In this section we share a selection of our writers’ weekly homework pieces and timed exercises. Homework is normally 300 – 600 words maximum, the timed exercises are completed in the workshop within 20 minutes.

Beautiful Lies an Anthology of New Writers

The best short stories should haunt you for days and weeks. They should startle you and make you want to read more by the same author. In this anthology of 35 new writers you’ll find refreshing, creative voices that will constantly surprise and delight. Most of the writers are published here for the first time in print. Online their work has appeared under the writing workshop banner of Bourne to Write, led by the writer and critic Roddy Phillips. As they were written in the Workshop many of the pieces share themes, lines and subject matter, yet each one is a unique and beautiful lie, just waiting to be brought to life… by you the reader. Buy Beautiful Lies in paperback and kindle on amazon

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JULY

TASTE

For this week’s timed exercise I asked our writers to use the following quote in their piece:
Egotist, n.  A person of low taste, more interested in himself than in me.

This is an entry from Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary. Read it Here

In fiction, the characters’ five senses are what allow us to get lost in the story. But few writers realise which of the five senses they lean on more heavily than others. As a writer, you will have a natural inclination toward one sense over the others. One sense that is often overlooked or undervalued is the sense of taste. Read it Here

A lot can be learned form food writers and restaurant critics. The first great food writer was Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. Although he was not a chef, Brillat-Savarin has been one of the most influential food writers of all time. He is known for his 1825 book Physiologie du Goût  (translated variously into English as “The Physiology of Taste”, “The Philosopher in the Kitchen”, etc.) Read it Here

I gave our writers this quote from Brillat-Savarin to use in their homework and asked them to focus on using that neglected fifth sense – taste.

Long practice has taught me that one pleasure leads to another.

A Tasteful Ending by Grant Mcfarlane

Listen to Grant’s poem

Curry Love by Shevlyn Byroo

Read Shevlyn’s piece

The Yellow Rowing Boat by MaryPat Campbell

Read MaryPat’s piece

Funny Money by Martin Bourne

Read Martin’s piece

Autumn’s Overcoat by Stuart Carruthers

Read Stuart’s piece

Fleeting Pleasures by Fran Duffield

Read Fran’s piece

Atrocity Exhibition by Ivor John

Read Ivor’s piece

One Pleasure Leads to Another

by Richard Lewis

Read Richard’s piece

The Sweetest Pleasure by Mia Sundby

Read Mia’s piece

One Pleasure Leads to Another by Miriam Silver

Read Miriam’s piece

Mellow by Lauren Holstein

Read Lauren’s poem

A Secret Life by Lesley Dawson

Read Lesley’s piece

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I’M IN LOVE WITH YOU

For this week’s timed exercise I showed our writers this image…

I then read from ‘Milk Fed’ Melissa Broder’s most recent novel. Pairing superlative emotional insight with unabashed vivid fantasy,  Melissa Broder tells a tale of appetites: of physical hunger, of sexual desire, of spiritual longing. Milk Fed is a tender and riotously funny meditation on love, certitude, and the question of what we are all being fed.

In an interview in the Rumpus, Melissa Broder speaks with Greg Mania about Milk Fed and her writing process.

“I’m still doing it the same way I’ve been doing it: dictating the first draft into my phone, three paragraphs per day, using Siri and Simplenote (free notes app). Don’t stop or proofread or think about it or change anything until the whole mass of clay has been thrown down—even if I see things are spelled wrong, or Siri is missing stuff (always). Just keep going. Encourage your own messiness. This part takes about nine months.” 

“Then begins the editorial process, the first round of which is just me trying to figure out what I was even saying half the time. Edit the whole thing over and over and over and over again. Treat it like a poem: every word intentional. Listen for rhythm. Nothing should stick out as shitty or like I’m trying to pass something off or arhythmic or like I’m lying to myself or the audience. When everything gets quiet, then I’m maybe done.”

I asked our writers to use this line from Melissa Broder anywhere in their homework:

I’m in love with you and you don’t want anything to do with me so I think we can make this work. 

They Always Get Back Together by Ali Giles

Read Ali’s piece

Heathcliff by MaryPat Campbell

Read MaryPat’s piece

It Hurts Too Much by Sho Botham

Read Sho’s piece

Number 9 by Martin Bourne

Read Martin’s piece

I’m in Love by Rosalyn Hurst

Read Rosalyn’s piece

Love Actually by Lesley Dawson

Read Lesley’s piece

Where Did the Fun Go? by Stuart Carruthers

Read Stuart’s piece

I’m in Love by Ivor John

Read Ivor’s piece

The Beauty by Richard Lewis

Read Richard’s piece

I’m in Love with You by Miriam Silver

Read Miriam’s piece

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A SECRET LIFE

For this week’s timed exercise I asked our writers to use this line in their piece:

We called it alimony.

With one caveat, I asked everyone to create a setting for the word ‘alimony’ outside of the usual divorce scenario.

The line came from a Southbank talk by John Le Carre where he refers to the payment made to agents in the field,  “We paid them a pittance and we called it alimony.”

Alimony – early 17th century (in the sense ‘nourishment, means of subsistence’): from Latin alimonia ‘nutriment’, from alere ‘nourish’.

I then read from A Perfect Spy by John le Carre. The novel starts by introducing the protagonist Magnus Pym and tracking his movements across  “a south Devon coastal town” on his way to a Victorian guesthouse, where he is addressed by the elderly landlady who says, “Why Mr. Canterbury, it’s you.” In this deft use of dialogue, LeCarré illustrates the essence of the classic writing technique “show, don’t tell,” revealing that Pym has a secret life, has visited the guesthouse before and is travelling under a pseudonym.

The subject for the homework was:  A Secret Life

Alimony by Karen Akroyd

Read Karen’s piece

Futureproofing by Saffron Swansborough

Read Saffron’s piece

What I Would Say by Martin Bourne

Read Martin’s piece

Silvia’s Garden Shed by Sho Botham

Listen to Sho’s piece

Aunt Elizabeth by Victoria Watson

Read Victoria’s piece

Secret Lives by Rosalyn Hurst

Read Rosalyn’s piece

A Dress To Die For by Garf Collins

Read Garf’s piece

The Conquer Room by Stuart Carruthers

Read Stuart’s piece

A Sign of the Times by Gill Hilton

Read Gill’s piece

A Secret Life by Fran Duffield

Read Fran’s piece

Secrets by Miriam Silver

Read Miriam’s piece

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MEMORY IS THE THING WE FORGET WITH

For this week’s timed exercise I gave our writers this sentence to use in their piece:

Ribbon, bell, emerald, stamp.

This line comes from The Memory Police by the Japanese writer Yoko Ogawa.

‘Ribbon, bell, emerald, stamp. The words that came from my mother’s mouth thrilled me, like the names of little girls from distant countries or new species of plants.’ A surreal, provocative fable about the power of memory and the trauma of loss the 1994 novel, has a dream-like tone influenced by Kafka. An English translation by Stephen Snyder was published in 2019.

The story follows a novelist on an island under the control of the Memory Police. An unknown force causes the people of the island to collectively ‘forget’ and lose their attachment to objects or concepts, e.g. hats, perfume, birds and ribbon. The Memory Police enforce the removal of these objects from the island, and of the people who continue to remember, such as the author’s mother. Some, who continue to remember, escape from the island or hide in safe houses to evade capture by the Police.

Ogawa’s weightless and unadorned prose weaves a world where memory is always associative; we remember not just the object itself but what it conjures. Birds are byways to flight, lightness, quickness, youth, song, mornings, twilights, migrations. They partake in stories, paintings, metaphors and myths. Each object that is disappeared takes layers of personal and shared knowledge with it. One of the inspirations for the novel was the Diary of Anne Frank.

I gave our writers this quote from Alexander Chase to use in their homework: Memory is the thing you forget with.

Memory by Karen Akroyd

Read Karen’s piece

A Funny Hat by Sho Botham

Listen to Sho’s piece

Billy by Victoria Watson

Read Victoria’s piece

Memory is the Thing by Rosalyn Hurst

Read Rosalyn’s piece

Memory Is What You Forget With by Lesley Dawson

Read Lesley’s piece

Jules & Julia by Vera Gajic

Read Vera’s piece

The Stone Bears Your Name by Stuart Carruthers

Read Stuart’s piece

Going Back by Ivor John

Read Ivor’s piece

Memory is a Way of Forgetting by Richard Lewis

Read Richard’s piece

I Must Write it Down by MaryPat Campbell

Read MaryPat’s piece

Memory is the Thing you Forget with by Miriam Silver

Read Miriam’s piece

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A SIGN OF THE TIMES

For this week’s timed exercise I asked our writers to open your piece with this line:

When you are on the dancefloor there is nothing to do but dance.

This is a quote from Umberto Eco’s 2004 novel The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana.

When book dealer Yambo suffers amnesia, he loses all sense of who he is, but retains memories of all the books, poems, songs, and movies he has ever experienced. To reclaim his identity, he retreats to the family home and rummages through old letters, photographs, and mementos stored in the attic. Yambo’s mind swirls with thoughts, and he struggles to retrieve the one memory that may be most sacred, that of Lila Saba, his first love. The novel is steeped in nostalgia and filled with vivid, sometimes wondrous imagery.

I then read and discussed Umberto’s 36 Rules for Writing Well – Read them here…

Aside from being an internationally acclaimed novelist, Umberto Eco was also a Semiologist. He made a wider audience aware of semiotics by various publications, most notably his novel The Name of the Rose, which includes (second to its plot) applied semiotic operations. Semiotics includes the study of signs and sign processes, indication, designation, likeness, analogy, allegory, metonymy, metaphor, symbolism, signification, and communication. Eco proposed that every cultural phenomenon may be studied as communication.

I gave everyone this title for their homework:  A Sign of the Times

A Sign of the Times by Victoria Watson

Read Victoria’s piece

A Sign of the Times by Lauren Holstein

Read Lauren’s poem

A Sign of the Times Haiku by Saffron Swansborough

Read Saffron’s poem

A Sign of the Times by Sho Botham

Listen to Sho’s piece

A Sign of the Times by Grant McFarlane

Listen to Grant’s piece

A Sign of the Times by Ali Giles

Listen to Ali’s piece read by Mia Sundby

An Eyebrow Raising Sign of the Times by Jill Webb 

Listen to Jill’s piece

A Sign of the Times by Karen Akroyd

Read Karen’s piece

Signs of the Times by Rosalyn Hurst

Read Rosalyn’s piece

A Sign of the Times by Lesley Dawson

Read Lesley’s piece

A Sign of the Times by Martin Bourne

Read Martin’s piece

One Foot on the Ladder by Stuart Carruthers

Read Stuart’s piece

A Sign of the Times by Ivor John

Read Ivor’s piece

A Sign of the Times by Richard Lewis

Read Richard’s piece

A Sign of the Times by MaryPat Campbell

Read MaryPat’s piece

A Sign of the Times by Miriam Silver

Read Miriam’s piece

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JUNE

THE LOVER’S DICTIONARY

For this week’s timed exercise I asked everyone to open their piece with this line:

I wrote a good omelette… and ate a hot poem.

“I wrote a good omelet… and ate / a hot poem… after loving you,” writes Nikki Giovanni in her poem “I Wrote a Good Omelet.” The poet, whose seventy-eighth birthday was  just last week, describes going about various common tasks in strange and humorous ways, replacing, for example, “car” for “coat” in the phrase “drove my coat home” and “bed” for “hair” in “turned down my hair.” Through these playful reversals, Giovanni mimics the dizzying feeling of falling in love, as if the speaker is unable to focus on anything after being with their beloved.

In The Lover’s Dictionary David Levithan finds a fascinating way to tell us something about love. Told entirely through a series of dictionary entries, this modern love story is abstract, quirky, and so incredibly charming. The reader only receives brief windows into this romantic relationship, but it’s so interesting to see these small glimpses through the lens of different words. Levithan’s conceit is fascinating, and he completely pulls it off. For example:

acronym, n.“I remember the first time you signed an email with SWAK. I didn’t know what it meant. It sounded violent, like a slap connecting. … And the next time you wrote, ten minutes later, you explained.I loved the ridiculous image I got from that, of you leaning over your laptop,touching your lips gently to the screen, sealing your words to me before turning them into electricity. Now every time you SWAK me, the echo of that electricity remains.”

For the homework I asked our writers to emulate the treatment of The Lover’s Dictionary and break their story into a series of 5 or 6 word definitions. This would be an interesting way of working out what their story is actually about.

Love Letters by Saffron Swansborough

Read Saffron’s poem

The A – Z of Vital Signs by Ali Giles

Read Ali’s piece

The Lover’s Dictionary by Victoria Watson

Read Victoria’s piece

The Alcoholic’s Dictionary by Grant McFarlane

Listen to Grant’s piece

My Time by Sho Botham

Read Sho’s piece

Margaret and Me by Gill Hilton

Read Gill’s piece

ABC of Unrequited Love by Ivor John

Read Ivor’s piece

Four Seasons by Richard Lewis

Read Richard’s piece

Five Words by MaryPat Campbell

Read MaryPat’s piece

Reversals by Miriam Silver

Read Miriam’s piece

The Party Pooper by Lesley Dawson

Read Lesley’s piece

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WE CAN ONLY DIE IN THE FUTURE

For this week’s timed exercise I asked our writers to open their piece with this line:“Tell me things I won’t mind forgetting,” she said.

This is the first line of Amy Hempel’s short story, “The Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried,” In Hempel’s first and most anthologised story, the narrator fails her terminally ill best friend, almost entirely in subtext. She visits the beachside hospital, bearing welcome, “useless” facts and jokes, but when an extra bed appears for her to stay the night, she panics and decides to go home. Hempel doesn’t give us the final goodbye, or the bad-news call, or any of the other obvious scenes a “maximalist” writer might dramatize. Instead, we get the tacit admission that the narrator bailed before the end, enrolling in a “Fear of Flying” class the same morning her friend is buried.

Hempel has said that the idea for “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried” was suggested to her by her teacher Gordon Lish, the fiction editor of Esquire in the 1970’s, in a fiction-writing workshop that she took at Columbia University. Lish told his students to write on their “most terrible, despicable secret, the thing you will never live down.”Hempel has said that she knew immediately what that secret was for her: “I failed my best friend at the moment when I absolutely couldn’t fail her, when she was dying.” Hempel, like her most admired writer, Anton Chekhov, knows that grief, by its very nature, resists ordinary attempts to articulate it. Grief cannot be talked about; it can only be objectified in efforts to avoid it.  Read In The Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried.

“My favorite compliment that I got from a writer early on, was someone saying to me, ‘You leave out all the right things’. That was wonderful to hear. To know you’ve given your reader credit for being able to understand without you having to say it.”

For the homework I asked our writers to use these two lines from Amy Hempel in order in their piece.I moved through the days like a severed head that finishes a sentence. We can only die in the future, I thought; right now we are always alive.

The Book of Life by Saffron Swansborough

Read Saffron’s poem

Hiding by Ali Giles

Read Ali’s piece

Kir by Victoria Watson

Read Victoria’s piece

Severed Head by Mia Sundby

Read Mia’s piece

Legs/Teenage Dreams by Lauren Holstein

Read Lauren’s poem

Woe is Me by Sho Botham

Read Sho’s piece

Death Bed by Janie Reynolds

Read Janie’s piece

Today I’m Alive by Ivor John

Read Ivor’s piece

Locked Down by Vera Gajic

Read Vera’s piece

I Feel the Devil’s Love by Stuart Carruthers

Read Stuart’s piece

The Present Tense by Fran Duffield

Read Fran’s piece

Big Sister by MaryPat Campbell

Read MaryPat’s piece

Severed Head by Miriam Silver

Read Miriam’s piece

Missing Inaction by Martin Bourne

Read Martin’s piece

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A GOOD TURN

For this week’s timed exercise I showed our writers some photographs I had taken of a van that was parked near my house.

I asked everyone to write about the fictional owner of the van. 

I then read and discussed the Lady in the Van by Alan Bennett.  Miss Shepherd, or rather, Margaret Fairchild was born in 1911 in Hellingly in East Sussex. A gifted pianist, according to her brother in about 1932 the middle-class and well-spoken Margaret Fairchild studied at the École Normale de Musique de Paris in Paris under the virtuoso Alfred Cortot. She led a chequered life eventually ending up in Alan Bennett’s driveway where she lived for 15 years in a hand-painted yellow van. When she died in 1989 Bennett immortalised her in his diaries, which he later turned into a radio play, a novella and a film.  Read The Lady in the Van.

I gave our writers a quote from the novella to use it in their homework: One seldom was able to do her a good turn without some thoughts of strangulation.

The Slum, theMum and the Staycation by Saffron Swansborough

Read Saffron’s poem

The Neighbour by Jill Webb

 Listen to Jill’s piece 

Quid Pro Quo by Ali Giles

Read Ali’s piece 

Trouble Crossing by Richard Lewis

Read Richard’s piece

Thanks for Nothing by Stuart Carruthers

Read Stuart’s piece

The Good Neighbour by Fran Duffield

Read Fran’s piece

All Sorts by MaryPat Campbell

Read MaryPat’s piece

The Earth Mother by Miriam Silver

Read Miriam’s piece

Good Turns and Strangulation by Mia Sundby

Read Mia’s piece

Afternoon Tea with a Difference by Lesley Dawson

Read Lesley’s piece

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May

IT ALL STARTED WITH A DREAMFor this week’s timed exercise we discussed the idea that every story has two sides to it. With this in mind I asked everyone to write two contrasting viewpoints of the same story using this opening line:

She had an evil face, smoothed by hypocrisy; but her manners were excellent.

This line is from The Strange Case of Dr Jeckyl and Mr Hyde. Robert Louis Stevenson had long been fascinated with split personalities but couldn’t figure out how to write about them. Then one night he had a dream about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. “In the small hours of one morning … I was awakened by cries of horror from Louis,” his wife Fanny said. “Thinking he had a nightmare, I awakened him. He said angrily: ‘Why did you wake me? I was dreaming a fine bogey tale.’” Stevenson later elaborated on the dream in an essay called “A Chapter On Dreams.”

The opening line of of this week’s homework was: It all started with a dream.

Queen of the Dance by Lauren Holstein

Read Lauren’s poem

Sweet Enough by Ali Giles

Listen to Ali’s piece read by Mia Sundby

Divebombing by Saffron Swansborough

Read Saffron’s poem

Roots by Victoria Watson

Read Victoria’s piece

Something I Don’t Know by Stuart Carruthers

Read Stuart’s piece

Starring Part by Grant McFarlane

Read Grant’s piece

The Dream by Martin Bourne

Read Martin’s piece

It all Started as a Dream by Miriam Silver

Read Miriam’s piece

In My Dreams by Vera Gajic

Read Vera’s piece

Evil Face by Sandra Banks

Read Sandra’s piece

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NOTHING TRAVELS FASTERFor this week’s timed exercise I gave our writers this opening line:

Kettle, plug, fridge, milk, coffee. Yawn.

This was an exercise in Pace and the line came from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Instead of taking the readers through the whole process of making a cup of coffee,  Douglas Adams simply chose the words associated with the action, allowing readers to fill in the blanks.

The most important thing to keep in mind when you’re outlining your story and thinking about pacing is balance. A single story can’t and shouldn’t be all fast or all slow.

Instead, there should be a trade-off between the two. This provides variety, makes the story interesting, and keeps the readers hooked. Think about it as music: it’s the highs and lows combined that makes a song appealing to the ear. If it was made up of a single, flat note, it would be pretty boring, wouldn’t it? Read attached pdf on pacing your story.I read from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and asked you to open your homework with this line from Mostly Harmless, the fifth and final part of the Hitchhiker series: Nothing travels faster than the speed of light with the possible exception of bad news, which obeys its own special laws.

Travelling Light by Gill Hilton

Read Gill’s piece

The Lies, Deceptions & Falsehoods of Grief by Victoria Watson

Read Victoria’s piece

This is Not Here by Stuart Carruthers

Read Stuart’s piece

The Speed of Divorce by Grant McFarlane

Listen to Grant’s piece

Chinese Whispers by Jill Webb

Listen to Jill’s piece

Highly Strung by MaryPat Campbell

Read MaryPat’s piece

Bad News by Sho Botham

Read Sho’s piece

Voiture en Panne by Martin Bourne

Read Martin’s piece

Nothing Travels Faster by Miriam Silver

Read Miriam’s piece

Bad News by Fran Duffield

Read Fran’s piece

Larkins by Catriona Millar

Read Catriona’s piece

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THE ALIBIFor this week’s timed exercise I asked you to use this scenario:

The Colonel has been found dead in the library, it looks like suicide. You are being interviewed by a detective. “When did you last see the colonel?” they ask. Are you the murderer?Agatha Christie considered the opening of her 1941 novel, The Body in the Library to be one of her best openings, it was certainly her favourite.

Mrs Bantry was dreaming. Her sweet peas had just taken a First at the flower show. The vicar, dressed in cassock and surplice, was giving out the prizes in church. His wife wandered past, dressed in a bathing suit, but, as is the blessed habit of dreams, this fact did not arouse the disapproval of the parish in the way it would assuredly have done in real life… Read Ronald Knox’s 10 Commandments for Detective Fiction 

I asked everyone to use this line from The Body in the Library anywhere in their homework piece:  No innocent person ever has an alibi. The title for the homework was:  The Alibi.

The Alibi by Gill Hilton

Read Gill’s piece

The Alibi by Victoria Watson

Read Victoria’s piece

No Alibi by Lou Beckerman

Read Lou’s piece

The Alibi by Stuart Carruthers

Read Stuart’s piece

The Alibi by Rosalyn Hurst

Read Rosalyn’s piece

The Alibi by Janie Reynolds

Read Janie’s piece

The Alibi by MaryPat Campbell

Read MaryPat’s piece

The Alibi by Sho Botham

Read Sho’s piece

The Alibi Maker by Vera Gajic

Read Vera’s piece

The Alibi by Ali Giles

Read Ali’s piece

The Alibi by Miriam Silver

Read Miriam’s piece

The Alibi by Fran Duffield

Read Fran’s piece

The Alibi by Karen Akroyd

Read Karen’s piece

The Alibi by Catriona Millar

Read Catriona’s piece

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THE SECRET NOTEBOOK

If your work doesn’t have trouble it may as well be a shopping list, unless of course there is a gun on your list or strychnine.  With this in mind I asked our writers to feature a shopping list for one of the following in their 20 minute timed exercise:

Poisoner     Burglar     Kidnapper      Pirate       Ghost      Murderer    Assassin Evil Mastermind

Following the death of Agatha Christie’s daughter, Rosalind, at the end of 2004, a remarkable secret was revealed. Unearthed among her affairs at the family home of Greenway were Agatha Christie’s secret notebooks, 78 handwritten volumes of notes, lists and drafts outlining all her plans for her many books, plays and stories. Mixed in with these literary traces there are telephone numbers, maps, shopping lists, doodles and aide-memoires demonstrating that Christie saw no difference between her life and her work.

The title for this week’s homework was:   The Secret Notebook.

I also asked everyone to use this line from The Thumb Mark of St Peter anywhere in their piece: Everyone is very much alike, really. But fortunately they don’t realise it.

The Secret Notebook by Victoria Watson

Read Victoria’s piece

The Secret Notebook by Grant McFarlane

Listen to Grant’s piece

The Secret Notebook by Stuart Carruthers

Read Stuart’s piece

The Secret Notebook by Richard Rewell

Read Richard’s piece

The Secret Notebook by Sho Botham

Read Sho’s piece

The Secret Notebook by Martin Bourne

Read Martin’s piece

The Secret Notebook by Vera Gajic

Read Vera’s piece

The Secret Notebook by Ali Giles

Read Ali’s piece

The Secret Notebook by Miriam Silver

Read Miriam’s piece

The Secret Notebook by Sue Hitchcock

Read Sue’s piece

The Secret Notebook by Lesley Dawson

Read Lesley’s piece

The Secret Notebook by Ivor John

Read Ivor’s piece

I Write the Letter by Karen Akroyd

Read Karen’s piece

Grocery List – a timed exercise by Lauren Holstein

Read Lauren’s poem

Divided by Catriona Millar

Read Catriona’s piece