a scene from inside the book.  I love the colour palate that Fiona Zechmeister has cleverly used here.

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