On Treatment and Being Crabby

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Originally posted on The Red Wine Box:
? ? Treatment sounds good, doesn’t it? Something is happening. Something is being done. And it includes the word ‘treat’ which sounds like pedicures and nice massages, prosecco and chocolate truffles. But cancer…

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Pay Attention!

How much help do we get from other writers? And from writing retreats? I’ve just been to a writing weekend organised by the Association of Christian Writers, at Scargill House in the Yorkshire Dales. Friendly, welcoming, a beautiful location, I recommend it. We had meals, we laughed, we wrote things together, we made new friends.

One of the leaders, Nick Page, gave us a couple of exercises to do. He was talking about the qualities needed to be a writer: imagination, courage, honesty and so on, but said that one of the most important was one of the rarest – attention. To attend to the world, to others, to the tiniest detail, to the overheard conversation, to the expression on someone’s face. The greatest compliment you can pay someone – or something – is to pay attention to them.

This is the first exercise. Do try it.

Go into the garden, or round the house, collect a few bits and pieces:  leaves, snail shells, pebbles, paperweights, jam jars, ornaments, spoons, radishes, coins:  big things, small things, complicated or simple.

Then choose one item, grab a pencil and a piece of paper and spend ten minutes really looking at the item and drawing it – in all its detail and individuality.  Don’t show the drawing to anyone (unless you want to!) The idea is to pay attention to something and to really, clearly see what it is like, not to create a ‘good’ drawing.  If you are in a group, you could discuss what you found out, how you felt, what the object was like.

This is the second exercise.

Firstly, give yourself a suitable name, something vaguely epic, e.g. Gerald the Durable, Felicity the Persistent, Jonathon the Crumpled.  You have ten minutes (or more if you require) to go on a journey:  to get up, walk somewhere, even if just to the next room, and notice something or find something out. Then spend ten to fifteen minutes writing your epic journey:  where you went, what you discovered.  And, if you want, discuss what you wrote.

These would work well in a group with other writers, but you’d need space.  I hope you try them and enjoy them.

The other things that Scargill gave me:  encouraging talks from Adrian and Bridget Plass,  a small pile of new Christian fiction to read, a few ideas to improve the novel, the memory of swifts screaming round the house at sunset, quiet times in beautiful scenery, fascinating discussions with other writers, and community. There are some lovely people in the world.

This is a picture of the chapel at Scargill:-

scargill chapel

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Shared blog post: What it feels like to finish writing a novel

Fascinating and encouraging blog by Olivia Mohtady on writing:


What it feels like to finish writing a novel





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Vicarious Thrills

If you are looking for thrillers with a conscience, which would be appreciated by an average Christian man, I recommend ‘Benefit of the Doubt’ and ‘All that Glitters’ by Les Cowan. I’ve just read them, and rattled through them, as has hubby.

They are thrillers, set in Spain and Edinburgh, in the present day. In ‘Benefit of the Doubt’ the protagonist is a mourning, weary pastor, David Hidalgo, whose faith has taken a brutal battering and has run away from Spain back to his home town of Edinburgh after tragedy and failure. Despite his doubts, he is trying to carry on God’s work, trudging on with sermon preparations and teaching Spanish. Then, just as he meets a woman who might restore some hope in life, a young girl disappears and the evil from David’s past re-emerges and has to be faced again.

It’s not an ‘all action adventure’:  there is sufficient reflection and thoughtfulness, even romance, for someone who appreciates stories about relationships and theology and faith. But it does have a good serving of excitement, conflict and danger, with gun-shots, attempted murders and dramatic escapes thrown in as well.  It has a great sense of place and settings; both Edinburgh and Spain; and strong, compelling characters. I loved the ‘Soup Dragon’ lady, as well as the formidable Scottish Mrs MacInnes. And, given that I am currently trying to learn Spanish, I appreciated the occasional Spanish phrases, with their subtly-inserted translations!

Recommended if you like the excitement of Frank Peretti but don’t like his theology or his certainty, and don’t care for obvious angels and demons. Read Les Cowan if you prefer your drama to be mixed with good-old-fashioned English doubtfulness and thoughtfulness, and you love the idea of plodding visionaries, soldiering on through it all despite all their doubts, fears and failures.

‘All that Glitters’ is a sequel. Equally good, but with dark themes:  human slavery, trafficking and corruption.

les cowan



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The Most Disappointed of Men

The shepherds… They stared open-mouthed at the sight of angels high above them, they heard unearthly, beautiful voices proclaiming ‘peace on earth, good news to all men’, they gasped at the opened heavens above them pouring down glory and starlight. They ran, filled with hope, hardly daring to believe that God would finally liberate them from oppression, soldiers, violence, poverty, pain, fear. They saw a baby and knew that it was true.

And then what? Within a few months, two years at the month, they saw soldiers kill little children. The shepherds were from Bethlehem. They would have known the families who lost their babies, some of them almost certainly lost their own children or nephews or nieces. The harrowing grief that traumatised them and their village can barely be imagined. We see hints of it in the news of school shootings in America, when every person in a town is affected by the violence, the shock and the loss.

The shepherds may have thought that Jesus, that fragile bundled hope, had escaped, but given that Joseph and Mary would have fled in secret, probably they did not. As far as they knew, the swaddled baby in a manger was – dead? A mistake? Had the angels lied? Had the shepherds imagined it? Had God’s plans been defeated by Herod?

Even if they had kept hope alive, telling themselves that since Joseph and Mary had gone, the baby might have survived, what happened next? They would have waited – for years, for decades. Jesus was in his early thirties when his public ministry began. Given the average life-expectancy was in the low forties, and the shepherds would have been at least thirteen, probably older, most of them would have never seen the fulfilment of that strange, obscure, tiny hope.  Perhaps one or two did… But it is sad, incredibly sad, to think that they had that huge vision followed by nothing. Nothing changed, and that they probably died in utter utter disappointment, never knowing or seeing what God was doing to fulfil his promise.

But from this depressing realisation, as well as sympathy for those shepherds, I take a tiny hope:  so much of life, especially Christian life, is disappointment. We hear promises from God, we ‘do the stuff’ and then nothing seems to change. We feel almost as disappointed as the shepherds did. But we do not hear the end of the story.  Even death is not the end.

the shepherds

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A Good Christmas Present: The Advent Calendar by Paula Harmon

Twenty-five short stories, one for each day of the Advent Calendar, inspired by the sort of pictures seen behind the windows in old-fashioned Advent Calendars. Not a chocolate in sight!  Instead, you get angels, Martians, zombies, dragons, ‘Elf and Safety’, donkeys, the office Christmas party, families, nativity plays – and murder!  Engaging stories, well told, and with probably more food for thought in them than in many Christmas devotionals.

With so many stories, even if there is one that doesn’t ‘work for you’ there’s bound to be others that do. Some funny, some intruiging, some witty, some sinister.  There were many snippets/tales that I particularly enjoyed:  ‘Stocking’, ‘Christmas Pudding’, ‘Bethlehem’, the Viking wife intending to give her husband a chain-mail mankini. Several stories moved me to tears.

I’d recommend this as a present for someone who likes short stories and likes Christmas. Paula Harmon is an accomplished writer, with several published books and a blog at: https://paulaharmondownes.wordpress.com/

Have a quick read of her ‘Rooftop Dragon’ flash fiction story:


The Advent Calendar

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More on Science Fiction

Following on from the previous blog:  what do you think science fiction is? Looking at possible futures, and how changes in science and technology will affect humans,  looking at possible other worlds with different scientific advances? I like the term from Pamela Sargen: “Science Fiction: The Literature of Ideas.”

However you define it, can I recommend a new collection of short stories: The Corona Collection of Science Fiction Stories.  Confession time:  I have one story in this, and it is one that I very much enjoyed writing. However, I highly recommend another story in this collection:  The Constellationist, by Sarah Menary. ( This is the link to her blog:  https://sjmenary.wordpress.com/ ) It’s got lovely characters, a neat setup and is very jolly! (If science fiction can be jolly….)

When I got my author copy (with a shiver of excitement and pride…) I was interested to see how many of the stories were about imagined or dystopian human futures, and how few dealt with aliens or other worlds. Out of 16 stories, only 4 had aliens, the rest are human futurology. On the whole, the stories are more concepts and warnings than jollifications. But if you are a science fiction addict, I think you will appreciate the possible futures explored in this book.

The book is available on Amazon: Corana Book of Science Fiction

corona book of science fiction

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Science Fiction by C. S. Lewis

What do you think that Science Fiction should do?  Should it give you a flavour of strange worlds, warn you of possible futures or be a fantastic setting for exciting and risky adventures? Is it about the future on earth, about space travel to distant planets or about completely ‘other’ civilisations and ways of existence? Dune, Star Trek or Hunger Games?

I used to read a lot of Science Fiction, when I was a teenager. There aren’t many that I can remember now, but the ‘Cosmic Trilogy’ by C. S. Lewis has stayed in my memory:  the images, the plots, the characters but most of all the overwhelming, coherent and glorious beauty of the worlds that he imagined.

The books are Christian in theme. They are about temptation, the rise of evil, the misuse of power, and in places they rise to awe-filled, numinous spirituality. However, I’m not going to give a full review of the three books. Instead I will talk about the images that have stayed with me for many many years, ever since I first read them. So, there are some plot spoilers!

Perelandra:  this is the second in the trilogy but the first one I read. Venus: the colours, the scents, the turbulent floating islands on wild and dangerous seas, the bubble trees, the innocence.  And then the creepy ‘Un-man’ with his long metallic nails, his cruelty, and the ominous battle of minds between him and the piebald man. The moment when the hero sees a terrifying, nauseating insect-like creature as it really is – simply another animal, different to him but not a horror.

Out of the Silent Planet:  the first in the trilogy. Traditional sci-fi:  men visit Mars and find strange creatures, other civilisations, canyons and mountains, clouds made of stone like gigantic pink cauliflowers. The tall feathery sorns, the gentle hrossi, the frog-like but creative pfifltriggi and the battle between the good man and the evil invaders with guns who are there to exploit and kill.

That Hideous Strength: the final one. Set on earth, and staring a decapitated but alive criminal’s head, Mr Bultitude the bear, Merlin, a wife called Jane (irritatingly, she is intelligent but is idle – a 1950s housewife, but you have to remember when it was written) and a foolish young man who is seduced into joining an ‘inner circle’ at a college and drawn into a very dark and demonic plot. This book is my favourite. The funny but at the same time disturbing scene at the meal when the gift of speech is withdrawn and sentences are corrupted into babel. The young man who realises, when lured by the crooked and perverse, that there is such a thing as straightness, as normality, as truth. The robing of the women at the end: the hint that there is, perhaps, somewhere, for us, the court dress that is made for each one of us, which is ours alone, made to show our glory.

Read ‘Perelandra’ if you love beauty.  Read ‘Out of the Silent Planet’ if you love adventure. Read ‘That Hideous Strength’ if you love the battle between good and evil.


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How many people have you killed?

At the last count I have murdered at least 19 people. By the end of the year I hope to have got rid of a few more.  In addition I have countenanced – even encouraged – imprisonment, torture, rape, and an infinite living entombment for a young girl. This is the author as a serial killer…

Of course, that is one of the problems with writing fantasy. There will be battles, conflict, death. It might be that this shows an unhealthy and morbid obsession with violence. However, at least I’m not as bad as Game of Thrones. According to the internet the body count for Season 6 is 540.  Five hundred and forty! I can’t believe they are all named characters. No-one can possibly think of that many names….

But at least the deaths in my fiction are meaningful.  They are necessary to the plot and are either well-deserved, or some good comes out of them. Worse, by a million miles, are the deaths in real-life that are meaningless. The father with cancer that is missed by a doctor, the cyclist run over, the child dying because of some trivial household accident. These are harder to deal with.

Even worse is to realise that I cause some of these meaningless deaths. When I reduce my donations to Oxfam someone will die. When I decide to buy a new dress rather than a mosquito net someone will die. When I ignore the ActionAid ‘click-bait’ on facebook someone will die. When I eat steak every month someone will die. I cause death – for real – by the consequences of my actions, and by money spent or not spent.  So I am a killer… As we all are. All we can do is think about what we give and spend, try to help more people than we hurt, and pray to be forgiven.

And I’ll finish with a quote, though I’m not sure where it came from: “Live simply. Love generously. Care deeply. Speak kindly. And leave the rest to God.”

cathy as serial killer


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St. Paul: maligned but marvellous

Review of ‘Paul:  A Biography’ by Tom Wright.

This is not strictly Christian Fiction, since it is a biography. But the book is so good, I want to tell everyone about it!

Paul, it seems to me, gets a bad press. Pernickety people focus on single verses, taken out of context and don’t see the whole man. He wrote the first statement of complete equality in all – all! – world literature: Galatians 3:28: There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

When we work for justice, when we get free education, a free health service, when we aim for equality of opportunity, when charities fight for help for the poor and disadvantaged:  that is Paul’s legacy to us. A legacy of an immense love.

This biography is a fascinating and emotional read of the life of a complex, unique and amazing man. Don’t be put off by the severity of the cover image! Or the cost or number of pages. Hopefully a paperback version will come out soon.

It gives moving and honest insights into Paul: what drove him, what his legacy is, why he succeeded, where his faith and energy came from. It made me admire and love Paul. I had already read, many times, his letters and Acts, and Philippians – with its constant refrain of ‘joy’ – is one of my favourite books in the Bible.  But this book expanded my knowledge and my desire to read more.

It’s worth a second reading. I read it quickly, but I will read in again in depth, looking at the relevant Acts chapters and letters in parallel, to take it in.



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