Author interview: Debi Alper and Stories for Homes 2

Today’s visitor to the blog, Debi Alper, has been here many times before as I have had the privilege of working with her on Retreat West competitions and retreats several times. But today she’s here talking to me about the wonderful Stories for Homes 2 anthology, which is once again raising funds for Shelter and helping to raise awareness of the homeless problem in the UK today.


Debi, can you tell us why you decided the time was right for SfH 2?

We always wanted to follow up on the success of SfH1 but struggled to find the time as it’s a huge commitment. It was clear that SfH1 had not only raised essential funds for Shelter but had also been the launchpad for several of our SfH1 authors. Mandy Berriman, for example, whose stunning short story A Home Without Moles was her first taste of being published, now has an agent and a publishing deal for the novel written in the same voice. Meanwhile, the housing crisis was becoming even more acute. Foodbank use was at an all-time high. Shoddy housing, unethical landlords, a lack of decent affordable housing – and all this before the Grenfell Tower tragedy – were impacting on more and more people. A few of our supporters were reminiscing on what a wonderful project SfH1 had been and, of course, Sally Swingewood, my co-editor, and I agreed. Before we knew it, we’d committed to doing it again.

What did you learn in producing SfH 1 that has helped to make the second anthology a more high-profile project?

The website has been spruced up by Rachael Dunlop, with lots of tabs added to make it a general resource on the housing crisis, as well as a source of promo for the anthology. We’ve also published a free story online every week over several months as part of an online anthology. This time, we had a lot of external help with the promotion, mainly thanks to Jacqueline Ward at Jel, who handled our social networking strategy, and we also had a multi-stop blog tour. High profile authors, Joanne Harris, Emma Darwin, Julie Cohen, Cally Taylor, Deborah Install and Tor Udall, gave us cover quotes. Thanks to the high standard we set with SfH1, many people were happy to endorse the new anthology, knowing the superb quality would be maintained. The cover, featuring original artwork by Sally, has been professionally produced by Head & Heart Publishing Services. And, of course, we had the same community of authors and supporters to help out with blogging, FaceBooking and tweeting, as well as all the practical work needed to produce a world-class anthology.

How did you choose the stories for the anthology and the running order?

With great difficulty! This is always the hardest part because, inevitably, we ended up rejecting some stories that were wonderfully written – many by published and/or award-wnning authors – but which we felt simply didn’t fit the anthology for a variety of reasons. We needed to establish a balance of light and dark (many of the ones we rejected tipped the balance into being too dark and we wanted the anthology to be entertaining, as well as thought-provoking). We also needed to ensure there were not too many that covered similar material. The original submssions were anonymised and once we’d made our first decisions and linked the stories with the authors, we decided we would only have one contribution per author.  We ended up with 55 stories out of 256 submissions. Deciding to have free stories on the website meant that we could use some of them there but that still meant saying no to some wonderful authors. We really hope those stories find homes elsewhere. With the running order, again we wanted a balance of light and dark, short and long, subject length, etc. We used index cards and smiley faces and spread them all out on the floor, moving them round until we felt we had the right shape for the book.

Do you see this as being an ongoing series to continue to raise money for Shelter for years to come?

I’d love to say I don’t think it will be neccesary but I doubt if anyone really believes that will be the case. We don’t have any concrete plans but I’m sure this won’t be the end of the SfH project.

Where can people find out about launch events and is there any other way they can support the project?

We have an events tab on our website: There’s a Facebook page and Twitter Please come to our events, like our page and follow us. There’s also a donate button on the website for people who want to give their money direct to Shelter. And, of course, buy the book and tell everyone about it! In fact, why not buy several copies as the perfect seasonal gift? People like you are invaluable in helping us to spread the word. Thank you!


Thanks for coming, Debi. I hope the book is the huge success it deserves to be. I’ve already got my copy and there are some truly stunning stories in there. Please help support Shelter this Christmas and buy all the readers in your life a copy. They won’t be disappointed!

Buy Now

Results: Win a place at the self-edit retreat comp

Many thanks to everyone that entered the competition to win a place at the Self-Edit Your Novel Retreat in November. I’ve enjoyed reading the entries and I’m delighted to announce that the winner is…Justine Kilkerr for her 500 word novel opening written to the prompt ‘A holiday at the beach’, entitled Sea Fret (read it below).

Congratulations Justine. A beautiful piece of writing that immediately drew me in and left me wanting more. Look forward to meeting you at the retreat.

Well done to all on the shortlist as well. Some great responses to the prompt and strong writing.

Sea Fret

It was a day muted by mist, unlike the sweltering days before, the morning she found the beached dolphin rolling in the surf and decided she would never go back.

Kittiwakes ghosted above her on the updrafts, patrolling the crumbling cliff face. She watched a gannet hurl itself, bullet-quick, arrow-sharp, into the waves. It few underwater for a while, zigzagging after fsh, then bobbed to the surface like a cork and launched itself into the sky.

She held the stone and traced its knuckled edges with a sandy thumb. It was the size of an apple and nestled, warming, in her balled fst. Her bare toes had found the ammonite in the sand as she had walked naked into the waves hours before, intent on never coming out.

She allowed herself a smile that felt like a gift. Strange, how high and happy the morning had felt when she decided to walk into the ocean and not come out again. How simple this day had seemed then. But she had hissed at the pain in her stubbed toes and somehow forgotten her long-planned march into the waves. She had bent instead to scrape at the sand. The fossil came up in her cold fingers, its stone curves cradling millennia, and something had changed.

She had put the stone to her lips, licked the salt and turned back to the beach, paddling herself through the water with her hands. Had struggled, shivering, into her shorts, damp T-shirt, jacket. Had walked towards the cliff along a high water line sketched out in black seaweed and broken shells, until she noticed the humped side of the dolphin, moving back and forth as the waves nudged it, gently, gently.

The dolphin was dead. The beach lay heavy beneath its grey body and she sat down cross-legged on the wet sand there and hugged herself. The taste of brine on her tongue. The whispering of the waves. The animal gone into itself. She sat a while, she didn’t know how long.

I will never go back.

The road out was flooded. It was a spring tide, after all, and the tarmac held its breath below the milk-pale water; she couldn’t go back if she wanted to. Which she didn’t. Which meant that they would be coming to look for her as soon as the waters receded.

She would not wait for them to come.

So she must go forward, and the only place accessible was across the expanse of boulders and rock pools that made up the tip of the peninsula. She squinted at the horizon. From this distance the lighthouse looked small, insignificant. A slim, pale tower squatting amongst the black rock and green weed and slow-surging sea.

She double-laced her boots, pushed the ammonite deep into her jacket pocket and stood, walking quickly to the edge of the rocks. She began to climb.

High above her, its noise spilling over the edge of the cliff, a telephone rang.


The shortlist (in alphabetical order by story title)

  • A Holiday at the Beach by Kate Beales
  • Drifter in the Sand by Margaret Duffy
  • Emigration by Vinita Joseph
  • Grand Pause by Anne Hamilton
  • Pay Friday by Gail Aldwin
  • Scrimshaw by Sophie Wellstood
  • Sea Fret by Justine Kilkerr
  • The Dive by V Lysaght
  • The Mistake by Julie Balloo
  • The Place We Go by Jessica Riches
  • The Search by Hannah Persaud

Win a place at the Self-Edit Your Novel Retreat

In November, Debi Alper and I will be teaching at the Self-Edit Your Novel Retreat. We’ll be back at the beach house in West Bay, Bridport.

Debi will be running 2 classes based on her hugely successful online course, which I did a few years ago and it changed my writing forever. The course is great and Debi recently wrote a blog about the success rate of people that have completed it and gone on to get book deals.

You can get all the info on the retreat here – it takes place from 4th to 8th November. There are 6 places to join us and I’m running a competition to win one of them.

Competition details

Deadline: 23.59 on 10th July 2016

Prize: 1 place at the 4 night Self-Edit Your Novel Retreat in your own room with all food, drink and classes included. Outside of the classes your time is yours to read, write, sleep, walk – whatever you want to do!

Entry fee: £10

How to enter: Write a 500 word novel opener on the theme of a holiday at the beach. Send it in through Submittable using the button below with a short covering note saying why you’d like to win the place at the retreat and a bit of info on what you are working on.

Good luck!

Competition T&Cs

  • £10 to enter
  • You can enter as many times as you like as long as you pay the fee each time
  • Do not put your name on your novel opening or your entry will be disqualified as judging is done anonymously
  • Stories must be written in English, your own original work and unpublished online and in print
  • Submit your stories through Submittable by 23.59 (BST) on 10th July 2016
  • Winner will be announced in July 2016
  • The judge’s decision is final
  • By entering the competition you agree to attend the Self-Edit Your Novel Retreat and have your winning novel opening entry published on the Retreat West website
  • The writer of the winning novel opening gets a free place at the Self-Edit Your Novel Retreat and the prize is not transferable


Guest Author: Debi Alper and De Nada Nirvana

I’m delighted to have the lovely Debi Alper here today talking about her decision to self-publish the third book in her Nirvana trilogy, De Nada Nirvana, and re-publish the first two books in the series too. Debi has played an integral part in the success of so many writers that I know so it’s great to finally get to read more of her own writing. I asked her to tell us a bit about her experience of the publishing of her trilogy…


These days, there are more routes to publishing than ever before, from the trade route via an agent and a deal with one of the Big Five, through smaller independent publishers and assisted publishing, to self-publishing. Behind every author there’s a story of how they came to be published. This is mine.

My career began arse-upwards compared to many. I had no files filled with unfinished stories, no collection of rejection slips and, in truth, no idea I would ever write a novel, let alone be published. I started writing Nirvana Bites just so I would have something to read out to my writers’ group each fortnight. And I’d only joined the group because it was something local to do on a Saturday night that wasn’t related to either of my part-time jobs or to my two small children. No one was more surprised than me when I was offered a two-book deal by Orion, in circumstances that I can only describe as magical.

The editing of Nirvana Bites went like a dream, and so did the launch, with the entire directorate of the publishers turning up. Back in those days though, it was hard to create a buzz and unfortunately there were no national reviews. Sales were not spectacular, though they weren’t disastrous either. But Trading Tatiana had a fraught journey before she even got to the published stage. There was a series of events at the publishers – some tragic – that meant she went through four different editors before she was launched. The editorial team must have been in total disarray. And because I had been signed direct by the publishers, I had never bothered to get an agent. There was no one in my corner, championing me.

I wasn’t surprised when I wasn’t offered a subsequent deal by Orion but by that time I had an agent, at least. I had already written De Nada Nirvana and he said it would be impossible to sell the third book in a trilogy to a different publisher. He therefore advised me to keep writing more novels in the Nirvana series. As he said he reckoned they’d make great TV, I wasn’t about to argue with him. Sadly, even though he liked each better than the last, he was unable to sell them. I then wrote a stand-alone novel, Somebody’s Child. He absolutely loved this novel and said the kinds of things every author dreams about – only he couldn’t sell it.

Everything stagnated on the authorial front but, meanwhile, I was more than busy with the new career path I’d embarked on in 2005. I was working hard as a freelance editor, mentor and creative writing tutor and I loved everything about my job. I may not have been able to bring any more of my own novels in front of readers, but it was a joy and a privilege to be a part of so many other authorial journeys. I had no time to feel sad about my own stories gathering dust and, in any case, I would never have been in this position if I hadn’t had that original deal. No regrets.

In 2013, I was approached by an independent American publisher who offered to re-publish Nirvana Bites and Trading Tatiana as e-books. It soon became clear that being with them offered me no added value whatsoever. I withdrew from the contract and the rights reverted back to me.

And that’s where it all gets exciting again! I saw this as an opportunity to publish the whole Nirvana series. My agent was initially reluctant but had to agree that this was the only way to bring the unpublished novels in front of readers. I’d received the occasional email over the years from people who asked when those books were coming out. I was also lucky enough to be supported and encouraged by many in the writing community whose own journeys I had been involved in. And it also meant that I could create a ‘look’ for the whole series – something that would never otherwise have been possible.

I formed my own imprint, Nirvana Publishing, swapped an edit for professional cover designs and e-conversion, and published De Nada Nirvana on Mayday this year. Next up will be Me, John and a Bomb, followed by the last in the Nirvana series, The Gene Pool. I’ll then turn my attention to Somebody’s Child.

We live in the best of times and the worst of times. Though it’s harder than ever to achieve a trade deal, there are more options than ever before for getting our stories out there. It’s a good time to be alive.


Thanks so much, Debi. Can’t wait to read the rest of the books in the series.  You can get a copy of De Nada Nirvana here, keep up to date with Debi’s publishing news on her website, and connect with her on Twitter.

Debi is also teaching on the Self-Editing Your Novel Retreat in West Bay, Bridport, in November 2016 if you’d like to learn with her.

From novice to novelist by Christmas

Make 2016 year the year you go from being a novice writer to a novelist with the 8 Month Novel course. The first one starts next month so you could have a complete first draft of your novel by Christmas. You can get all the info on the course here and spaces are limited to just five writers.

It’s a creative writing course that also includes 1-1 mentoring, detailed feedback on your work all the way through, and a full editorial review of your draft and a plan to move forward with at the end.

Not only that, if you book on the April course now you’ll get a 20% discount on the four-night Self-Edit Your Novel Retreat, which is taking place in an amazing spot in Bridport right on the beach at the start of November; and coincides with the point the course moves on to self-editing your work.

During the retreat there will be 2 masterclasses with Debi Alper – author, editor and mentor who has helped many successful novelists improve their work. And one with me looking at a specific extract from your work. As well as time to read, write, walk and enjoy great food, conversation and wine. Get all the the info about the retreat here.

Book by 28th March and you’ll also get £100 off of the 8 Month Novel course fee! Email me to reserve your space.

Using Psychic Distance

Author, editor, mentor and book doctor, Debi Alper, has worked with Retreat West on two self-editing your novel retreats and one of the most important elements that she covered is using psychic distance in your writing. I’ve done the online course that this retreat is based on with Debi and I can honestly say that it, and this part of it in particular, completely transformed my writing.

Debi, can you sum up for us exactly what Psychic Distance is and how it can help writers to improve their work?

In a nutshell, Psychic Distance is about how close into the narrator’s head and voice you go and this enables you to manipulate the distance between the character and the reader. As such, it also holds the key to other writerly concepts like show and tell, POV, etc.

I read many unpublished MSs that are really good but just don’t have that crucial edge to raise them out of the slushpile. More often than not, the key is in Psychic Distance. Most nestle at around the mid-range of the author’s comfort zone. Using Psychic Distance creates variety, texture and rhythm in the prose and also enables the reader to fully invest in a character and relate to them.

Which authors do you think use PD really well?

Psychic Distance also applies to first person narratives and the best recent example I’ve read is Dark Places by Gillian Flynn. Jane Austen invented free indirect style, which directly reflects a character’s thoughts and which therefore corresponds to the close-in end of the PD spectrum.

What can writers expect from learning about Psychic Distance?

Illumination! When I’ve run creative writing courses, both in real life and online, the sessions on Psychic Distance are responsible for switching on more light bulbs than any other single session. Once you’ve grasped the concept, your writing will shoot up a level. Some people already use the spectrum from instinct, without being aware of how powerful a tool it is. Learning to analyse and recognise it enables the author to use it at will to lift a scene that needs more oomph.