Getting on to the Letters Page: Guest Appearance by Julie Lees

Today we welcome Julie Lees of Julie Wow or Wittering blog and champion letter-writer.  Earlier this week, I asked her about how she managed to get so many letters published in magazines and newspapers.

Rosemary:  Do you use any particular format?

Julie:  I don’t have any specific format but, as in all writing projects, it’s important to study your market. All magazines and newspapers adopt their own style and this is reflected in the tone of the letters they choose to print. It helps if you’re writing something you feel passionate about or, at the very least, have an interest in.

Star Letter 2Rosemary:  What should you include in your letter?

Julie:  Again, this depends on the publication. I have had many letters published in the TV Times that relate to specific television programmes, usually from the previous week’s schedule. However, there are many other popular weekly magazines, directed primarily at women, that attract letters focusing on the family, children, partners, pets and holidays and are generally expected to be accompanied by a photograph. Included in the long list of monthly periodicals is the specialist market covering subjects as diverse as cookery, gardening, gaming, astronomy, angling, cycling, your dog, your cat, your horse… the list is endless. Not all include a letters page, so you need to research your market.

The Guardian has a Saturday slot in the Family section of the Lifestyle supplement that encourages readers to share the story behind their favourite photograph, song and recipe. Definitely worth a try!  Spending some time in your local supermarket studying the plethora of material on offer is a good and less expensive way of determining the best market for your work.

Rosemary:  In which publications are letters from budding writers more likely to be well received?

Julie:  In terms of letter writing, I think the novice writer has as much chance as the established writer of getting published. That’s what is so good about it. Of course, you’ll face stiff competition if you concentrate on those publications that pay well, so you may want to target those more likely to receive a smaller postbag, including your local paper.  A useful website is esthernewtonblog because it highlights some markets available to writers, including the particular criteria required.  Submit as much out as you can, as often as you can. Even if it doesn’t pay every time, there’s nothing like seeing your name in print, and it’s all good practice.

Rosemary:  Which magazines pay best?

Julie:  Some like That’s Life! pay as much as £75 for its Star Letter and £50 to any others printed. Pick Me Up! and Woman’s Weekly pay £25 to the Letter of the Week, but nothing to the others. Sainsbury’s Magazine is currently offering a gift of a set of pans worth £400 for its Star Letter, while a mattress bed for your pooch could be yours at Dogs Monthly. Letter writing won’t make you rich, but it can supplement your income and potentially garner some nice prizes along the way.

Rosemary:  Are there any words/phrases/topics that make letters more likely to be published? Anything to avoid? What is deemed an appropriate length?

Julie:  I know I keep repeating this, but study your market. Some publications demand very short submissions — sometimes no more than a caption to Letter to TV Timesaccompany a photograph. Some of the letters I’ve had success consist of no more than 2 -3 sentences, ending with a punchy phrase. I try to avoid topics that are popular.  This increases your chance of success, rather than finding yourself pitted against many others of the same ilk. If you can include a pun, all the better. I did this when I described a programme as ‘riveting viewing’, River being the title of the show. I wasn’t even aware I’d done this until the letter was printed with the caption ‘Stellan is Riverting’.

Capturing a photograph of a comic moment — be that of a pet or spelling mistake leading to confusion — can be a winner with the right tag line. (NB. Parental consent is required to use images of children, under the age of 16.)

Seasonal tips and advice can work for cookery, craft, and interior design periodicals but make sure to submit this in plenty of time. I believed a letter that I’d sent in concerning Christmas decorations had fallen by the wayside, only for it to turn up twelve months later as the Star Letter, securing me £100 worth of designer paint. That was a good day!

Choosing to comment about an article printed in the previous month’s edition of your targeted magazine is another way of increasing your chances of publication. Editors seem to like this; it sends a message that their magazine’s content has provoked a reaction in its readers.

Remember that you need to make your letter stand out, so it should be interesting and have something worthwhile to say, be succinct and without repeating the same point, as well as fitting in with the format of the publication. Good luck!


Thank you very much, Julie.  Lots of useful tips there.


Brawny and Flap and the custom officer.

Thank you, Margaret, for writing a comic story to my prompts. The original was on

Margaret Kazmierczak

Challenge given by Charlie Britten.

Place: Anywhere on the English coast.
Situation: St Augustine has just arrived at Border control, meaning to convert the British heathens.
Characters: St Augustine and a customs officer.
Keywords: Duty.

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Thinking of My Father on Father’s Day

City of Leicester Coat of Arms

I’ve read several tributes to fathers today, Father’s Day.  I suppose I’m a bit late now, seeing as I’m writing it at 10 o’clock, but I wanted to share with you some thoughts about my father, Reg, who died in 1986.  This is not be an eulogy, nor will it be very long.  He was a –

  • Schoolteacher, fascinated by his subject – geography – and with the ability to explain anything in a way that was easily understood by me, at whatever age I happened to be at the time.
  • Sportsman, primarily a cricketer, who played for Leicestershire during the war, and even when I came on the scene when he was thirty-nine, an active member of several cricket clubs.  Other sports he played included: football, until my mother forbade him at the age of fifty-five to continue, because she was fed up with dressing a knee injury sustained in a masters versus boys match; tennis; hockey; rugby (a bit); squash; everything else.  He was an ardent Leicester City fan through thick and thin (mainly thin).
  • Mechanic, never happier when tinkering underneath a car or mending machinery, often with my mother begging him to buy new.  When called up in World War Two, he wanted to service aircraft for the RAF but, having had scarlet fever four times, he was declared unfit for service, so he carried on teaching.  He also loved steam railways and model railways.
  • Carpenter and DIY man, who preferred to do all shelf-building, washer-changing and decorating himself.  He reckoned he, as an amateur, was better than any ‘proper man’, although he had to defer to my (maternal) grandmother on wallpaper-hanging.
  • As poor a musician as I am, with no sense of time or pitch.  (My mother was a great singer and pianist.)  He despised ‘pop music’, although he did have a sneaking admiration for the music of ‘The Beatles’ after hearing their songs all night through the party-wall in our semi-detached when our neighbour’s son had a few friends round.
  • Actor and producer (before I was born).  At school, he appeared in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado and his mother retained his costume, using it as a dressing-gown, until she died in 1969.
  • As bad a gardener as me.  He did like to grow runner beans on tall sticks, also dahlias.  His birthday being on 28 May, I once bought him dahlia seedlings, only for them all to be killed by an unseasonal frost on our lawn on 27 May.
  • Unadventurous traveller, never venturing outside the British mainline, except once in 1974 when I dragged him to The Netherlands for three days.  (He enjoyed his holiday abroad but never wanted to go again.)
  • Lapsed Anglican, despite my mother being a devout Christian.  He had a thing about Roman Catholics.  He had had a Catholic girlfriend but dumped her immediately he discovered her religion.
  • Man who misliked change of any sort, he spent a lot of time explaining to me why older things were always better.  For a long time, he convinced
    City of Leicester Coat of Arms

    me.  Leicester’s motto is Semper Eadem (always the same).

  • Politically, a right-wing Conservative.  He supported Enoch Powell.  If he were alive now, I’m sure he’d vote Leave and support Ukip.
  • Devoted husband, who nursed my mother as the dreadful disease, onset at my birth, consumed her, manoeuvring her up and downstairs every day, lifting her feet under his own.  He never once complained.

When my mother died, my father went to pieces.  He became emotionally dependent upon me and I, at seventeen, couldn’t cope.  His cousin several times removed (my beloved Auntie Myra) tried to lift some of the burden, but she lived in Cheltenham.  Nevertheless, he supported me in going to university as planned, even though he missed me terribly and irritated me by forever asking me when I was next coming home.  (Understandable, I suppose.)  He eventually found solace playing bridge in a bridge club, and I was relieved when he remarried, to one of the bridge-players, but she was not very nice to me and drove a wedge between us.

When I was about to go into hospital to give birth to my son, I asked my father if he could travel the hundred or so miles from Leicester to Guildford to visit me, but he replied “We’ll see,” (meaning my stepmother would see) and he never did.  He did however appear at my son’s christening – half way through – but died of a sudden heart attack, two weeks later.  My husband and I arrived late for his funeral because northbound traffic on the M1 was gridlocked.






Guest Appearance: Sally Quilford

The Secret of Lakeham Abbey (cover)Today, we welcome Sally Quilford, whose latest novel, The Secret of Lakeham Abbey, the second in the Lakeham Abbey series, was published last month.  (The first was Dark Marshes.) From the blurb, I see that both books are daaark.  I hope to review both of them on the blog in coming weeks.

Sally is well known to we writers as an author of romantic intrigue fiction, and erstwhile competitions columnist in Writers Forum magazine.  I knew that Sally has written a lot of books but I was gobsmacked to find 30 listed on Goodreads.  A few years ago, I did one of Sally’s courses.  I’ve never written so much, so fast, whilst teaching fulltime.  Sally is also a quick worker, as you will see in her answers to my interview questions below:

  1. When you started creating ‘The Secret of Lakeham Abbey’, what elements came first? Did you, for instance, start with a scenario or a setting, or with particular characters?

I started with the setting. I’d already set one novel – The Dark Marshes – at Lakeham Abbey, and The Secret of Lakeham Abbey is a loose sequel to that. Readers of both will notice similar surnames turning up. But as with The Dark Marshes, the real story began with a voice. The story is told in epistolary form, and it wasn’t until I got Percy Sullivan’s voice (he is the teenage protagonist) that the other voices really came into focus. His particular style of ‘speaking’ set the tone for everyone else. It was the same with The Dark Marshes. The voice(s) that informed that were those of the twins Molly and Dolly, who speak as one.

I honestly feel that I have at least one more story to tell about Lakeham Abbey, which I believe is a character in its own right. I’m just unsure whether to send Percy there again, or jump forward in time to a more modern story to finish off the trilogy. But one day the right story will come to me.

  1. How long did it take you to write this book?

About a month, I think. I’d intended to enter it into a competition on Wattpad, for Carina, so I had to write it quickly in order to meet the rules of thatSally Quilford competition. It didn’t get anywhere in that, so I polished it up and sent it to Crooked Cat. The rest, as they say, is history.

  1. ‘The Secret of Lakeham Abbey’ is about a character being convicted of murder and sentenced to execution. Did you feel uncomfortable, angry or emotional when writing?  If so, in which parts?

I often cry when I’m writing and it’s usually a good sign. The first letter to Percy from Anne Pargeter, who is waiting to be executed set me off crying and I knew then that this was a story worth telling. I don’t know that I felt uncomfortable about writing about an execution, though some of the things I read as part of my research about executions going wrong, were very disturbing. However, I am not in favour of capital punishment, because of the dreadful mistakes that have been made, and I think I poured some of that into the story.

  1. Do you have a special time to write? How is your day structured?  Do you aim for a set amount of words/pages per day?  Do you write every day?

Structure? What’s that? No, honestly, I’m terribly disorganised about my writing and can only write when I have a compelling idea. But when I do have a story to tell, I can keep going for hours and have written as much as 7000 words in a day in order to meet a deadline.

  1. For you, what is the hardest thing about writing?

Not having a story to tell. My family is going through a difficult time at the moment, with my husband being very ill, and whilst writing is usually my escape from stress, I’m finding it hard to settle down and write anything because of my worries about him. I have plenty of ideas, but they come to nothing. So I’m a bit like a bottle of pop that’s been shaken up. I’m ready to explode. If I can explode onto the page, rather than having a meltdown in Tesco, it will be much better for me and anyone else in a five mile radius…

  1. Have you (or do you) suffer from the dreaded writer’s block? Any tips for overcoming it?

I suffer from times when the stories just won’t come, which I suppose is writers’ block. Normally I just write my way through it, even if what I write is absolute rubbish. As I’ve said, that’s not working at the moment, but I live in hope that when the time is right, the writing will be there waiting for me. So yes, I do believe in writers’ block, but I also think that sometimes we just need to recharge our batteries. We are not bottomless jars of ideas. We sometimes need to step back and let the jar fill up again, so I’d advise any new writer not to mistake just needing time to regroup for writers’ block. Just because you’ve nothing to say now doesn’t mean you’ll never have anything to say in the future.

  1. Do you read much and if so who are your favourite authors?

I’m a binge reader. I have weeks where I don’t touch any books, then weeks and weeks where I can devour two or three books in a week. I do find it hard to read others’ work when writing my own novels. I find myself aping the style of the author I’m reading, so I’m much better keeping away from other novels so that my voice and ideas remain my own. My favourite novelists are Agatha Christie, Nevil Shute, Lee Child, Stephen King, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Barbara Cartland (yes really – I love a bit of Barbara when I don’t want to have to think too much). But I read lots of different authors and genres and don’t like to narrow my options.

Thank you very, Sally.

Writing With My Cat

This isn’t my first blog post of the day.  I also appear today, writing about Victorian hymn-writers, on More Than Writers, the Association of Christian Writers blog.   (To be fair, as ‘today’ is almost over and you will almost certainly be reading this ‘tomorrow’ or even later, look for the post for 13 June.)

Cat sitting on writer's knee.Right now, however, I’m writing about the part my cat, Clarabel, has in my writing.  This is a post I’ve been meaning to write for a long time.

Clarabel is sixteen years old and still beautiful.  She loves me very much and I love her, but I do wish she’d stop climbing on to my knee every time I sit down.  As I write now, she’s squeezed herself into the narrow gap between my laptop and my stomach, but at least she’s sitting down.  This isn’t always the case.  Cats, as all people owned by felines know, take a long time to settle.  After jumping on me, she has, first, to knead my legs for about ten minutes, something that can only be carried out in a standing position, which means I have to reach over her back to use the keyboard.  When she does eventually deign to sit, she rests her head on my writing arm and nibbles my cardigan/jumper.

Other disadvantages to writing with a cat on your knee include:

  • Fur on the keyboard, getting between the keys, which eventually necessitates a trip to the computer hospital.
  • Paws on the touchpad, highlighting and deleting text.Author's Cat Sitting by Bookcase
  • Paws on keys.  She edits my stories.
  • Snores.

I should move her off, says my husband, but, if I do, she returns in seconds, which means we have to start the leg-kneading all over again.  I try to recommend cushions and other comfy positions to her, but none of this will do.  Occasionally, I’m tempted to throw her out the room altogether but she miaows so piteously outside the door.  And I can see her through the glass panes.

So what do I do?  I’ve had a bad day teaching today.  Who’d be an IT tutor?  Nothing I attempted to demonstrate to students, including – and particularly – connecting my iPad to the classroom projector – worked, so I’m feeling sorry for myself, and my darling cat purring on my knee is a great comfort, fur, paws and all.

Congratulations to my friend and fellow blogger, Julie Lees, for her success in 101 Words, with her story Transmutation.

In a few days, I’m interviewing Sally Quilford, about her new book The Secret of Lakeham Abbey – cat permitting.

Late addition to this post:  the cat in Southwark Cathedral – taken last Sunday by my friend, Caroline:  Cat in Southwark Cathedral


What does your plot look like?

I had an article on – very simple – story arcs in Christian Writer in the New Year. This is much better.

A Writer of History

In April, Jane Friedman – whose banner reads ‘helping authors and publishers flourish in the digital age’ – posted an article on How to Use a Plot Planner by Martha Alderson. The post presents two typical plot lines and discusses the ways authors can visualize and change their stories. For example:

The energy of a story doesn’t remain flat, just as the Plot Planner line isn’t flat. A story grows in intensity, which is reflected in the line moving steadily higher as the stakes and the energy of the story also rise.

Using a plot planner you can show scenes “where the power is somewhere other than with the protagonist above the Plot Planner line.” Scenes showing character development involving loss, failure, revenge, self-sacrifice, anger, grief, fear, rebellion and so on also go above the line.

Scenes that go below the plot planner line show “the internal, emotional territory…

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Agnes Grey and Ofsted: Book Review

Agnes Grey, by Anne Bronte, should be required reading for all Ofsted inspectors and college administrators masquerading as learning observers, also desirable reading for trainee teachers (although perhaps not, as there were be fewer teachers completing training than ever!)

Agnes Grey is a fascinating primary source for Victorian lifestyles and education.  Not a bodice-ripper like Anne Bronte’s other work, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall,  Agnes Grey toddles along in an understated British way for all of its 251 pages, but it is definitely a literary work, establishing Anne as an author in her own right, without needing to hang on to the shawls of her more famous sisters.  It was (until now) the only Bronte novel I hadn’t read.

Anne herself regarded Agnes Grey as a campaigning novel, to increase awareness (to use a modern phrase) of the plight of governesses and, to an extent, this novel is autobiographical, drawing heavily on her experiences of being a governess in two distinct households.  Agnes’ two jobs are, firstly, with very young children at the Broomfield household, and, secondly, with teenagers with the Murray household.  As a teacher myself, I found her accounts of managing children illuminating:

  • The Broomfield are unspeakably badly behaved, refusing to study and randomly killing and tormenting wild animals.  The Broomfield parents, who dish out severe punishments for the slightest misdemeanour, get the children to do as they were told, but they can’t understand why they wouldn’t respect Agnes, who isn’t allowed to discipline them at all.
  • At the Murrays, the mother

was partly aware of her deficiencies, and gave me many a lecture as to how I should try to form tastes, and endeavour to rouse and cherish her dormant vanity… Without the least exertion to herself…. Nothing can be taught to any purpose without some little exertion on the part of the learner.

  • Matilda Murray also swears terribly and her response to Agnes’ telling off is ‘Oh, Miss Grey, how shocked you are!  I’m so glad!’  Also ‘I can’t help it…’ How many times did I hear that at the college where I used to work?  What’s wrong with… the four-letter word beginning with f?  Would you speak like that to your mother?  Yeah, she says it to me.  A lot of Matilda’s problem is that she’s mad on horses – like her father who also swears.  We are not told what swear words Matilda uses; this shocked writer from Haworth Parsonage can’t bear to write them down.
  • John Murray’s ignorance of Latin will be attributed to his education being entrusted to Agnes, an ‘Ignorant female teacher’… when he goes away to school.
  • At ten years old, Charles Murray cannot ‘read the easiest line in the simplest book’.  And we worry about poor literacy nowadays?
  • ‘He took no pains to avoid mistakes (in maths) but set down his figures at random without any calculation at all.’  Yep.  And that was even before the days of calculators and spreadsheets. 
  • Home-schooling is also nothing new.  Mothers who can’t afford governesses are expected to educate their own children.  I believe that Mrs Bennett educated her five daughters in Pride and Prejudice.  (Amazing that Jane and Elizabeth turned out as well as they did!)

All that this part of the novel lacked was Ofsted.  At least Agnes didn’t have to complete endless risk assessments every time she took a walk outside with her pupils and fill in endless forms about safeguarding, Prevent and Equality and Diversity.   Later on Agnes runs a small school with her mother, who has no prior teaching experience, but friends recommend their daughters to them and they get along fine.

Fire in grate.Other insights include:

  • In Yorkshire, in the 1840s, you have a coal fire even in summer.
  • As in Jane Austen everyone discusses their income quite freely and without embarrassment.  Mr Weston earns £300 per annum as a rector.
  • Travel takes a long time in those days, even when it is possible to do part of the journey by train.

The characters of the children and the parents are hammed up by Anne, in a Dickensian sort of way, but they speak loudly from the page.  Agnes Cover of first edition of Agnes Grey by Anne Bronteherself is a lens through which we saw everyone else.  She is very Grey, timid, , but the reader appreciates how her experiences of being a governess, at best overlooked and regarded as a dogsbody, and without anyone with whom she can talk freely, effects Agnes’ confidence, to the extent that, when she meets a man she likes, she cannot respond with any warmth.  The storyline (hardly a plot) is the weakest point, as the love story which

drives the second part does not feature at all in the first half of the book.  There is definitely a lack of balance.  The style is unhurried, with lots of very Victorian descriptions of scenery and what Agnes is thinking, including lots of genuinely-felt religious reasoning, which, if published today, would firmly put Agnes Grey in the pile of ‘Christian fiction’.

This novel, one of only two by the youngest of the Bronte sisters, was first published in 1847 and printed by Spottiswode & Co Ltd, Printers, London.  Colchester and Eton… as it says at the end of my Kindle edition.  Agnes Grey is available from Amazon.  Being over a hundred year’s old, it was free.