Friday 31 December 2010

Happy New Year and Thank YOU!

This is the last day of 2010 and what a strange year it is has been. Some wonderful highs combined with moments of real sadness. It was a year where I completed the first draft of two novels. One for the PhD and one as an escapism from the PhD. 2011 will be the year where (hopefully) I finish my PhD and become Dr Harbour. Also the year I polish both novels so they are ready to be sent to publishers (I have interest from one publisher for HAM & JAM - the PhD novel and two publishers interested in THE BOOK PROTECTORS' DAUGHTER) so who knows what might happen there. It was also the year that I started this blog - am I going to continue - I think so with an aim to make it more focused but prior to that please excuse a bit of self indulgence as I look back at 2010. A momentous year in so many ways.

2010 was another year of conferences. I attended a NCRCL conference at Roehampton in May and met up with old friends there including Peter Hunt and Maria Nikoljeva. I also gave a paper at Maria's excellent conference 'The Emergent Adult' back in September at Homerton College, Cambridge University which was made even more enjoyable by the presence of Meg Rosoff,Lucy Christopher and Teri Terry. This was the first of a series of papers I gave. I also gave one at a Symposium in Winchester which included three visiting Australian academics, Prof Jen Webb, Prof Jeri Krall and Prof Donna O'Brien which was followed three days later with another paper at the NAWE conference in Cheltenham. The Australians came to NAWE too and there was a great deal of hilarity and support. I first met Jen Webb earlier in the year when she had come to visit Winchester. We very soon became good friends and I can safely say that new friendship was one of the highlights of the year. Talking of new friends, I have made an abundance this year, many through Facebook who have shared the highs and lows of the year with their constant support and messages. Back in April I went to the London Book Fair, courtesy of one ex husband, Rupert (thank you btw), where I went on a fb blind date. Suddenly all these people who I speak to on fb became real. In particular Tabitha Suzuma who I spent a wonderful few hours discussing writing and the world in general plus Teri Terry (who I then dragged along to The Emergent Adult) and Kathryn Evans to name but a few. Lucy Christopher is also part of this collection of new friends, her encouragement and support has been incredible. it is wonderful to see Lucy's books getting so much acclaim. She came and did a wonderful session with our MA Write for Children students. But also Lucy and I look as if we are going to finish our PhDs at the same time next year, it is good being able to talk to someone who is in the same stressed position.

On a personal note my gorgeous daughter, Charlie, got engaged at a surprise birthday party to the wonderful Greg which was one of those perfect days. I also had the opportunity to travel. I went to Normandy in order to undertake some research necessary for HAM & JAM. This was a thrilling opportunity and certainly added depth to the novel but then things got even better when I was awarded an Arvon Grant. This allowed me to attend a Tutored Retreat at Moniack Mhor which is near Loch Ness. This was the most amazing experience I think I have ever had. I went with trepidation but was surrounded by some truly inspirational people particularly the tutors Zoe Strachan and Kevin MacNeil. I came away with a complete first draft of HAM & JAM which was hugely satisfying in itself but I also came away remembering why I love writing. I also came away with a collection of new friends who I remain in contact with through fb. Throughout this time my sons have been there, maybe not necessarily singing and shouting or doing things like getting engaged, but they have been there whenever I needed them. Always willing to give me a hug and filling the house with, amongst other things, laughter. I am very lucky with my children and my family and I know it.

The sadness came about when my darling Mummy died back in April. It was her time and was best for her as she was in so much pain but for the rest of us it left a huge hole in our lives. I was her carer and suddenly had all this time to fill but more importantly I realised how much of a friend she was to me and how often we talked about everything. There isn't a day that goes by without me thinking of things I want to tell her. Her funeral, however, was everything she would have wanted, it was a very special day. The truly wonderful and elegant Sally Ballet (Stanyard) sang 'Make me a Channel of Your Peace' which was one of her favourite hymns. I wrote a poem which I read out, whilst Jacky, my number 3 sister, paid tribute to her and all the laughs we had had as a family over the years. Then Charlie read out a bare feet as her shoes were hurting...we did apologise to the coffin. The whole service was led by Prof Liz Stuart who summed up my mother beautifully. She has also been a rock and an inspiration to me this year. Mummy always wanted a wicker coffin and it did look so beautiful particularly at the end when everyone had placed a flower on and around it.

Then back in October the small pain in my side that got increasingly worse was in fact an infected gall bladder and I suddenly found myself in hospital attached to intravenous antibiotics and a morphine pump. Not something I had planned but yet again I was surrounded by family and friends reminding me of how much I am loved. One particular, and treasured, moment was when Prof Liz Stuart came to see me outside of visiting hours. She informed them when they said she couldn't come in that she was my priest and therefore had to be let in!

I have spoken about the new friends I have met during 2010 but there are so many old friends that have just been there whenever needed. Prof Andrew Melrose maybe my Director of Studies but he is also a great friend who has shared the good times and supported me through the bad. But then of course there is Tina and her shoes, Denise and her gorgeous daughter Rebecca (and a mutual love of Audrey Hepburn), Jen, who is just Jen, Leonie who provides the calm in my life (though I think she will deny that), Debbie and Mel who started their PhDs at the same time as me, Steph and Nancy who are just great people, Cal and Kath who are people that are just made to be together and Eyelem who I still miss. All of whom, like Andy, have shared the good times and been there for me in the bad times. But also there is Michael and Karen who are dear friends that I know I haven't spent enough time with - I'm sorry. The list could go on forever and if I missed anyone I am sorry.

Tonight I will say goodbye to 2010 with mixed emotions but will look forward to 2011 as there are so many exciting things happening then already. So to everyone I wish you all a very happy new year that is full of laughter and happiness without too much stress. And a final thank you for just being you.

See you next year!

Wednesday 29 December 2010


Two posts ago I talked about how difficult I was finding the rewrites. Many of my friends came forward with solutions and advice. I thought I would share some of them with you as I tried these and they worked.

Firstly I left it alone for 24 hours, trying not to think about it or look at it and then before I started to work on it again I went for a walk. Thinking through my ideas as I walked, letting them slowly form and take shape so that by the time I was back home I knew what I was doing next.

The next bit of advice referred to my work methods. I started working on a hard copy which ensured I didn't miss any tweaks I wanted to make but also as was suggested with a notepad by the side to make notes for bigger changes. I also only worked for an hour at a time then had a break then went back to it.

These all worked so thank you to Helen, Kathryn and Mariam in particular. Though the irony is that these suggestions are all things that I tell my students to do. A question of physician heal thyself maybe - not!

I managed to achieve a lot yesterday with my rewrites. They are still not 100% right but I am getting there. I think what helped more than anything is that I was able to acknowledge there was a problem and that I was daunted by the enormity and importance of the rewrites. Then knowing I had the support of a huge number of friends I gave myself permission to accept this concern and to deal with it in small chunks. It suddenly became manageable and approachable.

It is a rare thing for a first draft to be complete and not require any editing. Rewrites are important as they give you a chance to hone your craft and polish your narrative. They should not be avoided and they need to be approached bravely. Sometimes you need to get rid of your favourite bits just because they don't work. That can be very hard if you have spent hours agonising over a perfect sentence only to remove it during the rewriting process.

Once the rewriting is done then comes the editing. Looking for anomalies of tense (of which I think there may be many in my case), inconsistencies (people called George at the beginning and Fred at the end) and of course punctuation and spelling. These are all vital processes of writing which cannot be avoided.

So am off to complete the rewrites including a new sex scene....think of me.

But also a huge thank you to all my friends who provided the solutions to my brain block. My PhD is all the better for you x

Tuesday 28 December 2010

Influential Books

Candy Gourlay wrote on her blog yesterday about the books that have most influenced her over the last ten years. Kathryn Evans followed suit and it started me thinking about the books that have influenced me over the last ten years. For a start the last ten years have been fairly momentous for me. I stopped being able to eat, had a tube stuck in my stomach to keep me alive, lost a business and moved 5 times but I also got a BA(hons) in English, an MA in Writing for Children and am about to finish a PhD in the issues of representing/representation of sex, drugs and alcohol in British contemporary young adult fiction (what a mouthful!). I have given papers internationally on my subject and been published academically. I started and co-edit the ejournal Write4Children. Consequently, as you can imagine, books have had a major impact on my life.

Back in 2000 none of this was on my radar. I loved to write and had previously written for newspapers and obviously as part of my job within my PR company. I had aspirations to be a writer but never thought I could really do it. I can safely say I dabbled with it. In 2002 a flyer came through the door about an Open Day at Winchester University. Didn't think anything of it until the Saturday morning when I drove my youngest son into Winchester and found myself driving into the University and that was the moment my new life started and the moment books became an even more vital part of my life.

It had never occurred to me to write for children until I met Professor Andrew Melrose and Judy Waite. They were my beginning. But as for my books, it is knowing where to start and what to include. Candy Gourlay pointed out that if you go on Amazon you can look back at your order history. This was a revelation as it tracked the whole of my academic career in books!

OK so enough to the waffle, down to the books (unfortunately for some reason my blog won't let the picture of the books appear near to the write up so I will just add links) and this is in no particular order (as they say on Strictly):

Melvin Burgess's JUNK. I have included this because it is the starting point of my thesis as it is the first book written for young adults that deals graphically with drug use.

Aidan Chamber's BREAKTIME and POSTCARD'S FROM NO MAN'S LAND. I love the way both of these books were written. In particular with BREAKTIME the way Chamber's played with the narrative was inspirational and challenging.

HOLES by Louis Sachar because I love the story. It is full of circles and it is a great book to pull to pieces, dissect each chapter to see how it works and what it consists of.

ROLL OF THUNDER HEAR MY CRY by Mildred D Taylor. This is a book that actually made me hold my breath in fear as I wondered what was going to happen next.

NOUGHTS AND CROSSES by Malorie Blackman, ONCE by Morris Gleitzman, THE BOOK THIEF by Markus Zusak and WARHORSE by Michael Morpurgo are all books that have inspired and enthralled.

And I know this is way over the seven that the others wrote about but there are six more which I must highlight. They are STOLEN and FLYAWAY by Lucy Christopher, A NOTE OF MADNESS and FORBIDDEN by Tabitha Suzuma, HOW I LIVE NOW by Meg Rosoff and of course, TALL STORY by Candy Gourlay. These are books and authors that have touched my life and have reminded me of the importance of books and their influence but also how much I love writing for children/teenagers as these authors have truly inspired me.

Monday 27 December 2010

Rewriting or not....

As Ernest Hemingway once said 'The first draft of anything is shit.' So I have a complete first draft of a novel and parts of it are shit and I need to do rewrites. This novel is the creative part of my PhD thesis which is to be examined at some point in 2011 by an esteemed academic, it has also got some interest by a publishing company who wish to see it when it is PhD submission ready. And therein lies the problem. I know how important it is that I get these rewrites right and it seems to be this knowledge has put so much pressure on my creativity that it is now frozen in time. I can vaguely see those bright ideas that I had but they are now sealed within a perfect, glinting icicle, just out of reach. The harder I try to get to them the further away they become.

Logically, I know I should walk away and not worry as they will happen. But that is the other problem, I have a time limit on this. I had a bright idea that I would do the rewrites over the Christmas break and then do the huge pile of marking and planning for next semester. So each day I can't write just seems to add to the pressure.

Whoever said writing a novel was easy were partly right. Getting the first draft was hard work but achievable but then doing the rewrites....well...what can I say! Almost impossible, which of course is rubbish as there wouldn't be any books published if people never managed the rewrites so I just need to get on with it.

If you have any thoughts or approaches to rewrites I would love to hear them and maybe then I can defrost this icicle and get on with doing what I want to do and that is to make this story a special one.

Wednesday 22 December 2010


Christmas is such an emotional time and has so many expectations attributed to it. You are not meant to feel lonely at this time of year and you are supposed to be overflowing with the joys of the world. But for some that is too much to ask at the moment and for those of you where that might be the case my thoughts are with you.

This is our first Christmas without Nanny - the photo of her above is in her usual pose at Christmas time! At times it feels very strange and the tears flow at the most inconvenient moments - I wish Tescos didn't play her favourite carols - But I know it was her time to go and she would have been so unhappy with a life full of pain if she had survived. I know she and my father still watch over us. This Christmas Day I will with the three people that I love more than I can say. My children. They are my heroes and I hope 2011 brings them and Greg and the children lots of happiness.

Over the last year I have made some wonderful new friends and thanks to facebook can remain in contact with them where ever they are. I hope they all have a wonderful Christmas and would like to say thank you for coming into my life and making it richer. These new friends are added to the collection of wonderful friends I already had who have been like a rock this year supporting me and encouraging me all the way. I am lucky and I know it to be surrounded (metaphorically and literally) by such great and inspirational people.

Though my Christmas will be strange I know it will be good. My thoughts are with all those who may have had their Christmas plans ruined by the weather but in particular my thoughts are with those who have very poorly loved ones. And for all those who, like me, lost someone special this year remember them at Christmas time with love and happiness and try not to be too sad as I am sure they wouldn't want you to be.

Happy Christmas everyone and have an amazing 2011

Saturday 18 December 2010

End of the year and rewrites

I haven't written much recently on this blog but with the end of term and snow and stressed students there hasn't been much time. Teaching finished yesterday. The forms have gone in stating I will be submitting soon. So today I am finishing two book reviews I need to get done but then it is down to the rewrites.

I am looking forward to these as I have some exciting ideas bubbling away and waiting to reek havoc within the novel. The glorious and extremely talented Lucy Christopher came to talk to our MA students this week. I have met Lucy a few times at conferences and as those of you who read my blog will know we had a fantastic time together at the Emergent Adult Conference in Cambridge back in September. She is a star and an inspiration. Her session with the students was wonderful as she shared some of her writing tools with them. One of which was fantastic as it re-vitalised my own creativity which had become clogged with the critical aspects of the thesis that I had been writing recently thus allowing me to approach these rewrites with renewed energy.

It transpires that both Lucy and I will be submitting our PhDs at similar times. At least this means we can share the stress. We have both just been working on our critical part of the thesis. I have found this difficult only because I have so much to say and so few words to say it in. I feel a bit like I have barely touched several subjects which to me seem vital and deserve more attention. However, it has been pointed out by another of my supervisors, Dr Paul Manning, that whatever research doesn't make it into the final piece can be used for articles, chapters for books etc. This is something I endeavour to do in 2011 as I aim to raise my profile through publication. Talking to people from other establishments I realise that Creative Writing PhDs come in all sorts of formats with a widely ranging word count for the critical part. But whatever format it comes in we all face the same stresses! I will wait with baited breath for the first lot of feedback from the DoS on my critical stuff, though yesterday he seemed quite positive about it. Fingers crossed.

I am also intending to focus on Ham and Jam with an ambition to get it published as well. It is a book I have loved writing and still love. I am really looking forward to the next few weeks of rewrites. I have left it alone for several months whilst I worked on the critical piece. I am now ready to return. Sometimes that is how it has to be. I was struggling with the idea of rewrites a few weeks ago but as my DoS pointed out it was because I was not ready to do them. Now I am.

2010 has been a strange year. There have been some wonderful highs but also some unbelievable lows. All of which will set me up for 2011 which, as my DoS has also pointed out, is going to be a BIG year for me.

Thursday 2 December 2010

Snow Day

Well this is what faced me this morning when I woke up. Over 20cms of snow. In fact so deep that it is over the knees of the twins Seb and Bea. The schools are closed as it the uni. One son's work is throwing a wobbly because he can't get out of the village which seems ironic when the police are saying do not travel unless it is for an emergency!
Apparently it is the wrong sort of snow for those in my family who like to build snowmen (any of you who know me and know of their previous endeavours will understand my relief)
It has given me a day I hadn't planned for to work on my marking and to do some more for the PhD. A good snow day. I am also going to plan sessions to be done via email for classes tomorrow just in case.
Stay warm and write lots everyone

Sunday 21 November 2010

Bakhtin and Mavis Staples

I was reading a piece in the Guardian about the Coalition closing libraries and am aware of the cut in teaching grants for the humanities. It seems to me that obviously the Government is short-sighted enough not to realise that all the scientists, engineers, doctors, they want and are throwing funds at, all need to learn how to read and write. They need access to books and people to write them. They need people to remember our heritage which can be added to by numerous people within Humanities. I could go on but unfortunately it would achieve nothing. This Magritte is how I envisage this current Coalition - something I did not vote for - raining on our parade, taking away our choices and leaving the fat cat bankers still as gloating fat cat bankers.

I have been reading an essay by Bakhtin entitled 'Discourse in the Novel' in which he talks about heteroglossia meaning that language has multiple layers. I was thinking about this in relation to my PhD and realised that the words I use within the thesis cannot help but be influenced by who I am and my cultural experiences. I come at it as an academic, a writer, a female and a mother. Not just a mother though a mother who experienced some fairly difficult times with her sons when they were teenagers which cannot help but influence my writing both academically and creatively. I then thought about the reader. When you a purchase a book you are likely to have no in depth knowledge of the author. It is the cover and the potential that makes you buy probably. However, if someone reads the work of someone they know they must come at it from an informed position. They are going to know and understand some of the layers involved. But this goes further in that I think they will understand what is being said but what is not necessarily on the page. They have insight. Does this make the reading more interesting? I can't decide.

I worked late last night on my PhD (I have a date for submission - 1st April!) consequently my brain was buzzing and wouldn't shut down. I found on the television there was a repeat of Jools Holland's programme. I let the music wrap a blanket round me and soothe my buzzing head. In particular, Mavis Staples, I was introduced to her recently by a good friend who gave me a copy of her CD, which I love. It was the panacea I needed.I am writing this on Sunday but will post it on Monday from the office as that is where I can add music as I would like you to share Mavis's song you are not alone.

Tuesday 16 November 2010

Momentous days

What a momentous week I have had. This photo is of me presenting a paper on research informed teaching and methodologies within creative writing at the NAWE (National Association of Writers in Education) Conference held in Cheltenham at the weekend. This was the second paper I had given in three days. As those of you who follow my blog may know I have been quite worried about these but both papers were well received. The other paper I gave was at the Faculty of Arts International Symposium. This was the paper I was more comfortable about as it was on my thesis and had a ridiculously long title: In a society where teenagers live by sound bites is there still a place for young adult fiction? This was the first time I had presented at my own university but I had many friends who came to support me which was wonderful. I did fluff the questions a bit at the end though which was quite disappointing. It was an 'international' symposium because my great friend Jen Webb and her colleagues, whom I now can also consider as friends, Jeri Kroll and Donna Lee Brien, all from Australia and all Professors, also presented. It was a fabulous events with great papers also by Dr Neil McCaw and Charlotte Purkiss - who did a great piece on Ficto-criticism.

The three Australians were also at NAWE and they were fantastic company. I haven't laughed so much for a very long time. They presented two great workshops on research practice and research supervising which I found really useful and enlightening. Jen and Jeri were able to come to my paper which gave me a lot of confidence. I was terrified of this paper yet it went brilliantly and this time I didn't fluff the questions. I was on cloud nine and it is Jen who kindly took the photo of me.

I am hugely grateful to the Australians and Jen in particular for making it a very special few days

Then today I had a meeting with my Director of Studies and we have a plan! We are aiming for me to submit my thesis on 1st April with a final viva voce at the end of May. If all goes well and gall bladder permitting!!

I should be flying high, instead I am fighting the black dog that has decided to appear. The photo shows me wearing my rucksack. This is not by choice it is because it carries the nutrition in that I need that is pumped straight into the stomach. Prior to being ill I had been feeding overnight so had avoided the 'hiking' look. It was a bit of shock seeing it so prominent again and I think it was that that allowed the black dog to come knocking. My DoS was great and reminded me who I was and what I am achieving and have achieved.

Time to beat the black dog back into his kennel and build on the success I have had over the last week. PhD here I come.

Sunday 7 November 2010

Circles and family and Papers....

There was a rare occurrence last night. The Harbour family went out on mass to the Village Fireworks. We don't often get to go out all together these days because we all are involved in different things. It was amazing how quickly they reverted to being children - Toby kept having to be reminded by Bea aged 5 that dancing down the middle of the road was not safe! It was also wonderful because we were accompanied by Charlie's partner Greg and the children obviously and Greg's parents and sister and husband. We were suitably noisy and raucous as any large family should be. Leo spotted a shooting star; Toby was confused by pumpkin lanterns, Charlie was as frightened as ever by fireworks (not helped by her brother shouting in her ear)but the highlight for me has to be Seb, age 5 (and yes Bea's twin brother), who was so excited by the fireworks he just kept on dancing with his eyes focused on the sky. Oh to have his lack of inhibition and total love of life. The village has been holding the fireworks every year for as many years as I can remember and certainly ever since we moved to the village 24 years ago. Initially it was run by the cricket club but is now run by the scouts and a good job was done by all. It is very much a village tradition as on the day of the bonfire if you have stuff you want burnt you put it at the front of your house and John, Greg's Dad, comes along and picks it up in his lorry. The same lorry that used to go round the village on the last Sunday before Christmas with Father Christmas sitting on the back and the cricket club in their whites delivering sweets to all the children of the village. Mine used to love it, in part because they knew all the cricket club lot. But I love the irony of the fact John and sometimes later Greg were handing sweets out to my daughter who will soon be part of their family. Life is all circles.

I then went on to the house of some old friends for dinner (clarify, they eat I watch but they have no problem with that). I sat there listening to our conversation and realised how it had changed. Our discussions used to be based around our children and what problems they might be causing now we discuss our parents and the problems we now have to deal with just trying to make sure they are ok. We got onto Christmas inevitably, both Karen and I have lost a parent this year. It is going to be a strange one but at least we have each other to understand what it is going to be like. There are some fabulous reasons for living in a village and knowing so many people. As a child we moved a lot but my children are born and bred in Winchester. It is wonderful to see how secure they are and how many long term friendships they have. They all have good friends who they started nursery with. It is a good feeling.

Last week was a fraught week and the next one even more so. But once it is over I can focus on my PhD and relax a bit. I finally got the journal out after much swearing at the software package which we use. (I am going to change this before the next edition). Once it was online I was delighted with the way it looked(go to and click on Vol II Iss I to have a peep). It is once again an eclectic mix of articles, discussion papers and reviews as it melds together the fields of writing for children and research into children's literature.

This week I have two papers to give in three days. The one on Wednesday is for an international symposium to be held at Winchester University and including, on the panel, my great friend Jen Webb and some of her Australian colleagues. I am worried about this paper because it is the first time I have presented to people I know. I tend to go away to conferences where nobody knows me! I am happier with the content of the paper though as it is embedded in my PhD thesis. The symposium is being followed by an exhibition called Kyoto, a big story about a boy and a little bear and a little story about global warming (starts at 6.00pm in The Stripe at Winchester University if you are around and would like to see it). The book Kyoto is a collaboration between Karenanne Knight who illustrated the book and Andrew Melrose (my DoS) who wrote it. They have developed the idea into a project that can be taken around schools and Wednesday is the launch. I wish them well with it as I know they have both worked hard on it. (Kyoto is available on Amazon if you are interested).

Once all that excitement is over I then have to drive up to Cheltenham on Friday after I have finished teaching to go to the NAWE conference where I will join Jen, Jeri and Donna fresh from their symposium and hopefully still not jet-lagged. They are presenting on Friday afternoon so my aim is to get there in time for that. I am presenting on Saturday morning. I talking about research informed teaching in creative writing. And I can assure you I don't feel anywhere near as confident about this paper as I do the symposium one. It will very definitely be a case of 'phew' when it is over. I am looking forward to the conference after I have given my paper and I can relax!

And talking of relaxing that will be me afterwards. This is the last thing I have committed my self to and the last thing I intend to commit to until the PhD is over. From then onwards all my spare time will be focused on my PhD and I can't wait. I have this bubble of excitement in my stomach (and no it isn't wind) when I think of being able to work on it without papers or journals getting in the way as I still love my subject but am conscious I need to move on and finish. I will have my teaching and my RIT job to do but everything else is about about the PhD.

Bring it on!!

Sunday 31 October 2010

What happened to weekends?

When I was a child my Father used to come home from work on Friday night and that was it, the weekend started. He never brought work home with him and weekends revolved around him playing golf Saturday and Sunday mornings (my Mother must have been a saint!), my Mother and I shopping, visits to the pub and long drives to visit places - does anyone ever just go for a drive any more? The visits to the pub were more when I was a teenager and my brother who is seven years older than me was still living at home. If this was planned the traditional roast went out the window and my Mother would decide to do a steak pie which sounds great but my Mother's expertise at making pastry always became suspect after several halves of Guinness (it was before wine was generally being drunk at home - she became an officienado (sp?) of that much later on when her favourite phrase was 'Is it wine time yet?'). When we got home she was inevitably a little tipsy and as I said would make (and I mean make not just pull out of the freezer) pastry which was fine but it was when it came to rolling it out and placing it on the steaming pie. Inevitably it always ended with floating islands of pastry on a sea of gravy but it tasted delicious.

Why am I reminiscing? Because I seem to have lost sight of weekends. For example this weekend should have started Friday night but what was I doing I was marking? Then yesterday the only time I left my room was to act as a taxi driver for my son other than that I was battling with two papers - one for a symposium and one for a conference. I thought I was happy with the symposium paper until I re-read it and realised that there was no cohesion to it. In fact it was pretty crappy. And the conference paper is about something that is way out of my comfort zone. Even now I have no confidence in either of them. From there I went on to more marking - I need to stay on top of it as there is more coming in this week and the week after. I ended up doing a bit of reading for my PhD - the only bit that was really for me whilst listening to the Elton John concert - yes that triggered quite a bit of reminiscing too. Please don't misunderstand all this work is not because I am slacking during the week just that I don't have enough time in the days to fit it in. Today we got an extra hour in bed but I was up just as early and started marking. Just have to plan classes for this week and if I can manage it I want to do more on my PhD. I think I am still on track with it but get the feeling it could be swept away at any moment. Tomorrow is the first day of November, it is a month when a decision has to be made as to when I am going to submit. I have no idea which way it is going to go.

Hope your weekend let you find the child in you again.

Note to self: must remember what a weekend is for.

Sunday 24 October 2010

Chicken House and Imogen Cooper - reminding us why we love to write

It is Sunday morning and I have just been reflecting on the week. In some ways it was a very long week as it was my first week back having been ill and by the end of it I must admit I was exhausted. I did do some stupid things too - like forgetting that I am now feeding during the day so have a backpack and tube running from the back pack to my stomach. And yes I did the inevitable I caught the tube in the door and snapped it. Luckily no major damage in that it didn't pull the tube out but I did have to rebuild it! I need to become aware of my surroundings again. Something I had got very lazy about when feeding overnight. There were no concerns then about walking into a crowded place or watching out for potential tube snatching traps. I am sure I will get better at remembering I have it there. I have to say the students have been absolute stars about it and so supportive. Bless them all.

In other ways the week was short. I had a meeting with AM re the journal which I am currently pulling together and is beginning to look really good again. But the pressure is on to get it sorted by 1st November - not easy when the software I use is only available at uni and I am teaching so much but I will get there.

Another important part of the week was a visit by the wonderful Imogen Cooper, who is the editor at Chicken House. A publishing company set up by Barry Cunningham ten years ago which focuses on children's book. Imogen very kindly came to talk to our MA students. She was an absolute joy to listen to and made the whole scary world of publishing a lot less scary and a lot more understandable and approachable. One of the highlights for me was how Imogen explained that they believe in the old fashioned way of editing and developing a good relationship with any author they work with. It reminded me of the reason I write - because I have stories to tell that I want to share. It was wonderful to hear that here was a company who were interested in stories and their authors, who wanted the best for their readers and most importantly did not appear to be driven solely by profit, though obviously this has to be a major driving force but it was delightful that it wasn't the be all and end all.

Chicken House are forward thinking and are always looking for new voices. They run competitions to encourage new authors (One with the Times and one for postgrad students - both of which have deadlines this week - check their website for more info) and make the effort, as did Imogen, to come out and meet MA students who are studying writing for children. I am probably also biased as my friend Lucy Christopher (she is also doing a cw PhD) is published by them as is Sarah Rubin who did her MA at the same time as me at Winchester and is just such a lovely person. Imogen left us feeling so positive about the whole process of writing for children. We all know it is never going to be easy but at least we know there are people out there who appreciate our work.

I ended the week remembering why I write and how much I love it. Let's see what next week brings.

Saturday 16 October 2010

Curved Ball

Have you missed me? I've been gone a while. As from my previous posts you may be aware that things with my PhD were going well, as was teaching, and as was life in general. Did the alarm bells ring? No, I was happily complacent, secure in enjoying my life. But as I've learnt in the past things like this can't last and often it is my body that decides it is going to rip the rug from under me. It did it again. This time with an inflamed and infected gall bladder...and I've not known pain like. I would give birth any time in comparison to that.

Anyway enough of that. It has taken me away for a while but I am back possibly moving at a slightly slower pace and less complacent. I haven't touched the PhD for a week and it has been agony. Ideas kept popping into my mind, thoughts and moments of inspiration that I wanted to act on immediately but I did as I was told ( a rare thing if you ask both my children and my Director of Studies who all ganged up on me in hospital). But, and this is so hard to admit, it has been good and served a purpose. I have been able to step away and think things through. I have come away from the week with loads of thoughts for both the novel and the critical piece.

I have been contemplating meta-narratives and micro-narratives, representation and just the creative process in general. This last part was partly because I have been dipping in out of a book called 'Home at Grasmere' which was extracts from the journal of Dorothy Wordsworth. It was given to me by said DoS, I think in an attempt to shut me up. I expected detailed insight into how her brother William wrote. It wasn't to be instead it offered tantalising exerts of their day to day lives. It made me think, do we as writers share our processes with anyone or is it something that is so individual that we keep to ourselves for fear of lack of interest from others? As a lecturer of creative writing I must share some of my processes but am not sure I share them all.

I probably should also point out the week wasn't all a bed of roses. Strong painkillers and antibiotics can do dreadful things, allowing all your daemons out to haunt you night after night. I am glad I am off both now perhaps I can get back to some form of reality that isn't as a complacent as before but is looking to the future not backwards.

Stay well and oh how I wish I could drop in some music here...sorry you will just have to imagine your favourite song of all time

Wednesday 29 September 2010

Fluid and multifaceted aspects of creative writing

Today has been a day of finishing things off that have been hanging over you for weeks. Things that you know need to be done but you avoid them because they require a bit of extra effort. So yes I do feel good now I have done them. I have written some reviews and written the majority of a discussion paper for a conference in November. I was aware that the whole time I was working on them I was aware of my PhD asking questions in the back of my head all the time. 'Is this relevant? Can we use it? How about using that in the discussion of your creativity?' As you can see the PhD never goes away or do you ever take a break from it. It is always there asking questions. not that I mind as most of the time what is coming to mind is very important and relevant.
In particular I was re-reading an article by Jeri Kroll that appeared in the latest edition of 'Text' ( partly for the paper I am writing and also for my PhD as the article is entitled 'Living on the Edge: Creative Writers in Higher Education'. In particular her thoughts on 'exploiting a concept of writing research as fluid and multifaceted in order to enrich our discipline's study and practice at all levels' seemed particularly pertinent to me at this present time as I am coming towards the end of my PhD. I am particularly interested in the idea that research is fluid and multifaceted, Graeme Harper in his book 'On Creative Writing' talks about the fluidity of the discipline and its inability to stand still for any length of time. I think that is what I like about creative writing - it challenges you to stay standing in shifting sand. it allows you to develop and evolve whilst not inflicting any impenetrable restrictions.
What do you think?

Friday 24 September 2010


It has been a chaotic week filled with good bits, strange bits and some downright horrible bits. I am very conscious of time, or the lack of it. In my head I have a deadline for my PhD. It is good to work towards an end. I love my PhD but I need to finish it and move on.Though that has had to change slightly having taken on extra teaching at the last moment. Nothing like taking on a module you haven't taught on a week before it starts to increase the stress levels slightly! Luckily I have already read 3 out of the 4 set books and the 4th one is one I have heard good things about so will look forward to reading. Plus it looks a brilliant module which I think will be useful as well as enjoyable to teach.
There is someone in my life who is struggling with time at the moment particularly during the night. There is nothing slower than those hours when you are meant to be sleeping. They drag and allow a mass of negative thoughts to worm their way in as you are busy lying there waiting for the elusive sleep to arrive. When it doesn't, those negative thoughts can win. I hope sleep appeared for them last night and gave them some much needed rest.
Though it was me who couldn't sleep last night. The brain just wouldn't switch off. It was full of PhD stuff. I have several pages of notes that I wrote during the night. I have no curtains (joys of living in the middle of the countryside) so the glorious full moon shone straight into my room all night long. It was so bright I didn't even have to switch a light on to write these notes.
There were also elements of a possible story floating around my brain. I was at my Mum's house again yesterday (not for many more days) but for the first time I noticed the clock on her mantelpiece had stopped. It had stopped at the time she had died...bit of cliche but still weird!
Let's be honest time can be your friend or your enemy. Let's hope for everyone I know and care about it can be a friend for a while.
Because I am being naughty and writing this whilst in the office I can add music. This piece is from the sound track of my life, my boys were in to Green Day for quite a few years and I can't tell you how many times I heard this in the car when being a taxi driver.

Saturday 18 September 2010

PhDs, Stories and Memories

I am very disappointed that my computer won't allow me to put links to music on my blog. There are so many pieces I would like to put up particularly as music is a large part of my life. I like to think that I have my own sound track - perhaps that's just me ;-)
I have been working on my PhD novel today. Doing some rewrites and tightening bits up that needed it. I have left the big thing until tomorrow. My DoS suggested chapters 8,9 and 10 were talking heads. I read them again today and realised other than providing bits of back story or incidents that might or might not link to things later they are actually irrelevant. It is going to be a case of 'killing my darlings' tomorrow as I rip these chapters to pieces. Writing is rewriting, rewriting and rewriting again.
I have been working on the novel as I needed to break the day up a bit. I have been clearing my Mum's house again. The downstairs this time. The place is full of stories. The photo I have put up is my Mum and my three sisters sharing my graduation when I got my MA. My sisters and my brother are joining me at my Mum's house in two weeks as we finally sort it out before the house clearance person goes in. I have been trying to get rid of stuff that could be thrown - why would a person want 12 packets of imodium? Best not answer that.
I have been going through various boxes and envelopes full of photos and documents. Today the most poignant piece was a tiny scrap of paper that looked like it had been torn from a diary. It was dated 1918. It was written to my grandmother by my grandfather before they were married. It just said 'thank you for a perfect day.' It is good to know everyone has perfect days. But to me, as a writer, it is an image that is now filed away. I am sure a story can come out of that piece of paper. Then there is all the documents between the same grandmother and the person she worked for at the House of Commons. I think there may have been more to that too. Another story waiting to be written.
I have laughed and cried today, a photo opens the door to so many memories. We have a lot of photographs. This is partly because one of my sisters has a degree in photography. But also there are all the programmes - for graduations, for dinners at Woburn Abbey, medal ceremonies. Bits of newspapers carefully clipped out announcing the death of a famous aunty, of a sister who was arrested for putting jellies by parking meters (yes you did read that right), for a journey to Camp America, announcing success as head teacher or head injuries nurse. Blueys from another sister who with the TAs spent several months in Iraq. These snippets equal stories and memories. They are part of the patchwork that makes my family what it is. They are a rich source of stories but not stories that tell family tales but stepping stones to fictional ones. This is what we do as writers. This is what I am doing with my PhD novel. It doesn't relate to any family tales but other memories that have stirred a moment of inspiration. It could be as simple as seeing a single cross with a poppy on by a gravestone. There is a whole story behind that poppy.
OK that's enough for now, it is back to 'killing my darlings'

Friday 17 September 2010

PhDs are not easy

That's a fact, PhDs are not easy but neither are they meant to be. Otherwise we'd all be doing them. Just sometimes it can be overwhelming when you actually stop and take stock of what needs to be done. Editing the novel for a start, which I am still very pleased with but am also very happy with the feedback I have received, it is both valid and accurate. When you have been writing something for a long time sometimes it is impossible to see the blindingly obvious things that need to be done to it. A serious case of not being able to see the wood for the trees. This is when your supervisors step in as they clear the decks so you can see properly again thankfully.
I also have the critical piece to write which sad as it may seem I am really looking forward to. I enjoy exploring the creative process critically and have many notes and ideas which I will be able to include. I get a real buzz at the thought of it.
Doesn't sound too bad does it? But then you include real life - papers to be written, lectures to be prepared and a journal to get out. That's when things get scary and it is best not to think. Someone once said to me you can't eat an elephant whole...weird but true. So for the next few months I won't be trying. I will be keeping my head down and just getting on with it. I may be plodding and taking small measurable steps each day but I will get there.
The point of this blog today, just to remind you that doing a PhD isn't an easy option and you've got to be mad to a certain extent to do one and I certainly qualify as that. But on the other hand the satisfaction of producing something you can be really proud of and to be called Dr is pretty good too ;-)

Wednesday 15 September 2010


Firstly the situation as it is at the moment. The novel, which is the creative part of my PhD, is complete - well a polished first draft. It is currently with the DoS for feedback, as you probably know I have received feedback on the first 100 pages which was in the main good and constructive. Am waiting to get the rest before I can do much more to the novel. Therefore I need to focus on the critical aspect of the PhD. This accompanies the creative piece and is linked to it. It can be given various names from critical commentary to rationale to exegesis.
This is the piece I am planning for at the moment. When I am working on the more academic stuff I have to have a plan. I need to know which direction I am going in and what I am hoping to achieve. At the moment this is proving to be rather vague which I am finding difficult. I need to decide how much of my previous research needs to be included and whether I can focus more on the creative process (which I would like). I have made a list of chapter headings as the first stage of my plan. I am not sure how set in stone they are but at least I have a sense of the direction I am going in. Part of the problem is I also have a lot to say and I need to decide what is important and relevant. It is going to be a case of a lot of planning and several notebooks (I always work on the basis that the smarter the notebook the more intelligent the notes inside)
I am also hoping for an epiphanic moment telling me exactly what needs to be included ...I'll keep you posted

Monday 13 September 2010

Thinking critically

Today I had planned to write a paper for a conference I have in a few weeks. It didn't happen. Mainly because there are a lot of ideas swishing around in my brain that are connected with the critical aspect of my PhD. They kept jumping in front of any ideas I might have for the paper and needed to be written down just in case I forgot them. At the moment they are just snippets of ideas linking the creative process with my research. There have been bits of Bourdieu bumbling alongside thoughts of the panoptican (an all seeing character) and the carnivalesque (a transgressive character) whilst intertwined with thoughts of connectedness and the vicarious experience. - not related at the moment but who knows how it will finally work. But these moments and snippets are vital and it is important that I keep all these notes and ideas so I can eventually pull together a coherent critical piece that explores my creative processes. A short and sweet blog for today. Am hoping the brain will stop swishing so much and let me focus on my paper tomorrow.
However, note to self: Don't throw anything away. It may be vital. Write all these notes in a note book and not on scraps of paper.

Friday 10 September 2010

Emergent Adult and the week following.

This time last week I was at The Emergent Adult conference at Homerton College, Cambridge University run by Maria Nikolajeva and her team. It was a brilliant conference with some excellent and fascinating strands.The two key note speakers - Meg Rosoff, the author, on the Friday and Shirley Brice Heath from Brown University, USA - were outstanding. Both of whom spoke at length on subjects that were relevant to my PhD. Meg Rosoff was discussing the concept of 'throughness' which I have spoken about in previous posts and relates to the idea of becoming completely connected with your writing. Whilst Shirley was talking in part about the need for vicarious experiences for teenagers and how books can fit in with this. An idea that is very pertinent to my PhD.Even my own paper on my research into risk taking behaviour by teenagers and how it relates to my PhD went down very well and I was delighted with the response it received. The conference was also eased along by being in good company - Lucy Christopher and Teri Terry - who both made it a delightful weekend full of laughter and some serious conversations even.

The week that followed was full of good times too. Both Prof Jen Webb and Prof Nancy Rosoff visited Winchester University and I spent a delightful few hours discussing a wide range of subjects including some things pertinent to my PhD as well as some not such academic subjects with both of them as they are not just academics but good friends too.

Everything at the moment seems to be focused around my PhD, I think probably because I am heading towards the end. I received feedback on the first hundred pages of the creative piece of my PhD. The feedback was useful and good. There were even large chunks with no comments on at all which was hugely satisfying. This further reinforced the positive feedback I had received in Scotland and gave me a great sense of confidence about my work - both the critical and creative aspects. There is still a mass to do but it is something I am really looking forward to. This is how I intend to use this blog from now onwards. It is to be a diary of how the final few months of my PhD go - both the good and the bad.

Wednesday 1 September 2010

Cambridge and my research

I am off to Cambridge tomorrow to Homerton College for a conference entitled The Emergent Adult which is being organised by Maria Nikolajeva (a member of the editorial board of Write4Children). This is the first time I have taken part in a conference like this and am really looking forward to it but also slightly nervous about the whole thing. We had to submit our papers by the 1st of July. They have been available online for everyone to read and also a discussant will lead the session. Instead of presenting your paper (as everyone will have already read it) you have ten minutes to talk about your research and then twenty minutes for questions. Methinks this could be good practice for my final viva! The other papers look fascinating. I think this is going to be a wonderful conference.
Meg Rosoff is going to speak on Friday and I am really looking forward to hearing her as I love her books but also she has been very supportive with my own writing for which I am very grateful. Another friend Teri is going to the conference so at least I will have moral support. lol
I am also taking the opportunity to catch up with a good friend who started her MA with me. Looking forward to it Jen and seeing Toby and Jessica.
I love Cambridge but it is years since I have been there. Can't wait!

Saturday 28 August 2010


This slightly scary photograph was taken on the last night of the retreat. I think what it shows is something I am very conscious of at the moment. I am very happy and content. The strains of the world seemed to have disappeared. It is a whole week since I left the retreat, in some ways it is a lifetime ago and other ways it is the blink of an eye away.
It has been a week where various things happened that touched me or rather woke me up. I finished the PhD novel and sent it off as you know from previous posts which was very satisfying and made the PhD seem very real particularly as the DoS and I have been discussing when the final viva could be. Then I was introduced by Kate Wheeler, who was instrumental in their online creation, to the BBC's archive of interviews with authors going as far back (or as far as I have found at the moment) as an interview with Virginia Woolf talking about mysterious demands and the duplicity of words. It has been fascinating to listen to them as they are often frank and honest interviews. For example AS Byatt learnt plotting from The Bill in its early days. Finally, yesterday I was given a paper to read that has been written ready for a conference in a few weeks time. It was a wonderful read, it made all my critical nerve endings come to life and crave more. The PhD mind was well and truly awake as I was then fascinated to realise that the Woolf interview resonated with this paper 73 years apart but both equally valid and inspirational. My world is full of circles, lots of circles. I love my life full of circles.

Tuesday 24 August 2010

An Achievement

This photograph is the front cover of my PhD Novel. At my last meeting with my Director of Studies I was set the task of having a complete, polished first draft of the novel. Well, here it is. I will be going into the university tomorrow to print it off and send it to him for this perusal and thoughts. It is called 'Ham and Jam' because that was the signal during the D Day landings to indicate that the Pegasus Bridge had been taken. The story is about a group of students who go to Normandy as part of their History course whilst there they rescue a very young girl who is being used in the sex trade. it is the story of how they save her.
I am pleased with it. Having the opportunity to work for such a dedicated amount of time up in Scotland made a huge difference along with the good feedback I was given there too. I have acted upon it all. I think I have achieved a sense of place now. I have read the whole thing out loud so I can hear the words and perform the dialogue to know it works and it does. It is as polished as I can get it now.
Feeling a bit vacant and lost now. Need to switch back into lecturer mode now and attack the long list of work that needs to be completed along with the papers that need writing and journal that needs editing. Listing it like that maybe I'll just go back to being a writer...

Sunday 22 August 2010

Home from Retreat

If you ever have an opportunity to go on an Arvon Tutored Retreat - take it. I have just returned from Moniack Mhor where these Aberdeen Angus cows were our nearest neighbours. it has been a week of writing, talking and laughing...oh and cheese! When attending anything with a group of strangers there is always the risk of tension and conflict. Not here, there were fourteen writers and two tutors - Zoe Strachan and Kevin MacNeil, both accomplished authors/poets and so generous with their time. We got along famously and I think some long term friendships will develop out of the retreat. We already have a facebook group and made contact via email.
There was limited internet access, no phones or TV or radio. It was bliss. The weather was amazing and the views unbelievable. Several took the opportunity to walk to Lock Ness, unfortunately my joints and lack of stamina meant such a journey was not an option for me but it really didn't matter. I was in love with the views.
I started writing as soon as I got up stopping only occasionally for a drink or stretch and then stopped as it got towards the evening meal. We also had the opportunity of having an hour long one to one with each of the tutors who had previously been sent some of our work. This was the first time anyone outside of my supervisory team had looked at my PhD novel. It was quite nerve wracking but the feedback was not only useful but inspirational too giving me a real sense of confidence in my writing. Sounding a typical writer by being over dramatic, the week has been life changing/affirming for me.
It is rare to have an opportunity to have such an intense time to focus on your writing - the most important thing I got out of it was I remembered why I write - I love it and it is what I have to do.

Sunday 15 August 2010

Snippets of ideas

I haven't looked at my manuscript, apart from printing if off on Friday, for over two weeks and it has been agony. But this break has allowed to start thinking freely about it again. I have snippets of ideas, images, phrases and thoughts for the story that appear uninvited but enthusiastically in my brain. I note them all down in my notebook. A beautiful bright red moleskin notebook that my son got me for Mother's Day that I saved for this particularly project.
I am talking about two vital parts of the writing process here. One is leaving your manuscript alone for a minimum of a couple of weeks to let the story ferment in your brain. Bubbling away means all those ideas that have been at the edge of your thoughts for so long but could never quite come into focus. Putting the manuscript away allows them to jump into focus. It is something that some of my students are reluctant to see at first. Some of them think that when the first draft it done then that is it. Re-writing is for bad writers. WRONG! Re-writing is a very important part of the writing process particularly, if like me, you are an 'adder-in' rather than a 'taker-out' when editing/re-writing.Walking away from it means that you can come back to your manuscript afresh.

The second one is the importance of an ever present notebook. This was something I was introduced to by AM, my DoS, and it was one of the most invaluable bits of advice I have ever received and something that I try and pass on to my students. Carrying a notebook with you all the times means when you see something, or hear a wonderful phrase or a nugget of an idea drops into your brain you have somewhere to put it. It is also the place where I put the notes from all my research. This means that everything is kept in one place so you know where to look to find information rather than trawling through bits of paper that you intended to file.

Now am off to buy new pens and pencils for writing with on retreat....another important part of stationery ;-)

Friday 13 August 2010

Retreat and writing.

Today I have printed off my novel as it stands at the moment - just over 200 pages. This is so I can take it with me to the retreat next week. I will have my laptop with me but as I am often told it is better to work on a hard copy. The story is very nearly there so a lot of next week will be spent going through it, exploring what I have written and looking for better ways, rewriting where necessary.
I was reading about ways of writing the other day. They suggested there were two ways of writing: 1) where you overwrite to the extreme and when you edit you cut back big time. 2) you get the basic story down and then go back and bring it to life. That is me. That is what I do.This also means I love the rewriting process because of how much you invest into the narrative to make it sing.
That is what I am hoping to do in Scotland. I am going to finish a first draft and then polish it. I am just really hoping that when I get there the writing doesn't just freeze up and no words come. I know I am putting a lot of pressure on myself but am trying not to. If that makes sense. I am also very conscious that this retreat is the sort of chance I don't normally get so the pressure to make the most of it is also huge. I just hope that at the end I have something to really show for it.
I have never been in such a situation for such concentrated writing. It will be a totally different experience, one I am looking forward to sharing with my students. I will also be interested to see if the writing process changes there. I will let you know when I get back.

Wednesday 11 August 2010

Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators British Isles

This is a link to a the SCWBIs (British Isles) social network page (you need to be a member to join)
I have been to their conference which is held at Winchester University a couple of times and always found it incredibly useful but that was really all my contact with the group, until I joined Facebook that is.
Through that social network, which is much maligned, I have made contact and friends with a lot of members. It has proved to be a wonderful resource and has meant I am kept up to date with what is going on within the SCBWI. But on top of that it has provided a forum where discussions can take place about writerly issues but also a place to celebrate successes. It has created a great community where there is no sense of 'them' (the published) and 'us' (the great unpublished). It is also useful to see that sometimes well established authors have the same doubts as the rest of us.
This sense of community is very important as writing, even writing for children, is a very solitary occupation. The Ning site adds to this community whilst also providing a seemingly unending amount of information for the aspiring and already published writer alike. I recommend becoming part of the SCBWI as it is a great resource and provides a wonderful support network.

See you there....I hope.

Tuesday 10 August 2010

Old cogs

My brain feels like it is full of old, rusty cogs. I have been working on the creative part of my PhD for quite a few weeks now and hopefully it will be finished next week when I am on retreat. Today I started looking at some of the other work I have to do. This included a paper I am giving in November and I admit I had a little panic.
Trying to get the brain to change gear and start moving in a critical rather than creative way was very difficult - though I would argue that they work together and from each other and are in fact inseparable. I suppose what it really is is a matter of focus rather than separate functions and my critical focus had become a bit blurred. What I do know is that I definitely needed some WD40 to oil the cogs to smooth the way.
In the end it wasn't WD40 that got it going again, it was good old Baudrillard who woke it up, refocused it and even got the brain excited as it remembered why I was going to do this paper and also how I can apply some of his ideas to my PhD.
Normal service has been resumed!

Saturday 7 August 2010

A good read

A couple of posts ago I told you about a wonderful book called Bitter Chocolate by Sally Grindley. It was a very powerful story with a great ending that made me hold my breath several times as I read it. Not all books do that to me.

Today I was given the opportunity of reading another story. This has yet to be published and when it is I will remind you of it. But as a bit of a tantaliser it was as powerful and as beautifully written as Sally Grindley's book. It also made me hold my breath several times as I anticipated what was going to happen next.
There is nothing more satisfying than reading a story that is good enough to stay in your mind for hours, days, even months afterwards. Both of these achieved that.

Thursday 5 August 2010

The loss of an old friend

I have lost an old friend. It is not a human friend but a book. Excuse the 'look inside' I couldn't get rid of that. I bought a copy of this book in the first two weeks of my English degree. Back in 2002. I was very new, very unsure if I was doing the right thing and totally over whelmed by it all. Wasn't I bit old to be going to uni? Obviously not as I am still there!
I have no idea why I bought the book as at the time I had never thought of writing for children. Maybe it was the cover or the word 'write'. I had come to uni to follow the creative writing strand through the English degree. Then it wasn't until several weeks later that I had it pointed out to me that it was written by one of our lecturers. Someone who unbeknown to me at the time would also end up having a major influence on the direction my career would take.
I have read this book cover to cover several times. It got me through my final year project of my degree, then my MA in Writing for Children and nearly all the way through my PhD. It is old and tatty. It has notes all over it and if I have a question I know exactly where to look for it. I shall buy a new one but it won't be the same. It won't be my friend. A book that has moved fives times with me, been through numerous family crisis and several all-nighters when I have been trying to finish something.
I have searched my office and my home. Maybe it has had enough, packed its bags and left. Whoever finds it, I hope they treat well and find it as useful as I have. I know AM is about to write a new book which I am looking forward to and will no doubt fill the hole and be equally as useful. But I will still miss my friend.

Bitter Chocolate

I have just read Bitter Chocolate by Sally Grindley. It is a book I am planning on using in the Creativity and Children's Literature module I teach on the MA Writing for Children at Winchester. It is a beautifully written book and a prime example of how to deal with difficult issues in a sensitive yet elucidating way. There is no way the book can be accused of being didactic yet it is still educational.
The story is told from Pascal's point of view but this is split in two. Some of the chapters are based in the plantation where he splits cocoa pods with other boys who are treated like slaves. The chapters explain Pascal's journey to the plantation. They tell you about his family then his time as a boy soldier. It wasn't how he wanted it to be. The ending is sudden. It leaves you hanging there wondering. But the ending is perfect, it provides hope and a future.
Sally's research has obviously been extensive. It is not in your face but it is there in the story adding depth to it. I particularly enjoyed the fact she talks about Salif Keita, whose music I love and was introduced to earlier this year by a friend.
I loved Sally's Spilled Water which was used when I was doing the MA but this book is even better and if you want a treat go and read it.

Wednesday 4 August 2010

Drugs and their representation

I watched a fascinating programme that Channel 4 aired on Monday night entitled 'Every one's At It'. It highlighted some of the issues of my PhD. Since the beginning of my research cannabis has been moved from a Class B drug to Class C and then back again. Various new drugs have come on the scene such as Methadrone, initially a legal high but now illegal, GHB which has also been classed as an illegal drug but has been replaced by users by GBL. The programme claims that one in six British citizens have used a Class A drug. Angus McQueen is exploring the drug situation by talking to users, parents of children who have died using drugs, the police and charities that provide support for drug users.
It had a powerful message that basically drug use is out of control in this country and McQueen suggests that perhaps we should consider legalising these drugs as we are not capable of stopping people using them. It is an argument that I think I agree with.
As a writer though it makes writing about drugs particularly difficult as the culture is moving all the time. As part of my PhD I am suggesting that a novel is a good resource for information - if it is not a novel that teenagers are being told to read, in which case they immediately switch off. What it needs is good gripping, well told stories that grab the teenagers mind. Bali Rai, Kevin Brooks, Keith Gray, Jenny Valentine and Melvin Burgess are names that come to mind immediately but before you all bombard me with other books about drugs I am aware just don't feel a list of authors or books is appropriate in this blog. If you want more information on them please contact me.
It is also interesting how the portrayal of drug has shifted over the last 14 years - but that is for my thesis. You'll have to wait for that to find out more.

Tuesday 3 August 2010

Academic Brain

This photo is of me at graduation when I received my MA a few years ago and before you ask no I am not wee-ing against the tree as was suggested by somebody.
I have been focusing on the novel aspect of my PhD recently but hopefully once I return from Scotland a first draft will have been completed and be in a fit state to send to the DoS and I can move on to the critical. This concentration on the creative has had a bit of a detrimental effect on my academic brain. It appears to have shut down through lack of use.
I am hoping to wake it up by planning my lectures for next semester. One new module, one totally revamped module, two partially revamped module and one old module. All adds up to quite a bit of planning. I feel the need to be in control as on top of that I have a paper to write (possibly two) and will need to start on the critical part of my PhD as well. Hence the need to kick the academic brain into working order again.
I will exercise the brain tomorrow by reading some critical books. I wonder if a metaphoric light bulb will go on and the brain will go 'Oh yes, I know this stuff, I remember it.' I hope so!

Sunday 1 August 2010

Writing backwards - It worked!

Well it worked. And I am very happy about it. I ended up writing backwards and forwards but it all eventually came together in a very natural way. Once again it was very like the 'Push-me Pull-you' from Dr Dolittle. And I managed to break through the 50,000 word barrier. This is something I have never done before on a single project It was a very satisfying feeling. I am definitely on the downward slope to the end of the book. I worked out this morning that I have approximately 5 chapters to go and these are worked out in my head.
The retreat will be a perfect place to complete the final chapters. They are going to be quite tense chapters so will need a lot of thinking about to make sure the tension in my head is relayed to the reader.
Then once it is complete there will come the editing process...but that is another story!

Tuesday 27 July 2010

Writing backwards

There is a wonderful illustration by Carla Sonheim and just entitled 'backwards'. That is how I am approaching my writing at the moment. It wasn't intentional but you may remember I had a chapter I had to write that was a bit further on in the story. Well that chapter is written and am now working backwards from that chapter to where the bulk of the story is.

This hadn't been my plan. I was going to go back to where I was and just write until I got there, but the words had a different idea. They kept coming up with snippets that needed to go into a chapter just before the random one. It is all topsy turvey but it seems to be working. (Ask me whether it is still working when I have completed the first draft!)

When I was at Torquay at the weekend I went to an art exhibition at Torre Abbey just across the road from my sister's house. There was Damien Hurst's 'cow and calf'. I have to be honest I didn't like them and I didn't get them as pieces of art they were more like a biological experiments to me but maybe I am just a philistine. However at the same exhibition were three full sized horses made of driftwood. They were very beautiful but they also summed up how my writing is working at the moment. Driftwood sentences are twisting together to form the story, just like Heather Jansch creates her wonderful horses. I am hoping my story is as beautiful and effective as her sculptures.(Sorry see above I couldn't get the photo to embed here).