Sunday 29 April 2012

What's in a name?

I have made a momentous decision this week - well to me anyway. With encouragement from the prospective editor I have changed the name of my work in progress. This now means that it is no longer my PhD novel, which was called, as you know, Ham and Jam. It has moved on and become a totally different animal and ,in the end, I think will bear little relation to that novel. But what's in a name? A huge amount I would suggest.

I ask all my students to name their assignments with the idea that you feel like you own it, in your mind, if you have named it. It becomes real. Choosing a name can be an agonising process because selecting the right one is vital. It can tell you so much about the story. (It is also a great way to prevaricate and avoid the actual writing so be warned!) One of the favourite names of my novels was not thought of by me, my daughter came up with it - Disjointed was an earlier novel about cannabis psychosis. A novel I think I may try and convert into a script as I think it would work better in that format, but that is an aside. Ham and Jam had a reason behind it too. It was the signal to be given by the British army when they had captured the Pegasus Bridge during the D Day Landings. Very relevant to me but not the greatest selling point. I am hoping the new name will do its purpose - to attract the reader's attention and give them a clue as to what the story is going to be about (however vague)

Once you have got a name think about doing both a Google search and one on Amazon to see what other books have that title - if at all. Having a good, snappy name can be a good way to attract attention when submitting to agents/publishers. A name that sticks in the memory must be a good idea as it will help you stand out from the rest. But, and this is a big BUT, be prepared that there is a good chance that if (when) you get a contract from a publisher they may well change the name again to something that they think will sell it, to make it even more marketable, so don't be too precious about it.

Short and sharp names seems to work well. Thinking of Lucy Christopher's Stolen; Miriam Halahmy's Illegal, Mary Hoffman's David, Mal Peet's Tamar, Rachel Ward's Numbers, Nicola Morgan's Wasted and Tabitha Suzuma's (and Judy Waite's) Forbidden. Others work well with short sentences: Candy Gourlay's Tall Story, Meg Rosoff's How I Live Now, There is No Dog, Keren David's When I was Joe, C J Skuse's Pretty Bad Things. (I know these are all YAF but am not sure it is that different when naming any MSS) Obviously, this list is not exclusive or all  encompassing but is made up from books that I can see from my desk as I write this. I am sure you can, and will, add many more to it. Neither am I telling you that this is the only way to do a name. You have to find one that you feel good about and helps you to own your piece of writing and keep focused. Have fun with it.

As for the new name of the work in the moment it is Trafficking. What do you think?

Thought we would have a bit of Kate Rusby this Sunday morning with her song 'No Name'

Tuesday 24 April 2012

Writing about food

See what happens you don't blog for a while and then three come in quick succession - a bit like buses I suppose.

You will know from the post before last that I can't eat. Does this mean I have no interest in food? Do I avoid writing about it? Anything but. I am fascinated by it instead. This blog post was triggered because I have just been marking (again) and I was reading a student's description of a meal and it was just glorious. I could almost taste the food and feel the atmosphere it was so evocative.

It started me thinking about food in books. Warning confession coming up - I just love the way JK Rowling describes her meals in all the Harry Potter books. They are just magical and full of life. The fact she even spent time inventing new foods and sweets and made them feel so real just amazes me. Then there was the description of food in The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge. It was so detailed but added so much to the story. These are just two of mine, what are your favourite descriptions of food or meals in books?

Many years ago in a short story I wrote I did a description of making bread. My then lecturer insisted it was read out because it was, apparently, the most sensual description of bread making they had ever heard. That hadn't been my plan. I had just described how it felt to me. Bread making never was the same afterwards.

I think we should never underestimate how useful food/meals can be in a novel. They can give hints as to what the characters are like, where they live, whether they have plenty of money or none at all. Is food all about survival or just something that is eaten three times a day? I feel it can be an under used device for adding characterisation or depth to a story. Well worth considering sometimes. The other thing you can do when developing your characters is to take them out for a meal and talk to them and see what happens (on paper of course) - like with free writing it doesn't necessarily have to end up in the final piece but will certainly tell you more about them and how they interact with others.

I couldn't really end this blog with anything other than this here's to Food Glorious Food!

Monday 23 April 2012

Why do a Creative Writing degree?

I have been considering writing this post for a while but now seems timely following Danuta Kean's interesting blog post on How to choose a Creative Writing Degree and Keren David's post on the course she taught at City University. First, I think I should be upfront and honest, I teach on a Creative Writing degree at the University of Winchester, both at undergraduate and post graduate level. This is very much my opinion and how I see it but it is based on my experiences at Winchester both as a lecturer and a student. I am coming from both sides because I also have an MA in Writing for Children and my PhD is a creative writing one, both from Winchester. (I would have a BA in creative writing but it wasn't on offer then, instead I have an English degree with a creative writing thread)

 In my opinion, a Creative Writing degree is not there to teach you how to write. This may seem a strange thing to say, but you have to have the passion there first. The degree hones your skills. Most importantly, what a degree can do is to give you a chance to try on lots of different voices and find the one that fits you best. When I first did creative writing at University, I had a very set idea as to what sort of writer I was, by the end of my undergraduate degree I found that I couldn't have been more wrong. The voice I thought I had didn't exist instead I found I was a writer for young adults. It is easy to say that you could do these things away from university but actually it is not that feasible. It takes dedication and effort and constructive feedback to help work out what is right for you. All of which a degree can provide. At Winchester, for example, you can have a go at various types of scriptwriting, writing song lyrics, short story writing, poetry, writing for children and non fiction writing to name but a few. As lecturers we are all practitioners. We understand what it means to write - both the good bits and the bad.

To reiterate one of Danuta's points, please be wary of any course that says by the end you will have a publishing contract and an agent. That's not what it should be about and no one can promise that. We can, and will, introduce you to agents and publishers but at the end of the day your work has to be good enough and different enough for them to want it. At Winchester, we are aware that very few writers can support themselves on writing alone, therefore, a few years ago, the department made a conscious decision to create modules that are outward facing. Consequently, we not only show you how to submit your MSS, pitch your script, and create your own online presence, we also encourage you to engage with the 'real world' and future employment. For example, two modules we offer look at writing for display in exhibitions/museums or you can explore teaching creative writing. Several students have gone on to work in these sort of areas as a specific result of these outward facing modules. Make sure any degree you are looking at considers all aspects of your future.

In a previous post I spoke about employability and despite many people's preconceptions a creative writing degree prepares you for so much. You are equipped with so many transferable skills but not all of them are obvious immediately. I do a lot of Open Days and I have rooms full of very excited prospective students and some fairly glum looking parents who quite obviously do not believe doing a Creative Writing degree is the intelligent choice. As I do my whole presentation on employability and what our students have gone on to do  after their degree it is wonderful to watch these parents as a smile appears and their whole bodies relax because they have realised doing a Creative Writing degree is actually a very good choice. (Check us out at

So in answer to my question 'why do a creative writing degree?' the answer is simple it prepares you for your future life, it gives you a chance to polish your passion. My suggestion for all writers who are considering doing a degree, whether at undergraduate or post graduate level, is to follow your heart.

 For all doing exams or contemplating the future here is Jack Johnson's Sitting, Waiting, Wishing....stop wishing and go for it ;-)

Friday 20 April 2012

Get the writing going

In my last post I was talking about how difficult I was finding it to write because I was marking so much, the words just seemed obliterated. However, I found a strange solution. I am co-writing a paper with a good friend on our relationship (or not) with food and as part of this I have to write a creative non fiction piece about how I felt when I could no longer eat. I haven't really thought about this for a while as it is just part of my life. Don't get me wrong it still has a major impact. I find it very difficult to travel without precise planning and long distance travelling is a huge problem. And it can very suddenly make me ill, which even now is embarrassing and I need to get away from people quickly - this happen recently when I was out with friends and had drunk more than I should (as in volume not amount of alcohol!!) and I was exceptionally tired so my body stopped working. The sense of panic and pain was almost unbearable and it is so difficult to explain because as you can see from the photo - I look fine. I don't look ill. It is a hidden disability.

Sorry I went off on a tangent then, as I said for this paper I have to write this creative non fiction piece. I started to splurge on the page how I felt when the surgery first went wrong (by the way I don't have a gastric band - none of this was by choice). The implications of not being able to eat goes way beyond nutrition. Much of our social life is based around it and all the emotions relating to this flowed onto the page.  I had to dig quite deep as the original op was back in 2000 and I had my PEG (percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy) fitted in 2001 which gave me my life back. My children were 15, 13 and 11 when this happened. It had a huge impact on them too and it was thinking about this that started to trigger the ideas and thoughts connected with the rewrites of Ham and Jam. Some of their reactions and incidents that happened at that time were inspirational.

I am a great advocate of free writing when you are feeling stuck (I don't believe in writer's block as such). I often get my students to empty what is in their heads onto the page as I was originally taught by Dr Neil McCaw in my first year at University. To just keep writing, don't stop, don't think about whether it makes sense or punctuate it. No one else, other than you - if you want to that is- will read it. Sometimes going back over it can give you images or ideas but the main idea is to clear the clutter out of your head. I have always done this without a purpose and it was, in the main, successful. However, with this piece I was splurging with a purpose. It was hugely cathartic and releasing. The words and ideas for  Ham and Jam consequently all started flowing again. I have never done free writing like this with a specific purpose but for me it seemed to be more successful than my normal free writing. If you are struggling maybe giving it a try. Think of something that happened in your past and write about it. Allow yourself the freedom to say whatever you want and remember to look at both sides of any situation.

Joni Mitchel from Both Sides Now because I love it and heard it today

Friday 13 April 2012

Please prove you are not a robot...

If you post a comment on a blog you are often asked to prove you are not a robot by copying some letters. I have to confess I sometimes have to do this several times over as my eyesight just doesn't seem to comprehend the strange mix of letters so maybe I am a robot. I certainly feel a bit like one at the moment. I made the mistake of working out how many words I will have marked by the 14th May and since the middle of March - over half a million. Every single one of these words belongs to a student who (in the main) have tried their hardest to write the best assignment possible. I will often have seen several drafts of these pieces so have seen them develop and be honed. Because of that I owe these students my time and my attention when I mark but that can often be at the cost of my own writing. Concentrating on their work seems to obliterate any words I may have floating around. This can be so frustrating because at the end of the day I am a writer as well as an academic and I love to write. It makes me feel whole. I know I am not the only academic writer who faces this issue, in fact, talk to any writer and they will tell you how life has just got in the way. It seems to me that you have to be disciplined to stay on top of it whether this is your first, second or fiftieth novel.

Is there a perfect answer though? I don't think there is really. All you can do is create coping strategies and the way I have been doing that is to allocate a certain amount of hours to marking a day and then take two hours where I don't look at emails and I don't mark or think about it. I just focus on what I am meant to be rewriting - the PhD novel. My precious notebook goes everywhere with me, including next to the marking mountain, just in case an idea comes so that I can grab it and not let it slip out of my fingers. I made ( a possibly rash) promise this week to have the rewrites to the editor by the 1st June but I felt I needed a deadline, it would be too easy to drift along. I will keep you posted on that one. I just have to keep straight 'down the line.'

What are your coping strategies that ensure you can write when life keeps getting in the way?

Bonnie Raitt 'Right Down the Line' - the first single from her new album Slipstream, which I am hoping to buy soon :-)

Monday 9 April 2012

Something to shout about - New Blog on UK YA fiction

I love UK YA

A new blog has been set up by the great writers Keris StaintonSusie Day and Keren David. The aim is to showcase YA teen/books written by authors in Britain and provide a resource on the intenet for anyone looking for UK YA. It can be found here Use the hashtag #UKYA to see how it is trending on Twitter.

Many of you who already follow my blog will know that though my PhD was a creative writing one, for which I wrote a YA novel, but it also looked at the changes in representation of sex, drugs and alcohol in UK YA fiction. I read some outstanding British YA whilst I was doing my research - Nicola Morgan's Wasted, Keren David's When I was Joe, Tabitha Suzuma's Forbidden, Judy Waite's Game Girls,  Lucy Christopher's Stolen (though I couldn't use this as it was based in Australia), Joanne Kenrick's Red Tears and Screwed, Kevin Brook's Candy and iboy, Alan Gibbons, Melvin Burgess, Keith Gray, Candy Gourlay, Bali Rai, Jenny Valentine.....  This is just a mere sample of all the books I read - if you want my complete  bibliography you can always contact me. 

Rather than giving you a detailed breakdown of the differences between UK YA and US YA I suggest you check out this excellent blog post that was recently written by Anne M Leone:

I found there were a lot of differences which is why I decided to focus on UK YA. It should be said that when I was doing my research a couple of years ago US YA were dealing with some things better than us - am thinking in the main LGBT here - but we are getting much better at that particular subject (for example check out Malorie Blackman's Boys Don't Cry). However, that was just one subject, I found UK YA to be very powerful and dealing with some pretty contentious subjects that US YA just wouldn't touch. Give me UK YA over US YA anytime.

I am currently doing some further research on this subject as I have been asked to write about the differences between UK YA and Canadian YA for their excellent journal Jeunesse - so watch this space for more thoughts on the subject.

Feel free to share this new blog information. We want to shout about UK YA fiction.

I know this blog post is late but it has has been a difficult couple of weeks including a few moments of 'shards of ice in my heart' but this song is for all my third years who have just left us. That was pretty emotional too! It is Armand Amar's  La Genèse.