Lessons Learned on a Solo Writing Retreat

I’ve just returned from a week by the sea. I planned the trip for ages and in the run up to it I often lay awake, heart racing with gleeful anticipation. I had run retreats for other writers before, in St Ives and Oxford, where my focus had been on enabling attendees to access their creative energy and get productive.

This one, though, was all about me. Which made me feel a little guilty. I’m a woman, a mother, a mentor to other writers. I’ve run my literary consultancy for a decade now and before that I was a teacher. I’m a little out of the habit of putting my writing first!

I arrived late on the Saturday evening. I couldn’t get into the rental property at first, which is a whole other story! On Sunday morning, I laid out my papers, notes and laptop. I thought about the six precious days ahead and how this book, already more than half-written, was going to make giant strides forward.

Then, quite simply, I panicked.

So here, at the other end of that precious week, are some lessons I’d like to share with you to help you if you’re considering going away to write: they’ll also remind me when I go on my next solo retreat – and yes, there will definitely be a next one!

1                     If life has got in the way and you haven’t been working on your book for a few weeks or months you can’t expect it to jump and greet you like an old friend the minute you decide to pay it some attention. It’s going to be like my sister’s cat: whenever she’d been on holiday, on her return, instead of rushing to be petted, it would turn its back on her. It would have to be coaxed round. So it is with your abandoned masterpiece. You’re going to have to sweet-talk it. You’re going to have to give it time to thaw out towards you.

2                     Which leads to the next problem. You don’t have all that much time. You don’t feel you can wait for it to warm up naturally, so you try to force the issue. You open up Scrivener. You reread some older bits, dismayed because they feel as if someone else entirely wrote them. You can’t remember what your fine intentions were. You’re all at sea. The panic grows and with it, the paralysis. You go out for a walk, hoping that will help. It doesn’t. Force is not flow. Thus endeth Day 1. Only 5 to go.

3                     You stay indoors the next day. You think that relentless application of the seat of the pants to the chair will help. It doesn’t. You read inspirational work connected to your topic. At first, all that does is spark envy and a sense of inferiority. What were you thinking – that you could contribute an individual vision to this overcrowded subject?

4                     You picked one of the loveliest places in the world for your retreat. You start to think that may have been a Very Bad Idea. You leave the laptop and sit in a chair by the window, watching the light change ceaselessly. The weather is mostly bad. But you see a rainbow plunge its arc into the bay in front of you. You are seduced by beauty. It is a distraction. You might as well have paid for this week as a holiday and let yourself enjoy it as such.

5                     On Day 3 you see another rainbow (you see 10 by the end of the week – is that a sign?). You take more notes from that inspirational book. You start grabbing at post-it notes and jotting down ideas and phrases. Some of those ideas seem to reach out to others, like those films you see of neurons sending little tendrils out at the synapses within the brain. That evening, for the first time, the spirit moves you to write. You write nearly 2000 words in one fell swoop. An immense relief floods you. An immense weight drops away.

6                     On each of the days that are left you write 4000 words. You know other writers would write more. You don’t care. Those words, damned in your brain, have suddenly started flowing and you are in an altered state of consciousness. You don’t edit, you don’t reread, you don’t think too hard – you just let them rise.

7                     You realise that next time you won’t book a week. You will book 10 days or more. You will factor in that you need to depressurise before you can begin to let things flow. Writing is not a switch you flick at will. When you care about it the way you do this book, you must let it rise like the water in a well, slow, silent, inexorable, until it reaches the brink and spills.

8                     You learn that the beauty of the place was not a distraction. It was part of a meditation. It was part of a mental state. You needed it and you will again.

9                     You learn that a balance of intense burst of writing with going for a walk (even if your ears are falling off with the cold) or simply sitting, watching the waves and hearing their rhythm, has worked for you. What’s more it has restored something in you.

10                 On the train home, still writing, you look up and see that 10th rainbow. A gift.

Now I am back home, the next task is not to let the magic evaporate. I still have part of the book to write and life will inevitably get in the way. But I will make steady forward progress, heading for publication in early spring. If you want to hear how I get on and later read special advance excerpts, for this is a book I am writing to help other writers, you can sign up at www.unputdownablewriter.com. And if you want to keep helping me make this book as relevant as possible, please do take my quick anonymous survey: https://forms.gle/rSxHNhMuduvERJdPA

Paying tribute to Barbara Large

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Many years ago, I arrived in the beautiful and ancient city of Winchester, carrying a novel I had nearly completed. I was wrestling with guilt because for the first time, I had left my two young children with their father, so that I could have a couple of days to myself. I had set off on a bold adventure: I was attending what was then known as the Winchester Writers’ Conference, an annual event attended by hundreds of writers from all over the world. 

Shortly after my arrival, a slender dark-haired woman with a Canadian accent came to chat with me. Back in the days when there was scarcely any internet and certainly no Facebook groups for writers, we were used to working in isolation. I had come seeking information but more than that, I was looking for connection. I didn’t really understand at the time just how significant those connections were going to be and that meeting Barbara Large MBE, the conference’s founder and Director, was going to change my life.  

Barbara, who died in March of this year, was an extraordinary person. Her will and energy were phenomenal. I was always in awe of her dedication and her genuine concern that no writer should feel alone or adrift in the literary world. She welcomed and encouraged every single delegate and she celebrated the success of conference attendees with as much pleasure as if that success was her own. Even when she retired in 2013 after 34 years of presiding over the conference, she kept on reaching out to writers and running her own Creative Words Matter courses, with the help of Adrienne Dines and Sarah Mussi. At last year’s conference she was physically frail but her will undaunted, her joy undimmed. Her indomitable spirit was still an example to us all. 

Barbara’s favourite expression, when she made her annual welcoming address and when she drew each conference to its close, was to call us her ‘family of writers’. She listened, sympathised, and encouraged. She drew us together, establishing connections both personal and professional. 

When I was at last a published author, I started a whole new relationship with Barbara. She first invited me to give a talk at the conference and then to run workshops and give one-to-ones. Winchester became an annual feature in my working calendar. I ran some weekend workshops for her in Shawford at other times of the year. Barbara opened up a whole new career for me as a creative writing teacher and editor, culminating in my setting up Fictionfire Literary Consultancy ten years ago. 

Over the more than two decades I have been attending what is now the Winchester Writers’ Festival I have made friends with so many fellow writers – a couple of whom I met that very first year. It all comes down to that first tentative visit, where Barbara made me welcome and made me feel seen and understood. 

This year’s Winchester Writers’ Festival starts on the 14th June and you have until the 10th to book your place. I won’t be teaching there this year but I will be raising a glass to Barbara and all she stood for: an unselfish commitment to sharing knowledge and experience, a dedication to being an encouraging voice, cheerleader and guide. I’ll be sending my good wishes to everyone there this year.

We writers are far less alone than we used to be, thanks to the internet. We know more about the world of publishing than we used to do. We are able to self-publish in a way we couldn’t before. We can research agents, attend events online and offline. We are connected. 

But still in the wee small hours we may be full of doubt about the value of our work. We may feel alone with those doubts and wonder if we will ever be able to complete that book or find a publisher. 

Barbara would say to you: ‘Yes, you can! You’re not alone! You are part of the wonderful family of writers – welcome!’ And she’d go on to regale you with the famous anecdotes of the delegate lost in the nearby cemetery and the pink nightdress on the bed of one male delegate’s room … 

I hope that in your writing life you find true guides and cheerleaders. Seize every opportunity to attend events where you may meet them – you never know where it may lead!


You can read some of my blogposts about the conference on Literascribe, my previous blog. Just follow the tags in the sidebar - Winchester Writers’ Conference and Winchester Writers’ Festival.

I will be teaching on Oxford University’s OUSSA summer school programme and the Creative Writing Summer School at Exeter College as usual this year.

I’m also working on my new book, The Unputdownable Writer’s Mindset - visit www.theunputdownablewriter.com to sign up for advance news and sneak peeks ahead of publication in the autumn. 

The Posthumous Adventures of Harry Whittaker: in search of the break-out novel – guest post by Bobbie Darbyshire

The Posthumous Adventures of Harry Whittaker: in search of the break-out novel – guest post by Bobbie Darbyshire

‘The problem is the most interesting character is dead.’ As the words left my mouth — ping! — the light came on in my head. I couldn’t wait to start writing. Turn back the clock a little, though, and I’d felt no such thing.

London Book Fair: seven reasons to be cheerful

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There’s not a lot to celebrate right now in the British political scene, so as I write this post about my visit to last week’s London Book Fair the word that comes to me and comforts me is this: alliance. I could say a whole lot more about politics but I am going to accentuate the positive. The day I spent at Olympia was a positive one in every way. 

Reason 1: Recognition. It was so good to get back to the London Book Fair for the first time in a few years. I first visited in 2012 when my overwhelming feeling about it was of being a stranger in a strange land, no matter that I was a published author. LBF was not, after all, created for authors. It is a trade fair and as such it’s all about publisher promotions, negotiations and deals. As an author (unless you’re a big name and the biggest names are awarded ‘days’ when they are wheeled out to the book trade public), you feel like an invisible cog in a very big wheel that’s capable of turning without you, thank you very much. 

Reason 2: Actually, scrub that last sentence. However small a cog you are, you are integral to the smooth turning of that machine. Every cog connects, with ratchets, pinions and other cogs. Every author is part of creating the book industry. Every author produces the fuel for that industry, through imagination, dedication and productivity. Every author should be recognized and appreciated for his or her contribution to the British economy and the respect shown to creativity in our nation. (Oh dear, am I heading towards the political again?) 

Reason 3: Buzz. It is exciting to enter a hall like a nineteenth century railway station, gaze around at the publishers’ stands and the lines of posters, see the trade names we grew up with, hear the hum of conversation, watch people stride past, mobile phones to ears, wheelie-cases trailing. Self-important and self-satisfied, a lot of it, yes, but still, it’s alive with action and conversation. I find that invigorating. 

Reason 4: Opportunity. Any writer, whether aiming for traditional or independent publication, needs to be informed. You need to tap into how the industry really works. Visiting a book fair helps you understand that industry better, which increases your chances of being able to approach publishers in the right way (not, by the way, by tugging their sleeves at the Fair, without appointment or preparation!) Listening to talks, getting into conversations – who knows where it may all lead? 

Reason 5: Connection. Opportunities come from the connections you make. More than that, true friendship and a sense of community arise when, as I did back in 2012, you meet people in person whom you may have known before in the digital world. Or you are introduced to new contacts. You realize that as a writer you don’t need to be alone. Your challenges are their challenges. Your successes are celebrated. There are shoulders to cry on. There are teams cheering for you. 

Reason 6: The Alliance of Independent Authors. In 2012, what led me to LBF was the amazing Orna Ross, who had just set up ALLi as a non-profit organisation to help writers understand the industry and make their independent mark within it. I have been a member from the start and am in awe not just of Orna, but of all the other ALLi members who have contributed to its growth as a respected powerhouse of information and support. During LBF I hung out with my ALLi friends and there was a fantastic ALLi party afterwards. Fellowship, shared stories, plans for the future, a total sense of vibrancy. Buzz, connection, opportunity. Book love. Writing love.

Reason 7: Optimism. Yes, even in these troubled times! I talked to novelist Alison Morton at the Fair, who said she was optimistic about the book business. Publishing expert Dr Alison Baverstock echoed this, saying, ‘We’re in political crisis, aren’t we, and it seems to me the book business is quite a bright star within that, that we have strong exports and also that in times of political crisis, cheap treats do quite well, so traditionally publishing’s done OK when there is a national crisis. And we all need something to take our minds off the awful B word.’

Keep taking your mind off the political horrors! Keep writing, buying and reading those cheap treats! Maybe I’ll see you at LBF 2020?


Want to know more? ALLi held an inspiring online digital conference last weekend and anyone can listen to the huge range of sessions and presentations until 25th March: follow this link. ALLi members will have lifetime access to it. 

If you’re interested in joining ALLi you can find out more here. If you do want to join, go here ( full disclosure: this is my affiliate link). 

If you’d like to read about my very first visit to LBF go here.

Gallery: First row - with Alison Morton and Debbie Young, the ALLi stand, Dr Alison Baverstock of Kingston University. Second row - Rohan Quine, with Carol Cooper, Dan Holloway and Selfie Prizewinner Jane Davis (see my last blogpost!) Third row - Orna Ross, the ALLi party after the Fair, with Orna.

To Change or not to Change? That is the cover question.

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This week, Alison Morton, author of the successful Roma Nova series of thrillers, discusses the when, why and how of changing your book covers. Given that she and her cover designer, Jessica Bell, have done a damn fine job of it, you’ll be interested to read on!

First of all, apologies to Bill for mangling Hamlet’s lines, but weighing up whether to change covers for an established series does make one ‘draw [one’s] breath in pain.’

Excited in the run-up to the publication in 2013 of INCEPTIO, my first book, I was stunned by the cover that SilverWood Books produced. Here was the embodiment of my book: imperial purple, a gold eagle, symbol of Roman power, yet in a thoroughly modern design. Added to that, the ‘proper’ Roman font – Trajan Pro – as seen on inscriptions still visible across Europe. Brilliant!

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And so it has been for the past five years and eight books. Each book has been published with a different jewel-like cover echoing the contents, but the eagle graphic constantly present, making the Roma Nova brand distinctive.

But times change. People change. Habits and wishes change. When historians write about our age, the one expression to characterise it will be ‘continuous change’.

My book sales have been steady, occasionally spiking. From the comments and reviews written by readers, I gather they enjoy the stories enough to give them hundreds of five stars across the series. But I wanted to introduce Roma Nova to more readers. So I dived into the murky business of marketing, beginning with an analysis.

What did potential new readers expect when they saw my book covers? Did they see adventure thrillers featuring strong heroines, a touch of history and mystery, tales of courage, failure, triumph, heartache and resolve? Hm. Perhaps the eagle image, dark colours and formal Roman script no longer had that elusive ‘pick-me-up’ element. Learning point: Emotion and character needed to be brought in.

Did the existing covers convey action and movement? Certainly, they conveyed strength and purposefulness, but there was no hint of risk, personal danger or taking the initiative. And you can’t say that either of my heroines, Carina or Aurelia, is backward in any of those aspects!
Learning point: Show some dynamism.

People vs. patterns. I rejected a cover with a face in 2013 because I couldn’t see it fitting within the graphic. It would have confused the impact of the eagle. From a five years’ later viewpoint, I still think that was the right decision then. Trying to fit everything together is not a good approach, nor is overcrowding a cover. The whole concept needed a rethink. Learning point: Don’t tinker – start again.

It’s hard-headed, but in marketing terms a book cover needs to tell readers what the book is about and entice them to pick it up – all within a second or two. If the cover isn't compelling enough to make passers-by (real or virtual) look further by reading the summary and reviews, they won’t buy.

Researching this was a hard process; I’m not a trained or professional marketer. However, I have run small businesses and am aware how important marketing is. And these days, more than ever, the impact must be instant.

Taking the decision to change the whole look of the Roma Nova covers was excruciating. But by now I had five solid years of experience in the book world: interacting with readers, absorbing reviews, listening to fellow authors, discovering new techniques and trends. I was also expanding the series, firstly by dropping in a novella (CARINA), then a collection of short stories (ROMA NOVA EXTRA). Currently I’m drafting a novella set in the 1970s featuring Aurelia, set between AURELIA and INSURRECTIO, something that would further mess up the existing numbering order!

A fresh approach was needed, and this was the perfect time to reassess and restructure the whole series. So I split the stories into two strands within the Roma Nova series: Carina Mitela adventures and Aurelia Mitela adventures.

Readers have described my books as a cross between Lindsey Davis’ Roman detective Falco and The Hunger Games. They’ve also been likened them to Manda Scott’s and Kate Mosse’s books. Conn Iggleden, Simon Scarrow and Elizabeth Chadwick (among others) have said nice things about them. I’d like to think they’d also appeal to readers of JD Robb and Robert Harris (or is that hubris?).

Back to the covers…
I commissioned designer Jessica Bell to draw up some concepts for the whole series.

I asked her to keep the original background colours: INCEPTIO purple, PERFIDITAS blood red, CARINA in between, SUCCESSIO blue, AURELIA green, INSURRECTIO black and RETALIO amber, and to include the signature eagle graphic in the mix.

She would draw up three concepts and I then had to choose one. But was it really up to me? Did it matter what I thought or felt? No. Definitely no. Which would most appeal to readers? And address the learning points from my analysis?

Disassociating yourself from your book, your baby, that part of your soul that you’ve put on public view is the hardest part of the process.

Jessica was a joy to work with: imaginative, professional and supportive, especially of some of my dafter ideas. But she was also ruthless in a very friendly way when my suggestions were off-piste; she was right every time.

Delighted isn’t the right word. Thrilled is a bit nearer. Shocked and overwhelmed in a very positive way is better still. After five years of beautiful but rather sober covers, the books have taken on a new, dynamic life. I think Roma Nova is about to storm off on some exciting new adventures.


Late 1960s Roma Nova. Retrained as an undercover agent, ex-Praetorian officer Aurelia Mitela is sent to Berlin to investigate silver smuggling, but barely escapes a near-lethal trap. Her lifelong nemesis, Caius Tellus, is determined to eliminate her and ruin Roma Nova.

A former military commander, Aurelia is one of Roma Nova’s strong women, but she doubts in her heart and mind that she can overcome her implacable enemy.

And what part does the mysterious and attractive Miklós play – a smuggler who knows too much?

When Caius Tellus strikes at her most vulnerable point, Aurelia must make an agonising decision – her country, her love or her child?

First in the Aurelia Mitela adventures, where Roman fiction is brought into the 20th century through an alternative history lens and first of the AURELIA trilogy. INSURRECTIO and RETALIO complete the trilogy.

– Historical Novel Society’s indie Editor’s Choice for Autumn 2015
– B.R.A.G. Medallion
– Finalist, 2016 HNS Indie Award

Paperback: https://myBook.to/AURELIA

Amazon: https://myBook.to/AURELIA_Kindle

Kobo: https://store.kobobooks.com/ebook/aurelia-30

B&N Nook: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/aurelia-alison-morton/1121827041?ean=2940151557450

Apple: https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/aurelia/id1378216297


Alison Morton writes the award-winning Roma Nova thriller series featuring modern Praetorian heroines. She blends her deep love of Roman history with six years’ military service and a life of reading crime, adventure and thriller fiction.

A ‘Roman nut’ since age 11, Alison misspent decades clambering over Roman sites throughout Europe. Fascinated by the mosaics at Ampurias (Spain), at their creation by the complex, power and value-driven Roman civilisation, she started wondering what a modern Roman society would be like if run by strong women...

Now she continues to write thrillers, cultivates a Roman herb garden and drinks wine in France with her husband.

Connect with Alison on her Roma Nova site: http://alison-morton.com

Facebook author page: https://www.facebook.com/AlisonMortonAuthor

Twitter: https://twitter.com/alison_morton @alison_morton

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/alisonmortonauthor/

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/5783095.Alison_Morton
Alison’s Amazon page: http://Author.to/AlisonMortonAmazon

What can a writer learn at a business retreat?

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I just came back from a magical three day retreat in the Nottinghamshire countryside (the photo above is blurry because it was taken through the window of my room – the sunrises were gorgeous). In the run-up to the retreat, I really agonized about whether I could go, whether I should take the time out of my work-schedule, whether I would gain anything from it.

And, most of all, whether I deserved it.

On the first evening, I really wasn’t sure I’d made the right choice. Not because there was anything wrong with the retreat – far from it! The venue was superb, the atmosphere warm and friendly, the other participants the most lovely women, the retreat leaders Elizabeth and Emma Buckley-Goddard brilliant hosts. There was generosity and fun all around me.

The real problem was me. I was tired, out of sorts, full of stress. I couldn’t settle into the experience. I started to worry that maybe I didn’t fit in.

The next day, that all changed as we took turns talking about our businesses, learning from Elizabeth – and what’s more, from each other. I felt like a cushion or pillow that’s been flattened by pressure for too long, and then the pressure comes off and air starts to seep in and the pillow plumps up. (I was plumping up from Jo Hodson’s amazing food, but that’s another story!)

So what did I learn? So much! About myself, about how other women cope with business and how they balance business and their daily lives. Here, then are some key takeaways:

  • That diverse business-owners find they have the same issues: discoverability, impostor syndrome, deciding which direction to take next, deciding which offers to make to their clients/customers, finding the strength to jettison what doesn’t work anymore and move on to what has the potential to take their businesses to another level.

  • That there’s an extraordinary paradox at work: women who are teachers, communicators, marketers, whose lives are all about reaching out and helping others, start their hot-seat sessions with the phrase ‘I’m an introvert but…’! We agreed there are misconceptions about being an introvert. Introverts do like people and do like talking to them, but they also need to factor in the time and space to step back, be silent, refill the well. Constantly putting ourselves out there drains energy and we have to find ways to restore it. Ways like this retreat, for instance.

  • That business and creativity co-exist. You can’t run your business without creative imagination but that imagination has to work within the parameters of what is practicable in a business sense.

  • That women in a workshop space create an amazing instant bond and a vibrant energy, punctuated by delighted cries of ‘Me too!’ (not, I hasten to add, in the Hollywood sense). I’ve noticed this in my writing retreats – how quickly women meet and recognize one another and open up to one another and cheer one another on.

  • That tough love and accountability are necessary. We’re all good at dreaming, but need to be good at doing too.

If you’re a writer or want to start writing I think you can see how many of these lessons also apply to you. Find your peers, your encouragers. Find those who are experiencing what you experience. Find mentors who will give you that tough love, that shoulder to cry on, and the practical advice you need to keep soldiering on.

I’m still absorbing what I learned and I’m buzzing with new plans and intentions – but that’s a story for another day :)

In the meantime, keep dreaming. And keep doing.

Chasing squirrels: the distraction of too many ideas and why it matters to stay focused

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New writers often worry about how to find ideas. If they’ve had a good idea they worry about whether they’ll ever have another. The truth is, many of us don’t suffer from a lack of ideas. Quite the opposite: ideas pop into our heads, scream out at us from newspaper articles or history books or memories or dreams. Ideas are coming at us all the time.

I remember seeing a Facebook video of a dog leaping at soap bubbles pumped out by a bubble-gun. It was going frantic, darting and somersaulting, snapping at those floating orbs. As soon as its jaws closed, the bubble would burst. Meanwhile, other bubbles soared out of reach, leaving the poor mutt with nothing.

You may have seen the Disney/Pixar film Up, featuring another delightful hound, an inane smiley pup who craves to be loved and to be helpful to humans, but is eternally distracted – 'Squirrel!’ – and dashes off after the elusive creature. He just can’t help himself.

You can see where I’m going with this, can’t you? When ideas come, they distract you like the darting squirrel. They arrive all shiny and unspoilt, like that iridescent soap-bubble. Your impulse is to chase it but as you reach out, another floats by. You want that one too.

Try to resist the urge, however Pavlovian it is, however conditioned by the eternal human quest for the new.

That idea, that story you’re with right now? Yes, the shine may have come off it a little. You may feel you’ve lost that first enthusiasm. But you’ve come a long way with it – don’t desert it now. Stay with it and see it through.

Disengage from the distraction of new ideas and give the old one the attention and focus it deserves. If you record your new ideas in a notebook or Evernote file, they can wait. Good ideas are not soap bubbles, after all. They will endure, if they are any good. They’ll mature and grow in your sub-consciousness. And when you turn to them, if you’ve finished your previous story-task, you’ll be able to show them the commitment they truly deserve.

No squirrels.

Here’s one of Henry Miller’s work schedule rules:

Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.


Chase and catch ideas, share your work and ask me anything at this Saturday’s Creative Brainstorm workshop: visit the courses page for details!

Welcome to the Fictionfire blog

Hello and welcome to my first Fictionfire blogpost! The irony is that I’ve had a blog for eleven years now but only now am I uniting it with the main website. The old blog will continue to exist on Blogger and you can visit it here. I will be creating new content here and also bringing over posts from Literascribe that are of interest and use to you.

The Fictionfire blog will cover a range of areas: mindset for writers, tips on developing your craft, news from the world of books and publishing, reviews of events and good reads and much more. I hope you’ll find lots to interest you!

I’ll also be interviewing authors and inviting guest-posts by writers and other contributors. If you’re interested in featuring on this blog, do please get in touch by clicking Contact on the menu bar.