Monday, 19 March 2018

Do spoilers spoil anything? by Veronica Zundel

As a somewhat irregular reader of Goodreads (and a reviewer thereon), I often come across reviews which may start with the warning 'CONTAINS SPOILERS'. In other words, the review may give away some vital elements of the plot or dénouement that would spoil the experience of reading the book and not knowing how things were going to turn out.

I'm not a writer of fiction but I am a great reader of it, so I hope fiction writers here will forgive me if I pronounce on this field. To me, except in the limited case of crime/detective fiction where one might want to save the surprises, a 'spoiler' may to some extent prejudice how I approach the book, but in the end, if it is a well written enough book, I don't mind how much I know about it beforehand, I will still enjoy it. If that weren't the case, why would you ever read the book a second time?

My husband, who is working his way through some list of 50 or perhaps 100 best novels, has been struggling a lot with Little Women. Perhaps he is too used to books like A Song of Ice and Fire (or is it Fire and Ice?) where there is 'action' on every page, usually someone being stabbed or visiting a brothel, or being stabbed in a brothel. The gentle observation and humour of Louisa May Alcott is lost on him, and one has to admit that Little Women is not generally a book for boys and men.

Knowing what happens, however, (as he does because he's seen both the film and the recent TV
series) is not really what's putting him off. After all, I read the book and its sequels over and over in my childhood, and knowing that Beth recovers in the first book but dies in the second, or that Laurie marries Amy not Jo, didn't spoil my enjoyment in the least. If you haven't yet read it, I apologize for telling you that, but really, the appeal of the book is not in the very everyday events or any sense of suspense, but in the wonderfully drawn characters and their setting. Own up -- which of you women writers didn't identify with Jo?

The fact is, there is a lot more to a novel than plot. Some novels are plot-driven, and some aren't worth reading more than once - you can get everything out of them in one reading. But in the best literature, even if that's crime fiction and you already know whodunnit and why, there are so many other elements that would reward a second or even third reading: the subtleties of character, the observation of environment or of social mores, the evocation of emotion, the fictional people or places or both that one just doesn't want to leave behind. With some books (many of them by women like Jane Gardam or Barbara Trapido) I have got to the end and immediately wanted to read the whole thing again, because I had enjoyed it so much. It doesn't matter in the least that I already know what happens.

So if you are a fiction writer, don't worry too much about whether you have concealed the clues well enough or built up the suspense adequately. Make your people and places real, and the events will follow.

Veronica Zundel is a freelance writer whose latest book is Everything I know about God, I've learned from being a parent (BRF 2013). She also writes a column for Woman Alive magazine, and Bible notes for BRF's New Daylight. Veronica used to belong to what was, before it closed, the only non-conservative, English speaking Mennonite church in the UK, and is currently playing at being a high Anglican. She also blogs (rather occasionally!) at

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Clearing the Clutter

During half term, as I sipped my coffee at a trampoline park an hour from home, it occurred to me that I had just committed the most heinous of household crimes: I had forgotten to put the recycling out. “Did you put the recycling out?” I interrogated my husband on the phone.  He hadn’t.

We are not a family of low recycling output.  To make matters worse, I had only that week seized the opportunity of a child-free morning to evict numerous craft creations that had long outstayed their welcome.  As a result, for two long weeks, there has been a grim sense of impending dread as the final drop has been drained from each milk bottle, or the last egg removed from each box.  I’ve gone to extreme lengths to try to eke out the capacity of my already-almost-full bin. My ageing grandparents, upon calling for a coffee, found themselves leaving, bemused, with a carrier of cardboard to add to their bin. Collecting the children from my parents’ care after work one day, I sneaked a bag of milk and lemonade bottles into their bin, casually abandoning the empty bag in the garage on the way in, to avoid detection (sorry Mum and Dad, if you’re reading this).

The night before recycling collection day was at last imminent, I had a tangible sense of relief. We had made it. I was mentally picturing the pleasure and relief of opening the bin lid, post collection, throwing in a bottle and hearing the pleasing thud as it hit the bottom of the empty bin (perhaps I need to get out more). Then the news came. The ‘Beast from the East’ had had its fill of cars on motorways and had now consumed a fleet of bin lorries. The collection was postponed. As I write this I am eyeing up my neighbours’ bins, wondering if I could sneak in some toilet rolls, under cover of darkness…

As I’ve spent the last two weeks thinking about recycling bins and clutter far more then I would in the average fortnight, it got me thinking and making links with what goes on in my mind when there is too much clutter and not enough space (we blog writers have to get our inspiration from somewhere). It struck me that, with busy chaotic lives, our minds can become like my recycling bin, full to bursting with no room to cram in another single thought. When trauma strikes, or difficulties arise we can feel the same anxiety I felt with the ever-increasing pile of recycling to fit into an ever-decreasing space. 

For me, cathartic writing is crucial to clearing out the junk and having space to think clearly again. If I find myself battling with thoughts that threaten to overwhelm, the simple act of putting pen to paper can have a hugely therapeutic effect. Letting it all pour out in any format or order, putting aside all thoughts about the standard of my writing, allows my mind to ‘clear the clutter’ and leaves room to start filling it afresh with the metaphorical discarded milk cartons and egg boxes my journey through life inevitably produces.

I have done this a few times, of late.  In a week where I was feeling less than enough I poured out my frustrations and fears onto paper and noticed, as I did, my mindset beginning to shift to a more positive place. More recently, as thoughts of my sister’s death and the last twelve months began to suffocate, I put aside some time to get it all out, get it all down. Though I can’t say it entirely stopped the thoughts ricocheting around in my head, it certainly slowed them a little, softened the thud of each bounce they made off the walls of my mind. 

David, in the Psalms, gives us a model for our cathartic writing: “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Saviour and my God,” (Psalm 43 v 5). As he vents his frustrations, he moves from despair to hope, setting his wandering mind back on the God he knows he can trust with his life, in the valleys as well as the mountaintops, the dark as well as the light. 

If you have never tried cathartic writing, I encourage you to dust off your journal and give it a go; hope and healing could await you on the other side.

Georgina Tennant is a secondary school English teacher in a Norfolk Comprehensive.  She is married, with two sons, aged 9 and 7 who keep her exceptionally busy. She feels intimidated by having to provide an author-biography, when her writing only extends, currently, to attempting to blog, writing the ‘Thought for the Week’ for the local paper occasionally, and having a poem published in a book from a National Poetry Competition. She feels a bit more like a real author now the ACW Lent Book is out and she has a piece in it! Her musings about life can be found on her blog:

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Holding fast to your call by Claire Musters

I recently had a decision to make: I was involved in a freelance job I loved, but then the parameters changed – the role I had been doing was no longer going to be available. The choice was: do I apply for the full-time position being offered, or stick to saying that I can only do part-time – even if it takes me out of the running?

Well my heart was saying two different things to me (very annoying when that happens!): I kept trying to work out how I could do a full-time position and still fulfil the other writing work I’ve already said yes to. But I also had a stirring inside that reminded me I feel called to be involved in the other things I do. I didn’t feel I could give them up and ultimately decided that they are part of God’s call on my life.

I therefore applied for the position, but indicated I could only do part-time. I got through to the second interview stage – but then felt I’d done a really bad job of it.

Responding to the outcome

I recently found out that I didn’t get the full-time position: I was told by both people who interviewed me that they could see the other things I’m passionate about, and wouldn’t want to ask me to give them up. My interview answers had actually given them some other ideas of how I could be involved with the company. All of a sudden I was offered some exciting new possibilities (as well as some ongoing involvement with what I had already been doing).

I came away really grateful to God – He had opened the original door in the first place. I had said no (three times) but then felt prompted by Him – and my daughter – to walk through it. But now He wasn’t just closing it – He was opening up some other opportunities that I could see embraced some of the calling on my life that I’m most passionate about. I don’t know all the details yet, but I can see that God’s hand is on my life and so it is a time to simply trust Him with those (hard for someone who likes to know what they are doing!)

Don’t get me wrong – I have also had moments in which I’ve felt I’m grieving a loss. I interviewed Kay Warren recently and actually the comment she made that resonated most with me at the time (but I had no idea how relevant it would become) was about the seasons of life. She described a period in her life when she was doing something she loved – and then right at the height of her involvement in it God asked her to lay it down. She knew it was the right thing to do – but it was painful at the time.

Keep focused

Why have I told you all this? Even though I’ve read Lynda’s piece from yesterday, which has a similar theme? Because I think as writers we need to remind ourselves regularly to stick to our calling – even when it calls for hard decisions, and letting things go (thanks Lynda for your blogs – and your brave decision). We may be swayed by seeing other authors writing on different subjects to us; if we see them being successful perhaps we consider a change of genre. But if you are doing what you do because you feel a stirring from God to do so, can I encourage you to keep focused on that – and keep going!

Claire is a freelance writer, speaker and editor, mum to two gorgeous children, pastor’s wife, worship leader and school governor. She is currently Premier Christianity magazine’s freelance news and features journalist. Claire’s desire is to help others draw closer to God through her writing, which focuses on authenticity, marriage, parenting, worship, discipleship, issues facing women today etc. Her books include Taking off the mask: daring to be the person God created you to be and Cover to Cover: 1–3 John Walking in the truth, Insight Into Managing Conflict, Insight Into Self-acceptance and Insight Into Burnout. She also writes Bible study notes. To find out more about her, please visit and @CMusters on Twitter.

Friday, 16 March 2018

Do few Lynda Alsford
I was fortunate enough to go on retreat to Penhurst Retreat Centre at the weekend. I love Penhurst. The first time I visited this wonderful retreat centre was for a writing weekend with ACW. I fell in love with the place straight away. 

Last weekend I felt at home there straight away. The whole weekend was fantastic but I think for me the  highlight was coming away knowing that God has spoken to me. I have been feeling really exhausted recently, even needing to take time off sick and spending half my annual leave too ill to leave the house. I  desperately wanted to hear from my heavenly Father.  

Throughout the weekend we were using the Northumbrian Community's Daily Office. What impacted me most were the words of the the meditation for day 10 of the month, which we heard on Saturday morning.  The words that impacted me most were,
If you want your dream to be 

Take your time, go slowly
Do few things but do them well 
I was so struck by these words, especially the words, 'do few things but do them well'. It was a beam of illumination from the Lord straight to my heart. I knew he was telling me I was doing too much and I needed to cut down on what I am doing. The problem I have now is trying to discern what I need to give up. How do I narrow what I am doing down to just a few things? I have been so busy I have had little time for writing. But I know God has called me to it. 

Real log fire at Penhurst
With this in mind, I need to be more discerning in my writing. I am trying to do a number of different projects all at once and not doing any of them well. I am trying to do too many projects at once. However, I haven't yet decided what to put to one side and what to concentrate on.

But also I think I need to be more discerning how I write. By that I mean I think I need to plan time to write. I work full time and also have church and other commitments so time for writing is not easy to come by. I need to plan it into my week. Perhaps writing a little bit well, when I can would be better than being overwhelmed by how much there is to do in a project and ending up doing nothing.  

Am I the only one who struggles to decide which project I should be working on? Or struggles with a structured plan for writing?

With these thoughts in mind, I have made the hard decision that I am unable to continue contributing to the ACW blog and this post will be my last one. I have loved writing this blog but need now to concentrate on my own blog. 

PS: As I searched online for the words quoted above I discovered they are actually a song by Donovan, which, in my haste to copy down the words at the retreat I hadn't noted at the time. If you want to listen to the song, here is the link to a YouTube video of it. 

Lynda Alsford is a sea loving, cat loving GP administrator and writes in her spare time. She has written two books, He Never Let Go describes her journey through a major crisis of faith whilst working as an evangelist at a lively Church in West London. Being Known describes how God set her free from food addiction. Both books are available in paperback and on kindle on  and She writes a newsletter  and a blog both called Seeking the Healer, in which she shares the spiritual insights she has gained on her journey. Find about about these from You can also find out more about Lynda at

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Thoughts on being a pioneer 14th March 2018 by Susanne Irving

During Brian Draper’s Lent study, we received the task to find a “path that is a bit different”.
I decided to walk down a path on our local heath that I had always wanted to explore but had never bothered to - from what I saw it would end nowhere...

It was obvious that the path wasn’t used. There were thorny branches to climb over. The path went down a short but steep slope; I was looking for a branch to hold on to as the ground was slippery – but all branches I could see were covered in thorns.

I gingerly held a branch between a thumb and forefinger. The branch snapped under my weight, but luckily, I had reached the bottom of the slope by then. A few more steps - and I ended up in a cul-de-sac.

I could see the heath and houses on my left, so civilization was technically close. However, in practice, they might as well have been on a different planet.

The brambles made it clear that there was no way through. Discouraged, I retraced my steps, scrambling back up the slope. I felt I had wasted time and effort.

Before I joined the main path, I saw another potential path. It also did not look very promising, but I was in explorer mode.

This time the ground was boggy and waterlogged in places. Discarded cans indicated that someone else had been this way before.

I had to think carefully about where to place my feet. I could not afford to wander off in my mind, plotting and planning what I would do when I got home. I had to stay in the here and now.

At least there were less thorns to worry about –until I reached the end of the bog. I ended up in the thicket once again. I did not fancy retracing my steps along the water’s edge, but decided to find a way through to the heath.

I had to make my own path, which unfolded one step at a time. I zigzagged my way through, gingerly lifting thorny branches so that I could duck under them, occasionally breaking off a branch to make the walk less perilous, often stopping and studying my environment, planning my next step: Would it be easier to carefully duck under the branches on my right or climb over those roots on the left? Would what looked easier now get me into trouble a few steps down the line? There were those pesky thorns to consider wherever I turned. 

Eventually, I made it back out into the open. When I looked back, there was no visible path. I will never be able to retrace my steps, but had the satisfaction of seeing a familiar environment from a new perspective.

It reminded me of the experience of writing our book. I was advised by a published author to focus on my story but wanted to include my husband’s perspective. I was keen for him to have his own voice, even though he had never written before. 

I came up with the plan that we would each write a chapter every month independently of each other, and when I had all the material, I would figure out how our experiences could be interwoven. It took much longer than I had ever imagined to gather all the material, but what joy to discover moments when we had written about the same event from completely different viewpoints! The general feedback to date has been that it was worth stepping off a more traditional story telling path and that our two voices have added depth to the story.

Leaving a familiar, well-trodden path is hard work. It requires patience, presence, perseverance and courage. There is no guarantee of success. There is a possibility of failure – but also the possibility of new discoveries. 

About the author: Susanne Irving is the co-ordinator for the Creative Communicators in Petersfield. She has co-written a book with her husband John about their experiences when climbing Kilimanjaro. It is aimed at both trekkers and those who are going through a dark time in their lives. How to conquer a mountain: Kilimanjaro lessons is available as a paperback and an e-book on Amazon, with all proceeds going to charity. The German translation Wie man einen Berg bezwingt: Was der Kilimanjaro uns gelehrt hat was published in June 2017.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

ACW Writers' Day, 10 March, in Derby... And a New Competition

by Rosemary Johnson

  • How would you pitch an article to an editor, in such a way that he/she could not resist taking it? 
  • Could you sum up your article in a sentence?  A paragraph?  Two paragraphs?
  • What would you be expected to include in your article?  Who? What? Where? When?
  • What do you know about the inverted pyramid?
  • Could you write a headline?
  • How would you carry out an interview?
We were very lucky to have speaking to us, at the ACW Writers’ Day in Derby last Saturday (10 March), Sam Hailes, editor of Premier Christianity magazine, and Claire Musters, a regular contributor Premier Christianity and to many other Christian publications.  Many of us think of ourselves as fiction writers, and struggle when required to tackle non-fiction, but the reality is that all writers need to turn their hand to writing press pieces at some time, even if only to raise their profile, or to promote their books.  

Sam and Claire talked to us about structure of press articles and pitching, use of images and quotes.  Quotes should always be included – you will note that I have done so in this blog post.  They discussed research and the need to get names right.  I admit that I checked, and double-checked, the spelling of Claire’s name – with an ‘I’.  Very few writers can rattle off an article just like that.  Editing has to be carried out repeatedly and will take a long time and a lot of effort.  All journalists must be prepared to cut, ruthlessly, even if what we’ve written is beautiful, meaningful and informative.  As Claire said, we should ask ourselves, ‘How can we provoke a deep response from the reader?’ 

We were also given the chance to write a pitch for an article for Premier Christianity - in the space of just fifteen minutes.  Oh, Sam and Claire, I can’t write so fast!  Thinking up an idea within that time slot was bad enough.  Those who wrote the most interesting pitches will be invited to write them up as articles for the magazine.  Later, we interviewed a colleague and were interviewed ourselves.  To my surprise, because I’m not good at the talking stuff, this came much easier.  I recalled what Sam had said earlier, that, ‘The listener wants to hear about the person being interviewed, not about the interviewer’.  Many celebrities forget this. 

The big event for me last Saturday (seeing as I'm ACW Competitions Manager) was the launch of our next ACW competition, this time for journalism.  A thousand-word article, please, on a topic which is current at the time you are writing.  The deadline isn’t until 31 August 2018, so we expect many different topics.  More information is available in Christian Writer and on the ACW Website.  The first and second-placed winners will receive book tokens (£25 and £10) and the winning entry will be published in the ACW journal, Christian Writer (circulation about 700).  However, as there can only be one winner, we ask entrants, on the cover sheet (to be downloaded from the website) to state where they would pitch their entry. 

Thank you, Sam and Claire, for a very interesting day.

Rosemary Johnson has had many short stories published, in print and online, amongst other places, The Copperfield Review, Circa and Every Day Fiction.  In real life, she is a part-time IT tutor, living in Suffolk with her husband and cat.  Her cat supports her writing by sitting on her keyboard and deleting large portions of text.

Monday, 12 March 2018

What can a writer learn from being part of a church?

Part 1 How the unreasonable people in my church (including me) helped me to be a better writer.
The church, like the world, contains a strange mix of people. Some of them are agreeable and some are not, some are damaged slightly, some carry their burdens for all to see. Each of us lives with and is ourselves one of these people, and the lessons we learn from our lives together as Christians are the lessons we can learn for our writing.
For the next three months, I’ll be exploring how our lives within the community of the church can inform us as writers. In the first of three blogs, I’ll be looking at what we can learn from being in relationship with other people in the church.

Though we are many…

I live in Cambridge. It’s a nice, middle-class liberal town. It’s full of civilised, liberal, EU-Remainer, people. The churches have a good complement of such people in them. Recently some of my Remainer brethren discovered I was not, like them, a Remainer. In fact, I want us to leave the EU, I’m a Brexiter (Brexiteer?). This has left some of my brothers and sisters confused, they thought I was, in this sense, one of them, a decent sort, they have had to fit this unexpected piece of information into their view of me.
I am absolutely sure that in other parts of the country, in other church communities, the opposite has happened. In a congregation with a lot of Brexiteers, a Remainer has broken cover. He or she is just as convicted as anyone else of their convictions, and their Remainer beliefs are as much of a surprise to their Brexit brothers and sisters as my Brexit tendencies might be to my Remainer friends.
To muddy the waters further, there are people I’ve known in church who I am sure, if they had been left to deal with a particular issue, would have dealt with it the wrong way. If something had required tact they’d have blundered straight in, if something had required direct truth, they’d have skirted around the issues. These people are equally sure, and with at least as much justification, that if I’d had to deal with the issue, I’d have made a mess of it as well.
So it goes with the body of Christ, imperfect sinners, all of us. What are we to do?

…we are one body
For a start, we are required to love our neighbour as ourselves. This challenge requires us to do some hard thinking and brave living. We can’t really check out of dealing with and bearing with each other. The differences of ideology and temperament amongst are part of the Divine challenge. God wants to stretch us, he wants ‘iron to sharpen iron’ through our interactions with each other, that’s community.
As we explore this issue we realise that loving our neighbour isn’t a single act that we can do and tick off the list. Rather, it’s an ongoing, dynamic process. It’s a part of our formation within the Kingdom of God.
So what can we learn from all of this as writers?
The good lessons of life are good lessons for the writer. We learn that there are different ways to live a life of integrity across the spectrum of beliefs and temperament. We begin to understand our community.
This gives us an invaluable lesson in creating characters for our stories. We learn how to create a wide range of characters with honesty and integrity. They will have a rich and authentic basis and will play their part in enhancing the quality of our stories.
Furthermore, if we have taken the injunction to love our neighbour seriously, we’ve learnt some serious things about how people interact with each other, this can inform the character interactions in our work.
Finally, by learning how to reconcile with others, sometimes through struggle, we learn how to present discord and reconciliation authentically in our work.

Andrew Chamberlain is a writer and creative writing tutor. He is the presenter of The Creative Writer’s Toolbelt podcast and author of The Creative Writer’s Toolbelt Handbook containing the best advice and insight from 100 episodes of the podcast, and which was published in October 2017.