How Not to Write About Christmas

“Happy Christmas everybody.”  Cue loud shouts and pathetic waves.  This is how a large number of television shows broadcast around Christmas in the 1970s and 1980s used to end.   Of course, there were notable exceptions, like newsreader Angela Rippon doing high-kicks on Morecombe and Wise in 1976,  but it seemed that few writers for television could write about Christmas and make it effective.  I don’t know whether it’s any better nowadays, as I’ve given up watching television, but what I do know is that many novelists and short story writers suffer from the same affliction, oozing sentimentality and corniness.  And then Daddy disappeared, but suddenly there was Father Christmas in a red dressing gown.  Or this one:  I wouldn’t have missed it for the world, seeing the children’s faces light up when they opened their presents.

Of course, there is a sadder angle of Christmas – people being alone on Christmas Day, family arguments and break-up, the desperation of people on the streets at Christmas – but mainstream publications (and broadcasters) don’t want to publish that sort of thing and writers know that.   No editor wants to be accused of bah humbug.   Since the 1970s/80s, we have moved away from our Christian roots, so all that is left is cringe-making sentimentality.  It may come as an enormous surprise to many people in the UK but – really and truly – Christmas is not for the children or about any of these things:  ever more extravagant presents, turkey, drinking too much or wearing silly hats.

The best writing about Christmas is where something happens in a Christmas context.  The action in many of the crime/thriller novels of Patricia Cornwell took place over Christmas, with Kay Scarpetta, her niece Lucy and Captain Pete Marino making pasta from scratch on Christmas Day, at the same time as solving a series of murders.   Dickens is supposed to have invented Christmas in this country (actually Prince Albert had much more to do with it) but even ‘A Christmas Carol’ contained a Christmas-relevant narrative.

How refreshing, therefore, to read Take a Break’s Fiction Feast for Christmas 2015 and Woman’s Weekly’s Fiction Series (for January 2016 actually), both filled (mostly) with Christmas stories.  Being a vegetarian, I particularly enjoyed Teresa Ashby’s ‘You Can’t Please Them All’ (in Take a Break’s Fiction Feast) ; that is truly a story I wish I’d written myself!   With twenty-three stories in Take A Break’s Fiction Feast and twenty-five stories in Woman’s Weekly Fiction Series, it also gives me hope in my long quest to get something published in womag.  By the way, my friend Patsy Collins had two stories in each magazine and Helen Yendall (whose Blog About Writing I follow) had one story in each.

Of course, I do know that, if I was going to write a Christmas story and hope to have it published in either of these magazines, or anywhere else, I would have had to have written it and submitted in the summer, so maybe I should have written this post either very much earlier or very much later.  So, at the risk of saying something that has been said many times before, Happy Christmas everybody.

Holly with red berries
(c) Wikimedia.org

Review of ‘Killer’s Cross’ by Wendy H Jones

Cover of Killer's Cross by Wendy H JonesA few weeks ago, I interviewed Wendy Jones on the launch of her third book, Killer’s Cross.  I have now read Killer’s Cross, and I can tell you, Dear Reader, it gets very scary towards the end.

The Dundee murder glut continues under DI Shona McKenzie’s watch.  This time, the victims are being dumped outside churches, dressed as clergy, but with a cross carved upon their chests and every drop of blood drained from their bodies (shades of Merchant of Venice, perhaps?).  Unlike the other two novels which take place in bitter Scottish snowstorms, in this one Shona McKenzie works in an overpowering heatwave.  Although now in a relationship with gentle Procurator Fiscal Douglas, she is as relentless and confrontational as ever.  In fact, her rudeness to virtually everyone is breathtaking, so it’s hardly surprising she gets into trouble with the Chief Constable for it.  However, she’s a leader who inspires confidence and respect.  Just how much loyalty she has inspired in her team only becomes apparent towards the end of ‘Killers Cross’.

As in all the other McKenzie novels, Killer’s Cross includes chilling inset chapters from the killer’s point of view, generally planning his/her next murder with cold clinical precision.  Some of the events at the very end are shocking and unexpected, but reflect real happenings.

Shona’s team is still eating for Scotland, even though her deputy, Peter, has been put on a diet – by his wife.  The team – Peter, Roy, Nina, Abigail, Jason – is growing, not just in size, but in character, and even the Chief is showing chinks in his armour of disapproval.  Shona, a relatively recent return-ee from Oxfordshire, is still struggling with the Scottish dialect and Scottish nicknames.  Why is Roy called Roy, for instance?  She’s forgotten.

Wendy writes in present tense, unusual for crime fiction.    (This is something I forgot to mention in the interview.)

Killers Cross is available from Wendy Jones’ website.  A good read!

Wishing you a very happy Christmas.  Too tired to write anymore.

After Your Manuscript Ferments in a Drawer

Really helpful advice for all novelists and hopeful novelists, from Cheryl Fassett. And some really useful-looking links, which I haven’t checked out yet myself.

Catching Fireflies


So, you wrote a novel in November. Or maybe it was November 2007. Either way, you are in one of two camps; you are just itching to pull it out and read your magnificent words, or you are terrified that they may be discovered. Their future is up to you.

I would think at some point you will want to take them out from under the bed or out of the drawer where you have hidden the thumb drive under 8 pounds of clutter and read them. Even if you have no intention of ever attempting to publish them, reading them is good for you. It helps you see them for what they are – either well-constructed plots and characters, or detritus of your brain which runs around like a toddler with ADD.

keep-calm-and-edit

After the appropriate waiting period – a few months or years – please take out your manuscript…

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Review of ‘Firestarter’ by Patsy Collins

Animated fireAlice Bakewell has a thing about being rescued from a blazing building by a hunky fireman, using a fireman’s lift – obviously.  “But I’m so over it,” she tells her sister, Kate.  Well, maybe.  When Alice and Kate meet ex-schoolfriend, Hamish, on the Fire Service stand at the New Forest Show and he offers to ‘rescue’ Alice as part of his demonstration, she declines, because she is in a relationship with Boring Tony and it wouldn’t be right.  However, when she dumps Boring Tony and romance kindles between Alice and Hamish, a series of false alarm calls are sent to the emergency services.  Alice and Hamish wonder if Tony is responsible. In addition, Alice has her job to worry about, the lack of orders and the mysterious new contract which boss Miles promises.  On top of that, there is Louise, Hamish’s jealous bird-watching friend, who threatens to kill Alice – in gory and imaginative ways – every time she sees her.  Alice‘s fantasy is eventually realised, only not featuring Hamish – until he stages another ‘rescue’ especially for her.

This is an excellently constructed story, with a water-tight plotline, with no stray ends and no unresolved bits.  Characterisation is, likewise, well-defined.  Alice and her sister, Kate, are a couple of likable girly girls, absorbed in clothes and boyfriends, even though Alice strives to prove she is tougher and doesn’t mind getting dirty, when she joins Hamish bird-watching.  Hamish is suitably hunky, although, as we find out, he is not all fireman, and Tony is an interesting bore, who shows, ultimately, that he is more than his laptop and his job.  Alice and Kate’s father brews unspeakable home-made wine from vegetables in his garden.  (We’ve all encountered Dads like him, I’m sure.  My own dad (long since passed on, bless him) made wine from Boots concentrate, which always looked like urine.)   Interestingly, Patsy, who has not described proper sex acts in her previous novels, includes a very steamy sex scene in Firestarter.

So, Dear Reader, a full recommendation.  Do read Firestarter.  Well up to Patsy’s best standard.

I was very chuffed to learn, earlier this week, that my story, Not a Proper Evacuee (set in World War 2 – no, never!) has achieved third place in the Alfie Dog International Short Story Competition, also that Stars in Your Eyes, written by my fellow-blogger, Julie Wow or Wittering, achieved fourth place.  Sadly, you cannot read Not a Proper Evacuee because I’ve already entered it for a Words With Jam comp.  (Hope the WWJ judges are reading this!)  The second-placed story, by Susan Eames, is entitled Licking an Ant’s Bottom.  The mind boggles.  I do hope that one is put up on the main Alfie Dog site, so I can read it.

I will finish with two ACW (Association of Christian Writers) pleas.  Plea 1:  As you may know, I am now ACW competitions manager.  If you also happen to be an ACW member, please turn to page 4 as soon as you receive Christian Writer, which should come bouncing through your letterbox any day soon, and enter the Bible Story Comp.  (The comp is for ACW members only – sorry.)   Plea 2:  If you happen to live in Suffolk (or nearby), we are attempting to set up a – real, face-to-face – ACW Writers Group based near Bury St Edmunds.  Please look at the ACW Facebook page.

Do enjoy the animated gif, all 2.2mb of it.  On the other hand, hope the page loads for you!

Firestarter is available from Patsy’s website.