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!