Tuesday 31 July 2012

A new book on teaching creative writing

I'm in this!
Teaching Creative Writing - Practical Approaches is edited by Elaine Walker and published by Creative Writing Studies, an inprint of The Professional and Higher Partnership Ltd. It is full of chapters written by the likes of Philip Gross, Steve May, Craig Batty, Donna Lee Brien, Gill James to name but a few. The idea behind the book is to showcase practical approaches to teaching creative writing in higher education. All the chapters are written by practitioners. Each innovative chapter is based on an exercise that can be borrowed or adapted. Also, I have to say this, the cover is absolutely beautiful - such a girl I know!

Chapter titles include such exercises as: 'Who I am' icebreaker: establishing a group dynamic, by Elaine Walker; Gift Wraps: a collaborative poetry game, by Philip Gross and Steve May's: Paperless workshop: save trees, increase interaction, reduce preciousness. I have gone through the book and it gave me so many ideas. It is always interesting to see how other people do things. I can't wait to be back teaching in September and using many of these exercises in my workshops.

The current edition is really aimed at libraries but a lower priced paperback edition will be coming out later. In the meantime there is also an e-edition if you are interested. Check it out here: http://creativewritingstudies.wordpress.com/how-to-buy-our-publications/

I cannot deny I am still new enough to this game to be thrilled to see my name in print. Does that ever get tiresome? I wonder what will have my name attached to it next...a book on writing YAF or a piece of fiction - who knows but watch this space.

And for all those dreams here is Newton Faulkner's Dream Catch Me

Saturday 28 July 2012

Editing and polishing my manuscript

Trafficking that was.....

This photo shows the first complete version of Ham and Jam that was completed two years ago on the Arvon Tutored Retreat that I was awarded. It has now undergone several reincarnations including two total rewrites. One where I took the number of points of view down from four to two and the latest one where I moved the setting of the whole story from France to the UK. At times it has been like pulling teeth, at other times it has flowed, totally unstoppable, like lava down a volcano.

The original story had sex, drugs and alcohol in it - after all that was my PhD. The latest version has none of these but does have a bit of violence and a shooting. I am pleased with this version and am confident that the rewrites have definitely improved the story. I realised I was writing  a thriller, something that never occurred to me I would ever write. But I loved doing it and look forward to doing more.

Having done the rewriting, I am now in the position of editing, editing, editing and polishing. It can be quite painful and tortuous as you try and make the manuscript as perfect as possible. This weekend I will find myself asking questions of the MS such as:

Am I telling anything I have already shown?

Is the dialogue relevant the story and moving it on or is it a bit 'talking heads'? (talking heads is where characters are doing a lot of talking but not moving the story forward)

Have I just info-dumped? Instead I need to drip-feed this information in. Resist the urge to explain.

Have I remembered to use the setting as a character? It can create moods etc - think the moor in Wuthering Heights.

Have I left some stuff to the reader's imagination?

After that, and using the 'Find' tool, I will search for the following words and try and replace them: 'as', 'very', 'then' and 'suddenly' - plus any other 'ing' and 'ly' phrases. I may not get rid of all of them but I will check that  there is no better way of saying it.

The slightly disheartening part of this is that you know if, and when, you show your completed manuscript, which you have lovingly crafted and can't see how it could possible be improved, they will promptly spot holes, mistakes and ways of making it better. Don't give up, listen and see what works for you, but most importantly don't ever be precious about your manuscript.

Right I am off to pull a few teeth ;-)

This song, Paper Birds,  is written and performed by one of my ex-students, Meg Burrows:

Wednesday 25 July 2012

Those Games

She loved life and wine....
I am sorry but this is going to be quite a self indulgent post. I was listening to the radio on the way back from a meeting today and it played the moment we heard that London was going to host the Olympics. It was one of those moments where I can remember exactly where I was and what I was doing. I was with my mother and cooking her lunch. We were drinking wine (as always) and watching the excitement unfurl on the television. It never occurred to me at that moment that she would not be here to share the actual Olympics with me. She would have loved them.

She was an armchair sport fanatic and in her younger days a very accomplished tennis player. She could remember the 1948 Olympics. The next few weeks would have seen her in absolute heaven and drinking just a few bottles of wine.

I also remember the day because the following day I was in the same place but instead of celebrating I was desperately trying to get a message to my sister to let her know that my nephew was ok. He worked in London and he couldn't get through to her and had only just managed to get a message to me before all the systems went down. It was the day of the 7/7 bombings. A friend missed being in the wrong place because he was late for the first time ever in his life. I know we were lucky that day.

It was an extreme of emotions. Elation one day and despair the next. The roller coaster of life.

Below is a song that she loved. It has very happy memories for both of us. It reminds me of sitting in The Square in Winchester, drinking coffee and watching the world go by. She loved it there. Also the words are quite poignant and reflect how much we miss her particularly at this time of year as she shared a birthday with my daughter so I am off to toast a glass of something bubbly to both her and those games.

Normal service will be resumed in the next post and please forgive me this indulgence.

Monday 23 July 2012

SCBWI-BI Conference 2012

The website for the SCBWI-BI conference has just gone live. Check it out here: http://scbwicon.jimdo.com/. It is being held at my own University - the University of Winchester where  we also run a fantastic MA in Writing for Children so it always seems totally appropriate to me that the university should be the venue. But I also feel very privileged that it is so close to home.

Once again there is an amazing amount packed in to the weekend. This year starting on the Friday afternoon when I am running the first Pre-Conference Sketch and Crawl around Winchester followed by a conference critique group and an informal dinner. and that is just on the Friday!

On the Saturday the keynote is being given by the award winning author Celia Rees this is followed by various breakout sessions and a party in the evening with a mass book launch. Then on Sunday there are opportunities to take part in several intensive sessions as well as meet up with other members of SCBWI in your area. There are also opportunities to book 1-2-1s with agents and publishers as well as a chance to exhibit your work if you are an illustrator. Let's face it the conference is one big opportunity that you can't afford to miss.

My brief description of what will go on does not really explain how dynamic and inspirational attending can be. I attended last year's conference and it was a fantastic experience (see my previous posts:  the first being here http://chaosmos-outofchaoscomesorder.blogspot.co.uk/2011/11/2011-scbwi-conference.html - there are two others which follow on straight afterwards). If you can do it I recommend it whole-heartedly as I know you will get something out of it as well as a whole load of new friends.

Go on book it now!

And this is for all us writers as this is what we do a lot....sitting,waiting,wishing...

Monday 9 July 2012

Children's books reflect harsh reality - haven't they always?

There has been a bit of a brouhaha in the media recently. It started with an article in The Guardian (Friday 6th July) which was discussing some recent research undertaken by Professor Kathy Short where she stated that abandonment, alienation and homelessness are increasingly the themes covered in modern literature for children. Then this morning GP Taylor appeared on BBC Breakfast Time announcing that children's literature (including his own books) have become too frightening and there should be an age certification scheme. I have to be honest I disagree with both these on many levels.

OK let me start with the last point first, there has been a whole argument on this subject four years ago, which I am not going to retell in detail.  Basically it was highlighted by many authors how inappropriate age certification on books could be. If you are a struggling reader aged 14 do you want to be seen reading a book which has 7+ plastered across the back. In the same way should you be prevented from reading above your age if you are a confident reader. This is the time for booksellers and librarians to step in and use their expertise to guide potential readers. Luckily, Patrick Ness was there to rebut this idea and point out that it would be irresponsible 'for young adult novels to ignore the darker side of life.' As a writer I was slightly concerned when GP Taylor stated that he hadn't really read Vampire Labyrinth when he wrote it. I know when I edit and rewrite I am constantly reading my own book. I need to know it is working and to take a step back from it, reading it as a reader and not just as a writer. But maybe that is a personal thing.

Going back to Kathy Short's points about abandonment, alienation and homelessness being themes in modern children's literature. Firstly, I would suggest they are there because they reflect the world we live in. We live in a world, rightly or wrongly, where our children have access to a lot of images and ideas via the media including the internet that we probably wouldn't have seen as children.  But I would also contend that they are not new. What about Mary Lennox in Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden (1910). You could argue to some extent she suffers from all three of these. Then there is Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (1976) by Mildred D Taylor, now there is an amazing but truly dark book at times. Or even William Golding's Lord of the Flies and numerous Roald Dahl books.  And these are just the few that came immediately to mind. Children's literature is often dark but invariably offers hope by the end.

As a writer these ideas can be plot devices allowing your characters the freedom to make their own decisions and solve the problems they are in without relying on an adult. The 'absent parent' can take many forms. For example, it can be the alcoholic parent who is there yet absent. It is what helps to make a good story and that's what children want. A good story that they can get lost in. They will be looking for characters to identify with; characters like them but also, and equally important, characters that are NOT like them. It is all part of the search for an identity.

Yes, there are lots of dark stories out there but there are also a lot of other 'lighter' stories which are not being mentioned (this is not meant as a derogatory term but just to infer the opposite to dark stories). Children and young adults will  read all sorts of stories. Some dark, some not. They will read what they need to read at any particular moment. And I would suggest that it is up to us as writers to continue to write good stories, well told whether they are dark or not.

Going back to my childhood, a bit of Paul McCartney