Saturday 31 December 2011

The past and J K Rowling

Yesterday was supposed to be the last post of 2011 but then I thought I would share this with you. In the meantime and at the risk of repeating myself I hope 2012 brings you a lot of happiness and possibly the odd publishing contract!

Just before Christmas I had a skip delivered. Madness you may think but we needed a clear out. There were boxes in my son's room which had never been opened from the day we moved in 5 years ago. But what happens when you have a clear out is that you find things that weren't lost but are full of memories.

There were a mass of documents and brochures relating to my business which was part of my 'past' life. Was I really that woman that ran a PR and management consultancy company? What happened to her? Luckily she faded away. I didn't like her.

There were cards wishing me good luck with my course. I started a degree in English at Winchester uni  in 2002 having lost the business through ill health. There was also a diary which I had planned to write throughout my course which I had forgotten all about. I didn't complete it but I did manage to write odd snippets for the first semester. I found a comment I had written after just two weeks which said 'I love this. I wonder if I can do the MA and then a PhD?' The answer is yes you can and did! The final entry was a random comment relating to bumping into a lecturer who I  knew of but didn't know as he hadn't taught me. He had had to step into mark the creative writing assessments at the last minute. He remembered what I had written and informed me that I could write! I was astounded as this lecturer knew nothing about me. He might not have said that if he had known then how often he would have to work with me in the future... would you AM? LOL

I also found a book plate which is signed by J K Rowling - a proper signature not a laser print one. I had forgotten that we had been given this. It was just lying in a drawer. I have now stuck it into one of her books. When I mentioned on fb that I had found it the immediate suggestion was to sell it. Maybe I will, maybe I won't. I write for children and I would be rich if I had a pound for every time a person said of my writing: 'Are you going to be the next J K Rowling?' The answer is of course I am not going to be and I wouldn't want to be. The Harry Potter books are unique. Two of my children loved reading them. I would have to order 3 copies of the book when they came out so we could all read it at the same time then we could talk about it and no one could spoil it for the others. My youngest loved the films (he hates books!) and has bought me the complete set of DVDs for Christmas. On which note I confess I love Harry Potter too. I know as a CW lecturer the writing could be tightened at times and I am aware that a lot of people knock them but as far as I am concerned they are great stories to escape into. J K Rowling does the best description of meals ever! So maybe I will keep that signature just for the sheer pleasure of it and as a reminder of all those magical moments when,  as a family, we would discuss Harry Potter. Thank you JK.

This song is called The Universal Child and that is who, as writers, we write for, never forget who they are. I love this song, see if you can spot the Icarus reference. It is here especially for my children who have grown and flown. And for my grandchild and step grandchildren who are just beginning to grow. Just in case you didn't know I am so proud of you all.

Thursday 29 December 2011

Happy New Year - 2012

What did you do in 2011?
Wow! What a year that was. There is only a day or so left of 2011 and as you can see by the photo it has been a pretty amazing year for me. I did exactly what I set out to do and  I achieved my PhD. Also little Noah made a fairly dramatic appearance in July and is the light of my life. Making our family even more perfect - thank you Charlie and Greg. A doctor in June and Nanny Noo Noo (don't ask!!) in July. I graduated in November surrounded by family and friends, which was a day I will never forget. It was incredible (see my post in November for full details)

As well as some truly wonderful and awe inspiring highs there have been a few lows in 2011 including surgery but I have been supported throughout by some fantastic friends and, of course, my amazing family.

There was only one conference where I gave a paper this year and that was Great Writing in June 2011 and run by Graeme Harper, who happened to be my external examiner at my viva. Therefore the fact it was straight after my viva was an experience. The paper went particularly well. I felt like I had a whole new confidence in my work. It was a great conference and I was able to spend a lot of time either side of it with my great friend Jen Webb. Who had already surprised me by being there when I turned up for my viva. We went to museums, art galleries and the theatre. We drank champagne and talked and talked. It was a perfect few days. Jen is coming back over to the UK for a few months at the beginning of 2012. That is certainly something to look forward to.

I had the privilege to watch the development, writing and then publication of two outstanding academic books which were both produced by Andrew Melrose, my former Director of Studies and a great friend who shared many of my celebrations and stuck the pieces back together during my lows. Thank you Andy.

I went to the SCBWI's conference in November for the first time for several years. It was a fascinating and illuminating conference where I managed to catch up with many fb and Google+ friends.

I have just read my blog from this time last year and I was so focused. I knew exactly what I was going to do. A great feeling for someone who has been accused in the past of being a bit of a control freak! 2012 doesn't feel quite so focused. I was advised to take 6 months away from the critical stuff once my PhD was finished to let the brain stop being quite so mushy. Well come January that 6 months is up. I have 2012 stretching out in front of me and it looks quite empty. I have several potential projects but nothing concrete. A bit freaky for someone who likes to know exactly what is happening. All the potentials focus on my creative work rather than my critical but am sure I will find ways to address this. I have just got to stop standing on the precipice and take that step off to see what happens.

To all my wonderful friends, and you know who you are I am sure, and my glorious family, thank you for a truly amazing 2011 and I wish you all a very happy and successful 2012. See you here this time next year.

Tuesday 27 December 2011

Voices and reading

Today is more about characterisation and voice. I was recently advised to read a certain book because it had a good example of the type of voice I was trying to create. I took the advice and read the book waiting for my epiphany. Unfortunately, it didn't come, or rather it did but not in a way I expected. This strong voice that was recommended to me I found to be weak and predictable. Admittedly they were not the main character but even so minor characters have got to be able to stand up for themselves. Make you aware they are there and why. My epiphany was more of a reminder of how much reading is actually subjective. Any reader, whether adult or child does not come to a story empty handed. They arrive full of their past experiences and knowledge ready to take away new knowledge and interpretation for dissemination when they share a good tale.

As reading is subjective I would suggest that as a writer sometimes you just need to follow your gut instinct. Be strong and believe in yourself. You will know if it is not working. Trust that inner voice. Just because one agent or publisher happens to like one style doesn't mean that your style is wrong. It may just not be right for them. Try others. You have to believe in what you are writing and stand by it. If you have doubts then the reader definitely will too.

Equally as important as listening to that inner voice is ensuring you read, and read copiously. Not just books that are within your comfort zone. Challenge yourself. As I mentioned above, about the reader, you will take away from all books you read a bit more knowledge about writing. It might be a style you don't like or a style you love. Words they may have used could inspire you. The more you read the more informed you become as a writer and therefore can have even more faith in that inner voice.

This song is because I love it and Joni plus maybe because  it is time to skate away ready for a new year

Wednesday 21 December 2011

Writing again

Happy Christmas!
Do you ever take yourself by surprise? I did yesterday evening when I had the need to write a story. It was a short story and was for adults not children so couldn't be further from what I normally do. There had been an idea simmering in the back of my mind for years all relating to a little black dress but nothing had come of it. Then some recent snippets of conversations and people watching that had been logged away meant that  the story suddenly presented itself. The little black dress is in it but not the main character I always thought it would be. It was something that had to be written. I had no choice. 

People, who are not writers, always think you are mad when you say things like that but all writers understand that sometimes a 'craziness' does take hold when you just have to write and nothing will stop you. A story or a poem just needs to find its way out of your mind and onto the page. A lot of this story kept coming to me during the night luckily for the moment my laptop is still on my bed so I could keep writing. It is not quite fully formed but it is getting there.

As you may know I recently wrote a post on getting the words flowing and I seem to have found another way as what writing this short story did do for me was to release the block that I have had on other projects. One in particular whose main character I have been very worried about as potentially she could be risky but then I was reading a book recommended by a very good friend and I read this:

You can only take the risk and know two things: 1) that you are doing it for the right reasons (not for the sensation, the gimmicks, or the chance to preach or show off) and 2) that you have brought every bit of your talent, literary skill and energy to bear upon the task.

 Thank you Alison Macleod for writing this in Vanessa Gebbie's edited collection entitled Short Circuit. This wonderful collection may also have been a trigger for the need to write a short story along with the Alice Munro's New Selected Stories I am reading. Nothing ever happens for no reason even if it does take you by surprise. Combine these two incidents and I find myself writing freely again.

I realised I know this character really well. I can take a risk with her because I trust her. I need to focus on writing the story and not worry about anything else. 

Guess what I will be doing this Christmas between the marking and planning that is!

There is very definitely hope in my heart as we head towards 2012. So many plans and ideas.  I may be a grandmother and on crutches but there will definitely be no time to be a 'little old lady' no matter what anyone suggests  LOL ;-)

Just love this (you may have to watch it via YouTube)

Sunday 18 December 2011

Review of the Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson

A book to fall into

The Sky is Everywhere is Jandy Nelson's debut novel and came out 2010 and is published by Walker Books. It is a beautifully written book that deals with the desperation of grief intertwined with the intensity of first love without a vampire or black cover in sight.

The main character is Lennie, a 17 year old who plays the clarinet and is in the school band. She writes poetry and has read Wuthering Heights 23 times - some would say a geek. Instead you find a fully rounded character who no longer knows who she is. You meet Lennie as she is dealing with the sudden death of her 19 year old sister, Bailey. Lennie sees herself as the pony companion to her race horse sister so is left floundering by her absence. If you then add to this boys, which until this point she had had no interest in, you suddenly have a tumultuous story. The blurb on the back says: 'What's wrong with me? What kind of a girl wants to kiss every boy at a funeral, wants to maul a guy in a tree after making out with her (dead) sister's boyfriend the previous night?' Lennie is confused and torn. She deals with her emotions by writing poems on the nearest surface available and leaving them all over the place. The reader joins her on her journey where she finds that the sky is everywhere. Lennie lives with her grandmother, Gram and uncle, Big, as her mother left to explore the world when the girls were very small. They are larger than life characters and at times the grief of all three of them is almost palpable. As a reader you feel like you could be intruding. But don't get me wrong it is not a sad book, it is one of raw emotion.

Toby (Bailey's boyfriend) and Joe (the new boy in school who just happens to be gorgeous!) are the male interests and could potentially be perceived as being rather predictable characters but the writing lifts them way beyond any predictability. The writing  is poignant, crazy, challenging and powerful. The narrative is littered with references to Simone De Beauvoir, Hélène Cixous, Jean-Paul Satre, Mozart, Bach, clarinets, mandolins and guitairs. But there is nothing geeky about this book. It is just full of some wonderful phrases and ideas as you move through Lennie's grief and her first experiences of love - that Heathcliff and Cathy/Lady Chatterley and Oliver Mellors/Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy moment. Well worth a read.

Like with grief sometimes it is just too hard to let go of many things.

Saturday 17 December 2011

Where can words come from?

I am a writer, a wordsmith. I take a collection of letters and make them into words which I then paint a picture with. But where can these words come from? I find they can come from anywhere in the same way inspiration takes you by surprise. It might be a song, a poem or a conversation. It can be a piece of art, a beautiful sky or a perfumed flower. All these and a myriad of other things can be the trigger for those words to start forming that picture which becomes a narrative and then a complete story or poem.

There are times though when you need those words to start working and they just won't. Some might say 'walk away, they will come eventually.' But that isn't always an option. Here are a few ways of kick starting the process:

1. Stop thinking you can't do it.

2. Go away and read some poetry or a favourite book. It is amazing how other people's beautifully crafted words can trigger your own.

3. Do some free writing - just writing continuously without thinking about what you are writing. Don't stop (and I mean don't stop) just keep going for a couple of minutes. When you read it back you may find something there that jumps out at you and starts the flow of words. The added advantage of this exercise is that you will have emptied your brain of all the 'stuff' that was clogging it up.

4. Go through your notebook - you are a writer you should always have a notebook in which you take notes of snippets of interesting conversations, descriptions of places, people you've seen, experiences. Something in there will remind you of a moment you wish to bring to life.

5. Try something different - write in a different way. Maybe take your free writing and cut it up then reorder it. See what comes out of that and then fly with it.

Most importantly believe that those words are there, they may be shy but they will come forward if you give them a chance. Enjoy your writing.

The idea of cut ups is, apparently, an aleatory literary technique and is most often associated with the likes of William S Burroughs and David Bowie. Below is a song written in a similar way but am not sure that it relies as much on chance as the term aleatory suggests but it is hugely successful and poignant for many of us. It is a song sung by the Military Wives Choir with Gareth Malone but importantly it is written by Paul Mealor. He took the letters of these wives and their husbands then using phrases from them he created this song. A song truly from the heart and I wish them luck with all their fundraising and really hope they get to be Christmas number one.

Saturday 10 December 2011

Which books have influenced your desire to write?

 I was listening to a TED talk by Sarah Kay entitled 'How many lives can you live?' She mentioned in the talk how when she was a child and asked what she was going to be when she grew up her answer would be 'Princess/Ballerina/Astronaut (all said as one word.). Also, as seen in a previous post,  in Keith Gray's podcast he mentioned two books and a film that had influenced and inspired him to become a writer. Both of these very separate incidents seemed to combined together and I started thinking about what my answers would be. Firstly when I was growing up I wanted to be a show jumper/doctor/actress/writer. Two out of four isn't bad.  But then what about the books that influenced and encouraged me when I was a child and fueled this desire to write, below is my very brief list. It could have gone on for an eternity but I thought instead I would just give you a sample:

1. Teddy Robinson Tales  by Joan G Robinson, Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne and Paddington Bear by Michael Bond. Spot a theme? These were all books that were read to me by my mother, and yes, she did have a thing about Teddy Bears. For me they represent that intimate moment between parent and child when sharing a book. A moment that you should be able to bottle.

2..K.M.Peyton's Fly-by-Night. This was a book I read over and over again as a young girl desperate to own a pony and become a show jumping champion. A few weeks ago I had the chance to go and meet K.M.Peyton but unfortunately I couldn't get there due to ill health. However, I started to re-read Fly-by-Night and it immediately took me back to those impassioned moments when I believed and lived every moment. I was Ruth Hollis. It is the time when I truly understood the power of the book and the chance to escape.

3. As a teenager I read vociferously some of which were real rubbish but one book that does stick out in my mind for all the wrong reasons is D.H. Lawrence's Three Novellas. We were studying it for A level and we had a very new, very young, very good looking male English teacher with the most piercing blue eyes ever and  to whom I would now like to apologise! I loved the stories and it introduced me to the power of the short story and many other things.

All of the above books have influenced and inspired my desire to write. How about you? What did you want to be? And what books to you remember from childhood?

Now a beautiful piece of music and thank you Rachel Rooney for this, I love its gentleness.

Tuesday 6 December 2011

Keith Gray's Pod Casts on Writing

I have just found five little gems. If you are interested in writing check this series of mini pod casts produced by Keith Gray and organised by the Scottish Book Trust ( Keith Gray has written some truly awesome books including: MARLAKEY and OSTRICH BOYS. Below I will give a very brief summary but I would really recommend you take the time to listen to them.

1. Inspiration and ideas: Keith talks about how he works at his desk for several hours a day.  But before he sits at his desk he has to know what he is going to write. He looks for inspiration in books, people watch as he sits in a cafe, on walks or watching tv for example. He says his ideas can come from his real life experiences, from wishful thinking or real life events.

2. Characters: The main characters should have: a talent, an ambition, a deep dark secret, a best friend and a worst enemy. Keith also suggests you 'know what's in their pockets' which is something I was taught on my MA at Winchester so I use it frequently for all my characters. It helps you get right inside the character's heads. He also reminded me that actions can show what characters are like.

3. Plot: A story is about conflict, someone with a problem. As a writer you need to create the problem or the dilemma that should be followed by some confrontation as you try to solve it before you end the story with a resolution.

4. Setting:  Keith pointed out how people used to write reams of description which describe the setting. Now you tend to give bits of description. He also pointed out how setting can be the cause of conflict, it can also be the source of atmosphere. Setting can even add to a character's description -  sometimes when you think of someone you automatically put them in a certain place.

5. Redrafting; When redrafting he has suggested you look for clarity, colour and construction. On this basis I would also suggest reading your work out loud.

As I said just a brief synopsis of these excellent podcasts. I hope you enjoy the real thing.

For just one of those days when you wish you had walked away.

Friday 2 December 2011

Final part of the SCBWIs Conference - The Edge

This is the very final post on the SCBWIs conference I promise but the topic is very relevant to my own writing and is my research area. On the Sunday I attended The Edge Panel comprising of authors who write for The Edge Blog including: Miriam Halahmy, Dave Cousins,Bryony Pearce, Sara Grant and Paula Rawsthorne. They are all authors of 'edgy' books. As someone who has done a whole PhD on the ideas behind 'edgy' books I found myself very relieved when I was agreeing with everything they were saying. Maybe my research wasn't too far off the mark!

 Firstly what is 'edgy' fiction? They suggested it would be issue driven and contentious, though they did point out that issues can differ from person to person. They also highlighted how if you were too passionate about trying to get a message about issues across you could lose sight of your story. This was a message that hit home for me. HAM AND JAM was the second novel for my PhD. The first had to be abandoned for exactly that reason. I was so busy trying to get sex, drugs and alcohol into the narrative I lost sight of any potential story. It was like walking through treacle. The story felt forced and contrived so was placed in a very deep bottom drawer after my Upgrade. Luckily, and eventually, the idea for HAM AND JAM appeared which was totally story driven.

The panel also suggested you have to be comfortable with what you are writing whilst also being willing to stand by what you have said if you are dealing with contentious issues. The team came up with some excellent tips for writing for YAs including needing lots for the reader to connect with. It was also suggested that you should have a post it note near where you write just saying: 'Entertaining! Gripping! Thought Provoking! Engaging!' You need to ask yourself does my writing meet these requirements throughout. A good reminder. It was also suggested that you should treat each chapter as a scene with the idea you should 'jump into the middle of the scene and hit the ground running.' In other words, 'late in and early out'. Really good advice.

 As someone who already has an elderly character, Finley McGinley, in my novel I was very pleased to here the panel say that YAs might drive the story but there is nothing stopping you having other adults in there. Phew! Another good tip was to be careful with slang, technology, films and music - what is contemporary and cutting edge now may have disappeared off the scene by the time your book is published. Go generic or make it up was the suggestion.

 All in all it was a great panel and I now have a pile of books to read as at the time of the conference I had only read Miriam's excellent book HIDDEN but am now the proud owner of THE TRUTH ABOUT CELIA FROST, ANGEL'S FURY and DARK PARTIES with FIFTEEN DAYS WITHOUT A HEAD now on pre-order. I know what I will be reading over Christmas.

 Now an aside, today I was taken totally by surprise, a very good friend presented me with a signed copy of his book which I have watched evolve with great delight over the past year and have had many discussions about. And yes, I confess, I am thrilled by it because it was so unexpected.Thank you AM

 And now a bit of Norah Jones because it is Friday at the end of week 10 and I am very tired so the thought of going away somewhere sounds very appealing instead I have a weekend of marking planned.